The Belly Dancers Club: call for participants
Tahia Carioca in the cover of LIFE magazine in 1942
Today we are undergoing collectively a phase of deep reflection of what our dance form is and should be, in a way that it can grow to be more inclusive and respectful. In this attempt not everyone is agreeing on what changes are needed for these goals to be reached, with some considering that old names such as "Belly Dance" should be abandoned, as well as more recent terms such as "Tribal Fusion".
In the midst of all these changes there is a growing concern that our community, already suffering from a lack of social and professional recognition, EVERYWHERE (East and West), will eventually lose the sense of connection and solidarity that made most people drawn to it in the first place.
The terms of old colonial past such as "Belly Dance" resulted from a prejudiced and reductive view of the dances of the Middle-East and North Africa of the XIX century (now usually referred to as MENAHT), but the arabic name "Raqs Sharqi" (Oriental Dance in english) is equally seen as orientalist and inadequate.
Western dancers are refusing to use the western name given to Oriental Dance, but also not adopting it's designation in the countries of origin. Some are removing any reference to it from the official names of their signature styles, teaching methods and programs, which is somehow odd since they are still using vocabulary from Raqs Sharqi or Western & Fusion derivatives of the style.
If we simply remove "Belly Dance" or "Oriental Dance" out of our nomenclature, we end up hiding that we draw most inspiration from that dance style, which we like it or not, has been designated as such for more than a century, and is entangled with colonialist and orientalist perspectives, both in EAST and WEST, which shaped it's form in the beginning of the 20th century and continues to do so today. I also feel that hiding this is somehow disrespectful for the dancers that came before us, and faced even bigger doses of prejudice than most of us endure today, and for the native middle-eastern dancers which still have to hide their trade from their families, while we in the west are able to make a living from teaching and performing myriad forms and stylizations of this dance style.
We need to reflect on past choices, YES, and we also need to have a constructive debate and reflection on what changes are worth doing today, so we do not regret those changes in the next decade or so, as some of us are now regretting adhering to a name such as TRIBAL FUSION, which now seems an offensive and unreflected choice of words, made without awareness of the social, cultural and historical charge of the word TRIBAL in the context of west-east historical relationship of abuse, colonialism and appropriation.
Even if the words of the past now seem inadequate, they are charged with history, and they reflect that history, and cannot be substituted lightly by words that have no direct relationship with the dance form we are now practicing.
After presenting two editions of "History of Oriental Dance" webinar, and carefully listening everyone in the Q&A and reading all the emails sent to me, I really feel that we need to get together, hear each other, and jointly find a way out of this crisis. I hope we can include as many dancers as possible, from all corners of the world, and especially give voice to dancers of Egypt, Turkey, Lebanon (which are the ones with the most long historical tradition of Oriental Dance) and other parts of the Mediterranean, Middle-East, North Africa and Asia, which also have their own Oriental Dance traditions and practitioners, as well as dance lineages that were integrated in Oriental Dance and Oriental Fusion styles, and should be considered when we speak of Oriental Dance.
If we are feeling any changes should be made NOW we need to KNOW what dancers from MENAHT countries think about these issues, otherwise it's again just a bunch of foreigners deciding on the naming of the dance (again!). How do egyptians feel about "Raqs Sharqi"? Do turkish dancers feel bad about their dance being named "Oryantal"? Do Oriental Dancers in the world feel "Tribal" is offensive because of the word "Tribal" or because it mixes a lot of influences and is a derivative form? Do they have suggestions for a new naming of this branch within Belly Dance? Is there a similar discontent in the Oriental Dance community that justifies erasing "Oriental" or "Belly Dance" from our vocabulary?
It would be great to reach out to as many people as possible, and to find ways to give space and visibility to dancers on the countries of origin, who have a different perspective and experience, and who are less and less considered as main actors in our dance scene, especially in the Fusion sub-styles.
In case we cannot end up including as many people as we would like, at least we will create a space for community and belonging that will most probably help us stay connected internationally, fostering joint reflection and growth within our dance.
The more united and strong our community grows to be, the better chances are that we can promote our dance as a respectful art form. This is also a main reason to send this call to all of you.
I know right now Belly Dance is seen as a dirty word (even more than before) but is also the more inclusive choice, since hearing Fusion dancers speak I feel they do not see themselves as Oriental Dancers, since they see Oriental as a name reserved only for Arabic, Middle-Eastern or Turkish styles of the dance. That's why I am launching these meetings as "The Belly Dancers Club".
I confess that after years feeling shame for my dance form being designated in this way, I realized that I was being judgmental and prejudiced, hiding my fear of sexual and erotic associations to our dance style under the position of defending that this designation is colonialist and reductive (although it is!). After reading Shokry Mohamed's defense of the name in his book "Danza Magica del Vientre" published in Spanish, I started looking to it in a different way: "Yes I am a Belly Dancer and I am amazing!" I decided that I was not going to be able to fight or contradict the erotic appeal of the dance, and that I had to recognize and accept it myself, if I wanted to keep dancing and teaching others. I am now completely in peace with the fact that Belly Dance, in whatever style, activates an archetype of strong femininity, erotically charged, unless the dance presented uses a Fusion vocabulary that is disconnected from this imagery, representation and expectation, or when the dancer has poor technique, weak stage presence and/or really cheap costuming (in which case usually the dance is seen as trashy and/or ridiculous - not as a strong erotic experience which can arouse, intimidate or stimulate the mind and senses artistically).
I also consider that it would be amazing to show people that Belly Dance is a highly demanding dance style, technically, culturally and artistically, while embodying a strong femininity and having an erotic appeal. It's sad to realize that in the 21th century, people still have a hard time reconciling eroticism and art, especially when women are the artists in the spotlight. If we could contribute to change that, it would be awesome. If we decide globally that it's time to embrace other designation that does not reflect the gaze of XIX century colonialist men, perfect! In the meanwhile, I hope we can find empowerment in "Belly Dancer" as the LGBTQI+ community embraced the words "Gay" and "Queer" as empowering words instead of offenses.
Thank you so much for reading my call! I hope to see you soon online!
Next meeting of
"The Belly Dancers Club"
will happen on
With special guest moderator: Piny Orchidaceae
Know more about her work here.
(Lisbon, Ireland and UK time)
17h-19h CEST and Cairo time,
18h-20h Beirut & Istanbul time,
20h30-22h30 India time,
11h-13h in New York, USA.