Cultural Appropriation Vs. Borrowing in Belly Dance (Part 2)

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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  1. Michelle’s avatar

    One awesome thing that’s come out of that Salon article is that this is something we’re talking about. There are many aspects I hadn’t even thought about before. I’m learning so much.

    The biggest thing I want to get out of this, is if I unintentionally do offend someone, what do I do about it? Or, what can I do to prevent offending someone? Your list is good.

    One thing that surprises me is the lack of concrete examples. Can you tell me in belly dance if there’s one thing you should never do? I can come up with one on my own, to never dance to a call to prayer, but that seems obvious. But are there certain things that I shouldn’t be doing?

    This is what I’m finding as the inherent problem with priveledge: Ignorant ignorance. I’m privledged enough that, how do I know when I do something wrong? I want someone to say to me, “This is what you’re doing that offends me, and this is why.” And I want to be able to respond, “I’m so sorry, I won’t do that again.” But in regards to the Salon article, the answer is to stop belly dancing, and I don’t want to stop that. So now what? I find myself wanting to compromise with her somehow, like, “I won’t stop dancing, but I will…” But I can’t finish that sentence. Her feelings are justified, and I’m happy to see a good number of response articles address that, but I still long to make her, and others who share her feelings, feel better. How? (I realize, there’s probably not an answer to this.)

    On an entirely different note, in regards to the “harem girl” fantasy part of belly dancing… When I was little, a belly dancer was hired for my step-grandfather’s birthday. I was put in the other room to play, just like when a stripper was hired for a bachelorette party. Afterwards, my mom admitted that I could’ve watched her, that she was nothing like a stripper. That’s always in my mind when I dance, that the more people that are exposed to belly dancing, the more they learn that it’s a beautiful art form. In that regard, I would think the more people dance, the more public, the better.

  2. jeana’s avatar

    You raise some great questions, Michelle. I wish I had all the answers for you, but I doubt anyone does. I do have some suggestions, though.

    Some things you can fill in the “I won’t stop dancing, but I will…” sentence with include:
    *research my music, especially if its lyrics are not in English, to figure out if it’s appropriate to belly dance to
    *use every performance as an opportunity to educate my audience, even just a little, about the cultural context(s) of belly dance
    *be open to questions and critique in case I am unintentionally doing something offensive (this one gets tricky, though, because one person’s I’m-so-offended-by-this is another person’s meh, whatever)

    Your anecdote is really interesting. One of the things I find so transformative and powerful about belly dance is that it showcases women’s bodies in public and celebrates those bodies for being whatever they are. I don’t think there are a lot of Western dance forms that do that. I am SO ADAMANT about bringing belly dance to the public in large part because I think it is a wonderful way to show people that all kinds of bodies are acceptable and can be aesthetically pleasing and beautifully adorned while in motion, in a way that is not “dirty” or sexual but rather playful and confidence-building. I make sure to emphasize that belly dance is family-friendly, and that, pound by pound, I am usually wearing more clothing than anyone in the audience, even if my belly is showing. Contemporary American culture has such a hate-on for women’s flesh, or women’s bodies that are not properly contained or controlled, that I think it’s really important to counter that harmful rhetoric with public displays of all kinds of bodies made beautiful by dancing.

  3. Marvin’s avatar

    Hi there, I am a male bodied individual and I just started belly dancing. It’s a tricky subject appropriation; I find it tricky because now I feel not only am I appropriating a culture, but also imposing myself as a male in a mostly female practice. It is something I enjoy though, and since the age of four when I started dancing on my own at home the hip circle is the first move I ever did. I don’t know where it came from but I was a hip circle master so I went with it. Now 20 years later I’m trying to refine the movement and I find it exciting. I also struggle with the music aspect when the words are in Arabic or another language, but hey I figure if the CD says Belly Dance music by Egyptian musicians I’m ok? In college this topic came up a lot but I came to realize that dance in particular is for everyone, everybody has a body and its their right to move how they please….but not to mock or belittle like minstrel shows, which brings me to my next point costumes. I think that for example if the people who did black face danced without it, now they wouldn’t be viewed so horribly.
    Why because well without blackface it would just be movement, kind of like other dance styles appropriated by westerners. Does this make sense? I don’t know….I wouldn’t want to don a costume and offend anyone which is tricky but eventually will have to face when the time comes, among other issues…

  4. jeana’s avatar

    Thanks for your response! There are plenty of male belly dancers out there, so maybe you could look to some of them as role models (I’m a fan of John Compton, and Valizan, myself). And, if you’re worried about offending someone: research, research, research. Go for the secular, popularized traditions over ones that are more obscure or sacred. Look for the movement and costume styles that it’s okay for people in any social group to do. Those are likeliest to be the safe ones. Acknowledge that you might be wrong at some point… and be willing to apologize, back off, and find a new direction to explore. When it comes to culture, the possibilities for fusion and recombination are endless, so if you’re barking up the wrong tree, there are plenty more out there. Good luck!

  5. Matt’s avatar

    It’s a little late (since this article is a year old) But I’m also a male new to tribal belly dance, and wanting to be politically aware and correct. It’s interesting that you write about one of the signs of appropriation being taking something from a religious context into a secular one. When groups are “fusing” from different sources into, as you say, a new urban tribe, how careful should we be to avoid religious elements?

    For example, so many tribal belly dancers I’ve seen wear bindis. Sacred. How about a group that incorporated tibetian bells tingsha, and singing bowls into their dancing? Sacred. How about even classical Indian dance mudras or even bollywood steps, many of which are from sacred forms of dance like kathak?

    Does the fact the popular culture, yoga studios, and bollywood films “secularized” these things BEFORE we got to them make a difference? Is there a difference between doing a sacred dance step which was brought into a secular context by Indians and commercialized in the film industry, but has sacred origins, and wearing a bindi, which was brought a secular context by the cultural appropriation of other westerners long before tribal dancers wore them?

    Just my thoughts for the day.

  6. jeana’s avatar

    Thanks for your comment! I understand the desire to be politically aware and correct; however, as you point out, this can come into conflict with one’s creative impulses.

    In my understanding, bindis are integrated into both sacred and secular contexts in India. Bollywood stars wear them, but so do adorned statues of deities during holy festivals. Dancers depicting goddesses wear them, but they’re also a symbol of married status for women. So… it’s kinda a mixed bag. My feeling is that if bindis ONLY appeared in sacred contexts pre-Western-contact and then we swooped in and started wearing them in secular contexts, that’d be viciously appropriative and indicative of the larger power imbalance.

    I don’t think there are any easy answers here, but the more knowledge, research, and awareness we can bring with us into this thicket, the better.

  7. Chrissy’s avatar

    I am just now stumbling across this article and I’m very glad I did. I’m still in a bit of a quandary. First, my background is in classical ballet. I was instructed that and many other forms including Polynesian dance for 3 years with an instructor from the Tahiti. In my college dance company, where I finished up my dance career as part of my scholarship, three of my peers were in differentry belly dancing troupes and two of them performed consistently at a Medival Fantasy faire with their troupes as part of a a Wonders of the World theme that happens every few weekends. They often invited me to go too since I have some basic training from videos and them as well. But I had no proper costume and I didn’t want to underperform in front of a public audience. Fast forward several years and multiple medival fantasy fairs in fantasy outfits. I came across a proper outfit at a dance supply shop that was closing and was able to get a properly beaded top, flow skirt like pants and a belt at their clearance price. I know one of the girls I used to dance with has totally given up belly dancing as she believes she is a cultural insensitive perpatrator. The other two I lost contact with. My dillema is that at this several weekend event I have seen both appropriate and conversely, tacky culturally unappropriate belly dancer outfits worn by the festival goers and performers. Since I have a good knowledge of the belly dancing art, is it ok for myself, privelleged white girl, to go to a fantasy fair in a basic but actual belly dancing costume? Am I overthinking thia or being intellegent? Thank you for your input!

  8. jeana’s avatar

    Thanks for your comment! I believe that in cases where it’s already a cultural production that veers into the fantastic, there’s perhaps less harm being done than in events that purport to realistically represent other cultures. But then, every situation’s different. I suspect that if you’re attempting to educate yourself about the historical context of Middle Eastern dance, and it’s not like you stole the gig from non-white folks who were doing dances and costuming that did relate more to existing cultures, then you’re not making a choice that actively participates in the oppression of others. But it’s definitely good to be aware of the power dynamic that you are participating in by engaging in a representation of a dance form that did not originate in the West. Good luck!

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