Cultural Appropriation & Bellydance – A Post Modern Perspective

In recent years there have been many vocal opinions about cultural appropriation and bellydancing. I would say one of the most extreme would be the piece written here which likens bellydance to blackface. As a fusion dancer of mixed nationality I would offer a different view. I’d like to note that this piece is not intended as a rebuttal (which would include far more in depth research & referencing) but as an example of a different point of view.

First, a little bit about me before I begin my piece.

I am a second generation Australian woman of mixed nationality. My grandparents were European immigrants who settled in Australia in the 1950’s and this is where my parents were born. I don’t know any of my family in Europe, I have no idea what my ‘true’ nationality is or where my surname comes from. My grandparents come from Polish, Greek, Ukrainian and Russian backgrounds, however when I google my surname it is actually an Iranian name which dates back to Mesopotamia – so I suppose you could say I could be distantly Iranian. But I’ll never find out and as such the point of me highlighting this is that I do not identify with any culture in particular. Aside from a Roman Catholic upbringing, I don’t have family traditions or anything that distinctly ties me to a particular culture.

I also have a degree in Visual Arts, and spent a little bit of time studying Post Modernism at university. So my particular view of cultural appropriation comes from a Post Modernist perspective which informs the way I interpret & appreciate the dance that I do. At the time I was studying this particular topic, there was quite the controversy in the art world with respected photographer Bill Henson being accused of taking a series of ‘pornographic’ images of a nude 13-year-old girl (Trigger warning: This article shows an uncensored image from the exhibition (plus an extremely compelling argument) in question and is very very NSFW).  In the weeks following the scandal, we examined the exhibition from a post modernist approach, where we debated in class about censorship & intent. In this school of thought, the piece was in an artistic sense capturing the beauty of a young girl transitioning into womanhood in a non-sexual way. However his work was denounced as sexualising a minor which therefore made it pornographic and thus illegal to display. By declaring the piece a sexualisation, those vocal individuals were informed by their own personal experiences which did not necessarily take on the viewpoint of the artist or the artists’ target audience. But even though the artist didn’t intend on presenting the work as a sexually obscene piece, it’s controversial nature meant that it would challenge viewers who may not have been exposed to his previous work or any other similar work.

So what does this have to do with bellydance and cultural appropriation? I say plenty. Like many thousands of people out there, men and women alike, I think bellydance is a beautiful celebration of femininity. Fusion bellydance in particular is also a celebration of diversity, art and experimentation. You can study for years and years with the Egyptian Masters and have the ultimate badass Belady and be an amazing dancer, without the cultural heritage to give you ‘permission’ to present this to an audience. Your intent may be to entertain, to teach, it may be just a personal desire. Your audience may enjoy your Badass Belady – clapping, yelling, smiling faces – and you may get verbal compliments or approving looks. Those individuals in the audience are informed by either their cultural background, the context of the dance (ie – this is a bellydance concert so I am watching a type of style of belly dance), or whether they are expecting to be entertained. You cannot control the reaction of the audience or how they perceive your performance or catalogue your style in their minds. If someone other than yourself calls you a fusion bellydancer when you see yourself as a classically trained dancer who dabbles in experimentation every now and then, you cannot control that & therefore you are, to that person. The same thing applies to cultural appropriation. If someone looks at your dance and labels it appropriation, they are doing so (hopefully) informed from a cultural perspective. They cannot see what you are trying to portray,  or it’s not appreciated in the context it has been presented in.

I say it’s like looking at the Mona Lisa and saying she is smiling serenely – others say she looks mysterious, like she has a secret. It’s still the same picture, you’re just looking at it differently than the other person based on how you are informed as an individual.

I don’t buy into the idea of ‘ownership’ of a culture – especially in terms of bellydance. In this global world linked inextricably though the Internet, and social media in particular, it is virtually impossible not to be influenced by different cultures, especially in places such as the US and Australia which have such a diverse melting pot of cultures living in every single city, not individual countries or towns. I think that the bellydance=racism argument is fundamentally flawed in that you cannot control the intent of an individual in displaying any kind of art, performance or otherwise, which has taken on cultural aspects. It’s like saying you can’t listen to hiphop or be a rapper unless you’re African American. Or that you’re racist for being a black person and doing Flamenco. Art and personal expression just doesn’t work that way and while you can have the view that, “Hey, that person is stealing MY culture by presenting it offensively,” you also need to ask yourself, why?

Is it offensive because of how it’s presented? Is the dancer ignorant of the meaning of the song? Is it being presented to an inappropriate audience? If so, why? Perhaps you aren’t the target audience? I think these are all valid questions to ask yourself before denouncing something as ‘cultural appropriation’ – in this world, I just don’t think it exists in bellydancing in the purest sense.

Bellydance is an ancient system of movement which has no official historical root, it belongs to no-one and everyone. As all things do, it has evolved to embrace our globalisation, with the advent of the post-modern Tribal Fusion. That name speaks for itself really. There is no stopping the creativity of expression. Bellydance is for all of us and elements of the dance can be found across all different dance styles anyway- for example, some hip movements found in Polynesian dance distinctly mirror those from Bellydance, and footwork found in Samba is also found in Bellydance. It’s not strictly limited to a certain peninsular in a far off land – there may be a distinct dialect developed as a result of the art being fostered in a certain environment but it’s fundamentally the same across all cultures.

I can see how Bellydance can be seen as cultural appropriation in the strict sense- adopting elements of a culture by members of a different culture. In my experience it’s less of adopting an element and passing yourself off as a different culture, as it’s the continuation and preservation of an art form which has developed in a specific way in specific regions. I think that a lot of responsibility falls to teachers to ensure they are educating their students who choose to perform & present bellydance, that if they intend on presenting the dance in an ‘authentic’ fashion, be it Greek, Turkish, Egyptian or any other ‘classical’ vein, that they do so in a way that respects the spirit in which it is presented. Presenting Bellydance in Tribal Fusion is an entirely different matter, where a number of elements from different cultures come together to create something completely new. To me this is a positive thing and shows the world that Bellydance has moved on from the same Orientalist tropes which have been rehashed time and time again and is now coming into it’s own expression to reflect this new modern age.

No, I don’t think of bellydance as cultural appropriation. What I do see is that it’s used in an argument to bully and belittle a dancer when it’s not enough to comment on her looks/technique/styling/musicality. There is a difference between poor performance choices or ignorance and outright racism or cultural insensitivity. Let’s not forget that Bellydance as we know it has become commodified by many cultures, not just in the West – a form of entertainment to be consumed by the masses, whether we like it or not, which in my opinion makes the cultural appropriation argument moot. Before you decide whether a culture is appropriated, look around to see the world we live in where we have so much to learn from each other and enjoy, and apply this logic to the dancer you see. Don’t use the argument to bully, use it to educate and inform and make us all better dancers and global citizens.

 

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