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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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I tried something new in my two classes at Butler in the fall semester, and I liked it enough that I’m going to continue it in my spring classes and also share it with you all here.

Often, when I am writing syllabi and constructing my first-day “let’s all get oriented” lectures, I find myself trying to balance my broader learning goals (instilling critical thinking skills, attentive reading skills, and so on) with my discipline-specific goals. In the case of folklore classes, it’s important to learn what we do differently when studying folklore than, say, literature, but also to learn about the topics at hand, which is more of a methods vs. facts distinction.

Then there’s this issue: articulating a balance of learning goals that is helpful to me when writing the syllabus is a different thing than trying to convey this information to my students, so they can know what’s expected of them. I think the idea I’m going to share here is more helpful for the latter, but maybe it’ll work well when kept in mind for the former, too.

In both of my classes last fall, I told my students that they were going to be learning three main types of things in the class:

  • Objective
  • Subjective
  • Critical

I’ll explain this with examples from my Folklore of the Midwest class.

  • Objective knowledge about folklore in/of the Midwest: we learned how to identify various folklore genres and texts; we learned the terminology used in folklore studies; there IS a right and a wrong answer for this kind of thing (don’t try to convince me that a riddle is a legend; it will go poorly for you)
  • Subjective knowledge about folklore in/of the Midwest: we learned how to identify folklore in our own lives, which would be different for each individual student; here, students might make connections between folklore items discussed in class and items known in their folk groups, ranging from family folklore to occupational folklore; there’s not so much a right or wrong here since this is very personal, but you should still be using folklore terminology correctly
  • Critical thinking about folklore in/of the Midwest: we learned how to apply concepts from class to not only our lives, but also the world around us; this is less easy to gauge than the other two elements, but it emerges when I have students design their own fieldwork projects, and when we discuss current events in class and I can see students making connections between class concepts and superficially unrelated topics

I came up with a similar breakdown of concepts and knowledges in my gender studies class last semester, which had even more of a subjective component to it since we were discussing marriage, relationships, sexuality, and gender, which people often respond to emotionally. Both of my classes seemed to respond well to this paradigm when I presented them with it on the first day of class, and I reminded them of it throughout the semester and at the semester’s close. I suppose this is what’s referred to as “scaffolding” in course design and lesson plan design – having a concrete idea of where the class is supposed to go, and giving your students the support and structure they need in order to think and explore in that direction.

This semester I’m probably going to stick closely to this course concept in one of my classes, and try something different in the other. I may well apply it in my class on fairy tales, sexuality, and desire, since as we all know, things tend to come in threes in fairy tales. I’ll try a different learning-goal paradigm for my class on dance, gender, and the body, and I’ll report back on any notable successes or failures in a few months.

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As the semester winds down, I like to reflect on what I’ve learned about folklore and being a folklorist in the past few months. Thankfully, I didn’t encounter one of my primary pet peeves (where everyone assumes they already know about folklore) while teaching my folklore class this fall, but in general conversations and reading, I ran into another annoyance I thought I’d elaborate on here.

I sorta don’t care about the origins of most folklore.

There, I said it. This is a big deal since most people assume that folklorists are ALL ABOUT origins. As though wondering about the origins of myths and stories and customs is what keeps us lying awake at night, tossing and  turning in bed until, with frantic eyes and mussed hair, we lurch to our libraries and laptops to look for answers. Maybe that’s the case for some folklorists, but it really isn’t for me.

Allow me to explain. One of the key attributes of folklore is that it’s transmitted traditionally within groups, where “traditionally” can mean through oral culture and word-of-mouth, or it can just mean informally rather than institutionally (yes, folklore exists in institutions, but it’s rarely found in the printed rule books and the official or elite culture of that institution, but rather in the customs and on-the-job knowledge and skills that people acquire from other people).

As Lynn McNeill so eloquently puts it in her new (and awesome) book Folklore Rules,
“The significance of folklore studies as an academic field comes back to the idea that folklore exists as a form of cultural expression without the anchor of institutional culture.” (33) McNeill goes on to use  examples from the literary canon (we can’t just decide to ditch Dickens if we don’t like him anymore, since his contribution to Western literature has become institutionalized) and the law (we can’t simply decide to stop following certain laws if we don’t feel they’re relevant any longer) to illustrate her point.

But when we’re talking folklore, we’re in a different realm entirely: “Folklore, on the other hand, isn’t institutionally determined. That urban legend no longer speaks to something we  care about? Gone. That custom no longer meets the needs of that family? Done – never happens again. While we may record the legend or a description of the custom in an archive so that we remember it was once relevant, there’s no formal organization still making us tell the legend or practice the custom. Unlike reading the past works of a famous author or obeying an outdated law, the moment folklore is no longer relevant, we simply stop using it.” (33-34)

The amazing insight here, which McNeill has highlighted beautifully, is that “if folklore is currently circulating, it must be important” (34, italics in original) That means we can use folklore as a way to measure and interpret the concerns of people today, if we’re studying today’s folklore… and we can use folklore of the past to understand the concerns of people in the past. Both are legit, but both are not automatically the purview of folklorists.

See, if I’d wanted to study the past, I’d have become a historian, or at least a folklorist who is more historically-oriented than I am now. I am definitely interested in some historical origins of things, like when it comes to one of my favorite genres, fairy tales. But I’m also big on relevance, and most of the time, I find myself confounded by the social groups around me, so I want to use folklore to understand them (not least because the actions of others affect me, especially living in a democracy and whatnot).

Hopefully I’ve shown why it’s erroneous to assume that ALL folklorists are interested in the origins of a given story, or festival, or traditional food. Some of us are, sure, but not all of us. Understanding where something comes from can help us understand how it’s become the way it is today (assuming that it’s still practiced/told/transmitted), and that in its own right can be a fascinating example of the twin laws of folklore, tradition and variation, at work. But tracking down the origins of something won’t help us understand why it’s relevant today, or the functions it serves in today’s society. It might give us some hints, but it won’t yield the full picture, not the same way researching its contemporary uses will.

So now you know: not every folklorist is into chasing down the origins of a given item or genre of folklore. You’re welcome.

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I’ve been thinking recently about where my time and energy get spent, and what I get out of these expenditures. I’m fortunate in that I have a partner who supports me while I’m in my third year on the job market and my second year adjuncting, so I really am in a position of getting to teach because I love it, not because I need to do it to support my household. And yet… there is some cognitive dissonance surrounding this issue.

In a guest post at Conditionally Accepted, I wrote about the difference between valuing my experiences adjunct teaching based on internal vs. external criteria. I find myself returning to that dilemma now, but from a slightly different angle.

Basically, if I’m teaching because I love it, and if I’m uncertain that I’ll ever get hired to do it full-time, does that make it a hobby? Or if I continue to have the mindset that I developed in (hell, before) grad school that working hard enough will eventually net me a job, does my adjuncting become a stepping stone to a full-time career? What are the consequences of either mind-set, for me personally, and for my investment in these options?

Looking at the way I’ve been approaching adjuncting (in the hopes of it turning into a full-time career), it’s difficult not to liken my lived experience of it to a hobby. A very, very expensive hobby. Even if I’m only going to two or three conferences a year, assuming that they’ll be out of state and hence in the $1K-ish range each, that’s still a big chunk of the paycheck that already isn’t enough to support me. Factor in the cost of materials for research, even if it’s mostly books and stuff, and gas money to get to the library, and print articles, and such… and academia – the really involved kind, with publishing and presenting in addition to teaching – can cost a lot of money and time.

For comparison’s sake, I also spend a lot of money and time on my dancing. That one’s also somewhere between a hobby and a career, as I can sometimes swing paying gigs as a teacher and performer. But maybe because I didn’t go into dancing with the expectation of being able to make it a career it doesn’t bother me as much. It’s not like my dance teachers from Day 1 primed me to expect a career in the field if I would just work hard, be persistent, and be very good at what I do.

I wonder if I should be looking at my time in academia more along the lines of the way I look at dancing: something I enjoy doing, something that helps me connect with others, something that lets me teach and help along students while also expressing myself. I really do feel that my dancing contributes something to my community, if only by example (by conveying positive messages about body image, about making art accessible to everyone, stuff like that). I don’t expect to support myself solely by dancing; maybe I would feel less stressed and icky about academia if I didn’t expect to support myself doing it. That’ll no doubt require some more mental work on my end, though, as I definitely went into academia with the intention to make it a full-time career.

I could write more, but I’ll wrap this up. It’s a busy time of year, and if I spend more time thinking about where my energy’s going than actually going out and doing things with that energy, then I’ve likely got something wrong.

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Carolena Nericcio, creator of American Tribal Style® Belly Dance, dancing with her troupe, Fat Chance Belly Dance®

I was recently chatting with a folklore colleague who was thinking about starting belly dance classes, specifically, American Tribal Style® Belly Dance classes (or ATS for short). It occurred to me if folklorists knew what made ATS different from other styles of belly dance, would be all over this as something interesting and neat to talk about with the concepts of our discipline.

Here’s why (in handy bullet point form):

  • ATS is an improvised dance form using an agreed-upon movement vocabulary to communicate and create within the moment. It shows us how artistic performers utilize the tools in their creative toolbox (in this case, the dance moves) to create an emergent performance, much like epic singers or fairy-tale tellers might also do, but with the body instead of with words and phrases.
  • ATS exemplifies tradition and variation at work. The way you’re “supposed” to do the moves is the stable current of tradition, while the “flavor” that develops in troupe worldwide (intentionally or not) is the dynamic of variation.
  • ATS is only a few decades old, so it represents a fledgling folklore genre and folk group that we can study as it moves through infancy into maturity. There are already offshoots (Improvisational Tribal Style/ITS, tribal fusion, and countless other takes on tribal/improvisational belly dance), which makes for an intriguing example of cause-and-effect and community-building in action.
  • Material culture galore! The costuming style of ATS is unique and rich in texture, color, sound, weight… so many things! I would refer anyone who’s interested in this particular aspect of ATS to my article, “’Whether it’s coins, fringe, or just stuff that’s sparkly’: Aesthetics and Utility in a Tribal Fusion Belly Dance Troupe’s Costumes.” Midwestern Folklore 32 (1/2). (Terre Haute: Indiana State University Press). 83-97.
  • Because ATS incorporates dance moves from the Middle East (as well as from Indian classical dance, flamenco, and Gypsy dances to a degree), practitioners have an interesting relationship with the idea of “authenticity.” Most dancers agree that they’re not trying to recreate an actual tribe’s dances or costumes, but rather that ATS is a fusion that draws on these elements. But we could be having a conversation about cultural appropriation, too… is it all roses and sunshine in ATS-land? It’s a tough call, and more scholarship might be illuminating.
  • Verbal arts abound: personal narratives (how one got into the dance, transformative moments while dancing, funny run-ins with other troupes’ “flavors” that you didn’t pick up on at first), legends about origins of the dance, folkspeech such as naming practices, greeting and cheering (zagarheet anyone?), etc. Plenty of customary folklore, too: haflas, finger cymbal/zil practices, and obviously the whole body of dance movements that we collectively learn and perform
  • ATS dancers are an intentional community, a folk group comprised of hobbyists and professionals (and everything in between) who develop a shared worldview and esoteric understandings of the beauty of women’s bodies, the value of exercise in otherwise sedentary cultures, and the importance of clear and direct communication, among other things. I’ve seen ATS dancers develop greater body awareness and confidence/self-esteem, likely as a result of practicing this dance form. How is that not interesting to folklorists?
  • Perhaps you’ve noticed all the “®”/registered trademarks appearing in this post. That’s because the creator of ATS and founder of the troupe FatChance BellyDance® wants to protect her creative/intellectual property. Can you really trademark art? Or a dance form? Enough folklorists are engaged in these questions with other folk arts that I think we’d be interested in what makes this instance unique.

I could go on, but hopefully you get the idea. I really love this clip where Carolena Nericcio, my teacher and the creator of ATS, explains what it’s all about.

I’d love to hear from other dancers and folklorists on this topic!

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In my wrap-up post on the dietary aspects of the Whole30, I discussed what I ate for 30 days, how it made me feel, and so on. I stand by that post: I would definitely recommend the Whole30 as an eating plan for people who are looking to diagnose food allergens, kick the sugar habit, try something new that involves eating a ton more fruits and veggies than you might already, and so on.

But then there’s the matter of weight loss. I’m conflicted about addressing this topic in public webspace for various reasons: I feel like as a scholar and educator it’s not always appropriate for me to talk about my body (but where does that line fall?), and I also don’t necessarily want to display my body-image insecurities out here for all to see. However, I blog about topics like weight commentary and thin privilege, as well as why over-sharing when discussing one’s body at all can be a political issue. Here, I guess I’m going with a compromise that makes me comfortable: I’m not saying exactly how much I weigh, and I’m not posting pictures. So here goes.

There’s no good way to say this. I lost 6 lbs in 30 days. And, upon weighing myself one week later, I found that I’d lost another pound, even while reintroducing foods like wheat, dairy, sugar, and alcohol (not daily, but almost).

I’m feeling conflicted about two main aspects of this:

  • I have a small frame. I’m only 5’6″ or so. Was it healthy for me to lose that much weight in such a short time? I said to various friends who expressed concern about me getting too skinny on the eating plan, “Oh, I’ve probably only lost 2 or 3 pounds. I wouldn’t want to lose more than that… if I lost 10 pounds I might look sickly or too skinny.”
  • I still look at my body and think to myself that I could stand to lose a little more weight – or at least redistribute it, such that there’s less fat and more muscle (and yes, I’m aware that muscle weighs more than fat, so I’m not opposed to the numbers on the scale going up). I guess this is less of a weight issue than a body composition issue, a matter of how I perceive my silhouette when I look in a mirror.

Let’s unpack these thoughts. I am unsure what to do about the fact that I’ve had two responses to my body on the Whole30 that are pretty much diametrically opposed. I mean, I can’t have it both ways, right? “Is this too much weight loss” vs. “gosh I wouldn’t mind losing some more” is… a strange dynamic to recognize in oneself, to say the least.

I stand by my statement that I’m not currently “too” skinny. I’m not unhealthy. I’m incredibly active and if my body supports this much activity, then things are fine on that front. But… how long til I reach that point, if I keep eating along Whole30 guidelines even as I reintroduce foods that were until recently off-limits? There have been times in the past when due to other life factors I was unable to eat enough to maintain a healthy weight. I don’t want to go there again (as awesome as it felt to finally have a body composition that was societally rewarded by fitting into cute clothing and presenting as “attractive” without having to feel like I was hiding weight-related flaws).

This is just… such a mindfuck. I don’t think I have serious body dysmorphia issues, though the back-and-forth in my head might indicate that I should look a bit more critically at my self-image. I don’t suffer from disordered eating, and I have never really struggled with that, unlike a lot of other women (and men, too). I’m trying to focus on being comfortable with my body as it is now, and that seems to be having some positive effects on my self-esteem. But I can’t seem to shake the fear that I’ll stop doing the Whole30 and go back to eating like a normal American (well, my version of it anyway) and then regain all the weight I lost, which would somehow be a terrible, traumatic event.

I do not like to catch myself thinking these thoughts. I try to have a realistic attitude toward body acceptance, and I try to promote it among others. I go out of my way to mention the body acceptance I find among belly dancers, for example, and I try to embody the feminist ideal of not putting myself down while encouraging others to embrace their bodies, no matter what shape or size.

I guess I’m putting this post out there in an attempt to be transparent about my thought processes regarding body acceptance, food, eating, and weight loss in our culture. I worry that it’ll come across as a humble-brag along the lines of “whoops, lost all this weight when I didn’t mean to, lol” which isn’t my intention. On the one hand, our relationships with our bodies are very private, and no amount of reinforcement (good or bad) from others will change that; but on the other hand, our bodies are often objects of public comment (both reinforcement and ridicule) and the opinions of others often do matter. What we do with our bodies should be no one’s concern but our own – but where do those boundaries end? Do our families and lovers and friends have a right to be involved with our body care and maintenance? Especially when our physical (and emotional) health can directly impact them?

There may be a follow-up post; there may not be. It’ll depend both on what sort of response (if any) this post received, and how I feel after figuring out where to go from here with my dietary choices.

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