Racism in Belly Dance


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RACISM IN BELLY DANCE

*warning: this post contains my opinion. If you don’t like it, stop reading and go and look at photos of puppies and kittens* This is also a wordy post with no photos.

*If you would like to get riled up; read this: http://www.salon.com/2014/03/04/why_i_cant_stand_white_belly_dancers/ *

Wait, what?! This blog is supposed to be about all the light and fluffy stuff, right? And RACISM in BELLY DANCE?! How on Earth do those two go together? (This is what I imagine you all to be thinking, when in reality I’m sure you’re just a bit nosey 😉 )

 

So a few weeks ago, one of the top belly dancers in South Africa was tagged in a video on Facebook of her dancing at a workshop, alongside a drummer. A comment was made on this video that said: “How about giving other cultures a chance too.” Followed by this, when asked to elaborate:  “There are many unique lovely cultures here but belly dancing belongs to easterners and westerners. We don’t dance with our bums out instead of in. Brutal but true.”  (Spelling errors fixed, but otherwise copied-and-pasted)

(in pink is our problem lady)Untitled-1

The dancer in the video was a black woman. Now, why didn’t I mention it at the start of the story? Well, because it simply. doesn’t. matter.

The statement made by the dancer shocked everybody in South Africa, to the point of her being banned from performing at some events all over the country. Dancers all over rose to offer words of support to the dancer who was attacked and it does make me quite proud of our community – to see that we are not tolerating those who think like that. Not only are there incredibly inaccuracies in the statement/insult, but it’s just plain racist.

But this whole incident got me thinking about who is “allowed” to belly dance and who isn’t. What makes it more acceptable for one person, and not another? Mere skin tone? Because if that is the case, as a pale white African, there is probably a lot I shouldn’t be doing! (Like calling myself African? 😉 )

Cultural Appropriation

So cultural appropriation is a topic allll on its own, and if I were to go into a lot of detail here, I think I’d end up with pages and pages of info. Basically, cultural appropriation is when one culture adopts elements of another culture. I believe that this isn’t inherently bad, but it can be a slippery slope. This has been done (especially in art) for thousands of years.

How does this tie into belly dance? Well, there is a school of thought that belly dance should only be performed by those of Middle Eastern blood. Now this will exclude a lot of people in the world (there are 1.3 billion people in China who “aren’t allowed” to belly dance by that logic) and quite frankly I think it’s a bit ridiculous. Belly dance has a notoriously dodgy history and I have never read a single article that can pinpoint its exact country of origin. There are assumptions, yes, but there is no proof.

This whole thought of belly dance not having a specific country of origin (Turkey? Egypt? Morocco? *insert country here*?) has an appeal to it, in that it is a dance form that allows for everybody. We often hear “anybody can belly dance” preached from the rooftops by dance teachers as well as statements like “belly dance at any age!” and “size and weight irrelevant!” and I think that is part of the appeal for a lot of people.

I think the key to doing it correctly is honouring and understanding the cultures it comes from. Although I believe there is no clear indicator as to which is the country of origin, we do have a general idea of where it comes from. And let’s face it – if you’re performing Egyptian style belly dance, then you should understand and appreciate the culture of Egypt. Even more so if you are performing folkloric styles that feed entirely off the cultures they come from.

This ties into race because a lot of people believe that it shouldn’t be performed by people who simply aren’t of Middle Eastern descent. They also tend to view it as an insult when non-middle easterners perform belly dance. (we are “stealing their cultural heritage”) I totally disagree with that.

I think belly dance has made the shift from being a cultural dance (originally) to being art. I think that this changes how it should be viewed. Women in the USA performing cabaret belly dance are not doing the “cultural” side of it, but I think rather the “art” side of it. So I think it’s evolved past the point where it is just for one culture or country.

I think that people who believe that it is insulting for a non-Middle Easterner to belly dance are trying to hold onto the art form and essentially not allow it to grow. Art is something that grows, changes and shifts into different directions. Wanting to keep it “pure” just holds it back and I think actually hurts the art form far more than it helps.

I don’t think that just because somebody else is doing it, that it takes away from what you are doing and why you are doing it. If you allow it to bother you that somebody out there is doing something that you love to do and that you associate with “you” or “your culture” or “your family” – I believe there are deeper problems than just “That’s mine! You’re not allowed to do that!”

In essence, belly dance is a SOCIAL dance and from all the history we’ve seen, it’s always been that way. I have never heard of it being a spiritual dance (historically, that is) and I was always told that it was performed in social settings.

I don’t see why this can’t transcend cultures and be a “world dance” rather than belonging to X or Y or Z.

What we get out of dance is universal.

We get body acceptance, a sisterhood, a feeling of unity, fitness, confidence, focus, memory, creativity and coordination. These are things that transcend race and culture.

Belly dance is a universal dance form that belongs to all of us. I think as long as we treat it with respect, don’t go out of our way to insult the cultures it comes from, it will continue to grow and belong to us all.

 

*warning again: this post contains my opinion. If you didn’t like it, go and look at photos of puppies and kittens* 🙂

 

(as a side note: is it “bellydance” or “belly dance”?)

 

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17 comments

    1. Well I’m black and I love to belly dance and since tracing my history I discovered that my West african ancestors migrated out of Israel to West Africa. Is that East enough I wonder what the lady would say. It’s a shame that history has become so contorted and personally I think dancing has no race. Tribal belly dance is a fusion of a lot of cultures and I think it’s great x

  1. When you say

    “Women in the USA performing cabaret belly dance are not doing the “cultural” side of it, but I think rather the “art” side of it.”

    it sounds as if middle eastern performers are not doing art. Which is probably not what you meant.

    1. Hi Leila,

      No, this isn’t what I meant. 🙂 More that the “connection” to the dance in middle eastern performers is MORE likely to be cultural. Not saying that art and culture can’t be drawn on at the same time, of course.

      1. The question is rather whether you can seperate these two parts at all. I am thinking more and more that since western woman have a DIFFERENT cultural background (they don’t lack culture at all for sure), they are doing a DIFFERENT art form that is only rooted in middle eastern dance.
        I will continue to think about this 😉

  2. What a stupid load of crap. The pink lady was not being racist at all. Like many people today she was just fed up with only black people being in the spotlight and not other cultures too. Time you all woke up and smelt the coffee. Also no one succeeded in banning her from dancing where she wanted to. There is no act in the constitution about belly dancing so put that in pickle. Get rid of the bitchiness and politics and you will all be much happier.

    1. Are you a South African Belly dancer? If you were, I am sure you would know that the dancer in question isn’t always “in the spotlight” as you so nicely put it. She works incredibly hard and is a beautiful and skilled dancer but gets passed over time and time again for the simple reason that she is black. The pink lady stating that westerners be given a chance is also laughable, since in our dance community it is only westerners that are typically given a chance.
      It’s funny that you comment that other cultures are not in the spotlight – as this is exactly what we are promoting by dancing – middle eastern culture. Is that not “another culture”? In South Africa we actually don’t celebrate our African heritage enough, so I would never say that black/South African culture steals the spotlight.

  3. I still stick to my opinion. However i do know that the pink lady has been very successful no matter where she goes. Interesting fact is that she now has black dancers in her dancing school and it seems they are doing pretty well.

  4. The pimk lady now has a dancing school for all races. She deserves an apology for all the wrong things said about her, especially by the silly creature who started it all.

  5. I think the episode of the pink lady should now be removed from this blog. The whole thing was a big misunderstanding from the beginning anyway and it happened so long ago.

    1. I am not going to remove my blog post. It was not a misunderstanding at all, as the pink lady continued to make racist and hurtful comments on the dancer’s video.
      I am not going to remove my blog post. Please stop commenting, as I feel you have made your point.

  6. No, because i do not enjoy ir to see people accused wrongfully since it is against the consitution to do so but on the other hand i feel very sorry for people who are bigoted and stubborn.

    1. I am happy to block you if you keep commenting.
      No names were mentioned in any capacity, so I am not in the wrong. Racism needs to be called out, and since no apologies were ever made (and this is not the first time this particular dancer has verbally attacked people) I see no reason to take it down.
      Pink lady said the things above, and she must own it or apologise.
      This post is nearly 3 years old, and the only person drawing attention to it is you.

  7. Hell, so what? Yes, block me if you want, but i will see to it that i am now right since many have forgiven the pink lady. She is much loved in the black communiries where she teaches bell dancing for free – so there. None of you succeeded in stopping her but you sure as hell made belly dance sound like it sucks – so much so that it is now a dying art in this country. I have said my say. I know who accused her unjustly and none of you can dance at all – you hop. I have said my say but i will make sure your meanness will ne made known worldwide. Aurevoi

  8. Beautiful article with an excellent example of the sort of support the belly dancing community offers each other.

    I disagree with you on your definition of cultural appropriation and this line is where a lot of people become confused about why people from minority cultures express anger, frustration and hurt at appropriation. Your description is one that’s more of cultural exchange, in my view, something that’s beautiful. Cultural appropriation is when a dominant cultures adopts an element from an exploited minority culture and receives incongruent attention and benefits for it. The key thing is that there isn’t an exchange the minority exploited culture gets the short end of the stick.

    But I don’t believe the response to cultural appropriation is to stop belly dancing. Rather, it’s to consciously offer something to the group you are borrowing from! More specifically be aware of their plight and make a difference. Women of middle eastern descent are often treated with contempt and hostility. We have to become aware of what their day to day lives look like in the world and extend our sisterhood to them where it is needed. Standing up for the dancer who was targeted because she is black African is one such example, in my view. Finding a way to educate others and correct perceptions, invite marginalized women to have their place in the limelight, and to *continue* to do it, i think is one of the best ways to transform appropriation back into exchange!

    I was so heartened to read this article, on so many levels. Thank you, again, for sharing! ❤

  9. It’s a two-headed problem when many in white society can defend anything they want to do as not racist, and when some in non-white society can ring the alarm about racism a bit hastily (thus injuring the voice of valid racism).

    Still, a bit more of what concerns many people of color does tend to weigh heavier as true. Because, whether intended or not, somehow, someway, white society always become the face of whatever they take interest in, adopting from other heritages.

    Just like all the white girls out there now wearing cornrows and welcoming themselves to faking an urban imagery, because anything they want to do, they can defend as “It’s not racism.” Fashion magazines making “art” out of something they otherwise wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole.

    Meanwhile, black gals are STILL facing issues with how they can wear their hair at work and school. Black girls and women still sent home and getting flak because their white boss can’t understand that black females don’t have the same kind of hair texture as white blondes and brunettes.

    Black women wearing their hair natural is still a problem in white society, but if some teenage white girl wants to wear black hair styles, she’s just being artistic, fashionable, and can wear their hair.

    And Kardashians and Jenners are making large (fake) shapely butts fashionable, all the while much of white society mocked and dismissed large (natural) butts on black women. Centuries’ worth of ridiculed issued to black women, from “Venus of Hottentot” era to the Oakland booty era, and stigma piled on black women that still hasn’t been relieved.

    Same’s true about cultural dances. Like how for DECADES, black women were just “ratchet” and “ghetto” for twerking, but as soon as someone like Miley Cyrus comes along, it’s suddenly the stuff of bandwagon appeal, to the point even Taylor Swift, someone COMPLETELY removed from black cultures, plays around with it, to the adoration of all her adoring fans.

    It’s a tricky line, when one culture (namely, white cultures) does something that originated with another culture (namely, non-white cultures). It’s not that people shouldn’t share. There is an intrinsic truth that some elements of life can be truly universal, and truly universally understood. With respect for one another, and respect for the creation. Humans are built to relate and to share.

    Though, it’s still an issue when generally too few white society illustrate that they truly understand the caveat of how easy it is for themselves to become the face and acceptance of a cultural expression that wasn’t their culture, and how easily they can dismiss the plight of the people they borrow from, and just how little of a voice they are towards the cultures outside their own, all just for a bit of leisure.

    This ruins things for other white individuals, who do come with more of a respect for someone’s culture, and not just making a novelty of someone else’s culture. It’s the white majority that ruins things for the caring white minority.

    The majority of white society put a negative taste in the mouths of people of color, because a majority do things like put Trump in office, and whine when Houston-native Beyoncé shows up at a country music award show, and NRA members continually complaining about things like how “white genocide” is happen.

    The minority of white people who truly care about other heritages should remember that THIS is the image that’s hard for other societies to NOT see about you. For as much stigma white society’s placed on the non-white world, the non-white world’s carrying a lot of stigma about white society as well–and a lot of it is justified. We’re all in a stigma war.

    I don’t think it’s inherently racist or rude for someone white to belly-dance. There is a difference between an appreciation and an appropriation. And, after all, even the Arabs are technically a “white people” themselves, closely related to Europeans (though, there is even some debate that even the Arabs appropriated belly-dancing from neighboring African societies, long with similar techniques in “tribal” dances).

    I do think that many white people forget, ignore, or just can’t see how they can easily become the face of someone else’s cultural identity. Not enough acknowledge this about the culture they’re visiting and embracing. And when not enough among white society do this, this causes other societies to be concerned. Because white society is no stranger to gentrifying other cultures.

    Just look at jazz. It’s not black anymore. Black people are rarer in jazz. Where jazz was once accessible entertainment for black audiences in bars and clubs, now today, jazz festivals are just pricey concerts full of white audiences in affluent locations. White jazz historians tend to favor the whiter side of jazz.

    Look at rock ‘n’ roll–nobody generally thinks of it as a black-originated genre. It’s become known as a white culture now. So much now, that if a black person does rock music, they’re see as something unique or “crossing boundaries” as an artist–even though it all started with people like Little Richard, Ike Turner, and Chuck Berry.

    And it’s already happening to hip-hop now–as even Eminem himself teased about occurring, even joking about the “Elvis”-like regard he had with white hip-hop fans. Things are getting so severe in appropriation, there are white music critics TELLING hip-hop artists how they should do hip-hop.

    Granted, I do wish more people would express their concerns about race, culture, and caveats, a bit more intelligently, and not just hastily typing on the keyboard with full emotion. It only damages one’s voice in a matter–and people immediately don’t listen.

    But still, I do also wish more white people would at least be more understanding that you as white have an advantage in the world unlike anyone else. A lot of European culture played as the usurper to other cultures, and now, you’ve become the faces of many things you simply didn’t originate, but nobody at large questions.

    It’s a really odd issue. But it’s one that, sadly, centuries upon centuries of legitimate racism has contributed to it. All I can say is, I wouldn’t be too angry at those harping at you about racism, given that too much of history saw it, and that too much of it still goes on today, denied and dismissed.

    And to the others out there, who are concerned people of color (like myself), I would say, Instead of just hitting the racism alarm, try communicating your concerns in an intelligible way. We do have valid reason for concerns about race and heritage, but still, purely-emotional rant is only going to acerbate the issue.

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