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?


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