On America, Appropriation, and Belly Dance

Series: Philosophical Figurings
Tags: post-structuralism, America, race issues, modernity, belly dancing, womanism
March 13, 2014

    Once upon a time back in divinity school, my ethics professor was making a point about ballet and its particular physical ideal. The professor suggested that perhaps ballet should be supplanted by belly dance. As a fan of Lieber and Stoller, this struck me as an odd recommendation. Belly dance has more than its own share of ethical problems, especially around feminity, sexuality, and minority/modernity issues. I can make my entire argument in one YouTube video:

    I brought up these issues, and remember being dismissed. The professor, after all, was making a point about body image. This confused me, because it didn’t seem right that white women should be engaging in fetishistic orientalism just because it makes them feel better about their body. But nobody seemed to really take my concern seriously: conservatives thought I was over-reacting about the orientalism, and liberals thought that I was downplaying the body image issues. So I let it go.

    Now, years later, I have been vindicated by a Salon piece entitled “Why I can’t stand white belly dancers”. Salon is continuing its long tradition of hating on SWPL (because self-flaggelation is also SWPL) by publishing this commentary piece from an Arab woman which opens with this line:

    Google the term “belly dance” and the first images the search engine offers are of white women in flowing, diaphanous skirts, playing at brownness. How did this become acceptable?

    With an opening shot like that, you have got to believe it is going to be good. After shoring up her credibility as an expert on belly dance, the author proceeds to explain that belly dance is a cultural appropriation of an Arabic style of dance for the benefit of white women, and how hollow the justifications and rationales for that behavior is. This makes the critique an exemplar of Womanist-style critiques, which point out how rich white feminists advance their cause at the expense of women from other demographics. This general critique has always been a striking and powerful one for me, in that it shows how easily acting on good intentions (feminism) can become harmful through paradigmatic blinders (privilege). This seemed to be exactly what was going on with my ethics professor.

    The piece is well-summed up in its final paragraph:

    Arab women are not vessels for white women to pour themselves and lose themselves in; we are not bangles or eyeliner or tiny bells on hips. We are human beings. This dance form is originally ours, and does not exist so that white women can have a better sense of community; can gain a deeper sense of sisterhood with each other; can reclaim their bodies; can celebrate their sexualities; can perform for the female gaze.

    The key play here is the claim This dance form is originally ours. Note that the advantages for white women are exacty the advantages she recounts fondly from her authentic experience of Raqs Sharqi:

    Growing up in the Middle East, I saw women in my community do Raqs Sharqi at weddings and parties. Women often danced with other women, in private spaces, so that this dance was for each other. When they danced at house parties with men in attendance, the dynamic shifted. When women danced for women alone, there was a different kind of eroticism, perhaps more powerful, definitely more playful, or maybe that’s how it felt to me, as a child and teenager, wary of men’s intentions. […] Years later, the revolution happened, or tried to happen, and when the Muslim Brotherhood took over, and Western news outlets began publishing stories that claimed belly dancing was a dying art. Tell that to the women on the streets and on rooftops and in bedrooms and living rooms and weddings dancing their hips off.

    So the problem is not that white women are getting advantages from belly dance that are foreign to Raqs Sharqi, but rather that they are doing belly dance in “Arab face”, and so the advantages are the fruit of the poisonous tree: since belly dance is a derivative of an authentic dance, it is tainted by cultural appropriation, and therefore its advantages are ill-gotten gains.

    For Americans, this problem is bigger than just belly dancing. Gershwin is a klezmer, who jacked the melody from a Jewish blessing over the Torah for “It Ain’t Necessarily So”. Elvis made his name off of white-washing black spirituals. Contemporary rock, which is as American as apple pie, owes its musical identity to British bands. General Tso’s Chicken was invented in New York. Our formative political documents are all but plagarized from French revolutionaries. As the song goes: “It’s a French kiss, Italian ice, margaritas in the moonlight, just another American Saturday night.” Since Columbus landed on the shore, everything American has been a derivative from someone else.

    But don’t light the torches and sharpen the pitchforks just yet, because it turns out that everything has been a derivative from someone else. Everything can be viewed as the appropriation of some upstream tradition. This is as true of Rqas Sharqi as it is of anything else. To quote Wikipedia:

    Raqs sharqi (literally “oriental dancing”) is the classical Egyptian style of belly dance that developed during the first half of the 20th century. Based on the traditional ghawazi and other folk styles and formed by western influences such as marching bands, the Russian ballet, Latin dance, etc., this hybrid style was performed in the cabarets of interbellum period Egypt and in early Egyptian cinema. […] Raqs sharqi was developed by Samia Gamal, Tahiya Karioka, Naima Akef, and other dancers who rose to fame during the golden years of the Egyptian film industry.

    So Raqs Sharqi itself has influences and is itself derivative, including derivative of a number of Western styles and a more traditional style. That traditional style is creditted to the Nawari people, who were Gypsies, who themselves came from India, and so it is hardly an innately Arabic style of dance. Is the Arabic Raqs Sharqi dancer dancing in Gypsy face? What is so fundamentally different?

    The problem the author runs into is in the claim This dance form is originally ours. There is no “originally” in the world: there is only derivative. To argue that a derivative style of dance is an act of cultural appropriation requires viewing history from a snapshot: in the cause of the Salon commentator, that snapshot was in the late 20th century, before belly dance became SWPL. Only when viewed from within that snapshot of time does it make sense to say that the derivative is a poor and inherently mocking copy: viewed within the flow of time, the derivative is something within the same tradition yet distinct.

    Especially writing from the world of academic liberalism, you cannot enforce a claim based on originality. In a conversation where people are quick to point out that any group is “not a monolothic entity” and where collective nouns get pluralized (eg: “It’s not appropriate to talk about masculinity: you have to talk about masculinities.”), it is nonsensical to say that there is an entity called “Arab” which stakes a claims on certain aesthetics and body motions, and if you do not qualify to be a part of that entity, you are inelgible to participate in that aesthetic or move your body in those ways. Ironically, the move of academic liberalism knocks the foundation out from under this move of political liberalism.

    Yet despite my disagreement with the original author, she highlights a very legitimate problem. If the dancers are passing themselves off as being something they are not, then there is a major issue of imperialism. If white women are play-acting as Arabic women, then it is just as offensive as actors who put on blackface. Without a doubt, this kind of offense is out there, and belly dance has been used as a vehicle of orientalism: that’s the problem at the core of “Little Egypt” (well, one of them). But it is an entirely different thing if the dancers understand themselves to be participating in an American tradition whose aesthetic derives from Arabic sources among others (like Nawari/Gypsy/Dom, latin dance, and burlesque). In that case, what we have is not appropriation but derivation, and what looks to the author like inauthentic aesthetic sloppiness is really the fusion of the American melting pot.

    Now, I am still struck by some difficulties in American belly dance: namely, the rampant sexualization and its history with orientalism. Belly dancers frequently claim that they are reclaiming the sexual aspect, but I’m not sure the men who watch them dance are aware it’s been reclaimed. (A similar problem occurs with pole dancing and burlesque.) Similarly, the history of orientalism will make it difficult for belly dancers to avoid being means for others to participate in offensive orientalism. Even if the white dancer doesn’t think they are dancing in “Arab face”, if they make it easy for the audience to mistake them as Arab or Gypsy, then they are accessories in propagating that offensive orientalism. So although I think the Salon commentator has gone too far, she’s still definitely got a point, and white belly dancers need to realize that they are dancing on a knife’s edge.

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