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!