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When a friend shared a link to Why We Care About Other People’s Sex Lives, a look at the evolutionary psychology behind ideas of sexual morality, I was skeptical. As I’ve ranted about to anyone who will listen, I have a hate-hate relationship with evolutionary psychology and related fields such as literary Darwinism. They’re just so… essentializing. Ugh.

But the above-linked article caught my interest. The author looks at a number of recent studies about how people judge casual sex. In one instance: “Even after controlling for variables like age, religiosity, and political affiliation, the study authors found that people who saw female financial dependence on men as more common were also more likely to negatively judge promiscuity in both sexes.” Why does this occur? I’m not inclined to go with the evo psych reductionist reasoning that women are less horny than men but simultaneously more calculating; instead, I’d like to draw some parallels between sexual and economic principles.

What do sexual morality and financial dependence have in common? The concept of limited good. As folklorist Alan Dundes explains in this interview about evil eye beliefs: “The idea is that many peasant societies have what anthropologist George Foster refers to as the concept of ‘limited good.’ There’s only so much wealth and health. So you want to conceal your wealth because people are going to wish that they had it, otherwise you’ll lose it.” Dundes goes on to argue that expressive culture (in this case, folk belief about the evil eye) reflects a society’s underlying worldview of paradigm about economic exchange.

So when we have an economic system that commodifies certain kinds of social and sexual interactions (such as marriage) by directly tying them to one’s ability to survive and thrive, it’s not surprising to see that same attitude reflected in a society’s sexual attitudes. The fear about not enough potential (and desirable) spouses to go around (hence not enough access to married-life-resources) affects beliefs about sexual practices, turning sex into a commodity when really, it doesn’t have to be that way. We know from the non-monogamous emotion of compersion (feeling joy when someone else feels joy) that it’s possible to react to sharing your partner with another with positive, constructive emotions rather than destructive, possessive, jealous ones.

I sometimes wonder how sexual behaviors and stereotypes will change in my utopian vision of the future, wherein we move from a limited good economy to one where marriage isn’t required to obtain health insurance, citizenship, or other concrete goods. Will sex ever be de-commodified? I’m not sure, but I hope we move more in that direction.

Oh, and there’s another, simpler idea that I’d like to extract from the essay on sexual morality: the notion that a society’s attitudes about sexuality can (and perhaps should) change over time. The authors of Sex at Dawn (which I review here) also implicitly explore this concept. What I like about the idea that attitudes about sex are always evolving is that it recognizes that sexual behavior is always culturally constructed. Our ideas about sex are always changing due to a confluence of various factors: the ways in which we have sex change, our social paradigms (some of which explicitly relate to sex) change, and our scientific understanding of sexual functioning is always evolving too.

Basically, there’s always been an amazing diversity of sexual practices throughout human history. In my mind, that’s as it should be. There is no one way to have sex. There is no universal, monolithic meaning of sex. The only thing that’s universal about sex – other than it happening to continue humankind’s existence on this world – is that I believe sex should be considered among the list of universal human rights.

So, let’s keep up the dialogue about sex and society. Hopefully a greater understanding of how these paradigms intersect and influence one another will lead to more tolerance and progressive social change.

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Indy Tribal (my ATS® group) at Middle Eastern Mayhem, 2013. Photo by Rachel Penticuff.

I’ve been belly dancing for half my life, so by this time I’ve had the opportunity to view a lot of belly dance performances. While I enjoy watching most of the styles out there, I’m particularly drawn to American Tribal Style® (or ATS) for a lot of reasons, some of which I’ve detailed here.

But while at a local belly dance event recently, viewing the various other dance styles in an evening performance, I realized yet another reason why ATS appeals to me: the micro structure of the dance mirrors and facilitates the macro structure of the dance. It works a lot like a fractal, if we extend the concept metaphorically a bit. Specifically, in ATS, if you don’t understand how the individual dance moves work, you won’t be able to perform in the improvised group structure.

If you’ve ever seen a dance group perform, and not just belly dance, there’s a good chance it was choreographed. As in, someone mapped out the moves in advance and everyone had to memorize when precisely to do what (and then practice… and practice… and practice). The concept of choreography includes individual dance movements (what a person’s body is doing in space, and to what timing) as well as the individual’s place in the formation or larger group.

As you might imagine, generating, learning, and rehearsing a choreography is a lot of work. But one interesting feature of this performance strategy is that there are points in it wherein the individual dancer’s body movements don’t matter that much. If the entire formation is static (nobody’s moving to a new position in the group at that moment), then a single dancer’s mistake or bad posture doesn’t ruin the show or mess everyone up. It might look bad, or at the very least inconsistent, but it won’t throw everything to a grinding halt.

In contrast, in ATS, every dancer must know how to execute every move accurately. This is because our group improvisational structure features a rotating “leader” (the dancer in view of everyone else who is responsible for cuing the next move) with one, two, or three followers. It’s a common practice to have the most confident dancers lead the most, and to let the less confident dancers follow more than they lead (since as ATS dancers learn quickly, competently cuing moves while leading is a whole separate skill set than just following the moves someone else cues). The less confident leaders can gain practice and experience leading in class, where it’s a low-pressure environment, and slowly begin to lead more in performances (which are more high-stakes than classes or rehearsals).

So let’s say the leader cues into a basic eight-count move in an ATS performance. If a follower misses the cue and arrives into the move a few counts later than the leader, that’s fine, it happens. If the follower totally misses the cue and doesn’t do the move at all, it might look weird, but that happens too sometimes. But when the leader decides to create a more complex formation than having everyone simultaneously facing the audience (such as a fade, or an inward-facing circle), if the follower doesn’t understand the basic movement structure, then the whole formation will fall apart. And it won’t be a “recover in 2 counts” thing, it’ll fragment and it won’t be pretty.

This is part of the reason I love teaching, practicing, and performing ATS: like a hologram, or fractal, or a crystal, understanding the micro structure of the dance facilitates understanding the macro structure of the dance. While in another belly dance style, say, cabaret, you could stick an individual into a four-person choreography who doesn’t know how to shimmy or step on the beat and have it not ruin the whole dance, in ATS that wouldn’t fly.

For these reasons, pulling off an ATS performance of even the most basic moves is very impressive! I’ll watch beginner ATS groups all day with a dreamy smile on my face. I love the more complex moves and complicated formations too, of course, but I remain in awe of all the work that goes into learning the basic moves, the formations to move in, and the difficult-to-articulate process by which dancers sync up with each other and learn to move together.

If you’re curious what this looks like, here’s an example of an ATS dance I performed with my troupe. Yep, it’s all improvised. We’d run the piece a number of times and performed it already twice in different cities. We knew who would lead which section, but other than that, which moves would be cued when was up to each leader. Maybe I’m biased but I think this performance came out well in part due to all the practice we put in, and in part because we have good rapport with one another.

I’m curious: are there other dance forms, or art forms more generally, that are fractal in the same that ATS is? Where learning the smallest component of technique is essential to practicing or understanding the larger concepts that flow outward from it?

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Thanks to Wikimedia for the image.

One of the things I love about my family is that they take an active interest in my career and hobbies. So when I flew into L.A. to see my folks, my dad handed me a big box of newspaper clippings, related to literature, folklore, dance, sex education, and so on.

Among them was an opinion piece from the L.A. Times about a recent piece of California legislation, SB 967. This would mandate, among other things, that all California universities include the following language about sexual contact that occurs on campus:

  • An affirmative consent standard in the determination of whether consent was given by a complainant.
  • Prohibition on an accused perpetrator using self-intoxication or recklessness as a defense.  It would also not be a defense if the accused failed to take reasonable steps to ascertain consent.
  • An explicit provision that an individual is unable to give consent for sexual activity if the individual is asleep or unconscious; incapacitated due to drugs and/or alcohol; or unable to communicate due to a mental and/or physical condition.
  • A preponderance of the evidence standard in the determination of disciplinary action.

And so on. So far, so good, right?

Well… no. One of the opinion pieces, published in the Sunday June 1 L.A. Times, thinks that an affirmative consent standard is not only unlikely, but also unsexy. He writes: “The legislation’s affirmative consent requirement doesn’t apply just to sex. It covers all physical contact for which consent is required by a college’s sexual assault policy, like intimate touching. In real life, such contact is welcomed after it begins, not affirmatively consented to in advance.”

I hope y’all see that this is really problematic. This statement exemplifies the sex-negativity prevalent in our culture, specifically the idea that having to obtain consent by explicitly asking for it is un-sexy. It’s not hard to see where this idea comes from; in practically every Hollywood flick the characters experience mind-numbing chemistry, kiss, and wind up in bed together, with nary a word spoken.

Is it really all that terrible to have to ask for someone’s consent before touching or kissing them? Would it really be so soberingly un-sexy to say something like, “Hey, I’d like to kiss you. How do you feel about that?” Apparently, yes, there is no greater boner-killer than verbally obtaining consent.

What’s even more  troubling is that this opinion was expressed by Hans Bader, an attorney and former U.S. Department of Education Lawyer. In other words, the people making our laws don’t think obtaining verbal, explicit consent is sexy or feasible.

Another person, Sandra Perez, wrote in to say: “Legislation in Sacramento essentially would mandate that a would-be Romeo obtain an express opt-in before proceeding to bed with his sweetheart, as if any such target of Romeo’s desires doesn’t have ample opportunity to communicate her unequivocal wish to opt out.” This is another WTF comment, since it both assumes that men are always the initiators of sexual contact (which is a harmful construct of performing idealized masculinity) and that there are never coercive situations wherein women – or men – don’t feel safe saying no.

I’m saddened and disturbs that both of the quotes in this opinion piece reinforce negative, harmful, and untrue ideas about consent. Whether or not you’re in California and hence potentially affected by this law, I recommend reading up on consent and figuring out how to make it a more prominent part of your conversations and your practices. So here are some links:

Please read and consider passing on these links. I’m aware that there are more sophisticated (often feminist) conversations happening around consent, specifically problematizing the notion of “enthusiastic consent (and this discussion too), but hey, we have to start somewhere.

P.S. June is  Adult Sex Ed month! Consider this post a contribution!

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Me in the Carmel Public Library, looking thoughtful (as I feel now). Photo by James Moriarty.

I’ve been talking about this idea to a handful of folks, and now I’m implementing it: I’m taking a real summer break. This has some implications for how I comport myself online and in the rest of life, so thought I’d explain those here.

Like many scholars, I’m a highly-driven, passionate, disciplined person. This can have its downsides, though, like when I work myself into stress-induced illness or don’t make time for the relationships that are important to me. I went straight from high school to undergrad to grad school, and since starting grad school I did “everything right” to try to get a job as a professor, which meant spending almost every waking minute on activities that would enhance my CV. Even after finishing my PhD, I remained in “production mode”: doing extensive research, publishing, and presenting while also adjuncting and freelance writing.

In other words, I’ve never really had a break or a vacation since starting grad school. Even on trips, I had an article to be working on. Or a conference proposal to write. Or a syllabus to finish. Or grading, grading, grading.

This summer will not be the true break I wish it were. I am not going to be doing absolutely nothing (in fact, I fear I am incapable of doing nothing unless forced to by circumstances outside my control). I am going to be nurturing my dance community, visiting my family, maintaining friendships/relationships, and doing freelance writing to bring in some money, because hey, one of the downsides of adjuncting is that there’s no guarantee of summer employment and it’s not like you can claim unemployment either. Like many, I feel that contingent work has begun to make the rest of my life feel contingent too.

Since reflecting on normalized weekend work in academia, I’ve been facing the real prospect of burn-out. What’s the point of working so hard for so little reward, I wonder. I’ve enjoyed the decade+ journey of becoming a professional in my field but I’ve spent 3 years on the job market only landing local contract teaching gigs (which I do find fulfilling; they’re just not full-time work hence not long-term sustainable). I love what I do, but do I love it enough to keep doing it when it takes an obvious toll on the rest of my life? When I find myself writing so many qualifications, so many “yes, buts” when I describe my experience, how am I to deal with this deep ambivalence, this weariness over a layer of hurt/frustration? (Curious why academic rejection seems to hurt so much more than other kinds? read this crowd-sourced list for some insight)

I am taking to heart some of Rebecca Schuman’s suggestions about how to recover from academia, including the notion that making space to de-tox might help. And that might involve limiting contact with the kinds of people and pressures that academics normally encounter. If I can’t afford to travel to more than one or two conferences per year, do I really need to be seeing ads for them? If I can’t justify time to work on unpaid academic writing projects because I’m either working on paid writing to bring income to my household, or domestic tasks that I voluntarily take on because I’m not the breadwinner so I feel I should… do I really need to be seeing those CFPs? That sort of thing. And, if I am being honest with myself, I want to be happy for my colleagues that are succeeding in academia, but it just makes me feel bad about my own failures. There, I said it. It’s shallow, and it’s selfish, but every post I see from a recent graduate about getting a job reminds me that I’m lingering in adjunct-land, which is not what I had envisioned for myself. And wondering why they got the job and I didn’t is unproductive, since I won’t ever know.

We all know that the academic job market is cruelly arbitrary, lacking in transparency, cult-like, and drawn-out to the point of making planning the rest of one’s life an absurd impracticality. Describing the hiring process to non-academics makes it sound ridiculous beyond words. Knowing these things makes me feel somewhat better about my “failure” to get a job, but still. I feel pretty crummy about my situation and I’m trying to change that.

To that end, I’m going to remove many of the academics I follow from my Twitter and Facebook lists, unless you’re more on the post-ac/alt-ac side of things, or unless I follow  you because you’re a friend first, and an academic second. It’s nothing personal, and I may restore y’all once the fall semester starts and I’m feeling excited about the course I’m teaching, and once I’m doing… whatever it is I’ll be doing in the fall in addition to teaching. Which is hopefully something I’ll figure out this summer.

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My post Claiming the Title of Sex Educator recently went live at MySexProfessor, and in that vein, I’m going to start posting more sex education and sex research content here at my personal blog. I’ll begin with a post about how we talk about deviance and consent, and where these subjects (maybe surprisingly) intersect.

There’s a journalistic account going around about a young man who identifies as a pedophile in that he’s attracted to children, but he has never acted on that attraction. In fact, he’s actively seeking help in order to keep from acting on it. Pedophilia is one the most taboo and reviled sexuality topics in our society, and I like how the interview humanizes the man. It’s worth a listen if you have the time (it’s around 30 minutes long).

The story got me thinking about how we tend to talk about sexual deviancy. The more taboo a topic is, the more likely the discussion of it is to be framed in terms of morality or wrongness. In other words, stigma has an incredibly polarizing effect on discourse.

But you know what? Pretty much any sexual act has the potential to be just as “deviant” as the most stigmatized and taboo acts out there. This is because every sex act that involves more than one person hinges on consent, and even the most innocent-seeming act can become a violation if consent is lacking.

This is where the “would you do it to/with a pet?” question comes in. Think of something you might do to, say, a cat or dog as a friendly gesture:

  • Hug
  • Pet
  • Feed
  • Walk or play with

You don’t have to ask your cat or dog whether you can interact with it in a low-key, friendly way, in a manner that presumes some familiarity but does not transgress the animal’s bodily boundaries or cause it pain. Similarly, you usually don’t have to ask a friend consent before hugging her, or offering him food, or shaking zir hand.

Then think of some other activities, which you would NOT do to your pet. These could involve forcibly penetrating it, or beating it. Why would those actions be wrong? Because your pet cannot consent to sex with a human, nor to receiving pain. Animals think differently than humans and we haven’t figured out how to bridge a lot of those gaps just yet. Humans, on the other hand, are capable of communicating with one another about marvelously complex things, including giving and receiving physical pain in the pursuit of pleasure as with kink/BDSM, or choosing to enter into sex work.

My point here is that if it’s not an act that you would feel okay doing to an alive-and-feeling being that is incapable of communicating consent — it is potentially a “deviant” act. Being kissed without consent can be an invasive, horrible experience. Having sex without consent – that’s called rape.  Whether it’s the most vanilla thing in that world or as taboo as it gets, any partnered sexual activity has the potential to be traumatic if its occurs without consent.

Obviously the pet analogy falls apart at some point. Some people enjoy sloppy wet dog kisses, and the dogs seem to enjoy them right back. The activity of wrestling with one’s pet may cross into rough play, rougher than you’d do with a non-consenting human. I just wanted to come up with a metaphor that would resonate with people, that would make you think about the activities which require explicit consent and the activities that do not.

The flip side is that if any act, no matter how innocent or well-intended, can become monstrous when it occurs without consent, then any deviant/taboo/bizarre act can be seen as okay if consent is granted. Or at least, I’ll see it that way, and encourage others to have an open enough mind to do so.

Once again: if you’re a consenting adult, I support you doing anything. Consent should always be communicated, negotiated, and re-negotiated, so the more we read and talk and write about it, the better!

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Teaching at the Winter Bazaar (March 2014); Photo by Curtis Claspell

I didn’t enter dance or academia expecting to love teaching, but I’ve found myself teaching dance and teaching college-levels classes for almost a decade now each, and enjoying both opportunities a bunch. The more I teach dance, though, the more I find it necessary to reflect on the role of the teacher, and what kind of trust she must build with her students.

Perhaps the academic classroom is so structured that this question didn’t really enter my mind until I began building a dance community that has me teaching and rehearsing multiple days a week. Being in sustained contact with my dance students, both in person and online, has been a unique experience. And it’s not that I don’t adore and benefit from contact with my college students, but there are many boundaries there that don’t exist with my dance students. I socialize with my dance students, and even party and (gasp) drink with them. They’ve been to my home, and I’ve been to many of their homes, for practices, craft nights, movie nights, and so on. We carpool to events. We’ve worn each other’s costumes for performances, and gifted each other costume items and snacks and caffeinated beverages. Very few of these activities would be appropriate for me to pursue with my college students, but I don’t feel they cross a line with my dance students. In part this is because dance in our community is a hobby (whereas one’s college performance arguably has a more “real” impact on one’s life), and in part this is because the student-teacher relationship in a dance context is often less power-laden than the student-teacher relationship in an academic context.

The interesting – and unique – thing that’s happening to me in the dance classroom these days is that I’m having to ask my students to put immense amounts of trust in me, and I’m struggling to prove myself worthy of that trust daily. Belly dance is intimately connected to body image, which for many women in American culture, is a fraught topic. One of the major reasons I perform belly dance is to challenge expectations about ideal feminine beauty. So, the first challenge I face in asking students to trust me is that I’m basically saying, You are beautiful as you are, and you will be beautiful when you dance. We receive so many mixed messages from our capitalist culture that I’m not surprised that this message might be hard to swallow.

Since I’m trying to build a community based on the radical notion that women’s bodies in motion are beautiful, regardless of one’s age or build, I have to ask my students to trust me when I tell them that they can do this. American Tribal Style® Belly Dance is particularly well-suited to making women look good when they dance, in large part thanks to the richly layered and customizable costumes. For some women, just taking that first step and signing up for a belly dance style requires trust. For others, taking classes is fine, but then baring their bellies (which I don’t require) or dancing in front of others is what’s tough. In order to encourage them to take a chance on me as an instructor, I try to cultivate an upbeat, cheerful teacher persona. I encourage questions and I never shame anyone for not picking up on a move right away, or needing to ask the same technique question again, or whatever. Shame has no place in the belly dance classroom, or any classroom, really.

(on a related note, though written in reference to the academic classroom, I agree with this professor’s statement: “Education is about students. It is about caring for them, pushing them, helping them, working with them rather than against them. Take a good long look at your reasons for being in higher ed. If students are not at the center, you are doing it wrong.”

Further, since practicing belly dance often comes with the hope of eventually performing it, I’m having to ask my students to trust me when it comes to evaluating their readiness to perform. This is where it gets really tricky. I’ve hopefully established that they can trust me to be their teacher and to build up their confidence… but now I have to objectively evaluate whether they’ve mastered a certain skill-set enough to confidently perform it on stage. Performing introduces so many variables that dancers must be comfortable with the basic movements. If that stuff isn’t committed to muscle memory, there’s so much that can go wrong. It’s never, like, catastrophic when someone forgets or messes up a move on stage, but I try to prevent that from happening because it can be unpleasant, and I’d prefer for my dancers to associate pleasant memories with dancing.

So the weird duality I’m noticing here is that I have to ask them to trust me enough that I can be responsible both for building up their confidence, and for gently criticizing their shortcomings. I try to approach this tension with an air of humility; after all, I’m not perfect either. Goodness knows I could always use more practice, and when I’m traveling to a city where there’s another certified ATS® teacher, I try to go in for classes so that I can get technique corrections or new ideas.

Hopefully my students recognize my intentions and trust me, and hopefully they understand that when I correct them, it’s all in service of building their confidence back up again when they can grasp a concept correctly. Getting us all dancing together – which takes a ton of work! – in turn builds the community. And the stronger and more loving our community is, the better we are as dancers, and as people. Seeing my dance students flourish in this community is one of the most amazing things I’ve ever experienced, and so muddling through the cognitive dissonance of how to build students up while encouraging them to better is well worth it.

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Me performing an American Tribal Style® Belly Dance solo(photo by Curtis Claspell)

Me performing an American Tribal Style® Belly Dance solo
(photo by Curtis Claspell)

If you haven’t already, go read Part 1 of this post in which I discuss various issues such as the multiethnic/multicultural origins of belly dance, why belly dance has political implications in both the West and the East, and why this is a complicated topic that shouldn’t be handled in a simplistically ignorant and racist way like the original Salon post author did.

Now that you’re caught up, let’s turn to the distinction between cultural appropriation and cultural borrowing. I’m aware that there’s a large body of scholarship out there on this topic, but here I’m relying more on work on privilege.

As I established in my first post, cultures come into contact and borrow from one another. It’s just what they do. Ask any anthropologist, folklorist, or historian, and we’ll tell you that cultures are dynamic rather than static. We’ll tell you about the concept of “invented traditions,” which really applies to every tradition, since they all had to start somewhere. From engagement rings to Thanksgiving dinner, every tradition a culture has got its start at a definite point in time, and from then on accrued meaning and significance to that culture, sometimes to the point of people not being able to imagine life without it. Belly dance is, as you might’ve guessed, an invented tradition. Why it became so meaningful is simultaneously kinda arbitrary (why do some art forms thrive while others don’t?) and also revealing as to the values of these various cultures.

In my mind, the questions we as Western belly dancers should be tackling are: where does belly dancing fall in the borrowing-appropriation spectrum? How does Western (and perhaps, PERHAPS white) privilege play into this? And how can we respectfully listen to the claims of others while defending our rights as global citizens to partake in art forms that appeal to us?

First, I think it’s important to note that appropriation occurs within a power imbalance. There are few components to this:

  • When the transferred item or genre is sacred and it is taken out of that context and put into a secular one, we’re probably looking at cultural appropriation, not borrowing. See: appropriation of Native American cultures. (related: Jezebel has a pretty good take on this issue, specifically using Native American examples)
  • When the borrowing culture operates on stereotypes of the original culture, stereotypes that are detrimental and affect real people’s lives, we’re probably dealing with cultural appropriation. See: blackface.
  • When the borrowed-from culture is a minority that remains powerless politically and voiceless culturally, and thus no reciprocal exchange is possible, we’re looking at appropriation. See: depictions of Gypsies/Roma.

Now let’s look at Westerners who belly dance and see how these criteria fit. First, belly dance is not sacred in most of the contemporary and historical cultural contexts in which it originates (whew, lotta qualifiers there, see how complex this phenomenon is?!). Belly dance is a social dance, performed in various situations by different groupings of people, from informal women-only gatherings, to wedding parties, to formal entertainers in dining establishments. So, I don’t feel there’s any evidence that Western belly dancers are polluting something sacred here.

Do Western belly dancers promote stereotypes of Middle Easterners? Possibly. A lot of art involves highly refined aesthetic forms, which do carry the possibility of stereotype and caricature. But that’s one big reason I’m drawn to American Tribal Style® Belly Dance – it’s syncretic on purpose. We’re not trying to emulate any single tribe or culture out there; we’re making our own urban tribe, coming together as a community on our own terms. Our movements borrow from Spanish flamenco and Indian classical dance as well as Middle Eastern folkloric dances. Our costumes draw from disparate cultures as well (including our own – there’re a ton of fabulous body mods to be seen in ATS, from tattoos to piercings), so we’re not mimicking any one existing culture. So tribal and tribal fusion dancing helps me navigate this facet of the issue; I’m not sure how other belly dancers handle it.

Are Middle Eastern dancers helpless and voiceless in this debate? Obviously not, as the original Salon blogger has demonstrated. I hope this doesn’t sound too flippant, but it’s a public part of their culture that they display at home and abroad – if it had been secret, or spiritual, that might have been different. It’s not like we wrested it from their innermost sanctuaries and profaned it by bringing it out into the open. Instead, representatives of these various Middle Eastern brought the dance over to the U.S. (and other countries) when they immigrated here. They shaped it, and continue to do so. They get some of our stuff (like language) and we get some of their stuff (like dance). Is there still a power dynamic? Unfortunately, yes. Orientalism is alive and well. We’re still wading through the effects of colonial powers in the Middle East and the rest of the world. That stuff ain’t fun. But I don’t think learning about another culture through dance is the most offensive thing out there when it comes to navigating these tensions.

…Which brings me to my final point. If you are completely oblivious to the fact that your engagement with another culture could potentially be causing harm (even if it’s simply perceived harm, like emotional upset, without a “real” physical component), then you are operating from a place of privilege. I know privilege can be a sticky topic, but I like these two web comics which demystify it without shaming or blaming. I also have written about privilege and its gendered dynamics here, and how good intentions can still cause harm here.

Okay, back to the intersection of privilege with cultural appropriation! I really like this Everyday Feminism blog post about navigating privilege, in which the author states: “We have a responsibility to listen to people of marginalized cultures, understand as much as possible the blatant and subtle ways in which their cultures have been appropriated and exploited, and educate ourselves enough to make informed choices when it comes to engaging with people of other cultures.”

So, because I recognize that I come from a place of Western privilege and white privilege, I have to acknowledge that maybe my actions are doing harm to others, but that harm is imperceptible to me. I have to admit that I could be wrong, and I have to be open to listening respectfully to the views of those who feel that they were wronged. I have to understand that the negativity is likely not about me personally, but rather the systemic injustices that I happen to benefit from, and which are being repeated in my blithe borrowing without acknowledging the historical circumstances that shape the exchange. G. Willow Wilson asks Western dancers to keep in mind that, when performing belly dance, they have a moral obligation “to look that privilege steadily in the face.” I think that’s a great starting place. But so is a reasoned and researched examination of the issues at stake, which I have tried to provide in this blog post series.

Even with all these factors to consider, I don’t think Westerners performing belly dance is the most egregious form of cultural appropriation out there. I think it is a borrowing and an exchange more than an appropriation. I think there is room for critique, and there is room for positive change. I think the original Salon author is entitled to her feelings (because an important component of recognizing one’s privilege is recognizing that you don’t get to tell other people what they have a right to feel), though I also think she misunderstands the diversity and complexity of belly dance both in history and in contemporary times.

While most belly dancers are, I believe, already engaging with these issues, I’m hoping that it opens the wider public up to these kinds of discussions. I hope they look beyond the harmful “harem girl” fantasy associated with belly dance – harmful to all women, regardless of skin color – to get a sense of the dance’s richness, variations, and textures. Further, I hope that Western dancers will be a bit more thoughtful about what we borrow, and how, and from whom – and also what we give back.

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Photo by Curtis Claspell

Me, a “white” belly dancer      Photo by Curtis Claspell

By now there’s been a fair bit of comment on that infamous Salon post, Why I Can’t Stand White Belly Dancers, but I thought I would add my perspective as a folklorist and a (white-ish-I-guess) belly dancer.

One of my first reactions was along the lines of: um, are there no “white” people in the Middle East? How are we defining whiteness? Do Jews (which would include my ancestors) count? This response by Yessenia emphasizes the arbitrariness of ethnic categories, pointing out that a lot of well-known belly dancers might look like white impostors, but they’re actually of Lebanese, Egyptian, or Turkish descent.

As a folklorist, and as someone who’s actually done some research on the history of belly dancing, I know that this form of expressive culture – like many others – is transnational. Cultures have always come into contact and have always exchanged folklore, whether stories or dances or foods. This isn’t to say that there’s no power imbalance in the exchange (there usually is), but rather that this phenomenon is as old as humanity itself.

The ridiculousness of saying “X ethnicity shouldn’t practice Y art form” has already been mocked in The Washington Post. Besides, there have been Western influences on belly dance, so it’s sorta ours too. As Nazneen points out in her blog post A “brown” dancer responds to “Why I can’t stand white belly dancers,” contemporary belly dance “was shaped by Mahmoud Reda, an Egyptian dancer who popularized Egyptian folk dance for the stage by blending it with Western ballet. (Interestingly, he was inspired by the likes of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire, by his own admission).” Determining the true origin of an expressive culture form is a knotty problem, as folklorists know, so I always like to remind people of how complex these questions are.

And the origins of belly dance are pretty complex. Quoted in The Atlantic, Dr. Ruth Webb, an expert in performance during antiquity, states: “with regional variations, something like Raqs Sharqi seems to have been known throughout the Mediterranean and certainly flourished in Egypt and the Eastern Mediterranean before the arrival of the Arabs in the 7th century.” Very old. Multiethnic (even pre-Arab, by some accounts). You get the idea.

And yet because of the Salon author’s focus on essentializing and universalizing race/ethnicity, she misses a valuable opportunity to critique the colonialist, imperialist, and orientalist problems with belly dance in both the East and the West. Autumn Ward’s response to the piece cogently points out: “For Egyptian women from the Muslim Arab cultural majority, dance is simply not a respectable profession, so dancing professionally is not an option. This is a firmly entrenched cultural attitude that predates current conservative politics by centuries.” In other words, Egyptian society has made it unacceptable for women (and in many cases, men – read some Anthony Shay!) to take up belly dancing without being accused of also being a sex worker. This is a problem of local politics/beliefs, but then outsiders are blamed for wanting to perform a dance because they aren’t held to the same standards? Hm. This is my skeptical face.

G. Willow Wilson also points out some of the political implications of Westerners borrowing belly dance when she writes: “When you shimmy around a stage in a hip band and call yourself Aliya Selim and receive praise and encouragement, while the real Aliya Selims are shortening their names to Ally and wondering if their accent is too strong to land that job interview, if the boss will look askance at their headscarf, if the kids at school are going to make fun of their children, guess what: you are exercising considerable privilege.” There is a hostile, anti-Arab, anti-Muslim sentiment in many parts of the West right now, and belly dancers should be informed and possibly even active about these topics, just as we educate ourselves about the cultures framing the dance when it’s performed “over there.”

On the whole, I agree with professional dancer and Middle Eastern scholar Asharah‘s take in her essay, I’m A White Woman and I Belly Dance, in which she writes:

“What this article wants to be is about imperialism and power. It wants to be an article about the domination of the ‘West’ over the Middle East. It wants to take a jab at the exploitation of Western powers (read: British, French, and American) of the Middle East and its people. It wants to be an article about Orientalism. It wants to be about white privilege in the United States.  All of these topics are valid and should be discussed…But, as a means for bridging gaps of understanding between the Arab world and ‘white people,’ it fails. It fails because of its own racism, sweeping generalizations, and bigotry.”

Bingo. As artists and world citizens, we ought to be open to discussions about the political implications of cultural borrowings. But as belly dancer and artist Tempest writes in her post Nobody’s Right If Everybody’s Wrong, what tends to happen in these discussions is people stating, “it doesn’t matter who you are/where you come from/what you say/how you say it: you are wrong, so shut up. Which doesn’t empower or help anyone.”

I agree that there does need to be room to address the grievances raised in this debate, and obviously it’s not my place to tell someone that they’re wrong to be offended and that their feelings aren’t valid. As far as how to productively have that kind of conversation, well, that’s coming up in Part 2!

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(note: I am not actually creating graffiti in this picture!)

“Pipe Dreams” Photography and concept by Libby Bulloff; modeling and costuming by me
(note: I am not actually creating graffiti in this picture!)

As a follow up to my post on why people shouldn’t tell folklorists to write children’s books, I thought I would reflect a little on writing in my life these days.

I’ve always written. I started keeping a dream journal some time in elementary school, and I wrote my first novel in 4th grade. I began keeping a journal of recollections in middle school, and I made it a daily writing practice in high school. I still journal every day (or almost – sometimes I’ll leave a day unwritten and come back a day or two later to complete it). That means I have a daily chronicle of at least half of my life. I’ve been writing in various online forums since 2000, and I’ve been writing short fiction, poetry, and non-fiction on and off since around that time as well.

When I started grad school, I decided to put my other writing loves on the back-burner for a while, so that I could  really excel as an academic. I maintained other hobbies, of course, like dance and cooking, but I didn’t want to expend energy writing things that weren’t directed toward my goal of becoming an awesome scholar. I maintained my daily journal practice, and I continued to do some blogging here and there, but fiction definitely dropped out of my life for a while.

Now, however, I’m in a holding pattern. I’ve got my PhD – now what? I haven’t landed the sweet tenure-track professorship of my dreams, so I’m exploring other options. One of those options is writing.

Something that shifted in grad school, which I only noticed recently, is that I really started to love writing nonfiction. That, and I’m quite good at it! I love crafting clear, accessible prose that conveys information and insight. Whether I’m writing for an academic audience or the public, I’ve truly grown to enjoy this kind of writing. Sometimes I even get paid for it, as in paid blogging gigs and freelance educational writing gigs.

Basically, I’ve always been a writer. I’m just now reframing my ideas on how to go about it, and how to incorporate it into my identity and my career.

So, while I continue to waft in post-PhD limbo, I’ve decided to write more, and write differently. I’ll maintain my daily journal practice, and I’ll consider to blog (both here and at MySexProfessor.com - which I adore for numerous reasons, since I think it’s really important to disseminate information about gender, sex, and sexuality to the public).

But I’ll also start investigating the kind of writing that I want to do. I’m no longer the starry-eyed Berkeley graduate signing up to move across the country and start grad school; doubtlessly I’ll be interested in writing different kinds of things now than I was then. I think I want to continue to develop my craft as a non-fiction writer, though I may dabble in fiction again. I may listen to the hordes of friends and family members who are telling me to write a book to market to the general public, since apparently I have enough interesting things to say that people are eager to read my work. In order to find my voice now, as a mature scholar-writer, I’ll need to write more, and perhaps write things I hadn’t originally set out to write. But this much is for sure: I’m looking forward to the process!

Thanks to Wikimedia for the image.

As a folklorist – and especially one who researches fairy tales – I get the following comments a lot:

  • “Oh, you study folklore? Do you also write children’s books?”
  • “How cool that you study fairy tales! Do you write them too?”
  • “I’m sorry to hear you’re having trouble on the academic job market. Have you thought about writing books for kids?”

While these statements are often accompanied by good intentions, they begin to get annoying after a while (and I hope that I can say that without totally disregarding the positive intentions of the people saying these kinds of things, especially since a lot of the people saying these kinds of things to me are family members!). So I thought I’d take the time to explain why this kind of linkage is not only erroneous in nature, but ultimately unhelpful.

By now readers of my blog should know that folklore isn’t just fairy tales and other kinds of stories, it also encompasses other verbal genres (riddles, jokes, slang, proverbs, etc.) as well as material culture (traditional foods, clothing/costumes, crafts, vernacular architecture) and customs/beliefs/behavior (holiday customs, festivals, folk dance & music, gestures, games, and so on). Folklore is intertwined with power relations and weaves in and out of every individual’s life, tying us to our various social groups (or “folk groups” we as call them) while also highlighting our unique life circumstances.

So for someone to assume that simply because I have a background in folklore, I should be writing children’s books, is to erroneously whittle the entire purview of folklore studies down to “stuff for kids.” That can come across as insulting even if it’s not meant to be. It further implies that we shouldn’t do what we’re trained to do – that is, research, teach, and write about folklore – but we should come up with a specifically marketable product instead.

Okay, you might be saying, but I actually do study fairy tales and related genres such as fantasy literature, children’s literature, and YA fiction. However, studying something is different than producing it. Very, very different. As I’ve said before, I’m not that good at telling stories, but I’m great at telling stories about stories (by which I mean analysis, criticism, interpretation).

Many scholars do, in fact, learn to do the phenomenon they’re trying to study, whether this is part of participant-observation while doing fieldwork, or whether they’re studying the social phenomena that accompany creative actions. There are a lot of reasons for an ethnomusicologist to learn to play the instruments that the community he studies play, or for a sociologist to learn the dance that the community she studies performs. But you shouldn’t assume that it’s something that every scholar does, nor that a scholar will take that ethnographic knowledge and go on to perform/publish/market it.

Further, writing children’s literature is a very specialized sort of task that, while I have no doubt in my mind that I could do it, comes with ethical questions that I don’t know if I want to face. I’m comfortable teaching at the college level, but do I feel comfortable disseminating a message to much younger minds? Children’s literature has historically been used to shape (and in many cases hobble) the minds and morals of children. Do I really want to throw my hat in? I don’t know the answer yet, but it’s not something I’ll undertake lightly.

Let’s recap. By suggesting that because I study folklore, I should write children’s literature, you are:

  • Demonstrating that you don’t understand the full extent of what folklorists do
  • Devaluing the work that folklorists are trained to do, instead suggesting that we should turn to crafting and selling capitalist products
  • Conflating studying something with being able to and/or desiring to creatively produce it and market it
  • Stating that you think I should take on the moral obligation of sending messages to children

I’d love to hear from some other folklorists on their experiences with this subject, but I think I’ve covered the main points where this kind of thing bothers me.

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