From the early days of the European Enlightenment through to 20th century Colonialism, and still today, the fascination of West with East continues unabated. Middle Eastern culture has been both revered and reviled since early Orientalist fantasies first permeated Western consciousness.
Edward Saiid, a Palestinian American writer who founded the critical theory of post colonialism says that, “The imaginative examination of things Oriental was based more or less exclusively upon a sovereign Western consciousness out of whose unchallenged centrality an Oriental world emerged”.
Paintings fashioned by European artists, present The Middle East in tableaux of opulent harems, decadent sultans, and exotic half-clad women. Hollywood and popular culture are also guilty of fostering these post-colonial tropes. Movies, pop artists and television, often fuse Orientalist themes into their routines for innovation and a touch of the exotic.
American exposure to belly dancing dates back to 1893, when Sol Bloom first presented the Ouled Nail dancers and the female performer ‘Little Egypt’ as acts for the Chicago World fair. The sensationalist nature of these ‘scandalous’ dance acts ensured record attendance numbers, effectively saving the Chicago World fair from financial ruin. In an effort to categorise this dance style and describe the bare midriffs, the term ‘belly dance’ was coined. The performances both enraged and enthralled conservative America and it was here that ‘belly dance’ first materialized in American vocabulary and consciousness.
In 1896, Thomas Edison, the famous inventor, captured a belly dance performance in motion picture and it became known as ‘Fatima’s Houchie-Couchie Dance’ or ‘Muscle Dance’. The silent movie, Intolerance, released in in 1916, also depicts Western belly dancers as part of a Babylonian story. Since then, belly dancing has appeared in a host of Hollywood movies and shows. The costumes are usually risqué and the dancing is overtly sexual and rarely authentic, more Burlesque than Baladi.
For many Middle Easterners, our traditional dance practices are far from these stereotypes, and fantasy-fuelled depictions. To us, the harems are home, the women are mothers, and the dancers are sisters and daughters. Most importantly, the dance itself is a venerated social custom, not some ‘Houchie-Couchie Dance’ or even ‘belly dance’.
Many of us both teachers and inhabitants of the region, find the term ‘belly dancing’ lacking. Its literal translation into Arabic is ‘dance of the tummy’. This label is a fallacy because the stomach is not the focus of this dance. Designations like ‘Middle Eastern Dance’, MED dance, or Raks Sharqui (in Arabic), though not as culturally offensive as ‘belly dance’, are still nonetheless derived from the term ‘The Middle East’, which is a phrase coined by colonial powers. This designation stereotypes a collection of nations implying they possess a homogeneity, which in reality we do not. Our strongest commonality is that of being a colonised people. Many, who come from the region, have today rejected the label ‘Middle East’ as a diminutive and outdated Eurocentric/colonial marker that is as ambiguous as it is inaccurate.
Most authentic dancers prefer the term Baladi Dance meaning ‘dance of the country and its people’. Baladi Dance is the traditional folk style, which many of us grow up with and love. The more commercial ‘cabaret belly dance’, with its skimpy costuming and risqué moves, is something the everyday population watches on television, or at live shows in restaurants and night clubs.
Although the cabaret-style is prevalent in the region, it is frowned upon by ‘polite’ Arab society. However, it still thrives in cities like Beirut, Cairo, and Istanbul despite the recent surge in Islamic extremists trying to prohibit its performance both publicly and on television. Successful cabaret dancers are a charmed minority, and their stardom is not necessarily synonymous with respect. The majority though, are relegated to performing in seedy nightclubs by choice or necessity. The financial rewards these dancers reap are in most cases, either questionably lucrative, or honourably inadequate.
Despite the conservative nature of our societies, I have fond memories of dancing in this organic Baladi style, modestly attired in a traditional kaftan or ‘Abaya’. Often a scarf snugly encircled my hips to accentuate the movements. The belly, which presently symbolises this dance form, was always markedly covered. I danced fully clothed, without inhibitions, proudly celebrating my female form. No sexual connotations were ever attached to this, and the dance was suitably beguiling and emotive. Goddess and seductress, or innocent and guileless, the feminine archetypes we draw upon and embody through this dance are a natural birthright and not something we are ashamed of.
Through writing, talking to people, and teaching, I am trying to evoke and promote an authentic cultural understanding of this dance by sharing how we as Middle Easterners, express our dance heritage, both socially and artistically.
Written by Hanan Ahlam Abboud 2015 (c)