Sunday, March 25, 2012

Belly Dance Fusion Confusion

 Bozenka of Belly Dance Superstars

I am disturbed by the deterioration of the art of belly dance that I have been seeing for some time in this country. Yesterday I attended the Belly Flea Agora in Toledo, hosted by Aegela. My troupe performed our new number, and there were lots of great things at the bazaar to see and buy. It is always a fun event, and I love spending time with the larger belly dance community. Perhaps I was especially alert to the type of dancing going on this year due to having a new troupe member participating in her first performance with us. I was terribly afraid that what she saw would give her a really wrong impression of this dance form.

The problem wasn't bad belly dancing. I applaud any woman who has the guts to get up in front of an audience and do her best to represent the dance. My issue is with what I will call fusion confusion. It must first be understood that belly dance is the American name for the cultural dances of the peoples of the Middle East, Near East, and North Africa. Specifically, there are three main branches--Egyptian, Lebanese/Syrian, and Turkish. Other variations come from one of these three basic styles. And of course there are styles particular to the various tribes and regions within each, such as the Saidi and Ghawazee of Egypt.

Raqs Sharqi is the modern form of Egyptian belly dance that is often called "Cabaret". It developed in the 1920s in the nightclubs of Cairo, basically taking the folkloric, social dance of the people and polishing it up for the stage, incorporating some elements of ballet and jazz. Costuming was borrowed from American fantasy, a bra and bedlah (belt) of heavy beading and sequins, with a filmy chiffon skirt, and sometimes adding high heeled shoes. This was the first fusion of belly dance, but it did not stray in its use of classical Egyptian music and movement. It was merely glamorized for professional dancers and movies.

 Egyptian film dancer Taheya Carioka

When belly dance became popular in America, there weren't many teachers of authentic technique available. The "Oriental" dancers (belly dance is danse orientale in French), as they were called, showcased the various styles of their country and region of origin, and Americans could not differentiate between, say, Egyptian and Lebanese style. So American dancers approximated the movements as well as they could, learning from the variety of dancers coming through the clubs and mixing the styles together. This became the next genre, American Cabaret, also called Vintage Oriental or American Restaurant style belly dance. Eventually some American dancers figured out that they needed better training and traveled to Egypt and other countries where belly dance originates and learned specific styles of this art form. Today, especially with video technology and many classes and workshops being offered all over the country, there is little reason why anyone would not be able to find a good teacher and learn an authentic form of this cultural dance.

But therein lies the problem. It seems that many enthusiastic, well meaning teachers and dancers are not aware that what they have learned is not authentic. They don't seem to understand, or perhaps care about, the roots of this beautiful dance. In the name of creative license and self-expression, they have distorted the dance into a circus act of anything goes.

Some of the trouble seems to have started following the development of American Tribal Style (ATS) in the San Francisco Bay area. A highly creative dancer named Carolena Nericcio, whose teacher had been Masha Archer (a student of Jamila Salimpour, celebrated founder of the troupe Bal Anat), developed an improvisational, lead-and-follow format using a system of cues and transitions. ATS is based upon a combination of elements, with certain aesthetic modifications, of dances from the Middle East, North Africa, India, and Spain (primarily Flamenco), claiming to be heavy with Gypsy roots. I have previously discussed in "Belly Dance Conversion Story" why ATS is not considered by some seasoned dancers to be a true fusion.  The reason is basically that there must be a mastery of the individual components before combining them into a fusion, whereas with ATS the dance is learned with the various styles already combined.

Still, troupes such as Fat Chance Belly Dance and Gypsy Caravan (whose founder, Paulette Rees-Denis, designates as simply "Tribal" rather than ATS) use music with Middle Eastern rhythms, although in a simplified form so as to allow for the lead-and-follow (like a flock of geese) aspect. With ATS and related forms of Tribal, the roots and spirit of the cultural dances are recognizably preserved as a sub-genre of American belly dance. As with any form of dance, done well, it can be lovely, especially in its simple elegance. At any rate, the founder of ATS never claimed a purity of authenticity. Carolena created her own brand of belly dance.

 Carolena of Fat Chance Belly Dance

Of course, poor education is not limited to the Tribal camp of dancers, and I don't mean to imply that it is Carolena's fault that belly dance ended up spinning left of center. The unfortunate trail is that from ATS "Tribal Fusion" developed, and the variations have been endless, the result often being an almost complete breaking away from the roots, not only of belly dance, but even of the Tribal form! In these concoctions there is very little evidence of belly dance, Tribal or otherwise, except in the costuming, but even here the style of dress may contain nothing of a traditional nature. Tribal belly dance costuming typically attempts a folkloric/gypsy look, incorporating various pieces from different tribes of people. But the current trend in some circles of Tribal Fusion is that the totality of costuming, music, and articulation of movement used can no longer be considered belly dance at  all.

My admonition is simply this: Be as creative, theatrical, and interpretive in your expression as you would like. Just don't call it belly dance if it isn't belly dance!  For example, if you want to wear gothic costuming with metal spikes while dancing to Nine Inch Nails and moving like a vampire closing in for the kill, do not call this belly dance. It is misleading to anyone watching you, regardless of the fact that you do some hip circles and chest slides here and there. Same goes for hip hop and breakdancing influences, or Burlesque inspiration in which the dancer seems to be asking for a spanking! This is all insulting and disrespectful to the peoples to whom belly dancing traditionally belongs. Perhaps a safer label for much of what is presented in such ways is "interpretive dance."

 Gothic Dancer Tempest

Yesterday at the Flea Agora there was blue grass type music, Johnny Cash's "Walk the Line", and that "Hey kids, rock and roll..." song. The music and the dance are married, ladies! Think of it another way: you don't disco dance to Polka music, do you? Before one can fuse anything, one must have mastery of the forms being fused. True freedom comes not by bastardizing this dance, but by innovation within the traditional form (and I do feel that classic ATS or Tribal, as developed by the likes of Carolena and Paulette, can in its own way be included as an authentic variation). There is a circle within which to express oneself artistically. Learn an authentic form, and learn it well. Then you will have earned the right to change it up in your own, signature style. As a side note, American Vintage Oriental style seems to be making a come back, after it had been feared to be a dying art. A blend of traditional forms, it is an important part of belly dance history well worth preserving.

Thank heavens Aegela herself performed toward the end of the show. I could barely contain my happiness at seeing this master of Egyptian dance do her thing. "That's how it is done!" I said to my new student performer. "That is real belly dance."  My student loved the Tribal costuming, and the articulation of movement particular to Tribal, and that is fine. I just want, for her and for all aspiring belly dancers, to really get to the heart and soul of this treasure of the Near and Middle East and North Africa, and to keep in mind that the Gypsies, more appropriately called Romany, had thousands of years to create their fusion. They are true masters. In an era of instant gratification, one must practice humility and restraint. Belly dance takes years to learn. Take the time if you want to be a dancer rather than a poor imitation. Let's stop sending in the clowns.

 Gypsy from the 1900s