Bellydance au derrière

Yet again, there’s been a dust-up in the bellydance community about what “bellydance” is, whether it is the same thing as Raqs Sharqi or Oryental Tansi, whether fusion dancers should be ‘allowed’ to call themselves bellydancers.… Whatevs. I’m so over it.

Yet again, bellydance displays its status as a ‘second-class’ dance genre. Which is fine, really. After all, underprepared students perform in the same shows that highlight talented professionals. Dancers with little skill get paid restaurant gigs. Or worse, those dancers undercut ‘true’ professionals. I see no signs of that changing, so it doesn’t even really bother me anymore. It’s just the state of things. Could you imagine a ballet dancer with a year or two of training showing up in the Nutcracker? Or a hip-hop hobbyist backing up Justin Timberlake?

Randa Kamel

Out of curiosity, I spent some time investigating the latest online squabble, and it was, as I expected, people talking past each other, generally not being careful with semantics, and generally not trying to read through the words they found upsetting. Nobody gets (or gives) the benefit of the doubt. But they aren’t even arguing about what they’re actually arguing about.

It doesn’t matter what we call this particular dance style. It doesn’t even really matter what types of movements comprise the style. This is a culture clash, but it’s not “Middle East vs. The. West.”

The clash is between dancers who view a dance genre as a movement vocabulary and those who view it as culturally-tied expression. We Americans who started dance classes at a young age were indoctrinated into the view of dance as artistic movement. Ballet is not French per se. And while tap has roots in jazz music and African movement styles, it’s now considered its own thing.

Many fusion bellydancers have lassoed around the movement vocabulary and are dragging the rope into their own paradigm. They mix in hip-hop, jazz, Indian, Balinese, et al. They want bellydance to be a serious (dare I say “legitimate”) performance dance form. But there’s a whole cadre of folks tugging on the other end of the rope, insisting that the folkloric roots of the dance ipso facto keep it tied to its cultural origins.


Other folk dances don’t suffer from this, it seems. Square dancing doesn’t get fused with break dancing or tango. West African dancers don’t break out into grand jetés. And yet other dance styles have been taken beyond their roots with seemingly little complaint. Exhibit A: hip hop. What started as a street and club dance is now taught at dance festivals and featured at Super Bowls. I don’t hear B-boy purists grousing about that. But maybe I’m not listening well enough?

I’ll confess: to me bellydance has always been a movement vocabulary with cultural roots. I (and most professional fusion bellydancers) have extensively studied bellydance history and music with myriad master teachers. I understand where it came from, and how it still exists today in its native lands. And that’s good enough for me. I also understand that many folks would say that what I do does not deserve the moniker bellydance. Well, everyone’s entitled to their opinion.

I’ll just sit over here sighing and shaking my head. As bellydance stays stuck in the same loop, rehashing the same arguments. I’m actually taking a break from teaching my weekly fusion bellydance class so I can focus on my new horticultural business. The timing seems right on many levels.

Instead, you can find me in my Tuesday night tap class. Nobody’s gonna tell me that ain’t tap. Phew.

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    • Thanks Lisa. Most professional fusion dancers DO care about the roots. I hope some of us can specialize in rooted, cultural-specific styles and some of us can specialize in more diverse movements. And maybe even switch between them, like I like to do?

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