Saturday, November 22, 2014

Musings on the Current State of Belly Dance. Whose Art is It Anyway?

  I am going to write a stream of consciousness, the blogging equivalent of improvisational dance I suppose. Many thoughts swirl through my mind regarding the state of modern Belly Dance, & the ascension of foreign dancers to the position of worldwide influence. And I mean dancers foreign to the Middle East.

  Has Belly Dance been exported for so many years that it is no longer predominately a Middle Eastern dance? Has the new religious conservatism of the ME put a nail in the coffin of home grown Raqs Sharki? Is Russian Belly Dance the new state of the art, even to the point of winning an Egyptian reality TV competition with the venerable Dina as judge? (Yes I know the other contestants weren't top of the line.) With so few dancers from the ME now making it a profession, how much influence do the few pros have on current dancers in other countries?

  Do all modern Oriental Dancers trace their roots to Raqia Hassan (hardly the hard line traditionalist), as they or their teachers have made pilgrimages to Egypt over the decades? With just a handful of Egyptian dancers making the workshop rounds, & virtually no Turkish or Lebanese stars teaching, is this enough variety for those of us trying to keep the dance as Middle Eastern as possible? The Randa Kamel bandwagon hit a fever pitch several years ago, but her popularity seems to be waning. Do we want to emulate Armenian-Egyptian dancer Safinaz because she is currently the darling of the Arab world, even though she evokes an almost crude sexiness? So far it seems she hasn't made much of a mark on the global Belly Dance community, since I haven't seen much of her signature bouncing boobies sweeping the nation. Foreign dancers with contracts in the ME used to secure a ticket to respect & success in their home countries, but lately it feels like the women who have suffered difficult lives living in Egypt & to a lesser degree the Gulf countries, to immerse themselves in the culture & perform on their stages, have been greeted globally (& often undeservedly) with a resounding "meh". So where is the inspiration coming from?

  Let me start with the Russian phenomenon. With a tradition of competition & an almost Soviet era intensity, the Russians are famous for taking a dance form, tweaking the technique with classical ballet as a base & turning it into a whole new art form. Hundreds of Belly Dance & ME Folk Dance competitors with numbers pinned to their costumes (taking the cue from elite gymnasts & Ballroom contestants) enter competitions that are part beauty pageant & part talent competition. Then they struggle to stand out as not looking like all the rest of the competitors. So programmed are they to not stray too far from the winning formula it's hard to distinguish one from the other. I have a love/hate affair with the Russian/Ukrainian dancers. On the one hand I admire their attention to detail, their impeccable training with lovely lines & inventive, almost acrobatic moves. On the other hand I bore quickly watching them, due to a lack of raw passion, Egyptian subtlety, & the monolithic style that makes it hard for me to remember who is who. Carefully choreographed solos can feel contrived & tedious after a while, though there are often eye catching hooks that wake me from my

  Then there are the Americans. Belly Dance has been in the U.S. for so many decades that deep roots have taken hold, based as a Middle Eastern immigrant inspired art form with a touch of American burlesque thrown in. Heavily influenced by Turkish style (many Armenians came to the U.S. from Turkey, & believe it or not brought the music & dance with them), the American dancers developed unique styles. Sort of like the "telephone game", Americans being too far from the ME to visit & study regularly, did what they thought the ME dancers were doing, but it translated & morphed into something different. As is typical of the American spirit, the dance took on a creative edge, a no holds barred, blow up tradition edge. From coast to coast & in between, new styles were developing, eventually evolving into the cornucopia we see in modern American Belly Dance, from the varieties of Tribal, to Fusion to ME styles. There is even a separate name - American Cabaret, which is still of interest in the US & with a few other aficionados, but has hardly touched the rest of the Belly Dance world.  A few American dancers have enjoyed global success due to their videos, their personalities, their dedication to the art, their originality, and/or their business acumen. The "Belly Dance Superstar" show (as pedestrian as it seemed to me), did manage to bring American styles to the world stage, yet still didn't attain the gold standard, respect or imitation its producer hoped for.

  The Europeans & Latin Americans strike a nice balance, & many are my favorites to watch. The good dancers blend creativity & originality (much like the Americans), are well trained with impeccable  technique (like the Russians), yet they often imbue a Middle Eastern essence & a respect for the way the dance is portrayed in its native countries. Not all of them, mind you, but the ones who have risen to the top have garnered deserved respect for their ingenuity & grace.

  But For me, there is still nothing like a dancer from the Middle East. From the "home girl" untrained dancers, to the garish shaabi party girls, to the theatrical folk dancers, to the Iraqi hair tossing Kawleeya, & even the dancers of disrepute twerking away at mysterious all male parties in the Gulf region, to the Egyptian stars of nightclubs & film, to the Turkish & Lebanese superstars - I can't get enough of them. But that's the problem - there are no longer enough of them. The best dancers are the original dancers, the ones who bring something new & exciting to the table. But from the Middle East these dancers can be counted on two hands, & their influence seems to be limited, from what I see on worldwide videos (& I do love to scour the videos). As one Russian dancer said "Russian audiences don't want to see authentic, they want to be wowed with something tricky & dynamic", & I think that goes for most audiences in this age of short attention spans & exposure to dance forms that have raised the bar high in terms of athleticism.

  So to go back to my original questions, is Belly Dance no longer a Middle Eastern art? Have the Russians taken the ball & run with it? Have the Americans contorted it to the point of Belly Dance having a completely different meaning? Will new Egyptian artists rise in stature & respect, once again pulling the focus back & causing a frenzy of imitation? I hope for this last question to come to fruition. But the cat may be out the bag so to speak, and Belly Dance may be as Russian as St. Basil's Cathedral or as American as apple pie. So I finish my stream of consciousness without definitive answers, but with a feeling this dance has really permeated so many cultures (I haven't even touched on the Asian countries, Australia or Canada). No doubt it is a living art, with roots spreading worldwide & taking a solid hold. And in the end, I believe that's a good thing.