Monday, November 25, 2013

Belly Dancers Can Learn From Katy Perry's AMA Performance

I did not watch the AMAs last night, but I have been reading with interest the comments and opinions regarding Katy Perry's geisha-infused performance.  Many people found it racist, many people found it artistic.  I cannot comment either way, having not seen it myself.  However, I do have this comment, and I hope all belly dancers, especially those of us who are in the cultural and racial majority, will take heed:

If you don't think it's important to study and honor the history and culture of the societies whose art you are appropriating, you are wrong.

See, western civilization has a nasty tendency to to create stereotypes of other cultures.  Some of these are negative, and some are intended to be positive.  Thing is, stereotypes hurt us all, even if they are "positive" because they absolve us of actual effort to understand others.  Not only do we then relegate every person we encounter of a different race to some pigeon hole, we deny ourselves the fullness of that person.

Now, I'm not saying white people should never wear bindis, or black people should never don kimonos, or Asians should never wear ascots.  I'm saying everyone should understand what they are doing and why.  It's OK to like something brought to you by another culture.  It's OK to incorporate it into your own self-expression.  Just make sure you know what it means, or how it might be interpreted by others.

Obviously, since this is a belly dance blog, my main area of focus is on North African, Middle Eastern, and Central Asian cultures.  Many American women come to love belly dance because of our initial exposure of Orientalist imagery- imagery that continues to perpetuate many mythological ideas of the Middle East to the western world.  I still think a lot of Orientalist art is beautiful.  However, I admit that some of it has become unappealing as I have learned where it originates.  I am thankful that I have had amazing teachers who have immersed themselves in the art and history of the countries whose dance they are teaching, and that I have had a natural curiosity about the region and its history.  When I break a rule, I am not doing it out of ignorance, or worse yet, laziness, and falling back on the excuse that it is "art."  Art requires knowledge.  Art requires technique.  Art requires depth of understanding.

If you are a belly dancer, and your teacher is not encouraging you to study the history of belly dance and the Islamic world (and beyond), please, find another teacher.  If you are a dancer who has never taken the time to learn why some dancers dance with snakes, or why belly dancers started baring their midriffs, it's not too late.  Go right now! Shira's website is a great place to start!  But please, start.  The truth in your art depends on it.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Good Friends

Throughout the years as a belly dancer, I've been drawn to producing my own shows.  Perhaps it's the control freak in me, because I want to have an event that highlights what I want, and I'm particularly big on enforcing a positive and safe environment for all dancers.

A few years back, my former tribal improv troupe drove out to Vegas to participate in what was advertised as a Big and Glorious Competition.  That's a story for another day, but suffice it to say it was not as advertised.  However, something wonderful did come of it: I got to meet the beautiful ladies of TABU. After our category (which they won), out two troupes hung out and became fast friends.  The competition that I produce, Hips of Fury, was coming up in a few months, and I encouraged them to come out and compete in that, which they did.  No surprises, they won the Ultimate Troupe at HoF as well.  I was (and still am) a big fan.

Here's the very best part.  I've told you that many amazing belly dancers came to put on a fundraising show to help pay for the enormous adoption fees.  Well Raven, one of these multi-award-winning dancers, was one who not only performed at the Belly Dance Baby fundraiser, but taught a workshop and donated the profits to the fundraiser.  See, adoption is dear to her heart because she is adopted.  There are a few dancers who I feel have an extra special place in Alice's life and her placement into mine, and Raven is one of them.

Since then, Raven has gained Sister Studio status and now also directs Kumuda Tribal in Las Vegas.  We have many belly dancers here in the Antelope Valley and nearby Los Angeles who love American Tribal Style Belly Dance, so I am extremely excited to be hosting Raven in two workshops this coming March.  Once again, I marvel at the talent and beauty of the women in the belly dance community, my good friends.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Tradition!

Maybe it's because I'm getting old.  Maybe it's because I have the responsibility of a child.  Maybe it's just that people are annoying.  Maybe time just marches on and the world changes.  Whatever it is, I find myself clinging to and grasping for the Way Belly Dance Used to Be.

Now, I'm not talking about when I first started - though, I can tell you, I've had more than one crotchety old bellydancer conversation with other dancers my age about how kids these days don't know how good they have it and what we had to go through to create local gigs.  I'm talking about what is WAS.  Before westerners got ahold of it.  Before sequins were added to costumes.  Before navels had jewels shoved in them to get around censorship.  Or, at the very least, the Golden Age of Belly Dance when dancers still knew the origins of the styles they were dancing, and what was authentic and what wasn't.

See, I love all styles.  Yet, I find that certain styles grow without any understanding or even respect for the cultures from which belly dance derived.  Dancers choose western music, do hip hop, and toss in a hip drop or two and call it belly dance.  That is legitimately dance.  It is probably legitimately art.  But is it legitimately belly dance?  I'm a-ok with rules being broken, but an artist must KNOW the rules before breaking them.  Otherwise, it's just ignorance.

I am by no means professing to know All.  In fact, the more I study Middle Eastern dance, the more I find it is a bottomless chasm of culture and art and history and misinformation and wonder.  That shouldn't let us off the hook, though.  It should inspire us!  The more we understand, the better we can portray and preserve this beautiful and ancient art. 

What do you think?