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A Bulgarian folk and song performance by ethnochoreologist Daniela. She had everyone accompany her by droning our voices behind her beautiful, evocative songs.

Gilded Serpent presents...
What’s in a Name?
Orientalizing Oriental
by Paola

Recently, I attended a week long symposium on Ethnochoreology (the study of how dance transmits cultural heritage) sponsored by ICTM (International Council for Traditional Music).  Eight days were spent in idyllic intellectualization on issues such as “heritagization”, folklore on the ground vs. folklore on the stage, the role of tourism in these processes, the politics of authenticity, the role of the media in perceptions of dance, and many more debates to which I could regularly supply examples from my own journeys in Oriental. 

I heard diverse panels discuss dance heritage issues from Cambodia, Tonga, Croatia, Turkey, Mexico, Indonesia, and the list goes on.  There was a lot to learn about the problematic relationship between folkloric dances and those who study them. 

The core platform of the symposium is the UNESCO Convention’s definition of dance as “intangible cultural heritage” – transmitted orally, by imitation, or by practice.”  Included on that list are oral traditions, social practices and rituals, mythologies, and craftsmanship.  In other words, those methods of transmitting culture that are essentially rooted in pre-literate times, as many forms of folklore are.  These are practices and expressions that solidify a sense of group identity in folk cultures.

What does this mean for us?  First of all, it goes back to the question of names and labels.  I found myself in a discussion during coffee break of Balkan dance traditions.  (I’m a native of the Balkans and a lifelong participant in the intangible cultural heritage of Balkan dance, hence my interest in the conversation.) One of the participants turned to me and asked, ”What form of dance do you deal with?” I answered, “Mainly Oriental.” His rebuttal I was not at all prepared for…..”Oh, so you’re an exotic dancer!”

Later on, I approached this speaker, who holds a PhD. in Ethnomusicology from Wesleyan University, and asked him to explain his comment.  He said “Well, you did say Oriental….”exotic, strange…other…”

Mak Yong - the ancient deep trance ritual dance in which a female dancer embodies a male god. We were lucky to see it because the Islamists here are trying to stamp it out, just like they're trying to stamp out yoga!

Here is a shot me learning traditional Malay "Zapin" dance which was brought here by Yemeni traders about 500 years ago. The twist to Zapin is that it's rather "courtly" as a lot of the traditional dances of Southeast Asia are anyway. There is a strict interdiction on physical contact, in favor of rhythmic motion in groups and pairs with prescribed postures and gestures. Very fascinating stuff from the standpoints of cultural diffusion and dance history.

The courtly nature of Zapin - this was a romantic dance, but notice how far apart the dancers must remain physically.

The Zapin workshop in Batu Pahat - on a sweltering day!

and then it dawned on me, he was using the definition of “Oriental” from Edward Said’s seminal work Orientalism – a study of Western stereotypes about the East, particularly the Muslim East – colonial attitudes oversimplifying the East, or Orient, as “mysterious, unchanging, and ultimately inferior…the Other”.  I pressed on.  “No, you don’t understand. I dance Middle Eastern dance and the reason we call it “Oriental” is because that’s what they themselves call the dance – Raqs Sharqi, or “Eastern Dance”.  He pressed back, further defending his comment by stating that “Belly Dance” is used mainly for purposes of titillation and is therefore perfectly admissible under the rubric of “exotic”. I supplied our stock distinctions between Cabaret and Folkloric forms, but it was too late and beside the real point.

He had already managed to use my definition of my dance form against me, to paint me as marginal, politically incorrect, and strangely enough, to “orientalize” me within the context of that symposium in the ways that Said describes in Orientalism.  I was now, officially, “Other”.  Not representative of any of the “legitimate” dance forms, eastern, western, northern, or southern being represented in the symposium, but “Other” and therefore not entitled to a voice among dance scholars.  All because of a word choice.

Which led me to this question: how are we supposed to talk about our dance form?  “Belly Dance” has never tasted good in my mouth, and its history as a misnomer is now well-circulated in our community, although it’s a label still liberally applied by the wider dance community and the mainstream.  It’s too limiting, for reasons already well-put by Morocco and others.

The label “Oriental Dance” gave me a jolt years ago just because of the Orientalist and PC question, but I had allowed this concern to go dormant as my involvement in the dance form deepened and my discourse with scholars I respect (like Morocco) developed.  It reared up to bite me later as we’ve seen.

“Middle Eastern Dance” seemed like a solution for a while, but, ultimately, it is way too broad.  What kind of Middle Eastern?  Egyptian? Turkish? Lebanese? Palestinian? Algerian? Hagalla? Fellaha? Saiidi? Baladi? Khaleegee? Dabke? Got a few hours so I can define my dance form to you? 

And what about forms that may be rooted in Middle Eastern dances but cannot rightly label themselves as such, like Tribal or Gothic?  What about fusion? Samba, Latin, Flamenco, Gypsy fusions? I happen to enjoy good fusion projects, regularly dreaming up choreographies that weave Balkan, Roma, and Isadora Duncan with Oriental.  (Gosh, I felt a little dirty writing that just now…) How on Earth do I sum this up for people?

And, if I can’t accurately name my dance form, how can I set about legitimating it?  I also attended the 22nd CID-UNESCO World Dance Congress in Athens in July of this year.  Again, international panels, workshops, and performances every night. 

I was thrilled to witness the variety of subject matter, but particularly thrilled to see beautiful variations presented in Oriental dance – from Cabaret to Tribal (see? ah? already some of you are protesting “Tribal is NOT Oriental!!) to Gypsy fusion to Turkish to pure Raqs Sharqi.

My own Duncan-Tchiftetelli fusion was warmly received and applauded by diverse participants and audience members.  Within the Congress, however, this was all perceptually lumped under the simple banner of “Belly Dance”, and during the wrap-up meeting on the last day, people gave their opinions.  “There was too much Belly Dance this year!” was the rallying cry, plaintively echoed by several attendees, who thought CID should stick to “real” dance forms, “legitimate” dance forms that reflect hard work and discipline and “real” traditions.

But the silencing effect has deeper consequences.  Ours is a dance mainly in the province of women, performed by glorious female bodies and spirits.  Contained within these attitudes toward our dance is the inherent fear of women’s bodies and women’s expression.  It then becomes a political question - an attempt to limit the expression of our female powers as well as to further circumscribe us within the marginal realm of the “Other”.  A retrogression into an all-too-near past of gender “otherness” that we’ve worked too hard to overcome.

So what do we do?  I submit that we won’t have much success in reaching across to other dance forms until we’ve made a bit more headway in reaching across internally to each other. 

We need healthy, robust debate about our dance’s identity, and we need more scholars willing to brave the front lines of the intellectual battle.  We need to discuss, doubt write, question, agree, disagree, and make proposals – in the spirit of sisterhood and advancing not only the cause of our dance, but the cause of modern-day women’s community.

Because in today’s day and age, women are veering further and further away from traditional forms of community – less and less do we bond over quilting, canning, or sewing.  We have made great economic and political strides and our participation in our dance form is a sign of our personal and collective evolution.  What, are we going to skulk into the corner just because a pedantic egghead can’t countenance a slice of belly showing or a hip shimmying?

Those two conferences were a real wake-up call for me and I’m sounding the clarion to others.  I propose we allot time during our festivals and workshop weekends for open forum discussions of this topic. We can avail ourselves of electronic forums and blogs as well; the point is, let us not be silent.  Let us welcome the challenge of defining the intangible cultural heritage of Modern Woman and not shy away from the discussion of what we value in our dance. Inasmuch as we value our specific forms, we should also try to celebrate what binds us together, the joyousness of women dancing in free, beautiful, healthy, expressive bodies. When we can strengthen our own internal identity and present a much more unified front to the mainstream, perhaps the era of the “Other” may be that much closer to slipping into the past.

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