Sunday, March 25, 2007

What makes it Gothic?

So what exactly is Gothic belly dance? What does Goth have to do with belly dance? Is it just belly dancing in black costumes and not smiling? Well, no -- at least, not when it's done right. It is a specific style that has evolved from the work of very talented dancers and dozens of dedicated students, and it is not just a style of music and costuming. This is the post where I sit down and try to suss out exactly what defines that style for me.

In Egyptian and traditional American Cabaret, and to a certain extent in ATS, the movements are often very difficult to do but are done in such a way as to appear natural and easy, like that's just the way your body moves. Nothing is supposed to seem unnatural or strange, even if it is actually a movement that most people couldn't do without a lot of practice. If you watch an Egyptian style dancer like Dina or Tamra-henna, you'll see that no matter what they do, it looks like their body is just flowing along to the music because they relate to the music so well. If you freeze-frame a video of them at any point, you'll see a position that looks graceful and almost relaxed, and wouldn't know from the still frame that they were doing anything unusual. As my Egyptian teacher once said in class, "This is supposed to look sensual, not freakish!"

On the other hand, the GBD that I've seen emphasizes the "freakish" aspect -- your body is doing something that bodies are [i]not supposed to do[/i]. The shoulders and upper arms move up around the neck to look a lot like, well, that girl from The Ring. The chest and abdominal muscles do things pretty much of their own free will. The body moves in little ticks and jerks like it's powered by clockwork. Weight changes are exaggerated, creating a sense of instability. If you've read "Hamlet," "Macbeth," or "Richard III," you'll see the same kind of emphasis on things not being "right" or natural. It sets the audience on edge and doesn't let them know what to expect. I think that's what makes it Goth.

Of course, there are Gothic cabaret dancers who use the same kinds of graceful movements that Egyptian or American cabaret dancers do, and the "goth" part is simply in the drama and emotion of the gestures. I'm less clear on exactly what makes that a different genre of dance (rather than just different music and costuming), because Dina and other Egyptian dancers use a lot of dramatic gestures and expressions too, and a lot of the traditional Egyptian songs are quite sad and spooky if you know the words.

Back in the days of Jamila Salimpour and, later, FatChance, the "alternatives" for women who didn't want to dress or live their lives in a mainstream way were hippy, New Age and grunge. The aesthetics of belly dancing as it was didn't always work for these women: if you'd burned your bra, why would you go out and buy a shiny new sequined one? If your goal was to give away your possessions to go study yoga in Tibet, you might feel a bit uncomfortable getting tipped in your belt. If you wanted to be one of the Indigo Girls, you might feel silly about wearing false eyelashes. And yet, many of these women were drawn to the movements, the rhythms, and the soul of raqs sharqi, enough to form an enormous base of dancers for American Tribal Style. Some traditionalists thought it would be the end of bellydance. It wasn't.

Nowadays, a lot of young women looking for ways to express themselves are fascinated with the many variations on Goth culture. It is a culture that welcomes creativity, aestheticism and opulence in an increasingly sterile, streamlined world, and encourages participants to see beauty in the reality that everything has a dark side: everything that lives, dies, and that just makes life more beautiful. Now, these Goth kids have their own divergences from bellydance as we know it, and lo and behold, they have created a new style with its own guidelines for music, costuming, and movement.

Is this a bad thing? Of course not! Think about it this way: raqs is such a powerful thing that it speaks even to those whose initial reaction to the stock image of a "bellydancer" in sequins doing flirty head slides and shoulder shimmies is one of extreme distaste. I mean, how amazing is it that this dance, deeply entrenched in a culture that is so different from ours, has been widely embraced by Americans, let alone those who would never dream of carefully padding a beaded bra or doing a bouncy hop-step while twirling a cane over their heads? It just proves that the dance is more than the surface glamour. It is a life-changing experience, one that all of us involved should be grateful for.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

I'm one of those people who always make ambitious New Years' resolutions, and never, ever keep them. I mean, I've been scheduled to lose fifteen pounds since maybe 1998, and it hasn't happened yet, has it? I keep going back, though -- whether it's something comforting about the routine, or just hope springing eternal, it just doesn't feel like a new year without a few well-intentioned promises to myself.

I imagine that I'm not alone in having experienced a little, um, fitness slippage over the holidays. My gym clothes are in the darkest back corner of the closet, I've been using my stack of Yoga Journals more to ogle Rodney Yee in bike shorts than to actually practice, and, well, my family and in-laws are big believers in the multiple-pie holiday. So my highest priority for dancing in the new year is to Get back in shape. Specifically, I'm setting new weight goals for the gym, and hoping to make good use of that "Fitness Pharoah" core training for bellydancers DVD I got for Christmas. I'm also resolving to make yoga a bigger part of my daily practice routine.

I live in a big city with a lively dance community, so it's easy to let opportunities pass by with a shrug and an "oh well, they'll be back next year." But hey, I don't know what will happen next year, so this year I'm resolving to Take workshops! I'm getting off to a good start with a five-day Rachel Brice master class in January (squee!), and I'm going to keep track of what's going on and make sure I take advantage of what's offered, insofar as I can actually afford it. The more great teachers you study with, the easier it is to develop your own style, right? And that's worth a lot more than the sparkly costumes I'd otherwise be spending on.

One long-term goal that I haven't met yet is to get a restaurant job. Parties, yes, nightclubs, yes, but I have yet to share in the quintessential American bellydancer experience, and honestly I can't wait to try it. I wouldn't mind getting more other jobs, too, of course, which is why I'm going to upgrade to a premium PartyPop membership. But to really make it as a pro, I know I still need to...

Strengthen my technique. Le sigh, this is the honest part. In the end, it comes down to non-stop drilling with hard-ass friends and teachers who will point out when I get sloppy. I know I need work on making my undulations more muscular and my isolations more precise. I'm not hoping to be Suhair Zaki (well, it would be nice...), but I would at least like to be able to hit those sharp beats like, say, Bozenka. And that will take lots of work. Hmmm. Maybe I should reward myself with sparkly costumes...

Monday, June 12, 2006

And then, every once in a while, something comes along to make me thank God that I'm a bellydancer:

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Keep your day job?

This summer, I'm planning to do the following things to become a better bellydancer:

Choreograph a new solo to contemporary music
Dance in a couple of local showcases and haflas
Work as a volunteer at a local dance studio
Get back in the habit of going to the gym and doing my Pilates video
Tutor high school kids for their SATs

Ok, you're thinking, that makes sense, gotta get your name out there, yeah, go to the gym, that makes sense... wait -- SATs? What does THAT have to do with bellydance? Well, the answer is, not much, except that, well, a job's a job. And when it comes to being part of an artistic subculture that can be so widely misunderstood, having a day job has certain big advantages.

Yes, I know, I just went and said something controversial again. I don't mean, of course, that I don't think dancers should be able to make a living out of it, or that only rich girls should be able to bellydance. But for those of us who currently dance as a hobby, I think that the ambition to make dancing a full-time source of income can lead to some major pitfalls. Right now I'm kind of scrambling for gigs, and it's making me realize first-hand why it is that some dancers end up in dangerous or degrading situations -- because it's really damn hard to find well-paying jobs with respectful, community-friendly, woman-friendly organizations and venues! For instance, the other day I asked a friend who has some connections in the local dj scene if he knew of any clubs that might be interested in booking a tribal-fusion style soloist. The next day, he responded with a link to an event -- a local fetish party that was having a "bellydance night," complete with a suggested-attire list that included "transparent harem pants." Honestly, I'm as kinky as the next girl (ok, probably more so), but I'd rather dance for a venue that distinguishes between trained dancers and random hot chicks in see-through pants.

There will always be postings and requests like this that will make dancers roll their eyes and send into a tizzy. And much worse, there will be events where dancers aren't safe, and are vulnerable to groping and possibly worse. A colleague warned me the other day about a bad experience she'd had dancing at a bachelor party, and it seems like whenever one dancer mentions a story like that, everyone present has her own horror story to tell. Even those of us who haven't had to face worse than a few catcalls have had the experience of mentioning bellydance and having people react like we're talking about stripping or prostitution, and of course, some people think that if a woman "makes herself available" through sex work -- or what they perceive as sex work -- then, well, she's "asking for it."

The obvious example of this phenomenon was the much-publicized Duke lacrosse scandal, at which an exotic dancer hired to help celebrate the team's win ended up accusing several players of sexual assault. Now that the players have been mostly found innocent and lacrosse has been reinstated at Duke, it's tempting to just go with the media attitude that "oh well, I guess nothing really happened." In reality, of course, things aren't that simple, and strippers and other sex workers are still extremely vulnerable to stalking, harassment, abuse and assault. These women tend to come from poor backgrounds, are frequently trafficked into the country against their will, and do not have the economic or legal standing necessary to choose not to put themselves into dangerous situations. If it's paying work, they are, to varying extents, forced to take it.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many Egyptian dancers found themselves in a similar situation. As European Orientalism led wealthy Englishmen to travel to Egypt, the awalim, a class of educated women who danced and sang clever improvised songs at weddings and other events, were forced by economic circumstance to perform striptease, dance nude, and even engage in prostitution in order to gain the valuable European money. This period severely damaged the reputation of the dance, which did not regain much of its status until the Golden Age of Egyptian cinema, in which dancer/actresses like Tahia Carioca and Samia Gamal worked to establish a connection between the poise and dignity of the bellydancer and the glamour of Western film stars. Sadly, though, the image of the professional dancer in much of Egypt and the middle east is still closer to that of the impoverished woman who must give up her modesty and virginity in order to please men and earn enough money to live on.

Most of us American bellydancers, however, are not in that situation. We have day jobs, and enough money to take classes and workshops and buy those expensive (but so pretty!) costumes. Many of us have studios and troupes that help us further our dance careers. However, many dancers still put themselves in situations that could easily lead to incidents of harassment or assault. The experience of performing is a powerful rush; being on-stage creates a fight-or-flight response in the brain that leads to a surge of adrenaline that can be extremely pleasurable. I know that I'm addicted to performing; I get a little bit antsy and unhappy when I haven't done it in a while, and have definitely had my judgement impaired once or twice by that wonderful feeling of I get to dance! For lots of people! But for those of us women who have the choice to protect ourselves by insisting on safe venues, respectful events, and safety measures like bringing a friend along to help out, it is our responsibility to do so. If you want to dance in transparent pants, or accept costume tipping, or whatever else you feel comfortable with, go for it -- hell, plenty of modern dance companies have done more outrageous things without getting any flak. But when you do what makes you, personally, feel compromised, you're losing some of the power of your art, which derives so much of its beauty from its intense personal expression.

Yes, being a full-time bellydancer would be an amazing opportunity. And it can happen, for those who are willing and able to teach tons of classes, travel nonstop, and organize large groups of flaky women into coherent, step-perfect performing companies. But what won't make it happen is taking every performance opportunity that comes along, no matter how insulting or risky it sounds. So I'm passing on bellydance night at the fetish club, and resisting the little voice in my head that says that the fastest way to get gigs might be to just post an illustrated ad on I'll have my day job to fall back on, and if I have to, I'll get my performance fix from just making my friends watch me dance. Some things really do just take some time.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Dancing Blind

(discussed in this essay: Judith Butler's "Gender Trouble," Groove de Monde's "Tales of the Kama Sutra"

Last weekend, I did the kind of thing that I had previously only done in dreams -- bad dreams. I woke up early to drop my fiance off at the airport, then made it on time to my dance performance, changed into my costume, and sat down to have my makeup done -- when the person doing makeup told me to take off my glasses.

That's right, folks, I've been doing this for years, and I forgot to bring my contact lenses. "ok," I said to myself under my breath. "I can do this blind."

To read any post on tribe or bhuz lately, you'd think that this must happen all the time -- so many people are offended by so many performances, it seems like dancers must be going out on stage with no idea of what's going on around them, unable to see the cultural background and political moment that inform the dance. If you're a bellydancer with a modem, you're probably sick of hearing about Groove de Monde's "Tales of the Kama Sutra" fiasco, so I'll try to keep this brief -- I wasn't there, but the pictures I've seen (see the link above) and the feedback they've recieved make them look about as clueless as I must have, trying to find the edge of my veil while unable to see a foot in front of my face.

All dances have their own cultural heritage, and I would argue that that of Middle Eastern dance has been made especially crucial and sensitive in recent years by the responsibility of American artists to take some position on our own country's aggressive actions in the Middle East. To manipulate Islamic cultural history, to ignore the contexts of appropriated dance forms, and, especially, to reproduce pernicious ethnic stereotypes as plenty of bellydancers do on one level or another, and as Kaya and Sadie did with particular abandon, is to risk furthering the Imperialist discourse put forth by the likes of George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld*.

In many cases, though, I've found myself defending acts of "blindness" in performance, coming from a sense of the bravery required to face the unknown onstage, without a net. Judith Butler reminds us that the power of performance comes from its transgressive nature -- that seeing a performance such as that of a talented drag queen can remind us that the roles we feel trapped by, or don't even question, in our lives are themselves just a performance, a drag act of sorts, in whice we are ultimately free to break character and screw with expectations. This characterization of performance is true to the social character of bellydance in Egypt, which Najwa Adra describes as a form of cheeky play and flirtation among family members and close friends. Even as practiced by professionals, bellydance was once associated with the awalim, or "learned women," a group of witty singers who danced and improvised humorous songs. Like Butler's writing on drag, the dance uses a playful, flexible attitude to offer a means of transgressing norms and cultural standards of acceptability.

In some contexts, and in the hands of some dancers, bellydance still has this off-the-cuff, rule-bending energy. Rachel Brice's company, The Indigo, is known for performances that combine transformative spirituality with warm humor; even the dancer Rania, who isn't one of my personal favorites, demonstrated this spontaneous wit in her rakkasah drum solo a few years back, in which she combined bellydance with acrobatic flips and handsprings. However, many dancers place themselves in direct opposition to Butler on ideological grounds. Why? Because in order to accept that we are each free (and, indeed, obliged as artists) to question, disassemble, and reconstruct our own personal drag shows at will, we must first accept that we are in drag in the first place. And despite the sequins, the cleavage, and the skirts with the thigh-high slits, some dancers just don't see it.

Sure, when I first got interested in bellydance, I bought into a lot of claptrap about "the oldest dance in the world" and whatnot (how could anyone know what the oldest dance in the world is, anyway?). If you're a folkloric dancer doing studiously researched pieces based on translated documents, sure, you're doing something authentic, sort of -- but if you're dancing raqs sharqi, American Tribal Style, Spiritual Bellydance, or any hybrid or derivative of the above, guess what? You're part of a living, changing, syncretic art form, the brainchild of a long line of poets, prostitutes, entrepreneurs, feminists, and exploiters -- heck, even a few aerobics instructors. And, as Butler points out, that's a good thing. It means that, rather than listening to well-meaning critics and teachers who warn us against violating the sacred traditions of the dance, we can use our performances to complicate and subvert recieved perceptions of feminine, masculine, East, and West. We can tease out the ways in which the sultry Eastern woman depicted in so much bellydance was in fact the creation of Western men -- and through this awareness, empower ourselves to present images through performance that speak to, and through, ourselves, regardless of gender or ethnicity. Kaya and Sadie deserved the reception that they got, not because they broke the tradition of bellydance, but because they continued to uphold the long and harmful tradition of Westerners reproducing stereotypes of the East. To equate this performance with those that challenge real social and political boundaries would be an act of real blindness.

*note: this does not mean that you should picture Bush and Rummy in bellydance costumes. Aw man, you just did, didn't you?

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Look at me, I have a blog!

Hello, Internet, and welcome to A New Old Dance, my brand-new blog about dance in general and bellydance in particular! Bear with me, I'm new at this.

I love bellydancing. I've been studying this playful, expressive, technically demanding art form since I was 16, and performing since 18. The feeling of performing this dance, especially in its original solo improvisational form, is one of amazing personal discovery and power; when I'm onstage, I find myself, the still center of a swirling mass of sequins and veils. I want to use this blog as a way to share my love of the dance and my ideas about all the amazing things it can do, but I also don't want to let that love blind me to all the cultural and ideological problems that exist within this dance and its community.

As a student of literature and women's studies, I try to be aware of problematic attitudes and assumptions in the world around me, especially as they relate to different genders and cultures. In the past year, I've noticed plenty of these assumptions in the bellydance community. How many times have you heard that a bellydancer must do everything she can to appear "feminine," often including stuffing her bra or wearing a wig? It's any one dancer's choice to do these things or not do them, but I have had other dancers express shock that I perform with short hair, even though this dance is supposed to be one of individual expression, and my short hair is part of the self that I want to share with the world. We are also encouraged to appear "Eastern," and to reproduce standardized ideas of the "ethnic" philosophy of the dance, despite the fact that many of us have very little background in Islamic culture and don't really know if what we're being told is true.

Modern dance, and modern variants of many "ethnic" dances like Irish step-dancing, flamenco, and classical Indian dance, have opened themselves up to a wide variety of performances of gender and culture, while many bellydancers seem to see "experimental" and "fusion" as bad words. I want to change that, or at least take part in a change that may already be taking place, by calling attention to the good (male bellydancers starting to gain acceptance in the US), the bad (all the cattiness and prudishness directed at experimental dancers) and the ugly ("Tales of the Kama Sutra," anyone?) in our dance community. Yes, I'm probably going to tick a few people off, if anyone actually reads this, but that's how you start a discussion, right? And one of the things I love about this dance is that the community really cares enough to get fired up, highlighting just how vibrantly alive the dance itself is.

This is going to be lots of fun for me, and I hope it is for you, too. My biggest dream for my future as a dance writer is to inspire other people to think and write about dance in new ways, including vitriolic reactions against me if it comes to that. Enjoy!