Cultural Appropriation Vs. Borrowing in Belly Dance (Part 1)

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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  1. Cat’s avatar

    Awesome. I love that you were able to provide links to all the disparate responses I’ve seen on all the various feeds.

  2. Suzanne’s avatar

    Hi Jeana,

    Great job on your response. I’m glad to see that you were inspired to craft a productive discussion out of a destructive article!

    I feel like one of the main problem with the Salon article is the title. It certainly has the shock value needed for someone to click on it, but throughout the article, the author continually defines the dancer she considers “white” – one who creates a fake Arabic-sounding name, fake Arabic-looking makeup and costuming, creating a community and profession around a culture she hasn’t put effort into understanding. To me, the article was mistitled, but perhaps it would’ve been overlooked otherwise.

    I wonder how common the situation she describes really is. Her article makes it seem like we in Indianapolis have more cultural understanding than the rest of the world! Unfortunately, Luxor is Fountain Square is no longer open, but there one could get a more authentic Middle Eastern dance experience. Dancers of all shapes, sizes and races performed in traditional garb, then passed out hipscarves and brought the ladies in the audience up to the stage. We all danced together, dancing in and celebrating each other rather than facing out dancing for the crowd. When I had my rehearsal dinner there, she invited us to dress in one of her costumes for the group dance. But did she put us in the skimpy tops and genie pants Jarrar describes? Hell no! Long robes with a hip scarf, fancier but similar to the one Fifi Abdo wore in the video she posted. That’s the real experience in Egypt. Bellydance is just street dance, social and celebratory. Playing the tabla or finger cymbals are common skills. (I’m not sure if you ever perform Middle Eastern dance, but if you do, I’m sure this is all common knowledge to you.) So perhaps seeing a costumed “white” girl performing bellydance on a stage is trite to her, but geez, is she really dancing on the backs of all Arab women? Her whole “this is our culture, so you can’t celebrate it” attitude is so judgmental, and it obscures all of the valid points contained in the article. A dancer on stage performing is a demonstration of artistic skill, strength and storytelling, whether is ballet or bellydance.

  3. jeana’s avatar

    Margaret: I figured you would dig this! :)

    Cat: Thanks! I was keeping track of all the responses I came across, so that I could provide my own multifaceted response.

    Suzanne: thank you for the thoughtful reply. I have some experience with Middle Eastern dance, though I primarily teach, practice, and perform American fusion forms of it these days (ATS® and tribal fusion), which I’ll address in my follow-up post. I haven’t been in Indy long enough to have visited Luxor, but it sounds like a wonderful place, where dance was celebrated as a social/celebratory dance as it is in many parts of the Middle East.

    Her article also didn’t take into account all the women who perform some style of belly dance but who don’t do it in “Arab drag” in the slightest: performers who use their own, Western names (like Rachel Brice) and who create their own costumes instead of buying them from Egypt, and who dance to Western music. How far does the dance form have to migrate in order to be considered something that has morphed into a new form entirely?

  4. Michelle’s avatar

    Thank you for writing this! I was interested in your perspective, and I can’t wait for part 2!

    As a new dancer, especially since I’m getting ready for my first “real” performance, that Salon article scared me. I’d finally found something I loved, an activity that I can get lost in myself while doing, the perfect balance of thinking about something and taking my mind off of things, and now I’m not allowed to do it because of the color of my skin? I was going to say because I don’t have heritage in the middle east, but I’m an American Mutt (my ancestry includes English, Norman, French, Swiss, German, Russian, Scottish, and more). If I find a middle eastern ancestor, does that mean it’s okay?

    But at the same time, I don’t want to offend anybody. Now, there’s doubt in the back of my mind every time I dance. I know that you can’t just make up a list of dos and don’ts. I’m just coming to grips with cultural appropriation and how it’s a bad thing. I thought I was a pretty moral person, but now I genuinely don’t know if I’m being offensive. I don’t intend to be, but it seems like intention isn’t considered anymore. I want to have that conversation, but I’m not finding it.

    At any rate, that’s why I’m looking forward to Part 2!

  5. jeana’s avatar

    Thanks, Michelle, I’m glad you enjoyed my post!

    Your thoughts on ancestry – like whether discovering you have Middle Eastern ancestry suddenly make it “okay” for you to belly dance – are pretty intriguing. I think it shows just how deterministic and arbitrary it can be to base one’s ability to participate in a cultural activity on race. Shared experience is more important, perhaps?

    I think that so long as you are aware that borrowing another culture’s comes with risks, and so long as you’re willing to admit that you’re wrong and back off, you’ll do fine. I’m sure as a writer you know this, but you’ll always offend someone out there – the key is to listen and figure out if there’s a power differential, or if there’s a lot of someones saying similar stuff.

    Relatedly, here’s a blog post of mine about how intention does not excuse bad behavior: http://mysexprofessor.com/love-and-relationships/communication/when-it-comes-to-sex-or-religion-intent-doesnt-excuse-bad-behavior/

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