It’s been far longer than I like to go between posts.
But at the end of May, our beloved Fanty Cat was diagnosed with terminal cancer. 10 days later, we had to say our final farewells. On June 8, a veterinarian came to our home and we sent our little man into his next plane of existence.
I haven’t really been OK since.
I don’t want to go into the details of grief or mourning. But I will say a few things.
Anyone who has lost a pet understands that grieving an animal is a special, deep, unrelenting kind of sadness. Pets don’t judge you, disappoint you, or hold unrealistic expectations. They see the best and worst of you, and accept you anyway.
Fanty chose me, 9 years ago, when a friend was seeking a home for him and his brother, Mingo. When my partner, Tim, and I started seeing each other, Fanty decided that Tim was his new and forever human, and the two of them were inseparable.
The two cats came to me serendipitously when I needed them most. I was in the midst of my Saturn Return, ending an unhealthy marriage, starting a new life on my own, independent, and living on my own terms. Fanty and Mingo have been with me since the beginning of that journey. They’ve lived with me in three homes, and traveled across the country with me and Tim in my little VW GTI. My little familiars.
Intrepid beasts on our cross-country trip. That’s Fanty in the front.
But Fanty’s health started to deteriorate several years ago. It started with chronic allergies. He’d scratch his face so much that he’d leave bleeding wounds. Then he developed a cataract. The allergies worsened. Then the cancer.
When our family vet told us he had a “mass in his lower jaw,” I knew that the follow-up veterinary visits would be expensive. Worth it, of course, but expensive.
I looked at Tim, tears in my eyes, and said, “I’m not beyond starting a GoFundMe.” And he agreed.
It’s OK to Ask for Help
Originally we thought that Fanty would just need dental procedures. Maybe it was an abscess or an infected tooth.
But when the veterinary dentist looked at his jaw and the mass in his mouth, she was nearly sure—even before the CT scans or the biopsy—that it was an aggressive form of cancer. And he would only have a few weeks, at most, to live.
Then it was clear to me that we would definitely need help.
Tim and I are not the kind of people who ask friends for large financial assistance. So setting up that GoFundMe page was uncomfortable and felt awkward, and part of me thought maybe it wasn’t appropriate. Maybe we should just try to figure out how to pay the veterinary expenses ourselves.
But I thought, “What the hell? The worst that could happen is that we get nothing extra.”
A Little Help Went a Long Way
So, I started the GoFundMe. And posted about it on social media. It felt like a Hail Mary throw. “What the hell?” I muttered as I hit that publish button.
But then, the donations started. And kept coming. And some were so large that I burst into tears when I received the notification. Some were from people I hardly know. Some were from longtime and dear friends who I know also struggle with money.
Because of many of you, dear readers, we were able to raise most of the money needed not only to cover the costs of Fanty’s specialist visit, but also most of the expenses of the euthanasia and cremation.
Knowing that we wouldn’t have to shoulder that immense financial burden while also grappling with grief and loss has been a priceless balm on our battered spirits.
More importantly, knowing that there are so many people around the world who are willing to give a little money to help us care for a cat that they hardly know gave us unexpected hope in a time when we most desperately needed it.
That said, without belly dance, I probably wouldn’t have contacts and connections with all of you: a community.
Because of our shared interest and affinity, there are communities in this wider belly dance scene.
A community helps others in the group when they need it and when they are able. And that help doesn’t always need to be financial. It can be any kind of support. A private message. A comment. A share. Even a little heart reaction on Facebook counts, as far as I’m concerned. These things let someone else know that we care.
And sometimes we don’t always agree or get along. Sometimes we anger each other, get catty, or drift apart. I know sometimes I can get wrapped up in the drama of the scene, but when push comes to shove, we can rise above it.
Helping another person in your sphere is what creates and reifies community… regardless of stylization, teacher, school, or location.
You Deserve Eternal Gratitude
I don’t know how I will ever be able to express my gratitude to all of you who reached out, offered advice, expressed condolences, donated, and checked in on us as we said our final goodbyes to Fanty. I’ve been a bit of a wreck since the diagnosis, but knowing that others understand what we’re going through certainly softens the edges of the sorrow.
So… thank you. Thank you all so much for reminding this introvert how important our connections are.
Fanty on the left, with his arm over his brother, Mingo.
More than 10 years ago, when I was experimenting with what I now like to call “interpretive” belly dance (i.e., “fusion”) I once thought that doing belly dance movements was enough for me to call something “belly dance fusion.” I was still doing hipwork, undulations, and all the pelvic and torso articulations that are at the core of what make belly dance Belly Dance. Even in my interpretive sets, I played finger cymbals.
But now, I look back and see a dancer who separated belly dance movements from their cultural context. Why? Maybe I was just young and rebellious. Maybe I didn’t want the responsibility. Maybe I just wanted a means of expressing my angsty 20-something self. I mean, look at this dark, broody girl.
Looking back now, I’m not even sure I would call what I was doing “Belly Dance” with a capital “B” and a capital “D.” Experimental? Sure. Interpretive? Definitely. Fusion? Eh… not so much. What was I fusing? I still can’t really answer that question.
The older and more experience I have with this dance form, and the more I study dance in general, I realize that I was wrong about my performances being “fusion.” And that’s all right.
Hybrid vs. Fusion
When it comes to dance forms mingling and mixing, I tend to prefer the term “hybridity.” Yes, they kind of mean the same thing, but there are subtle differences.
The way I see it, hybridity comes from long time study of two or more movement forms and/or traditions, so that they blend together in the practitioner’s body. The movements become part of their physical essence, interplaying and intertwining in the same time and space. They mix and mingle, blending together organically and with ease.
I would go so far to say that hybridity comes from humility. The dancer submits themselves to the dance forms and the legacy, history, and cultures from which they come, letting them seep into their body. The dancer surrenders to the movements, letting the movements wind their way through their physical selves. They allow it to happen.
Whereas, I see “fusion”—at least in belly dance contexts—as being something more forced and perhaps more superficial. The dancer is trying to blend something together, rather than allowing them to blend together. The word “fusion” has taken on a connotation that there is effort behind the creation.
In my eyes, hybridity builds from the foundations and goes upward. Fusion is often imposed from above.
Trying to Make Something New
When dancers try to come up with something “new,” it often seems like they are doing so just for the sake of it. It’s a “top-down” approach to dance-making.
And, truth be told, sometimes these dancers are trying to sell you their “new” thing. Humans love novelty, so it’s an appealing business strategy.
If we really look at many dancers claiming to perform “fusion,” we often find that the dances aren’t even a fusion. They’re a patchwork. The phrases feel choppy, unrelated, and piecemeal. A shimmy here. Some Flamenco arms there. A mudra and some Odissi footwork followed by rib cage locks. It’s a bit like reading a string of unrelated sentences.
They’re kind of like this paragraph: A dog barked in the distance, but I really love that new coffee shop down the street. The dragons unleashed their fire upon the dwarf village, and the office worker sighed as another day dragged on.
Dances like that aren’t fused at all. The movements are sequential rather than integrated together. They’re more “mix-and-match” than blended. The dancer hasn’t, as my mentor likes to say, “marinated” in the movements.
That is, the movements aren’t yet a part of the essence of the dancer.
So… What Is Hybrid Dance?
So, you might be asking for some examples of hybridity rather than a patchwork of dance.
I consider what Suhaila Salimpour has done with her hard contraction isolations and her jazz footwork to be true hybridity. She studied intensely with jazz and street dancers, constantly asking herself, “How can I ‘belly-ize’ this?” The characteristics of belly dance are still there, especially when she dances to Arabic music.
Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet company also exemplifies hybridity. His work blends classical ballet training, including pointe work, with West African dance, contemporary, and jazz. In this piece, “Ocean,” you can clearly see the turned-out ballet foot positions while the dancers’ upper bodies expand and contract in a West African modality.
And if you scroll through Amy O’Neal’s instagram feed, you might first notice that she calls herself a “hybrid choreographer,” but you’ll also see how she seamlessly integrates old and new school hip hop, house footwork, and contemporary dance. She and I have had some fantastic conversations about hybridity and privilege, too.
What Sets Hybridity Apart? Cultural Connection
So, this all goes back to what I was hinting at the beginning of this post.
What good is movement without cultural connection and context?
Alonzo King operates within the cultural context of ballet, that is the stage, but clearly stays rooted in other forms. Suhaila worked for years in the Arab world, and grew up in a Middle Eastern family; today the Salimpour program emphasizes cultural context as well as technical prowess. And Amy spent her teenage years in the clubs, and regularly enters dance battles and presents works for the stage.
Her premise is that all dance is “ethnic dance,” but dance scholars (at the time she wrote the article in the late 1960s) tended to see ballet as the “default” and other non-Euro-American forms as “Other.”
However, all dance forms reflect the values, ideals, and history of the people who dance them. Classical ballet embodies the values of a Western European aristocracy, performed on proscenium stages, using French terminology, telling of European folk and fairy tales. It’s Western European ethnic dance.
All dance forms have cultural roots and origins, and the movements, presentation, performance, and teaching of those dance forms reflect the values, norms, and aspirations of that culture.
(Re)Imagining Dance Without Culture
When you think of Flamenco, do you only think of hand floreos, percussive footwork, and hand clapping? Or do you think of southern Spain, Andalucía, and the Spanish Roma?
Or when you think of ballet, do you think only of pointe shoes, arabesques, and pirouettes? Or do you consider the legacy of King Louis XIV, and the elite European courts that gave ballet its first stages?
What about belly dance? It is just shimmies and undulations? Or do you remember that the movements come from somewhere, that is, West Asia and North Africa?
Often when I see dancers doing what they often call “belly dance fusion” what I see is movement vocabulary removed from its cultural context.
Cultural Origins of Belly Dance… a Very Short Version
Belly dance emerged from the post-Ottoman Middle East, mostly in Egypt. It carries with it a legacy of existing despite a general cultural sense that women should not use or show their bodies to earn a living. Career dancers in the culture of origin often grapple with a society that shames them for their chosen profession.
Belly dance in its cultural context is performed to mostly Arabic music (even in Turkey), and a deep understanding of the sentiment of that music while conveying that emotion to the audience is essential for any accomplished performer. Belly dance in its culture of origin is performed with live musicians, and nightclub and hotel shows shift from emotional moment to emotional moment, with the dancer existing in that liminal space between audience and musician, embodying that space, and making it her own. But even when a dancer performs to a recording, they still are the medium that connects the viewer with the music.
So when a dancer does “hip drops” to Hip Hop for the sake of doing something new, that sense of embodied culture is often missing… from both the belly dance and the Hip Hop.
And, yes, experimentation is essential to art-making, but… cultural responsibility is even more so.
How Does Hybridity Happen?
So, what’s a dancer to do if they’re not from the culture of the dance form they are studying?
Listen to people from the culture of origin.
Keep practicing and building your movement vocabulary.
Find a reputable and knowledgable mentor.
Remember that your movement practice is just as important as studying history, theory, and culture.
Listen to music from the culture whose dance your studying, and learn how to dance to that music.
Remember that dance is never separate from culture and is, in fact, an embodiment of cultural values, history, and norms.
Hybridity Will Happen When It’s Ready
The more you integrate movements, techniques, and practices into what we like to say is your “muscle memory,” the more likely that hybridity will happen.
If you’re forcing fusion, it will always feel stilted, artificial, and surface… especially if you’re trying to sell it.
Movements will merge and meld in your body only with hard work, dedication, and surrendering to the process.
Most of my readers know that to be a thoughtful and mindful belly dancer that they must understand the songs to which they’re dancing. And because most classic belly dance music is sung in Arabic, that means working with translated lyrics.
But a translation alone isn’t enough to understand a song. Those of us who didn’t grow up speaking Arabic need to also understand the hows and whys of the language, even if we never become fluent.
If you’re a native English speaker, you might feel a little intimidated by Arabic. The script, sounds, letters, and grammar are all quite different from English. So, it’s natural to feel a little daunted when trying to figure out how Arabic works.
To help you get started, this is the first in a series of blog posts on what belly dancers need to know about the Arabic language, and also what pitfalls and gaffs to avoid.
1. It’s a Semitic Language
You might be familiar with the term “Semitic” to describe people of Jewish heritage, but technically, it describes a wide range of peoples and languages in the Eastern Mediterranean, East Africa, West Asia, and even southern Europe.
Semitic languages include Hebrew, Amharic (found in Ethiopia), Aramaic, and Maltese (which is a blend of Arabic and Italian, but retains its Semitic grammar).
These languages share common words and grammatical structure. But what really sets them apart from other languages is their triliteral word roots, which we’ll look at later in the post.
And their sentences tend to follow a word order of verb-subject-object, instead of what we do in English, which is subject-verb-object. Instead of saying “Abby writes a blog post,” a Semitic language is more likely to say, “Writes Abby a blog post.”
2. It’s Written in Arabic Script
Arabic script developed on the Arabian Peninsula, mostly in response to a need to write the teachings of the holy book of Islam, the Qu’ran, in the 7th and 8th centuries BCE.
The writing works a little like cursive, with many letters linked together. These letters sometimes change their shape according to whether they appear at the beginning, middle, or end of a word. Some letters never connect, while others do. Don’t worry about which ones do and don’t unless you’re actively learning how to read Arabic.
Another distinguishing characteristic is that Arabic is read from right-to-left. This can pose some problems when typing in Arabic if your computer isn’t equipped to jump between the two text directions.
The general shape of a letter stays the same, but with small changes depending on where in the word it appears.
Arabic is not the only language that uses this script. Persian (Farsi) and Pashtu also use it, but they are not Semitic languages at all. They are actually Indo-European. They have more in common with English than Arabic or Hebrew.
Ottoman Turkish was also written in Arabic script until the creation of the Republic of Turkey in the early 20th century, when President Mustafa Kemal Atatürk decreed that Turkish would be written in Roman script instead. Turkish is a Turkic language, with connections to Uighur and even some indigenous Siberian languages.
Marvel Studios apparently didn’t have a budget to double check the Arabic text behind King T’Chaka in Captain America: Civil War, because it reads from left to right, and the letters aren’t connected. It’s supposed to say “United Nations”—الامم المتحدة. Screenshot credit to BlueStringsAttached on Imgur.
3. It’s Based on a Three Letter Root System
Once you understand that Arabic follows what’s called a triliteral root system, your understanding of basic words and concepts will make a lot more sense. This means that most words are based on three consonants (or vowels that can act like consonants).
Take a word that you’ve probably heard of: Salām, meaning “peace”. It’s of similar origin to the Hebrew “shalom.” The consonant root of this word is S-L-M (س-ل-م), which is the root for words that have to do with peace or being peaceful. From this root we get words like Islām and muslim. The name Salome also comes from this root.
You might also be familiar with the word taqsīm, which means “partition,” and in music, it refers to a solo improvisation by a melodic instrument. The word comes from the root Q-S-M (ق-س-م). From this we also get the name of a common rhythm, maqsūm, (often spelled “maqsoum” or “maksoum”), because of its limping accents.
4. Long Vowels are Written… Short Vowels are Not.
I’ve heard some people say that Arabic doesn’t have written vowels, but this simply isn’t true. Arabic can be written with all of its vowels, but in general, written Arabic only includes the long vowels. Written texts where exact pronunciation is of the utmost importance, such as in the Qur’ān and in children’s books, will include the short vowels.
Fluent Arabic readers will be able to determine the short vowels from the context of the word, which can be quite difficult for non-native readers. But it gets easier with time and practice.
This common greeting can be written with or without short vowels. The small lines are short vowels, while the little circle—the sukun—means no vowel at all.
But what’s the difference between a long and short vowel? It’s basically how long you spend vocalizing that sound before moving on to the next one. Take the word “bid.” The “i” would be considered “short.” But if we write “bide” then then “i” becomes longer.
There are only three long and short vowel sounds in written Arabic: a, i, u, and ā, ī, ū. These vowel sounds do change a bit from dialect to dialect, which I’ll get to later in the post.
5. It Uses Unique Letters
The Arabic alphabet has 28 letters, many of which don’t exist in English. These can prove difficult for newcomers, because these letters can be quite difficult to pronounce. They are even more difficult to convey in Roman script because we don’t have letter equivalents.
But there are various ways of writing these letters in Roman script, which we use to write English and many other European languages. Arabic speakers sometimes use specific numbers instead of letters, while academics will use diacritical marks, such as the – over long vowels (such as in taqsīm), and a dot under a letter for the deeper softer letters that are vocalized in the back of the mouth such as ص, ض, and ح (for example: ḥabībī).
One of the most common, and often the most challenging, letters is ع, or ‘ayn. It shows up quite a bit, in the Arabic words for eye (‘ayn or ‘ain), life (‘umri, such as in the song “Enta Omri”, أنت عمري) and even Arab (‘arab, عرب). It is in the middle of sa’idi and the popular song Isma’ouni.
6. So. Many. Dialects.
To make things even more difficult, Arabic speakers usually don’t converse in Classical or even what’s known as Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) in their every day lives. They are more likely to speak in their regional dialect, and that can be tricky for those of us trying to learn Arabic in classroom environments which tend to focus mainly on MSA.
Classical Arabic is often considered to be what we find in scriptures, like the Holy Qur’an. It sounds a bit like the King James translation of the Bible. It makes sense, but it would be like using “thee” and “thou” in everyday speech.
Modern Standard Arabic, or MSA, is a bit like BBC English. Most English speakers understand it, but it’s stilted, formal, and Brits don’t talk like that with their friends. It’s called fusḥa (fuss-Ha), and it’s the the variety that I learned first in my academic studies. For regular conversation it’s useful, but when you speak it, you’ll always get asked, “Oh! Where did you study?” It’s that obvious.
Then there are the regional dialects.
There are many regional dialects and they all have their own implicit rules and quirks. The most common ones you’ll here in the music that we use for dancing is Egyptian, or Masri (مصر — “Masr” or “Misr” is the Arabic word for Egypt). In Egyptian Arabic, the q is often dropped, becoming a glottal stop. This is why the word for moon, qamr, becomes ‘amar. Egyptian dialect also changes the soft “J” sound of jeem, or ج, to a hard “G” sound. This is how we get gamil or gameel from jamīl both of which mean “handsome” or “beautiful.”
Egyptian Arabic also can make certain vowels change a bit from their classical or MSA forms. Take the song “Enta Omri.” If we were to pronounce it in its classical way, we’d say “Inta ‘Umri,” but the Egyptian dialect shifts the initial vowels to be more like “Eh” and “Oh.”
7. You Probably Already Know Some Arabic
If you speak English, Spanish, Italian, you probably already know some Arabic words, or at least words that came from Arabic.
Many English words that start with “al” are likely derived from Arabic like: alcohol, alchemy, algorithm, and albatross.
Other words include: artichoke, spinach, cotton, coffee, sequin, and zero.
More to Come…
Stay tuned for future posts about Arabic essentials for belly dancers, including transcribing Arabic into Roman script, and my top pet peeves that dancers do with Arabic.
I’ve been teaching belly dance since 2005, and I’ve been a student of movement my entire life. I’ve been on both sides of the teacher-student relationship for quite a while now, and believe me: I feel like sometimes I learn even more as a teacher than I do when I’m a student!
After every class, I reflect on what worked and what didn’t, and I’m constantly evaluating how to help my adult students dance to their full potential. I reflect on my values as a teacher—integrity, kindness, discipline, personalization, mindfulness, context, and more—and how I can better integrate all these moving parts in the next class with the explicit intention of helping my students be their best.
I try to apply my own corrections and observations right away.
So, when I’m a student, and the teacher gives me a correction in class, I also make a concerted, intentional effort to apply it right away.
You’re Either Doing the Thing… Or You Aren’t
One of the things I love about dance is that you either do the thing or you don’t. As a relatively academically-gifted child, I was able to cram for exams and slack a bit in my school classes and still be at the top of the class. But as a figure skater? I either landed a jump or I didn’t. I got my leg up or I didn’t. I did two rotations in a double toe loop or I didn’t.
I couldn’t cram for my competitions or my figure skating tests. The only way to “cram” for dance is to practice and thoughtfully apply the guidance, feedback, and corrections from your instructors. And that takes time, intention, and practice.
Did I Get Your Attention?
Speaking of my skating days, when I was about 9 years old, one of my figure skating coaches caught me zoning out during a lesson and told me, “You have the kind of face that looks like you’re paying attention… even when you’re not.” Busted. You best believe that I made every effort to pay attention after that!
Which brings me to another thing I love about dance: it requires my full attention. I’m easily distracted, and probably even a little ADHD. But because my body holds me accountable, I can’t let my attention wander when I’m dancing. I must be completely present. Not only will my instructors notice (which borders on disrespectful to them and the other students), but I won’t get the most out of that class.
So, when you are in class, you must make every effort to leave your outside world outside. This is why we instructors ask you to be on time (early), turn off your phones, and be present for the entire duration of class. Because that’s the only time we teachers get with you, and that’s the only time you’ll get feedback to become a better dancer and get more out of dancing.
Do the Thing… Immediately
Your job as a student is to stay present, mindful, and give your full attention to the act of being in class. Part of that responsibility is constantly checking yourself and making sure that you are doing the things that the teacher is asking of you.*
If a teacher tells you to point straighten your leg all the way in a tendu, or push all the way up into demi-point, you need to try it out immediately. Explore and notice that that feels like. Look in the mirror. Are you implementing the feedback? If not, how can you get your body to do it?
But if you just stand there and say, “OK, thanks,” “I’m trying,” or you counter with an excuse, it’s just not going to happen. Doing it is the only way that movement will become an embodied habit.
Yes, I Mean You
As a teacher, it’s my job to give instruction helps my students become better dancers. Sometimes this means giving general feedback to the entire class, and other times it means giving personal corrections to a single student.
So, when a teacher gives corrections, they mean you. Even when they’re talking to the whole class. Even when they’re addressing another student. Especially when they’re addressing another student.
And when you hear instruction, feedback, and corrections, you need to do it. Dance is about doing. And like I said above, you either do the thing or you don’t.
Remember Feedback Better
Adult brains have a more difficult time assimilating new information than those of children. Not only are children’s brains more primed to learn information quickly, but also they are not burdened with jobs, responsibilities, or the myriad things that occupy (and annoy) us adults.
So, adults need information presented to them in smaller chunks. We need to put extra effort into making the new feedback “stick.” And, yes, sometimes dance instructors give a lot of feedback in a class. (Remember that often we only get an hour and a half with you a week!)
If you’re having a hard time remembering feedback, or how to apply it, try these tips:
This is probably the most important: Do the feedback.
Repeat the feedback to yourself in your head so that you can recall it when you need it.
Write down corrections you received/heard in a notebook after class.
Focus on one correction you received/heard in class when you practice at home (and you are practicing at home).
Reflect on what you felt was the most difficult part of class and how you can problem solve to make it less difficult next time.
10 minutes before your next class, recall one correction you received/heard in the previous class and commit to applying that correction in that class.
Video yourself doing a drill, combination, or exercise from class. Watch the video and write down what worked, what didn’t, and how you might be able to improve it.
Be patient, yet diligent. Small changes matter, as long as you’re making a consistent effort.
If you’re with a good instructor, they have your best interests in mind. Trust their eye, words, and intentions.
Unlike some contemporary or modern dance forms, belly dance places an inordinate amount of emphasis on appearance, presentation, and grooming. Professional belly dancers know that we shouldn’t go on stage with our “office hair” or our “rehearsal hair.” If you’re new to this performance thing, then you should start thinking about what’s happening on your head in addition to what’s happening in your hips.
The archetypal belly dancer has beautiful, thick, curly hair. My hair? Fine, limp, and oily. It’s the total opposite of belly dancer hair. It doesn’t even hold a curl. AND in the last five or so years, it’s started thinning. I am definitely follicle-challenged.
It’s taken me a long time to accept my anemic tresses, but knowing I can boost my look with false ones has helped me make peace with it all. In fact, many dancers supplement their own locks with store-bought ones. Of course some dancers have blazed their own paths with short hair or slicked-back hair. Rosa Noreen rocks her pixie cut, and in Suhaila Salimpour’s Enta Omri, we wear our hair slicked back into donut buns.
But, in general, belly dance calls for big hair.
While some people wear extensions and wigs in their daily life, dancing in said hair poses additional challenges. Our hair has to stay on our head, regardless of how many hair flips or spins we do. I’ve experimented with lots of different kinds of hair extensions, particularly short-term ones. Here’s what I’ve learned.
Photo by The Dancer’s Eye
Types of Temporary Extensions and Falls
OK, so technically every kind of extension is temporary. Eventually they’ll fall out or grow out. I’m going to start with the more temporary varieties, and then add my experiences with Perfectress semi-permanent extensions, which I recently had installed by a professional this spring before the Bal Anat 50th Anniversary tour.
First, terminology: When shopping for extensions, you’ll see terms like “Yaki,” “Remy,” “virgin,” “cuticle” and more. Yaki hair refers to fibers, synthetic and natural, that mimic the texture of hair of people of Afro-Caribbean descent. It’s usually a little thicker and coarser than non-Yaki. Yaki hair can be synthetic or natural, and comes in various styles, from straight and sleek to curly and kinky.
Remy hair means that the hair is natural, from a single donor, and all the fibers are the same direction. Remy hair can be processed or unprocessed. Unprocessed is usually referred to as “virgin.” This means that the cuticle is still intact and hasn’t been dyed or straightened. The cuticle is the outer layer of the hair that helps protect it from damage.
If you’re in the market to buy real human hair, make sure you get the good stuff: Remy, virgin, cuticle intact. Your natural hair might resemble the Yaki texture, so shop around to be sure to get a good match. Or, if it’s within your financial means, consult a professional stylist.
These are perhaps the easiest of all the fake hair adventures. I’m sure you’ve seen some variation of the ponytail fall. Back in the mid 2000s, I could even find them at mall kiosks. I prefer the ones with just a drawstring on the inside and one or two small combs, not the ones with a banana/jaw clip under the hair.
They are often made of synthetic fibers, although some are made with real human hair. Synthetics are almost always less expensive than the real thing.
To wear, pull your hair back in a high ponytail, and insert the combs around your own hair. Then pull the drawstring tight so the combs attach into your ponytail. Tuck the drawstring under (pinning it if necessary), and voila! A beautiful full ponytail that’s ready for the stage. I also like to bobby pin around the base of the fall for extra security, just in case.
Even this bun isn’t my real hair.
Clip-in Loose Extensions
These were my preferred hair supplements for quite a long time. These come in two basic varieties: one that’s like a wig cap that you clip at the back of your head, with your natural hair covering the fall; the other is separate wefts of hair that you also clip in at the back of your head. Both attach with wig clips, which are very secure, with a little rubber bit that helps stick to your hair.
I use the separate wefts, and after several years of practice, I can securely install them in under 10 minutes. However, I do have to wash, dry, and style my natural hair beforehand. Right after washing and before blow-drying, I use Bumble & Bumble’s Styling Lotion because it adds body and is a bit sticky, which helps keep the clips from sliding out. On performance nights when I know I’ll be on stage for a long time (read: sweating), I also love Aveda’s Pure Abundance Hair Potion, which absorbs a bit of the sweat and oil and helps add volume. I also lightly hairspray the area at the roots before clipping in the falls, which also adds a little extra security.
Not my real hair, and I ain’t ashamed. These are clip-ins. Photo by The Dancer’s Eye.
Half or Three-Quarter Wigs
These are great because you don’t have the weight of a full head wig or the additional sweat factor. I’ve worn these a few times, particularly when I’m playing a Ghawazee with Bal Anat. If you’re not wearing a headband, you’ll have to brush your own hair over the top, blending it in with the half wig. Some dancers wear a headband instead, eliminating the need to have a perfect color and/or texture match.
The great thing about wigs is that you don’t have to match your own hair at all. You can change your style quickly with no commitment. I admit that I have little experience with wigs, as I’m worried they’re going to fly right off of my head. Some dancers, however, swear by them.
If you’re investing in a full head of hair that isn’t grown out of your own scalp, I’d recommend looking at some made out of real human hair. The synthetic ones often have a strange, artificial-looking shine, which is a dead giveaway that it’s not your natural hair. Real human hair is more expensive in general, but worth the extra money. It will last longer, too, especially if you take care of it well. But if you’re just trying out the wig thing, you might want to go the cheaper route just for fun.
Princess Farhana suggested to me that when buying a full wig, go to the shop in full makeup. A hair piece is going to look much different against a fully made up face than it will against your daily look.
Once you’ve found one you like, you can take it to your hair stylist to trim and shape it to best match your facial structure and desired look.
They’re meant to be worn for longer amounts of time than the clip-ins, but your mileage may vary. You might also want to avoid them if your hair is very fine, because removing the tape might also remove some of your own delicate hair. They’re also more likely to slip out if you have oily hair.
Beaded Wefts and Links
My current favorite! This spring I took the plunge. I searched on Yelp for a stylist in my area who specializes in semi-permanent extensions for people with fine and thin hair. I found Sophia at Le Salon in Berkeley, California, who is a miracle worker.
I currently have PerfecTress brand extensions, which match my natural hair so well that most people I see are like, “Wow! Your hair got so long!” Yes. Yes it did. Because I bought it.
Maybe she’s born with it? Or maybe she bought it. No shame!
I’ve only had one mishap with one of the links falling out, and after having the hair for nearly 9 months, it’s still in good shape. Only a few split ends, and it looks relatively healthy.
The wonderful thing about these is that I can wash and dry my hair as I normally would, and it looks very natural. It’s also the most comfortable extension I’ve worn. It was only uncomfortable the day or two after it was installed, because my scalp wasn’t yet used to the extra weight.
Where Should You Buy Your Hair?
Clip-in bangs and a long poofy ponytail fall helped me play Jamila Salimpour at Reverence. Photo by Angelica Wu.
You’ll want to visit a proper wig shop to find the best extensions, rather than just buying online. Not only will you have to match your hair’s color, but you’ll also have to match the texture. You don’t want super thick extensions if you have baby fine natural hair. It will just look weird.
If you have lighter-colored hair, it’s probably going to be more difficult to find a true match. But if you ask, the shop keepers will be more than happy to help you find the right extensions for you. While you’re there, you can probably stock up on some cheap fake eyelashes too!
If buying a full set of human hair extensions with the cuticle still intact, be prepared to spend at least $100 for a set. I paid a pretty penny for my current extensions, but they’re worth it. You can wash, dry, and style these like your own hair, but use a deep conditioner to prevent split ends and breakage. I’ve found washing and drying synthetic hair to be more of a challenge, because the plastic fibers stretch when combed and tangle quite easily.
Have you experimented with extensions? What’s worked for you and what would you never try again? Share in the comments!
Disclaimer: I write this from my perspective a cis-gender woman in a female-dominated dance form. That influences my perspective.
How many times have you heard statements such as:
Belly dance is by women for women.
This is a woman’s dance.
This dance was meant for woman’s bodies.
We don’t allow men in our classes.
Can men belly dance? (With the implication being that they can’t and that they shouldn’t, and if they do, then they’re queer, with the further implication that that characteristic makes them inadequately masculine, and therefore flawed because they are more “woman” than “man.”)
The more I dig into the history of this dance form, I realize that these statements are problematic. In addition, my time in graduate school exposed me to new-to-me concepts of gender performance and identity. Perhaps these concepts are brand new to you as well, or maybe they’re familiar and you, too, have been thinking about what I’m calling in this post, the “Belly Binary.”
Several of my colleagues have written excellent blogs and articles regarding gender in belly dance (such as this post by Kamrah), calling attention to the fact that male-identified and gender non-conforming (including gender-fluid and trans* people) have been engaging in solo improvisational dance in the Middle East and Central Asia for centuries, and that not all belly dancers identify as being “a woman.”
The Exclusionary Feminine
Claiming that belly dance is for “women only” presupposes many things. One, that there are essential gender characteristics, that women hold certain characteristics that are diametrically opposed to those that men have. While polarity and spectrums (note I didn’t say “binary”) exist in archetypal study—anima/animus, yin/yang, dark/light, night/day, moon/sun, inside/outside, internal/external—these divisions are not so easily applied to living, breathing human bodies.
Gender is performative and exists on a spectrum. How we interpret clothing, hairstyles, make-up (and the lack thereof), gestures, and movement as either masculine or feminine is cultural, societal, and learned.
When dancers say that belly dance is for women, it reveals a tension between “male” and “female” in our societies with predominantly Abrahamic faiths. Even those of us who are not religious have been exposed to and likely raised in societies in which these faiths dominate moral, social, and gender norms. In North America, the claim that belly dance is essentially female seems to me to be a search for a space where those who identify as female can escape the everyday realities of having a female body: catcalling, harassment, degradation, violence, and more.
But desire for a safer space does not negate the fact that belly dance is not essentially “female.” Acculturation, both in the Middle East and outside of it, not biology, has shaped our perception of belly dance as feminine art.
All Bodies Can Dance
Bodies with XX (female) chromosomes are not somehow better suited for belly dance than XY (male) bodies. Nor is the opposite true… and these aren’t the only genotypes of sex anyway, as this recent article from Stanford explains, even the chromosomal bifurcation isn’t always a binary.
As long as your body has the bones and muscles required to dance (and that doesn’t even mean having all of them, or that all of them should be of “normal” ability), you can dance.
By claiming that this dance is for women, we are not only excluding men but we are excluding the even more marginalized population of gender non-conforming people—gender-queer, non-binary, gender-fluid, questioning, and trans* to name a few—who might want to check out a belly dance class.
An Implicit Contradiction
Saying that belly dance is a “woman’s dance” also contradicts many dancers’ claim that “belly dance is for everyone” and that the belly dance “community” is welcoming to all. Indeed, some dance studios and companies truly do welcome all, but when we use gendered language, we may be negating our claims.
In addition, the notion that belly dance is inherently feminine is an Orientalist construct. The idea of a feminized, passive, mysterious, ancient “Orient” is a fantasy perpetuated through North American belly dance practice (I can not speak as much to practices elsewhere).
Yes, the professional dancers in Cairo’s 5-star hotels are women, but this dance form as performed socially is not exclusively for those who identify as female. Indeed, there is also a long history of professional male dancers who have performed solo, improvisational, pelvic-articulated dances.
It’s important that we look at what this dance form is and what it has been, rather than what we want it to be, at least in regard to fantasy.
Inclusion Can Begin With Words
In the classes I both take and teach, we have a variety of bodies, identities, and expressions. Dancers are taught the same technique, the same movements, and the same combinations.
Personally, when teaching, I try to avoid gendered language, using “dancers” or “everyone” instead of “ladies,” (especially because sometimes not all the students self-identify as female, and respecting identity is important).
I admit that this language habit has been difficult to break, but my habits aren’t more important than respecting someone’s individual identity.
Majority-Female ≠ Women Only
And while we belly dancers must be aware of the realities and struggles that professional performers in the Middle East face—including that a professional female belly dancer in Cairo is considered “the norm,” (and yet still incredibly marginalized) while a male is an aberration, but also that a professional female performer is also often considered to be a “fallen woman” with no honor—that does not mean that we should perpetuate an exclusionary binary in our own engagement with the dance form.
And while today, belly dance is a women-dominated subculture (a term coined by professional dancer and colleague Sabriye Tekbilek), solo, improvisational dance in the Middle East has been performed—professionally and casually—by women, men, and gender non-conforming dancers for as long as we have a record of it.
Why Does This Even Matter?
And you might ask: Why would a cis-gendered woman belly dancer care about this anyway?
Inclusiveness. Equity. Justice.
Dance is for all. Dance is a gift we give to each other through movement and expression. Belly dance is expressive, technical, and cultural. The movements associated with belly dance are performed by all genders as a folk dance and profession. Why deny anyone of the experience of learning culture and themselves through movement?
This holiday season, I went down to Fourth Street in Berkeley, which is an upscale shopping district that happens to have a great greeting card shop. There are the other usual “mall” suspects, like an Apple store, MAC makeup, a recently-added Sephora, a Sur La Table, Paper Source, Lululemon, in addition to a few coffee shops and restaurants and locally-owned gift and clothing retailers.
There’s also a lovely little whimsical store called Castle in the Air, which is fashioned like an Old World fairy tale. Faux trees covered in tiny lights arch over a hard-wood floor, glass cabinets hold sparkling jewelry, and shelves are artfully stocked with handmade cards, papers, ornaments, home decorations, and art books.
But what I’m really here to write about is a new addition to Fourth Street: the Amazon 4-Star store.
Put on Your 3-D Glasses
Generally, we’ve only interacted with Amazon as a retailer through a screen. The entire experience is basically 2-dimensional.
Most of the time, we just type a term into the search bar and hit “Enter.”
We don’t visit Amazon.com to browse. We get in and get out. Sometimes we’ll click through the recommended products, but we hardly window shop. Or at least, I don’t. (If I go there at all anymore, because apparently a company worth billions of dollars can’t pay its warehouse workers a living wage or treat them with dignity.)
And when we interact with an online store, there is a kind of order behind the scenes. We use a drop-down menu to the section of the site we want to visit. We can search for exactly what we’re looking for, or we can scroll through the site’s recommendations, which are based on our purchase history.
Part of what makes Amazon.com successful is its convenience, personalization, and, to some extent, its organization.
None of which is a feature of their brick-and-mortar store.
Nothing Makes Sense Anymore
Amazon’s blog says that the 4-Star store approach is “fun” and makes it “easy to shop.”
Apparently they have different ideas of fun than I do.
While the items themselves were neat and orderly, the store itself was cluttered, and the sections had little flow or order. A table of best-selling books was separated from a wall of book recommendations of “if you loved this title, then you’ll like these similar titles.” Pet supplies hung next to holiday decor. There were toys at both the front and the back of the store, including the YouTube unboxing video-inspired “LOL! Surprise” dolls. So meta.
The Amazon branded electronics, such as the Echo, Kindle, and Alexa products were haphazardly situated on tables between kitchen appliances and charging cables.
And it all catered to a kind of generic customer, like a Dollar Store for rich people.
Turning Inside Out
The weirdest part for me, though, was that it felt as though it had been laid out by people who had forgotten that human bodies would be entering a 3-dimensional space and interacting with the merchandise in person.
And that’s probably exactly what happened.
I felt like I had been turned inside out. Or maybe the computer screen had become real, tangible, but not in a cool VR or AR kind of way.
As a dancer, it was a jarring experience.
I wondered how many people in there were thinking the same thing I was.
How weird it was to be interacting in time and space with this retailer that I had only ever experienced in a 2-dimensional plane. Or how we were bodies walking through a space that had previously been reserved for only our eyes. Or how disorganized it was, that it didn’t encourage any kind of bodily interaction with the merchandise, like, say, the Apple Store does with its sparse design and clean spaces between tables and even between the devices themselves.
Or maybe it was just me.
Shopping As a Corporeal Experience
Now, I admit that I am a child of the 80s and 90s, the great mall heyday. But for me, particularly as a teenager, the mall was a place of magic and inspiration. Hear me out.
There were at our local malls, at the time, The Museum Store, The Nature Company, an amazing science and technology-focused shop called The Scientific Revolution, HEAR music (where you could listen to any CD in the shop before buying it), little gift shops selling pens and hand-blown perfume bottles, art supply and stationary stores, and book stores.
Walking through these shops was a truly a full body venture. All my senses were at work. I’d smell each perfume at the Body Shop. I’d test out pens at the stationary store. I’d flip through coffee table books. I’d gaze through the cabinets at jewelry reproduced after ancient Roman and Egyptian artifacts. I’d select a CD from the shelf and perch on a stool and listen to each track on giant can headphones deciding whether or not it moved me enough to bring it home.
And we don’t get those experiences when we shop online. We shop online because it’s convenient, cheaper, and faster.
They Say Millennials Want Experiences
So, what this leads me to is… why did Amazon just not seem to care about creating a storefront that was enjoyable to visit? Why create a physical store at all?
Well, it’s Amazon. They just want to make more sales and claim more market share.
But it points to a wider issue. As retailers struggle to draw shoppers into their physical storefronts, they’re missing a huge part of what can make shopping enjoyable. The act of actually going into a store and interacting with the products with our whole bodies.
It’s a given, of course, that wages have stagnated, and Millennials are burdened with student loans, and everything is relatively more expensive for them than it was for their parents. But I also think it’s because people who were born between 1982 and 2004-ish remember the emergence of the internet or never knew a world without it. And because of this, they unconsciously long for more physical interaction with the world around them.
They say Millennials want experiences. This is true. But all humans want experiences. It’s not in our nature to interact with the world through screens.
Which brings me back to the little fairy tale store a few doors down from the Amazon 4-Star.
Castle in the Air has realized that their store is also an experience, whether or not they know it explicitly. In addition to offering a storefront that evokes a sense of joy and wonder, they also offer a wide range of arts and crafts classes, like watercolors, collaging, and calligraphy.
They understand that shopping in a brick-and-mortar store can be a feast for the senses. It can spark wonder and curiosity. And that it continues to be an embodied interaction.
Which is why walking through the Amazon store felt so jarring, disorienting, and disconnected.
From the first skating holiday showcase I participated in when I was 5, to just this holiday season, I’ve literally been performing my entire life. I admit that I take it for granted that I know many of the implicit and essential elements of being a performer.
So, I created this guide for first time performers, specifically those who are dancing with a company or troupe at festivals, student salons, and community stage shows. Taking the stage for the first time as an adult can be scary, challenging, and exciting. I hope that this helps you take the stage with ease, poise, and confidence.
Before the Show
Attend all the rehearsals. If you cannot make a rehearsal, tell your director at least a week ahead of time. Of course, emergencies happen, but advance notice is not only appreciated, it shows that you respect the time of your director, fellow dancers, and the act of performance itself. Be on time for these rehearsals.
Have your costume in order at least two weeks ahead of time. This means that you have all the parts, pieces, and elements ready to go. This also means having appropriate and matching undergarments.
Get yourself a nice gig bag. Most of us seasoned performers prefer a carry-on size rolling suitcase. They’re the perfect size for your costumes, make-up, and any additional items you might need, like snacks, water, and other essentials.
Make sure you know how to do your make-up, hair, and nails. Your director should have a guide for you with looks, brands, colors, and how much (answer: more). Try a practice run at home, take some selfies, and send them to your director. If you are a first time performer, stage make-up and hair might be a bit daunting. You’ll get better with practice, which is why we have student salons and performances.
If the show is public, ask your friends and family to come. Performances feel way better when you have people who love and support you in the audience.
The Day of The Show
Arrive at the venue earlier than your director tells you. This is your “call time.” It’s always best to allow way more time to get ready and arrive at the performance venue than you expect.
If you have a difficulty before the performance, contact your director or their designated helper. And try to fix it yourself first before asking for help. If it is a real emergency that will affect the performance or your safety, definitely contact your director. But sometimes, it’s best to not bother them. I’ve scrambled to retrieve last-minute forgotten items or costume bits without my directors ever knowing. As they say, the show must go on.
Pay close attention to the instructions of your director. This is particularly important if you have the opportunity to do a run through on the stage itself, a tech rehearsal, or a full dress rehearsal. I’ve found that the direction and instructions given the day of the show are often forgotten in the rush of adrenaline and excitement. So make an extra concerted effort to listen, process, and remember these last minute changes… because there will be last minute changes.
During the Show: Backstage
Either sit in the audience or be invisible and quiet backstage. Some events don’t have a backstage, such as student salons. Some do, and have big curtained wings. If you are in the audience, be a respectful and pleasant viewer. If you are backstage, make yourself invisible. If you can see the audience, they can see you.
Take up as little space as possible backstage. Often student galas have a lot of performers, and space is limited. Be considerate of others and try to keep your things together, organized, and in a small space.
During the Show: In the Audience
Wear your cover up if you are watching the other performers. Every other belly dance blog says this, but it does bear repeating. If you don’t have one, ask your director where to get one. (Confession time: It’s the item I’m most likely to forget when packing for a show!)
Say only pleasant and positive things about the other performers. No one wants to hear you snark. It’s not a good look. If you have partners or friends who might snark, remind them to keep all comments pleasant and positive.
Put away your mobile phone and be present in the moment. Sometimes emergencies happen, but in our age of constant technology, having a live, in-person community can be a rare experience. Treasure it and interact with the other humans.
During the Show: Your Performance
Use your dancer’s walk when entering and exiting the stage. Ball-heel, ball-heel. Look up and out, not at the floor. Relax your shoulders and carry your arms with energy. The stage is a hollowed space where we are transformed from pedestrian to performer, particularly for belly dance. Again, if you can see the audience, they can see you!
Face your bum away from the audience if you have to place or pick up a prop. Remember: the audience can see you. They can see everything. Especially if you bend over with your booty facing them.
After the Show
Say only positive things about your own performance. What we say to ourselves creates our reality.
Thank your director and the show organizer. They’ve probably worked way harder than you realize to make this performance a reality, and to give their dancers a safe and supportive environment in which to share our work.
Now, all that said: not everyone wants to perform… I mean, if you’re in a student troupe, that probably means you’re going to perform. But you don’t have to. Some people just enjoy coming to class, moving together with others, and the exercise that comes with attending a dance class.
But if you are performing… make sure you follow these tips for a successful show!
Did I miss something? Share your tips for first time and new adult performers in the comments.
Seriously, though. It’s time we stopped perpetuating this impossible myth.
Belly dance is not the world’s oldest dance. It’s not ancient.
It’s hardly even 100 years old. And it’s changing all the time.
So why do so many dancers—and ones who should know better—keep insisting that this dance form is so damn old?
Why Do We Say It?
It makes good marketing.
I mean… it does sound good. “Belly dance… the world’s oldest dance.” It adds a sense of mystery and intrigue, particularly to our marketing copy. For potential dance students seeking to get in touch with their “inner selves” or feel in touch with a sense of something grand and timeless, an “ancient” dance form might seem very attractive. Yoga marketing uses similar tropes, and it’s an issue in that community as well.
It makes us and our dance form feel important.
When we remark at how old a painting is, how how many years a building has been standing, or even when we talk about humans who have lived a really long time… well, older things and people are important. If only because they have stood the test of time. But should we be relying on imagined age to make our dance feel more legitimate?
It roots us.
The belly dance scene, particularly in the United States, is constantly in conflict between roots and innovation. For at least the past four decades, dancers have been arguing with each other about authenticity and tradition. When we say that this dance is “ancient,” it gives a sense of gravitas to the dance itself… even if it’s not true.
But… Being the Oldest Dance Is Not Possible
Dance is living. It changes on the bodies who do it. Unlike the visual arts, like sculpture or painting, dance cannot be preserved except in the doing, and in the doing, it is ephemeral and dynamic.
We can look at, say, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, or Tutankhamen’s gold funerary mask and have a sense of the values, style, and intentions of those who created them. We can date their creation to a specific period or year. It’s there, in front of our eyes. An archaeologist can touch the monoliths of Stonehenge. A curator can place a pre-Raphaelite painting in a gallery.
But we cannot place a choreography in a space without a living, breathing, aging, dancing body.
While interpretation of Michelangelo’s paintings change from viewer to viewer, the painting itself does not change each time it is viewed. Dance changes each time is is danced, and is changed on each body that dances it.
Belly Dance is Actually Quite Young
Belly dance as we know it today is hardly even 100 years old. We can trace it back to the innovations of Badia Masabni. But if we look at how the dancers in the Casino Opera moved compared to how contemporary dancers in Cairo are moving, there are distinct differences, including effort-shape of movements themselves (the most important element, of course), costuming, musical choices, venues, and audiences.
One distinct movement difference is the textural quality of hip work. Early raqs sharqi hipwork is primarily sustained, tracing shapes of circles, figure 8s, and waves. Contemporary Egyptian dancers employ more on sharp, direct, and quick hip movements, emphasizing percussion, reverberating through the body. These movements are then set in contrast to bound flow shapes in waves, figure 8s, and circles.
There are several fantastic studies about the development of raqs sharqi, including “A Trade like Any Other”: Female Singers and Dancers in Egypt (Van Nieuwkerk, 1995), and Egyptian Belly Dance In Transition: The Raqs Sharqi Revolution, 1890-1930 (Ward, 2018).
Dancers of the Casino Badia, wearing their dance “suits,” or bedlah.
We can even say this of ballet. The classical ballet that we know today, with its 5 foot and arm positions, codified French language, and tradition of Swan Lake and The Nutcracker is only about 150 years old. At the turn of the century, dancers hardly even performed en pointe. And at its inception, there were several degrees of being on the ball of the foot—quarter rise, half-rise, 3/4-rise, and full pointe—in contrast to the flat, releve, and pointe of today.
The Royal Opera House in London has a fantastic series of the history of ballet, with a whole collection of videos demonstrating how the form has evolved over time. When you watch this series, you’ll see that even ballet, which has a reputation in the belly dance scene for being rigid and static, is as fluid and changing as any other dance form.
Saying Belly Dance is Ancient is a Problem
While it was quite popular for dancers to say that belly dance is “old” or “ancient” in the mid 00s, we should take more care today.
One of the key elements of Orientalism, as posited by Edward Said in 1978, is the perception and belief that the Middle East is static, unchanging, and timeless. Viewed through Western European (male) eyes, the ancientness of the Orient keeps it inferior to the “West.” Of course, for a wealthy Western European white male, that would mean that the land and its people were ripe for the colonizing. (I do hope you’ll read this section with a hefty dose of snark.)
However, this theory is turned on its head when it comes to belly dance.
Instead of the backwards Orient being a place of savages to be tamed by the technological, social, and political advances of the West, the Orient becomes a location for ancient, lost, hidden (read: feminine) wisdom. Donnalee Dox deftly explains how belly dancers have taken the trope of the ancient Orient and used it to enact fantasies of a lost time of women’s wisdom and sisterhood. She notes, “Western belly dancing transforms these same images into testaments to corporeality, the persistence of ancient wisdom in the modern world, and the uncontested value of open self-expression” (2006).
Barefoot dancer Ruth St. Denis based her career on tropes of the hidden feminine spiritual wisdom of the ancient and timeless “Orient.”
It’s Just Plain Wrong
Before the advent of film, we just do not know how solo, improvised dance in the Middle East was performed. We can read accounts, extrapolate from images, but there will always be that embodied gap in our knowledge.
While of course there are threads and similarities, these are not the “same” dance. The dance has changed. The articulations, the arms, the sentiment… even in these two limited examples, we can see that belly dance is not at all timeless. It is shaped by its time.
Dancing, in general—of course—is as old as humanity itself. We even see animals engaging in actions that could be classified or viewed as “dancing,” but that doesn’t mean that belly dance as we know it today is “the world’s oldest dance.”
For me, that essential, ephemeral quality of dance is what makes it so special and valuable. Not an imagined petrified past.
Resources on Belly Dance History
As scholarship on belly dance expands and deepens, there are far more resources on the history and development of this dance than there were even 10 years ago. Here are some books to get you started.
Abigail Keyes, The Salimpour Compendium, Vol. 1, 2014.
Karen Van Nieuwkerk, “A Trade like Any Other”: Female Singers and Dancers in Egypt, 1995.
Heather D. Ward, Egyptian Belly Dance In Transition: The Raqs Sharqi Revolution, 1890-1930, 2018.
Barbara Sellers-Young, Belly Dance, Pilgrimage, and Identity, 2016
Anthony Shay, The Dangerous Lives of Public Performers: Dancing, Sex, and Entertainment in the Islamic World, 2014.
The GOP losing their minds over a young woman of color dancing says everything we need to know about them. They are terrified of a Latina woman with bodily agency. And they are doubly terrified that she speaks. Let them be terrified of a dancing woman.
Dancing has always been a threat to the patriarchy. Tim and I have a whole chapter of it in our recent book. Pamphlets like “Balls and their Consequences” (no, really) railed against the dangers of dancing, how that it might turn innocent maids into fiery harlots, corrupting upright young Christian men, and inviting in the Devil himself.
Dance is powerful. Dance is subversive. Dance is radical.
And we’re seeing this phenomenon play out right before our very eyes.
The time for dancing lawmakers is well overdue.
But, instead of writing a longer post about it, I made a little video. My camera does weird focus and light things, and I’m still figuring it out. Bear with me as I work it out and talk about bodies, gender, and agency.
Why Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's Dancing is a Radical Act - YouTube