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.