How to Give Back to the Dance

Last week, we saw how Kongtrul Rinpoche explained the difference between Hope and Prayer. Rinpoche did not express much hope for Hope. He is Tibetan, a people who have been systematically crushed by China, most heavily for the last 150 years–from mass killings, environmental devastation, and forced marriages, to  brutal torture. An intensely faithful, gentle people, the Tibetans did not merely hope for salvation–they brought on their centuries of powerful prayer to preserve themselves, their culture,  and their faith. I can see why hope wasn’t high on his list. But…

Many of us interpret hope differently. 

Wikipedia says, “Hope is an optimistic state of mind that is based on an expectation of positive outcomes with respect to events and circumstances in one’s life or the world at large.[1] As a verb, its definitions include: “expect with confidence” and “to cherish a desire with anticipation.”” [2]

For many, hope is a refusal of despair, a determination to keep living, to take one step after another. It is the only reason we can get up, day after day, and continue. Because maybe today will be different. And what is the alternative? Not so good…

I think it’s clear that the optimism of hope combines well with the activism of prayer. Many of us are not religious or do not believe in standard gods. That’s okay. We can make of ourselves a lighthouse, radiating positive outcomes. We can call upon alternative energies, the earth, the universe, the moon. Our friends…

Which brings me to a conversation I had with some friends recently…

These are Arabic women, smart, talented, and fun. Both teach dance (and you know, this is fairly rare, that women of the culture take the social risk of teaching or performing Oriental dance). Both were born and raised in Europe, deeply enmeshed in their original culture. Both found that here in America they were much more accepted–they endured much less racism than in Europe.

Except in one area.

Belly dance. 

How ironic is that? 

They told me of being pushed aside, argued with, ignored, and otherwise excluded. These are people I love. It hurts my heart to hear these things. 

Even more recently, I attended Soumaya MaRose’s “Thé à l’Oriental 7- Attaï Sharq: ” Surprise”.” I have attended several of Soumaya‘s events, and they are always remarkable, high-quality gatherings. This one included a panel discussion and an Iftar dinner (the event took place during Ramadan, when many Muslims fast from sunup to sundown every day for a month. The dinner at sundown is called Iftar). 

Thé à l'Oriental 7- Attaï Sharq:
Thé à l’Oriental 7- Attaï Sharq: ” Surprise” 

Pictured from left to right, Hanane El, a Moroccan dancer/teacher in NYC; Amar (Gamal) Garcia, late of the BellyDance SuperStars, Soumaya MaRose, dance artist and event producer; and Tamalyn Dallal, worldwide pioneer of belly dance. Click  the image for more pix from the event

Soumaya asked specific questions of each of the pa.nelists, and also questions of the guests, most of whom were part of the belly dance scene. We are also asked to get into groups and draw a map of the middle east/north africa. After the panel discussion, Rawda Aljawhary opened the Iftar with a heartrendingly beautiful Quran recital, we had a really fabulous traditional Moroccan Iftar, created by Saadia Malek, Khadija from  Sabrine Bakery in Revere, MA, and friends.  And then several of  the Moroccan women took up instruments and we had a mini dance party!

The panel discussion was fascinating–and challenging.

One of the questions Soumaya put to the guests was, “Why would you not ask a native woman questions about the dance?” I could see the guests cringe a little. No one wants to be pushy or ask total strangers things that might offend them. But when you have an artist of the culture, offering to help you, why ignore what they have to say, even if it may be a little uncomfortable or challenge your beliefs? It’s a big world out there. 

One of the biggest questions Soumaya asked was right at the beginning: “Dancers, what do you do for the culture that feeds you?” We have all been nourished by our dance. Many of us teachers have also made good money off it. How do we give back? How to we nurture and nourish the culture that has given us Oriental dance? 

For myself, I wrote a book. I was pleased that the vast majority of the questions Soumaya raised, I also raise in the book. I also seek out teachers of the culture, have visited the middle east several times, and regularly write about and highlight the cultural elements of the dance. 

What about you? 

How do you give back to the dance’s culture of origin?

If the answer is, um, I don’t, what might you do differently? 

 

This brings me back to Hope and Prayer. 

It is my hope that we in the belly dance scene can step back from the anti-Muslim propaganda that we are fed so routinely in the West. It is my hope that we can come to understand the breathtaking beauty of the cultural dance–we have been fed a Westernized, stripped down version, with little of its inherent richness and joy. It’s time for that to change. 

I mentioned above, maybe we can pray to our friends. One of the older uses of the word pray, is as please–pray tell, pray go on, etc. Please, do some thinking. Do some reading on the cultural aspects of the dance. Do some improvisation. Do some classes with native dancers. Do some traveling in the Middle East. Do something to benefit the culture of our dance. This my prayer to you. 

Thank you. 

With love,
Alia