Wednesday, October 10, 2007

A Response

I'd like to publicly respond to a comment from a reader, "Charlotte" who's profile is not public, meaning I cannot reply to her personally. Here is her comment on my previous post:

"Laura, I'm having problems with quite a bit of what you said in your post:
First, from your description this is not a brush with "fundamentalism". Fundamentalism is a much more extreme and serious and dangerous condition. Bellydancing is still a questionable "art form", and there is a very very fine line between it being distasteful and it being classy - and I've seen both.

You mention at the end that maybe the nightclub/party scene isn't for you, what did you expect at the nightclub/party scene? The people who frequent that scene expect that you're nothing more than a stripper... Do you think nightclub owners want you to perform there so their patrons can appreciate Middle-Eastern culture? To enjoy Arabic music? Or perhaps, it's more likely to salivate over your shimmies? Why are you surprised? And it isn't the "fundamentalists" only who think that, I've heard liberal Arab mothers say the same thing, as well as cultured feminist white Canadians. I've seen Arabesque dancers perform in wonderful "toned down" choreographies, but I've also seen some performances which were - nothing more than unrelenting displays of "come-hither" sexuality, and the latter left me feeling cold and disgusted.

As for your trip to the Middle East, please remember that what you have been trained in, is nothing more than cultural appropriation at best, and that Middle Eastern culture has a lot more richness and history to it than just hip accents and undulations. And the last time I checked, China isn't a resource on feminism and respect for humanity.

Bellydancing is tons of fun most of the time, but I don't think you should take it so seriously, nor pretend that it is a serious form of art."

Alright, lets start at the beginning. Fundamentalism refers to the strict adherance to a set of fundamental, often conservative principals and beliefs, and an intolerance of other beliefs and an unwillingness to question their own. So in this case, I believe I am correct in referring to this man as such.

Unfortunately, some people continue to performed less-than-classy bellydance routines. Bellydance is very much an interpretation and not a standardized art form so there are bound to be less than flattering interpretations. I can only take responsibility for my own dancing.

I'm not sure if you know what I mean by Nightclubs. When a bellydancer dances at a "Nightclub", it is often the same as an upscale supper club or banquet hall where families and friends go to eat, drink, unwind and enjoy themselves while taking in a great show. I'm not talking about a drug-fueled rave, here. And in case you missed it, I am QUESTIONING the ideal-ness of this venue, not defending it. I myself am wondering how this casual environment showcases the dance. However, I hardly think that a crowd of Arabic families are expecting a stripper, I hope they are more educated than that. My issue is that because we are dancing in and amongst the people, it doesn't show us the same respect and dignity that a theatre show might.

But lets get one thing straight here. Bellydance, while I KNOW it is an art form (yes, I don't just believe it, I know it), does take pride in celebrating female sensuality. And while you may find this "disgusting" some of us believe that sensuality is beautiful, and an expression of our truest nature and ultimately, as Yasmina Ramzy has said, an expression of love. No, this doesn't mean a lascivious and raunchy in-your-face display of sex, but a dignified, powerful and feminine joy at celebrating your innate sensuality.

And I am very aware that some Arabic people as well as Canadians and many other people think that bellydance is nothing more than a woman in a skimpy costume jiggling and gyrating. This is a stereotype we fight everyday. If you have ever studied this dance, it becomes immediately apparent that it is much more. Every time I teach new students, they are always shocked to learn that it is actually difficult, and full of subtleties.

And as for your comment on bellydance being "cultural appropriation at best", this may have some truth to it, but if you have studied this dance for 10 years as I have you'd understand that this appropriation is a sort of evolution and creative process. The Middle East and Western culture have been "appropriating" each other for decades, and bellydancing is one result. "Appropriating" can also be described as "being inspired by" and it is how many art forms evolve. As someone with a degree in the Fine Arts, this is one thing I can say is true in the art world at large.

I am of course aware that the Mid-east has countless fascinating aspects to it, why do you think I've dedicated my life to studying the music, culture, folklore, and dance of this region? I find it unbelievably insulting that you think I shouldn't take it so seriously, and to state that is is certainly not a serious art form. Have you studied the subtleties of an undulation, or attempted the perfect staccato of a hip accent? Attempted to perfectly express a heart-wrenching taqsim? Listened to the heart-breaking songs of Oum Kalthoum? Have you studied Arabic rhythms and maqams? Have you choreographed for hours into the night, trying to express the music through your body in a way that will transport your audience? Have you watched your students blossom from scared and awkward into proud and beautiful dancers?

Maybe then, after just a bit more education and experience, you'd understand the depth and power of this undeniable art form, instead of making a statement after letting a few sub-par dancers cloud your vision. I suggest you check out some of the masters...Aida Nour, Tito, Randa Kamel, Jillina, and our own Arabesque Dance Company, and then see if you can deny that this is ART.