An Arab Descendant’s Viewpoint
by Lynette Harper
posted August 27, 2010
Writer Lynette Harper presented these ideas at “Dancing Through Cultures,”a recent conference in Ottawa, Canada that addressed culture, identity, racism and belonging among contemporary dance professionals in Canada. The conference theme arose from discussions within the Canadian contemporary dance community about whether artists coming from diverse cultural backgrounds feel that they are being treated fairly by the dominant dance culture. Speakers explored the realities facing artists of colour who participate in Canadian culture, and questioned whether there is really respect and admiration for all people who contribute to the collective notion of Canadian contemporary art.
I’m a grandchild of immigrants, which means I’m a second generation Canadian, and I strongly identify with my Arab grandparents. Some of the themes at this conference resonate with my own experience as a longtime independent dance artist in British Columbia:
- essential differences
- involuntary cultural ambassadorship
- song and dance as “instant pudding” culture
- media reductionism
I’d like to share some of my thoughts about Arab dance and dancers in Canada.
“Arab dance.” There’s a phrase you don’t hear very often on the west coast! Just as you seldom see a sign for an “Arab restaurant.”
More often these days, new restaurants operated by Arabs are promoted as “Mediterranean”. In dance, the softer, less politicized gloss is “Middle Eastern”. This is just one of the veils that complicate Arab presence amidst multicultural idealism.
So what is Arab (a.k.a. Middle Eastern) dance?
There are many answers, of course. Perhaps most easily identified are folkloric troupes, shaped by a history of constructed post colonial nationalism. They are clearly labeled as Lebanese, Egyptian, Moroccan, or by other nationalities. Each troupe is burdened by the expectation that it represents an Arab nation and culture to non-Arabs, an educational imperative that has been described by others at this conference.
Folkloric performers are trapped between demands of “authenticity” from non-Arabs, and demands to feed the nostalgia of Arab diaspora communities who crave their beloved homeland dances of celebration and happiness.
A second domain of Arab dance is barely visible in North America, but can be found in Middle Eastern countries: ballet and contemporary dance, which is presented on stages around the Middle East, and in festivals in Dubai, Beirut, Amsterdam, and elsewhere. Yet another is the highly visible form also known as “belly dance”. It’s now part of North American mainstream popular culture. In the 1970s it involved tens of thousands of students, and today, it is a transnational phenomenon involving millions of students and professional dancers.
Belly dance is not just one form, but a complex of urban and rural genres, and multiple communities of performance practices. Belly dance is laden with baggage from its colonial and post-colonial history. In North America it has been highly coloured by fantasy and Orientalist assumptions of exoticism and hyper-sexuality.
In the last 50 years it has been transformed through lenses of feminist empowerment and new age spirituality, and subject to western processes of co-modification. (Belly dance in North America has been explored by many scholars, including Andrea Deagon, Stavros Karayanni, Sunaina Maira, Barbara Sellers-Young, Anthony Shay, and others.)
Since 2001, the War on Terror and Islamophobia have magnified race, gender, and politics of the dance. This has not stopped the momentum of Orientalist fantasy, nor the peculiar phenomenon of groups of women of various ethnicity (mostly northern European) performing Bellydance at multicultural events in Canada and the USA.
The folkloric troupes and belly dancers dominate representations of Arab dance in North American popular culture, and complicate the usual categorization and containment in Canadian dance discourse. Rather than fitting into the binary of “Art” or “Culture” described by conference presenters, Arab dance is labelled “Entertainment” in popular discourse – “just a craft, not an art form”. This attitude makes it all the easier to dismiss when discussing quality and excellence in dance.
The Entertainment label nicely complements ethnocentric assumptions of a single linear evolution in dance, which culminates in western classical and contemporary forms. It makes it easy to disregard arguments for multiple dynamic cultural evolutions, for the idea of parallel traditions with layered authenticity, hybrids, and the classical attributes of the Arab “Raqs Sharqi” genre.
All of this heightens a dilemma for dancers of Arab descent, like me:
Middle Eastern dance forms – and belly dance in particular – provide a contradictory stage to perform Arab/Canadian identity.
Because it’s already charged with questions of race, ethnicity, authority, cultural appropriation, and concerns about class position and ethnic authenticity.
While some Arab women turn instead to ballet and western contemporary dance, others, like me, have embraced belly dance genres as a way to connect with our cultural heritage–only to disappear behind another veil, because Arab women dance artists in Canada are obscured within a huge belly dance community.
In three decades of performance and creation, I’ve struggled with how and where to produce and perform my dance, and my Arab decent. I have established a place for myself as a dance artist, who is only sometimes acknowledged as Arabic, at the centre of a Bellydance community. When performing within that community of dancers, students, and aficionados, or in Arab/Turkish/Persian ethnic communities, my choreographies are recognized as “innovative”, “unexpected”, and a "challenge to audience expectations and stereotypes”. In theatres with mainstream audiences, the same works have been contained by media interpretations, which do not consider the meanings of the work. Instead, the rare newspaper reviews are framed by discourses of Entertainment and Orientalism, such as: “This attractive dancer shed her jewel-colored veils very prettily as she spun, whirled and undulated” (1980); “Lynette Harper… gyrated in a stunning outfit of burgundy, orange, green, and gold in this sexy, powerful solo… all the boldness and sensuality of a pro" (2000).
During three decades of dance performance, I skirted these predictable responses by participating in the more comfortable, and knowledgeable, Bellydance and Arab communities. It is only now, after completing a doctorate and affiliating with an academic institution, that I feel ready to undertake social activism through scholarly research and a dance creation project with the working title: “Unveiled: Choreographing Arab Identities in the Diaspora”.
While attending this Canada Dance Festival for the first time, I am located at the periphery of Canada’s contemporary dance community, one that holds a relatively high social status and respectability. I’ve perched on this edge, figuratively, for some time now – quietly framing and re-framing my questions and aspirations.
Author Lynette Harper welcomes responses from readers, and your own stories of engagement with Western and contemporary dance communities! [ed note- Use the comment box below!]
With visual artist Pete Kohut in a multidisciplinary “Brief Encounter” at the Nanaimo InFrinGinG Festival.
The text in Arabic says "If I was a singer", the first line in a choreography titled "If".
Ready for more?
- 6-4-07 Dance is in their blood by Kevin Potvin
Arabic dancing served as a way for women to share emotional experiences with each other. It is a part of everyday life for ordinary folks, and so worthy of attention by me, even, the pretend-to-be working class snob.
- 8-15-10 Inverting the Gaze, Medusa Dualities in Female Bellydance Performance and How the Gaze Continues to be Relevant Today by Shema
This is not so hard to understand when we consider that the representation of female sexuality has been so over-developed as to become almost a parody of itself.
- 7-18-10 Belly Dance in Patriarchy, Escaping the Switzerland of the Soul by Andrea Deagon PhD
However, I do believe that belly dance is able to attain such vitality and complexity in the modern world precisely because it’s embroiled in serious cultural and personal contestations. It is precisely clashes of aesthetic values, conflicting paradigms of sexuality and gender, and economic as well as political inequities that strike the dance’s most beautiful notes.
- 7-15-10 Sema Yildiz, A Star of Turkish Dance by Zumarrad/ Brigid Kelly
She was fortunate, she says, to grow up in a Roma (Gypsy) community rich in dance and music – the Fatih district, which houses the Sulukule, famous for its entertainment and considered the oldest Roma settlement in the world.
- 7-12-10 Fusion: How much is too much? by Najia Marlyz
In America, and evidently elsewhere, we dancers seem to have a voracious appetite for new steps and movements, so like hungry chipmunks, we have grabbed all we could stuff into our cheeks of Turkish and Arabic steps and gestures, resorting to incorporating and mixing of Saidi, Kaleedgi, Blue Guedra, Ghawazi, etc. We’ve chewed all of them up together and spit them out and found that they have not sufficiently nourished us.
- 4-16-10 Belly Dance and Feminism: Different Issues, Different Perspectives Introduction to IBCC Panel on Bellydance and Feminism
Feminism embraces more than one point of view, and feminist perspectives lead to many different decisions and courses of action. Feminism is a tool for thinking – for understanding and putting a name to issues you may be wrestling with in your own dance life, and for seeing belly dance in the light of broader economic, social and political realities.
- 3-18-10 Not Last Year’s Saiidi by Zumarrad/Brigid Kelly
Recently, a belly dance community newsletter here in New Zealand ran an editorial in which the author remarked that the current generation of dancers still perform “traditional styles – Ghwazee, Khaleegy, Saiidi” but innovate with poi, fan veils and Isis wings in a sort of dance evolution that retains respect for the value of the old.
- 2-16-10 Digital Dancer! Belly Dancing in Second Life by Caitlin McDonald
In Second Life, the dancing is done digitally by applying a computer program that causes one’s avatar, the digital representation of the self online, to move in a prescribed manner. Instead of learning movements and needing time to practice them, they are loaded onto the avatar just like Nero learns Kung Fu in the “Matrix” films.
- 1-17-10 Serena Wilson (1933-2007) A Student of Ruth St. Denis, Part 1: Childhood by Barbara Sellers-Young PhD
Serene Blake was born in the Bronx on Aug. 8, 1933 into a Vaudeville family of performers called Blake & Blake. Her mother sang and her father played the banjo. Her childhood and adolescent years intersected with the Vaudeville stage, on which she often appeared with her parents in the 1930s.
- 8-26-10 Musical Instrument Tour Video with Tina Chancey
Director of Hesperus.org, Tina takes a moment from the camp’s busy schedule to tell us the difference characteristics of this style violin from one we normally see. She touches on the different posture used to play and also why she, a professional player of “Early music” is interested in how Arab music and style relates to what she normally plays.
Footage captured in August 2008, at the Mendocino Woodlands, Middle Eastern Music and Dance Camp.
- 8-25-10 Letting Go of the Towline, Surviving Dance Conflict! by Najia Marlyz
Still, even though our dance puts us into contact with beloved friends and creative people who bring us continual joy and renewal, Belly dance is also a powerful magnet for some people with serious mental and emotional problems beyond the scope of dance
- 8-24-10 The Festival That Never Sleeps, The Costumers at the 2010 Ahlan Wa Sahlan Festival by Roza
There was one thing they all had in common: the most creative, cutting edge, couture related costumes! Egyptians have been making costumes for (possibly) thousands of years, and since Belly dance goes back 5,000 years; why not? They know how it should fit the body, move with the lines and motion, and creative geographic designs are, of course, a Middle Eastern staple. Here in Egypt, all costumes are handmade, one of a kind. The majority of these businesses are family owned, and it’s nice to know costume purchases are helping people in Egypt maintain both this craft and artistic skill and their families.