Recently I read a very interesting piece on Salon.com. Interesting is one of those words that people like to use when they’re trying to avoid saying something was bad, as in the Chinese curse that wishes you to live an interesting life.
The piece was an article by American-Arab author Randa Jarrar and provocatively titled “Why I can’t stand White belly dancers”. It’s certainly an attention-grabbing title, so I started to read.
I’ve been learning belly dance for almost 10 years now. I took it up initially while still living in London as a hobby and a dance form that didn’t rely on you having a partner. I kept up the momentum when I moved to Greece. I was half Indian, half Pakistani, learning belly dance in Greece from an American teacher.
Having moved to a country where I didn’t speak the language, dance was my currency. I relished the weekly lessons where I could get together with like-minded women and unwind, listening to the girl talk until my language skills were up to scratch.
Belly dancers and their students defend their art fiercely. I have found, without exception, belly dancers to be the friendliest, funniest, most open and most inviting women I have ever met. They do not take kindly to the trivialising of their art. I remember one show when I was talking to a fellow student, a girl I had just met and she looked at me with a wounded expression. “Please,” she said “don’t call it belly dance. It’s raqs sharqi.”
Belly dance. Raqs Sharqi. The dance of the East. However you call it, it is a dance form that has transcended many cultures and has its origins deep in the mists of time as a fertility dance. The roots of belly dance can be traced around the Mediterranean and into Africa. Each country has its own style.
Even Greece has a local style of belly dance. What all styles have in common is that this is a dance by women, for women. It was never danced in the company of men. Belly dance entered the male world only when Western explorers reached the East and wanted to see this mysterious dance. Enterprising young dancers began charging them for the privilege, and the myth of the morally loose, seductive belly dancer was born.
How sick are we all in the belly dance community of seeing bored, pretty little things in nice costumes vibrate across a stage and call it belly dance. The cabaret style of belly dance costume, the bra and belt, are Hollywood inventions, and as the Western influence encroached on an ancient tradition, many were horrified.
Armen Ohanian, famed belly dancer from the early 1900s, describes a scene in her autobiography:
“In Cairo one evening I saw, with sick, incredulous eyes, one of our most sacred dances degraded into a horrible bestiality. It was our poem of the mystery and pain of motherhood. It represents maternity, the mysterious conception of life, the suffering and joy with which a new soul is brought into the world… But the spirit of the West had touched this holy dance and it had become the hoochie koochie, the danse du ventre, the belly dance. I heard the lean Europeans chuckling. I even saw lascivious smiles upon the lips of Asiatics, and I fled.”
When I see talentless belly dancers, women who are lured more by the fancy costumes than what lies at the heart of the dance, it drives me mad too. But Randa Jarrar is misguided in claiming that belly dance belongs solely to the Arab world, that any representation beyond these lines is a form of appropriation.
With its roots placed so deeply in femininity, womanhood, motherhood and birth, belly dance is a dance that belongs to all women. Belly dance is encompassing and inclusive — where else will your dance teacher take you aside and gently tell you to try and gain some more weight if you want to execute the moves correctly?
Cultural exchange is part of the human experience. It is to be celebrated, not resented, when people from other cultures express an interest in our own. To suggest otherwise is nothing short of racism.