How We Change The World

Smash Patriarchy

Greetings!


It is so nearly spring here in Vermont that the weather changes every day. We are tired of winter–so very tired.

#inktober 25. Tired. Drawn with Note 3 + Sketchbook for Galaxy
When will it ever be spring again?

Apparently, dancers are tired, too–tired of the toxic environments, bullying, and negativity many belly dancers must navigate.

In a recent Facebook post, Yasmina Ramzy, yasminaramzy.comwrote on Facebook of her dismay over these challenges. The post struck a chord, with almost 200 replies from folks who had such experiences, as well as many suggestions for change. The following quote is just a taste of the original.

RAQS SHARQI IS SO BEAUTIFUL, EMPOWERING, HEALING, INSPIRING, SOUL-ENRICHING AND FULL OF JOY.
And yet ….

often when I arrive in a new city to teach a workshop, the host picks me up at the airport and at some point we share a meal and then the host breaks down crying while she asks what to do about feeling bullied by the BD community Or….

the out-of-town students in Pro Course who book a private and within 10 minutes they are in tears asking me how to cope with being bullied by other Bellydancers . Or….

the 2am phonecalls, I receive from across North America from past students in tears who can not cope with troupe members or students being nasty to her or to each other
Or….or….or….

-Yasmina Ramzy

She listed many more such experiences and and asked what folks thought would help. I have a lot of thoughts about this, so I posted a response–which garnered a hundred likes, loves, etc, and 25 comments of its own. Wow! I saw that people are interested in this topic, so I decided to share it with you. Here it is. (I have edited it a little bit ; )

I have also heard the stories and been thinking about this.

I notice several elements in play.

1. We in the west have made this dance over in our own likeness 
-as a primarily performance art rather than a social dance 
-as a venue for stylization, choreography, and competitive perfectionism, rather than a playful dance of joy
-as a taking rather than a giving

2. We have all been damaged by internalized sexism and patriarchy. In some folks this results in victimizing, shaming, and blaming (do unto others), and in others, in ongoing vulnerability to victimization.

-this is part of our dual addiction to perfectionism and self loathing, both of which, I think, are connected to the unresolved chronic stress of being women in this society. It is even worse for minorities of any kind, who get double doses of daily meanness.

3. Everyone is angry. Turf wars in a saturated market place, scarcity mentality, Internet anonymity’s decimation of decent manners, and the legitimate rage felt by those who have gotten the short end of the minority stick all conspire into a time of unprecedented bullying from every angle.

How do we heal our troubled dance world?

The fact is, we can only change ourselves. But we are leaders. Leaders go first. They show the way. So where we go, others will follow. That being said… one person can have a BIG impact.

A. Bring the dance back to its roots.

Value improvisation, with all its impermanence and messiness. Value live improvised music of the culture. Value social dance, playfulness, and joy. Dance is supposed to be fun!

B. Prioritize dancer agency.

This is a core strength of our dance. Empower student confidence. Engage students in the creative process. We do not need little dance automatons who are only concerned with following orders and how they look. We want our dancers to have something to say. Dance is communication, self-expression. Teach dancers to find their own true dance.

C. Focus on how the dance *feels.*

Patriarchy wants us to focus on our looks, our sexual attractiveness. It wants us to always be seeking approval. It undermines our felt reality. It’s time to take back our pleasure in movement. 

Oriental dance is about expressing our feeling from the music, emotional, yes, but also the deliciousness of the physical action of dance. This dance feels good to the body. 

When we improvise, we let the body respond to the music as it wishes. As such, the dance becomes a healing, stress releasing, and deeply spiritual practice. We have enough problems in life. Dance is for joy. 

D. PLEASE DO NOT FEED THE TROLLS.

We get what we pay attention to. Its time to let the haters go.

-Someone is a jerk? Unfollow them. Don’t go to their classes or events. 

-Don’t bitch in class about anything–dance class is joy time. I don’t care how hard it is to to get respect, make a living, etc. Don’t put that on your students (or your classmates). You don’t want their pity. You want their enthusiasm.

-Find compassionate, generous dance folks and back them–especially teachers of the culture. 

-Check your privilege. Most belly dancers are white women. For folk of other colors, sexual orientation, abilities, low socioeconomic status, etc, life is so much harder than we can ever imagine. Remember this.

-Take steps to be fair and kind, to provide safe spaces for your students. It’s okay to fire bitchy, troublesome students. Make your classroom a bubble of joy. 

We may only be able to change ourselves, but we can build a nurturing creative oasis, and welcome others inside. The ripples spread, ever outward…

We heal the world, one undulation at a time.

###

We bring joy. That’s our job Let’s do it.

Love,
Alia

PS If this resonates with you, you might enjoy the book Midnight at the Crossroads: has belly dance sold its soul? http://aliathabit.com/bellydancesoul.com

PS Want something to do?

(if any links don’t work properly, please copy and paste)

Everyone!

Ziltastic: Fast, fun, finger cymbal Improvisation and
Embodiment: musicality for Oriental Dance
are now open at https://alia.teachable.com
Build skills and have fun with well-designed e-courses!

Tonight, April 11: Ranya Renee has been curating a wonderful series of free livestream interviews on colorism in the dance world. Her guest tonight is Aaliyah Jenny, a marvelous performer and stellar human being. Join Ranya’s FB group to get access: https://facebook.com/groups/gingercity
More info: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10161733456885327&set=a.10151026251745327&type=3&theater/

New England Live!

Sunday, April 14: Lebanese male dancer Victor “Sharif” Ziter performs at the Cairo Cabaret in Chicopee MA. If you want to see a man dance, this is it. https://www.facebook.com/events/1259294750904527/

Saturday, May 18th: Boston area folks–Soumaya MaRose’s 7th “Thé à l’Oriental” with Tamalyn Dallal and Amar Gamal Garcia, and features a traditional Moroccan Iftar fest. Soumaya is a brilliant Moroccan Oriental dancer, and she does things right. This is a do-not-miss if you are in the area.

Saturday-Sunday, June 8-9: Cassandra Shore in midcoast Maine. Cassandra is exceptional. I can only remember one time she was in New England–and that was decades ago. Not to be missed! It’s hosted by Kay Hardy Campbell, so you know it will be good. https://www.facebook.com/events/1060567260783532/

Sunday, July 14: I’ll be teaching improv and group composition in Northampton MA (and performing that night at Cairo Cab). Space is limited and registration is now open:
https://www.facebook.com/events/2178111372274149/?active_tab=about

Elsewhere Live!

June 5-12: Tamalyn Dallal Weeklong in New Orleans is ALWAYS a treat. https://www.facebook.com/events/208356106754704/

What is belly dance part III

What is belly dance? Part III

Read Part I here

Read part II here

appropiration2Of course, there are specific folkloric dances that have nothing to do with belly dance—no one is arguing about that. But there are others that have been adopted. They are not belly dance as such (Sa’idi stick dance, for example, or Turkish Romani dance), but they are here to stay in our repertoire. So “belly dance,” (a made-up name to begin with), is already inclusive of many fusion elements. Then there are the various forms of “Tribal” dance, from Jamila Salimpour’s Bal Anat through tribal fusion, a host of ethnic and other fusions, and all the theatrical approaches. It’s a mishmash. What do we do with all of these? What do we call them?

I am loathe to kick anyone off the belly dance bus. I have concerns about some things, and will explore them as we go along, never fear. But as we come to understand the soul of the dance, misconceptions fall away. There are qualities of the dance that underlie everything else, and these are where we want to put our focus. The rest is window dressing.

To me, the vital elements of the dance are

  • improvisation to improvised (preferably live) music
  • the foundation movement vocabulary, with micro-movement
  • an inseparable connection Oriental music and its the values and qualities, including  the importance of the feeling in the moment.

I will return to these elements often. This dance is not only as an ancient, beautiful art form. It also has healing, spiritual properties, and is a legitimate mind-body practice that equals yoga, tai-chi, and sitting meditation in its effectiveness and power. Really? Yes.

Sparkly little belly dance has immense power. People are drawn to it because they sense this, though they may not know how to access it. Once they come to a class, they are usually taught a sterilized version: stylized, choreographed, counted, body-control to recorded music. This is not the dance they were looking for. But it is all they see, so okay. Well, it’s not okay with me. I am here to explode this view of the dance. I am here to shine a light on the magic and mystery of our dance.

We are drawn to this dance because we feel something from it. It is real. It is there. The dance waits for you, a hidden seed trembling with life, ready to blossom in your heart and soul. It is beautiful and free and loving–and so are you.

Part IV coming next week…

What is Belly Dance II

Last time, we looked at belly dance in the wild, as a natural culturally-formed expression of the music. This week, let’s look at it a bit further afield. We closed last week with,

You would think “what is belly dance” would be pretty obvious—you see the people dancing, the hip drops, shimmies, and undulations—and there it is. But you would be wrong about that.

The definition of belly dance is surprisingly contentious. Read Part I here

 

Let’s remember belly dance is a made up term. It was the most salacious possible English translation of the French term “danse du ventre” (dance of the stomach). The Danse du Ventre was a specialty dance done by Algerian Ouled Nil dancers in which they used their stomach muscles to move a silver chain belt belt up and down the abdomen. Is that belly dance? What is belly dance as we have come to know it?

Belly dance, in its home countries, is literally the dance without a name (Tamalyn Dallal is currently making a film with this title. I can’t wait!). It is so ubiquitous that it in Arabic it is just called “dance,” unlike most of the other folk dances which have specific names. It is the homestyle dance of millions of women (and men) in Cairo, Egypt, and many more millions in many places around the globe. It is a dance which elicits passionate attachment.

Dr. Najwa Adra wrote an excellent article, “Belly Dance: an Urban Folk Genre.” She opens her (multi-page) description with, “Traditional belly dance is an improvised genre, led my music that may also be improvised.” She goes on to describe the isolations, shimmies, modest footwork and so forth. You can read her excellent article in the anthology, “Orientalism, Transnationalism, and Harem Fantasy,” or on Dr. Adra’s website, http://NajwaAdra.com.

Adra observes is that the dance’s function is primarily that of play. It is done for fun. Since most of the millions (possibly billions) of people (mostly women) who belly dance are not professional and never plan to be, this takes on a lot of importance. In the west, the dance has been pointed relentlessly in the direction of performance, specifically at the pretty girl in the costume. We will take a hard look at the ramifications of this perspective in the book, but for now, let’s go on.

If it is a folk dance, why do some folks exclude raqs baladi (the folk form), from belly dance? Yes, there are many who see belly dance as only the stage version of the dance, aka raqs sharqi. (I don’t care for this term because it is Arabic, and so excludes Turkish Oryantal Dans as well as Greek tsiftetelli and stage styles). Usually the same people also exclude tribal, fusions, and so forth. Many exclude veil, too, and a host of movements that have become part of the dance over the last 100 or so years.

Many things were not traditional a hundred years ago, but they are now–some for better and some for worse. So let’s look further. If you dance to Abdel Wahab, who brought in non-traditional instruments, are you not belly dancing, because those instruments represent experimental fusion? More importantly, are you not belly dancing because Abdel Wahab had the musicians learn set pieces? Improvisation, heterophony and playing from the heart are the hallmarks of Oriental music (I use this term to include all the areas of this music and dance not just the Arabic). If Wahab had his orchestra play the music as written, is it authentic? You could easily say no.

What is a belly dancer to do?
Part III is here

 

An excerpt from the upcoming book, Midnight at the Crossroads: Has belly dance sold its soul?

What is belly dance? (and why is that a question?)

What is belly dance? (and why is that a question?)

Back in the early 70’s, when I was a baby dancer, I worked as a figure model for art classes, mostly at the Brooklyn Museum art school (sadly, long gone), and at Pratt Institute. There was one prof at Pratt whom I liked a lot, and I worked often for his classes. In addition to regular still poses, each semester we ran through a sequence of sessions for his Illustration class as he taught them to draw objects in motion. For the capstone of the series, I brought my dance gear to class, put on belly dance music, and danced in full costume while the class frantically sketched. It was a lot of fun.

One day during this class, a dark-haired student burst into the room. He took in the scene–the madly sketching students, the glittery dancer, the white-haired, bearded prof–and demanded, “Who is playing this music?”
I am, I said.
“This is John Berberian!” he said.
Um, yeah. Yes, it is.

I wondered if he were going to yell at me for dancing to this music. Instead, it turned out the kid was Armenian (as is John Berberian). He told me John was about to perform at an upcoming Armenian church supper. The kid eagerly invited me to the supper, because anyone who loved John Berberian was family. I loved John Berberian, so of course I went. My mother, who had introduced me to John’s music, also loved him–so off we went.

The church was packed, and food was everywhere (it was just like the Arabic food I was used to, and it was delish). My Mom and I were both kind of shy, but the kid from school soon saw us, thanked us for coming, and found us seats. Everyone made us feel welcome, even though we didn’t know anyone. My Mom and I sat in a happy daze with the food and the swirl of activity all around us. Soon it was time for the concert. Or so I thought.

When Berberian and his band took the stage—everyone jumped up to dance. The floor was awash with ecstatic people of every age and size boogieing down in in every way, shape, and form. As I watched, it slowly dawned on me—these people were all belly dancing!

Now, I am Levantine on my father’s side, but no one in my family danced. I had already been taking belly dance classes with Ibrahim Farrah, Jajouka, and Elena Lentini for a couple of years. I could dance—but I had never seen belly dance “in the wild,” so to speak. These folks danced alone, in groups, as couples—and all the things I had learned in class were their natural expressions of the music: hip drops, shimmies, undulations—the works. It was belly dance in its natural environment.  It was a revelation.

I didn’t dance that night—I just watched (I also bought John’s new album, which he autographed—I still have it ; ). But I learned a lot—and I never forgot.

You would think “what is belly dance” would be pretty obvious—you see the people dancing, the hip drops and undulations—and there it is. But you would be wrong about that.

The definition of belly dance is surprisingly contentious. In our next post, we’ll take a look at the history of the term, and what it has come to define.

An excerpt from the upcoming book, Midnight at the Crossroads: Has belly dance sold its soul?

Read part II here

Why we dance—the secret surprise (and how to find it)

Those little voices....
Those little voices….

You know those little voices that always rag on us to just quit and be done with it?  That we will never amount to anything? What does that even mean? Like we will not be world-class famous dancers with tons of money and fame? Why is that the benchmark of success in our dance?

Few of us dance solely for adulation or money. It’s awesome that dance gives us those things, but the dance is deeper than this. It’s the connection to the music we crave—the sense of oneness that we value. Yet all the emphasis is on the pretty girl on stage in a costume.

Most people who do this dance do not teach or perform. They dance with friends at home or at parties. Why would they do that? Dance around the house and play music, women of all ages. A dance of joy. What does that really mean?

This dance has power. We know this. And not all of it in the venue of performance. That in some ways is the smallest of it attributes. Because it is a dance of joy, that is why its performances have power—they bring joy, both to viewers and dancers. That is also why it is so popular offstage as well. Doing or viewing this dance lifts one’s mood. Joy is there for all of us.

I sometimes hear disdain for the “hobbyists.” You know, the ones who take classes, fill workshops, and pay the bills The ones with relatively normal lives who just want to dance and have fun. Because we all should be serious dancers who work hard.

Well, surprise. Maybe the hobbyists have the right idea. I’m all for performance. I am a performer. I love it. Many of us do. I love teaching. I’m good at it. So I get it. I’m not suggesting anyone stop. People feel called to open studios, develop professional companies, dance at birthday parties; I say YES to all of it. But this dance is a folk dance, done by folks, in their homes. And that is a legitimate, honorable relationship with the dance.

What if we stop beating ourselves up for notgoing anywhere” with our dance? Think of all the people who do yoga, or tai chi. They don’t look to be performers. Few even look to be teachers. Most of them just go to class, a workshop, a retreat. The activity is part of their life. It gives them physical and emotional benefits. Maybe a community. And they enjoy it.

The same with dance

The physical interaction with the music is pleasurable in and of itself. And the more in sync we get the better and more beautiful and delicious it feels. Think how lovely our 20 minutes could be if we focused on the sensuality of the moves and their relationship with the music. Right there is a good reason for pursuing mastery. For the pleasure of the activity all by itself. On our own or with friends.

That sounds radical, doesn’t it? Most of us don’t move for the enjoyment of it. We practice to get better. We work. What if we enjoyed ourselves instead?

Something to think about…

Love,

Alia

PS With the encouragement of my friend Mackay Rippey, of Lyme Ninja Radio, I’ll teach a free 4-week web series this fall called Belly Dance Foundation Flow–an exploration of belly dance movement for healing and joy. It will be a lovely, rich experience.

Update: Mackay and I recorded an interview for his podcast;; the web series followed. It is all archived–you can get the recordings here. This is a totally free series. All are welcome.

Music: Fun African mix: https://soundcloud.com/snyk-dk/ud-og-samle-svampe-i-afrika

Why belly dance is like Rodney Dangerfield

Here’s another excerpt from Midnight at the Crossroads!

 

Why belly dance is like Rodney Dangerfield

Rodney Dangerfield, the garrulous, pop-eyed comedian from the 80s, couldn’t get no respect, and neither can belly dance. Because of its outré associations with burlesque, stripping, and other louche pastimes, because it looks so easy and doesn’t conform to Western values, how can it possibly be an legitimate art? And those costumes! So much skin! So many spangles! Tacky, tacky, tacky. No self respecting ARTIST would whore herself out in a getup like that. They’re practically naked!

What. Ever. 

That costume came from the West

Big surprise, right? Western guys come to East, see beautiful dancing girls, want less clothes, wave big bills, get less clothes. Those guys had previously been to India and seen dancers in cholis. So they wanted more. They wanted naked, and they got that, too, but that’s another story. In addition to the client pressure, the folks in the East watched those films coming out of Hollywood. Intolerance, Son of the Sheik. Two-piece costumes. Give the customer what they want. And so what has become the de rigueur belly dance drag was born.

This did not help the reputation of the dance. At all. Anywhere. But there it is, and now people expect it. In Egypt, dancers will often do their first set in a two-piece costume (known in Arabic as bedlah which translates to suit or uniform), and then change into a more traditional dress for their second set.

The Victorian Hangover

Okay, so the West dictated the change in outfit, and then condemned the dancers for wearing it. Nice. Some of this is simple snobbery. But a lot of it is simple prudery. We’ve also seen how the dance was marketed upon its entry to the West, the spin-offs that thronged the vaudeville and burlesque circuits, and the generally risqué content of the burlesque shows in particular. The moving female body has long been associated with threatening sexuality. Women should be placid and prone. Dancers shaking their flesh on a stage are neither. Guilt by association has clouded the establishment view of the dance ever since.

Yasmina and the Bedouin Bullseye 

Yasmina Ramzy tells the story of trying to get her highly trained, super professional belly dance company into a prestigious Toronto dance festival. Year after year, she was rejected. Those costumes. That movement. Anything that fun couldn’t possibly be serious ART. One year, with no time to prepare, she threw together a simple folkloric choreography and draped her dancers in plain black Bedouin robes. Immediate acceptance. Accolades through the roof! Suddenly Yasmina had cachet, she was in the club. And just as suddenly, no one minded the glitzy bedlahs in which her company usually performed. They were now welcomed with open arms. One city down, a thousand to go.

 Who’s laughing now?

The really funny part of this is that it’s all come full circle.

  1. Plenty of dance genres wear much more revealing costumes than belly dancers (cheerleaders, for example. Hip-hop. And plenty of modern dancers. I’ve seen naked modern dance).
  2. Fitness classes routinely feature bare midriffs and shorts. Zumba has even stolen our hip scarves.
  3. Have you seen ballroom costumes lately? My goodness! Way less fabric, and just as much bling, if not more. Especially for the Latin divisions.

Yet these are perfectly legitimate, and belly dance is not. Why?