Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Belly Dance Evolution Confusion

I want to continue the discussion of belly dance fusion confusion begun in my previous post. Inevitably, the reasoning in many an article and comment I have read is that belly dance is a living, evolving art form, so questions of authentic representation are moot. I agree that certainly over the thousands of years that belly dance has existed there have been gradual changes, modifications, and creative expressions that have evolved over time. We don't have youtube videos from ancient Egypt, only paintings on the walls of temples and tombs. So we can only guess, right? So whatever one wants to do with the dance is okay, yes? No.

Now, I am not a "purist". That is, I don't think you need to travel to Egypt and live with the Saidi people to learn to belly dance, using only Saidi music and wearing the traditional dress. Some Saidi styling can be incorporated while wearing a bra and bedlah and dancing to modern Egyptian music. But think how odd it would be, if you know anything about Saidi, to do that folkloric dance to industrial, gothic music while wearing a corset and ruffled skirt. Costuming is not really my biggest area of concern, but you get the picture. In case you don't...

There is nothing necessarily wrong with this look, but it would be an insult to the Saidi to do a traditional cane dance to moody, gothic music wearing something like this. As I said before, the music and the dance are married, and the costuming should reflect the general dance style. As Bahaia said at Island of Isis a few years ago, if you do not like Egyptian music (or Turkish, Lebanese, etc...), you need to ask yourself why, and that maybe this isn't the dance for you. She mentioned that there is a lot of fusion music available using Middle Eastern rhythms and instruments that would perhaps work if one does not prefer the traditional, classic styles. There is also Middle Eastern pop music. Bahaia added that she feels there is too much division between the two camps of "cabaret" and "tribal" belly dance, especially since both have their roots in the Golden Era of Egypt from the 1930s to the 1970s.

That brings me to my next topic, in regard to these two camps. Jamila Salimpour's troupe, Bal Anat, performed at Renaissance fairs in the 1960s, making popular a folkloric inspired look in opposition to the sparkly beads and sequins that were popular in the night clubs at that time. She developed a chorus line format in which individual dancers or small groups would take turns coming out from the group to showcase their individuality. Dancing with snakes was common. Some dancers prefer the covered up, earthy look of Tribal, which originated with Bal Anat. And some think cabaret dance is too flirtatious, and it's just not their style. I would argue that you can dress modestly doing any form of belly dance, and that you can embody the music in a way that reflects your personality, whether you are shy, bubbly, outgoing, funny, loving, ethereal, intense, or fierce. Besides, don't we women have many, many moods? That's what makes us so glorious!

Bal Anat

Jamila was married to a Persian man, and they owned a Middle Eastern night club, where she was self-taught by observing the dancers from various countries who came through. As I explained before, Americans approximated the movements as well as they could. Jamila is a well-respected innovator in the belly dance community. Carolena Nericcio, founder of ATS (American Tribal Style) and Fat Chance Belly Dance, learned from a former student of Jamila. Carolena's format is based upon Bal Anat's chorus line idea, but her technique is her own creation, and the element of improvisational leading and following was added. Carolena is regarded highly in the Tribal world.

Because ATS has the look and feel of a folkloric dance, it is thought by some to be a more authentic representation of what belly dance might have been like in ancient times. Tribal belly dance is often explained as a modern Gypsy styling, taking what one encounters along the way and "fusing" it together. This is not actually the case. It is an amalgamation of dance inspired by the folkloric forms of various tribes of the Near and Middle East, North Africa, India, and Spanish flamenco. If you have ever seen true Gypsy dance, such as Turkish Rom, which is always done to a 9/8 rhythm, you will recognize nothing similar to ATS, except for dancing in a circle. That being said, the Gypsy spirit certainly lives on in the Tribal belly dance world.

The authenticity issue is not one of tribal vs. cabaret. I have never even heard an Egyptian style dancer refer to what she does as "cabaret." This is a generic term used in America and other countries to refer to belly dance that is not folkloric or tribal. The Egyptian term for what is referred to as cabaret is actually Raqs Sharqi. Raqs Sharqi evolved from the Baladi (meaning "of the country"), the social dance of rural Egypt, which was brought to the urban areas during the Industrial Revolution. In the 1920s the Baladi was polished up for professional night club performances, and Raqs Sharqi was born. The Baladi is the mother of modern Egyptian belly dance. 

ATS/Tribal may be understood as a sub-genre of American belly dance, considering its roots in Bal Anat (which was dubbed in its heyday as "California Tribal"); or it can be considered its own thing, a separate style of belly dance created by Carolena Nericcio. There is nothing wrong with Tribal as long as it is presented as an American representation inspired by the ethnic dances of a wide range of peoples, incorporating various movements and aesthetic elements, rather than as a pure form of Middle Eastern dance.

A more recent development is a partial return to cabaret styling by tribal dancers who want the "best of both worlds" and incorporate elements, in costuming and movement, of the two styles. The effect is similar to the blending of various Middle Eastern styles into American belly dance in the 1970s, with a Tribal flair. Therefore, Tribaret is considered by some to be the "new classic" in American belly dance. The best example of Tribaret I know is Carrie Konyha, who also incorporates Gypsy styling into some of her dances.

Zoe Jakes

The problem of the degeneration of belly dance occurs with the proliferation of "fusion" which is not true fusion, whether it is classified as tribal, cabaret, or other. There is in many cases no blending together of two or more different styles that a dancer has mastered through years of study and incorporated into a cohesive whole. Tribal Fusion has become a catch-all umbrella for anything that contains some element of belly dance, no matter how small, but is not easily classified. And this validation of anything goes is defended in the name of evolution. Let's take a look at the animal world for an analogy here. The elephant of today evolved from the prehistoric wooly mammoth. We can see that while the mammoth's tusks are larger and he has more hair, he is still clearly recognizable as the ancestor of our elephant. The same cannot be said for the difference in the dances of Naima Akef and Zoe Jakes, for example. Birds may be descended from dinosaurs, but a Tyrannosaurus Rex and a robin have very little in common!

wooly mammoth

In conclusion, as Bahaia said, know what you are doing so that you can do what you want. And I would add that if you are going to call your performance or your class belly dance, make sure you have a solid background in a traditional form and that in your creative expression you do not cross the line into a region that is no longer an authentic representation of the cultural dance. I always explain the origins of ATS when I teach in the improvisational Tribal style, which I consider a reasonably authentic form of American belly dance. If you love Tribal, learn it well! Within the realm of Egyptian dance alone, there are already several forms that can be learned and take years to master. There is ample room for your uniqueness to shine. In any case, know where your dance comes from, whether it is tribal, folkloric, gypsy, or cabaret! Make sure your dance has not evolved from a beautiful an ugly duckling.