Thursday, November 1, 2012

"Bellydance: Connecting Cultures" by Amy Jo Field

This article is from the September 2012 issue of KC Stage

Bellydancing has a rich history, full of connections to many cultures. It also has a history with controversy, as evinced by the very word 'bellydance'.

Many dancers who study Raqs Sharki, Middle Eastern dance, and all its modern incarnations, don't use the term bellydance because it so often brings unwanted associations to the forefront. In past centuries, when many Europeans and Americans were accustomed to social dances where the body was held rigid and only footwork and stylized arm movements were used, bellydance's abdominal, rib cage, and hip movements were unfamiliar and scandalous: the type of thing only seen in places of ill repute. No matter the dress of the dancer (and many were clothed head to foot), how traditional and artistic their art form, or how respectable the artists, Western audiences often assumed things about bellydance and its dancers because of their unique type of movements.

From this beginning, bellydance got its nickname, highlighting a physical focal point, and immediately acquiring an association with titillation. In the early 20th century, Hollywood helped to popularize bellydance in the modern consciousness, although certainly not in a historically accurate way. Some dancers also realized the sex appeal of the art form and drew it farther away from its roots in order to profit (we've long known sex sells). Today, many artists who draw on influence from the Middle East and surrounding regions still work against popular perceptions of bellydance as a bit tawdry.

Thanks to growing popularity in the past few decades, many people have been newly exposed to the art of bellydance and have gotten to see its true nature. I believe the dichotomy between bellydance's reputation and its true nature comes down to something fairly simple. In order to make money, gain notoriety, or for any number of other reasons, some people tried to make bellydance about the viewer. The Western gaze, the male gaze, the shocked but fascinated gaze. But bellydance is not about the external; it's about the internal. It's done as ritual dance as celebration, it's done in homes in the kitchen to have fun while cooking. It's done, historically and currently, by men, women, children, the old and young. It is about a joy only accessible through a moment of mind and body unity, internal to the dancer. That's not to say bellydance can't be theatrical or compelling to watch. It depends on a dancer's ability to take the audience with her on her journey: something all the best artists strive for.

Bellydance has roots farther back than we have written history, so no one can say for sure where or why people began dancing in the ways that became what we today call bellydance. Many regions in the Middle East, northern Africa, and the Mediterranean share similar dance styles with an emphasis on pelvic and abdominal movements. Its mostly agreed that whatever the other purposes of folkloric dance often are, bellydance in its myriad nascent forms was a celebration of life, focusing on the vital areas of the body, allowing our most powerful muscles to work, and bringing attention to earthy, grounded, weighty movements.

Today, bellydance has spread across the globe and is often fused with other dance styles that add new vocabulary and possibility. For instance, in America (and now elsewhere, too) bellydance is influenced by ballet and modern dance, adding a new airy dimension to its earthy movements. In all of its forms, bellydance can teach the artist trust in her body by familiarizing her with her abilities and then expanding them. Weaknesses are not hidden, but admitted and accepted. A healthy trust in sensuality can be built by an unspoken dialogue between body and mind. It is from this sensuality that bellydance draws its power, but that sensuality has often been misunderstood and exploited, often turned into something other than what it once was. Especially in modern times, we desperately need healthy sensuality rather than exploitation or shame, the dichotomy that confronts us daily. Bellydance can help to support that healthy dialogue between body and mind; whether pursued as a casual hobby or a more formal study. Whether we try to reclaim the word bellydance or call our art something else, it can be a powerful way to connect both with oneself and an ancient art form.

You can see Amy Jo dancing with her dance troupe, Troupe Duende, at the Kansas City Renaissance Festival September 1st and 22nd. You can also find her on Facebook.

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