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.