Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Consume or Create?

"If we focus more on the end result - the product - more than we do on the process, we teach ourselves and others how to consume instead of how to create." 

The quote above is a thought that came to me yesterday while discussing visual art, but it is applicable to all art forms, including dance.

It's not entirely accurate to say that bellydance originated from folkloric social dances that became stage dance much more recently. I think if we consider what the emergence of dance in civilization looked like, we would find the revelation and emotion of movement - the pleasure of not only doing it, but also watching it. And when most of your waking life is dedicated to surviving, time to dance often becomes relegated to times of celebration and sacred rites - and in some cultures, combined with fitness and combat training. In these situations, being a dancer wasn't a hobby or pastime, but more about a valued profession that helped to sustain the culture.

As we gained more time for leisure, and economic structures changed, dance as performance became entertainment that was available to all of society in many places. (Dance as entertainment for royalty and the very rich emerged much earlier, as they achieved that leisure first.) Dance became more about being a means to make a living for general performance: for putting on a show without the strict context of celebratory or sacred rites.

I think in the last few decades especially, there's been a distinctive overall shift in how we consume bellydance. It's moved from a market as a show for the general public to a "by dancers for dancers" market. And while there has always been famous bellydancers (often recognizable by non-bellydancers), personality cults emerged, with more and more focus on performing, and especially the glory of being the performer, emulating and imitating the icons. Selling the image and opportunity be like, look like, dance like the star.

As we built events for ourselves, the festivals became centered around the opportunity to showcase one's performance - not to the larger public, but to other dancers. Hours spent trying to call-in to get a precious spot at a big event for a few minutes on the stage - or hoping to get the best spot at the applied event so that a career may be launched. Crafting and calculating what would make you stand out or catch people's attention. So much stress, focus, and importance pressed upon a few minutes that could mean everything or nothing at all. Or did it?

I'm not dissing performing here - if you've read my blog at all, you'll know that I believe that powerful, beautiful, and amazing things can happen in a performance - for both the dancer and the audience. But as I said in my last post, so much focus on the ego aspect, and not the growth suffocates the art. We're talking here about the artistry of the dance, not the artistry of ego-stroking. Worship of ideals and personalities leaves many in the dust, questioning their inspiration, their bodies, and their emotions.

I am also not talking about glorifying the process. Spending countless hours in the studio and many many dollars on certification only matters to the clock and the bank accounts in the end. It's not the consuming that solely makes the dance, it's the dancer. Education and practice are vital for growth, but it's not the completion of them that guarantees the success, but the desire to keep growing and not having a specific end-game.

 So back to my quote. Is it more important that we learn, or more important that we perform? Of course, in order to really perform well, we need to learn - but how much are we valuing and understanding the importance of continuing education? By selecting classes not just because we know the teacher's names or they are our friends, but by choosing topics that will challenge us, and finding new ideas presented outside of our circles. Do you go to a festival to show off and maybe be spotted by so-and-so star, or do you go to grow and to find yourself? Are we teaching our students that performing is the end-all, be-all? Are we focusing more on fame than function, form, and substance? Are we watching dance to be inspired and find our own voice, or as a fantasy to be that other person on stage?

The true beauty and art of dance is not about accolades over a specific moment of performance or marking time in the studio, but the ability to truly create dance as you in every moment of your life.

Some performance thoughts:

What is Your Dance For?
A Captive Audience: Understanding the "Performing" part of Performing Arts

Friday, July 29, 2016

The Navel-Gazing Bellydancer

Let's be perfectly honest - no one got into bellydance with the singular, primary aspiration of being a cultural ambassador.

You came to bellydance because you saw someone perform and wanted to try it, or noticed a class being advertised and thought it sounded like fun - or wanted a different way to exercise. It had cultural allure in the sense of either being something exotic/unusual, or it was a way to connect with your own roots.  Or a friend talked you into it.

And then you stayed because it satisfied something inside of you.  It made you happy, it gave you something to focus on, it challenged you, it brought new friends into your life, or strengthened old bonds.  And hopefully, in the process of becoming a bellydancer, you learned more deeply about the cultures surrounding it, and fell in love with them as well.

In the beginning, it was all about you, and ideally in the end/in the process/journey, it became something larger.

In my generation of dancers - and by generation, I don't specifically mean by age, but rather those who took up dancing in the late 90's/early 00's - I have noticed a similar trajectory.  We all seemed to be missing something in our lives, and bellydance was the game-changer.  Many of us were (and are) some variation of geek and/or goth: passionate nerds.  This was an activity we could do that not only energized our bodies, but stimulated our minds and filled our spirits - as we were those little kids hooked on hieroglyphics and myths of ancient civilizations.  It had roots, it had meaning, and it made us feel beautiful and that we belonged somewhere.  Despite the fascinating theories that several researchers have put forth - the fusion aspects of bellydance (particularly gothic), were not a response to tragic world events (war and terrorism), but the natural blending of ourselves with the art we loved.  We were drawn to bellydance because it represented something beautiful, and something a bit dangerous.  And that danger wasn't linked to the cultures the dance originated out of, but the danger of being a sensual woman in control of herself - or with tribal, the danger and power of a group of women working together. Not unlike the allure of supernatural entities such as vampires, witches, etc that cycle in popularity.

It infiltrated our lives, changed them, changed us.  Upwards of two decades later, our lives taking drastically different paths than we ever imagined (in the realm of location, careers, relationships, families, etc), we look at the dance and wonder about what it means to us now.

I remember one time in my first year of classes, I was waiting for a friend to pick me up so we could go to class together. (I think my car was in the shop.) And for some reason, at the last minute, she couldn't make it - and since it was such a late notice, I would never make it to class in time via the bus.  I bawled my eyes out, it meant that much to me to go to dance class.

In the years that followed, I continued to go deeper, striving to become a professional performer - you can go back years in this blog to read about that journey with all of its trials and tribulations.  Looking at the overall arc of the journey - and comparing it to those of others in my dance generation, there's a definitive pattern.

We got into this dance for what could simply defined as "selfish" reasons - we got into it for us, hoping to find ourselves (not even knowing we were lost). But that's the right kind of selfish - exploration of art that leads to a journey of discovery and revelation, to something bigger than ourselves.  In the process, we built (or re-built) ourselves up, fell in love, and learned to grow and share.  We found that the dance is more than us - it's the cultures that it comes from, their history - ancient and living - and that we should respect them through learning and performing with context. It's the community that is formed around the dance: what we share, teach, and give each other through the dance.  It's the education of the body, of the people, of the senses.

We may have started out dancing for ourselves - to become masters over our own bodies, to feel beautiful, powerful, and special, to experience the magic of the stage. But over time, to keep dancing, we had to find a different meaning to keep it going.  To dance for yourself only when performing for others is a one-way energy flow that's not sustainable.  But when you dance to share, to express, to inspire, and to find common ground, suddenly there's a fountain without end.  Dance is an art, and art is about communication.  Dance is not a monologue. A performance is a conversation, and the best conversations involve listening from all involved parties - including the dancer.

When I ask myself why I dance nowadays, I do it because in the performance of it, I'm creating and engaging in a dialogue that can't be expressed in any other way. Whether it's part of a live music audio-visual experience, or for 7 minutes of recorded music, I'm bringing the audience into my concept of "church." I'm sharing with them everything I have learned, and inviting them into it. The performance isn't about or for me or my ego, but the exchange that happens in the space between us.

I teach dance and produce events because I believe in the transformation that happens when someone learns to dance - and the community that is built when you focus on cultural education and foster a positive environment for everyone.

In the larger picture of things, as we face a shrinking community, a type of Ice Age - we all need to do a bit of navel gazing in the sense of examining why we are here. What do we get out of the dance, and what do we GIVE back to it? If you're looking for fame and fortune, you're not in the right place, and you're not building anything for anyone, not even yourself. Are we here to share, to learn, to express? How much are we willing to change or grow to invigorate the dance? How willing are we to let go of old ideas and unhealthy habits that hinder growth? Are we asking ourselves about the ratio of appreciation versus appropriation and understanding WHY that does indeed matter NOW.

I often remark in my classes that the navel is the "ear" in which we "hear" the audience through. It's where we receive energy and cycle it through - and it's time to stop looking and start listening.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Your Next Dance Move

Where do we go from here?  That seems to be the question on a lot of people's minds.

It's been over a year since I wrote this piece expressing my cumulative observations on the decline of the bellydance economy, and the rest of the year I spent writing about exploring possibilities, considering our community and our artform, and overcoming terrible things.

In retrospect, I've spent a lot of time through the years writing missives and sharing thoughts and ideas in my workshops and events.  I've been a main voice on the forums and threads defending fusion, trying to build the bridge between tradition and innovation, advocating respect on both sides, trying to open up a dialogue.  In 2008, I remember a distinct point where I said to myself, "If it's going to be called Gothic Bellydance, it'd better be Gothic and it'd better be Bellydance" - and consciously moved forward on building a better understanding of the roots and elements of fusion - for not only myself but those I teach and reach.  And through it all, trying not to have a Cassandra complex about it.

At a recent bellydance festival, two of my workshops were mini-intensives that included discussion: one involved the history of Gothic bellydance, which lead to where we are now.  The other was about developing personal style, which also found its thread reaching to where we are now. And I realized I have been a lot more gentle online than I am in person about this stuff. Probably because it's very easy to be misunderstood online, when you can't see my face and hear my tone (and see my hands) -not to mention so many people skim versus read comprehensively nowadays.

So I'm saying fuck it, here are three of the biggest issues facing the bellydance community and ideas about what to do about it:

The Younger Dancer & Cultural Consciousness
For the last several years, the oriental dance community has been trying to tackle the issue of cultural appropriation vs. appreciation, and it seems finally that more folks in the Tribal Fusion scene are starting to do the same.  Directly related to this issue is the severe drop in popularity of bellydance among younger people.  Sure there's been a social shift in how younger people schedule their time, how they take on new practices/ideas, but the number one thing I am hearing from young dancers - and other young people who are possibly interested in bellydance - is that they're wary of its connection to cultural appropriation.

The younger generation is both globally minded and extremely socially conscious.  Add to that the fervency of internet backlash with people eager to point "You're doing it wrong!!!" without ever opening up an actual dialogue or offer solutions on what is "doing it right", and you have people who are afraid to walk into a potentially big steaming pile of mess. I can certainly understand not wanting to come under that sort of fire from your peers and people you don't even know.  No one wants to be embarrassed or yelled at.  I also suspect that other culturally-linked art-forms may also be experiencing a similar decline for the same issues.  It's not going to change without two things:
1) the eventual middle-ground balancing of public outcry on social issues, where instead of the extreme sides yelling out each other, more people have effective communication in the middle of it, to reach understanding and exchange information.
2) the bellydance community as a whole works on continuing to improve respecting its roots through cultural outreach, grounding instruction through that cultural lens, and focusing on teaching and presenting appreciation vs. appropriation.  It means re-evaluating some things, and change is never easy, but there's room for it.

If you're unsure of what cultural appropriation is, there are many articles, blog posts, and threads going on about it.  In a nutshell, are you stripping the dance from it's roots entirely, or addressing them? Are you consciously fusing or doing whatever you feel like without considering the outcome? Are you listening to feedback or ignoring it? Are you making money off the dance without respecting it?

Innovation Starvation:
When's the last time you saw real innovation that was based in bellydance? Not a costume, not a prop, not some other dance form with an undulation thrown in.  Innovation isn't about doing some crazy to stand out, trying to out-do each other far above the atmosphere while leaving the roots behind. Not someone copying some other glittery star with a slight twist of eyeshadow, but true personal style, new thoughts being evolved, while still rooted in the source?  There's a few newer dancers on the horizon, but a lot of what I've seen lauded as the next big thing is just another emulation of something else - at least for now. Innovation means having strong personal voice and style that isn't quite like any other one person.

In the oriental/traditional community, there's certainly some interesting folkloric trends evolving out the culture itself, and the main sticky point is who's allowed to teach it first, who got there "first." I see the former point being rooted in cultural trends/developments, and the latter about who gets to benefit from the market - which leads to other issues we'll get to shortly.

With the demise of the largest Tribal/fusion festival out there - and many smaller events folding/retiring, I see a lot of folks wondering "Where do we get our trends from? Who do we follow?" Having watched the development of fusion over the last 17 years, I think it could be a blessing in disguise, because I feel the boom we experienced both blessed and damned us in many ways.  It's time to look both inward and everywhere for inspiration. Ask yourself what do you want from your dance, what inspires you to dance - not just who inspires you.

What happens when you study from only a handful of "names" who all take from the same creative bin? Not much room for new growth. Innovation happens when you pull from very different boxes, and find what works for you, and it takes a long time to develop, like fine wine.  That means studying outside of your immediate discipline, exploring new (to you) teachers and styles.  And realizing that performing does not equal studying.

It also means creating community, which means going to classes and events, and interacting with other students and teachers.  The more you open your circle, the more you learn, the easier it is to find your own voice and get proper feedback as well from.  Which in turn means, when you innovate, you've got a solid sounding board to work off of, versus working in a vacuum.

We've already got enough copies, let's see some originals.  Working towards real innovation will be integral to reaching outside of the bellydance microcosm.

Getting Out of Our Microcosm
How many events and programs are geared for dancers by dancers? How many shows are we now performing to just ourselves? Not there's anything wrong with that, but we're not expanding the pool of people seeing our art-form if we're advertising exclusively to ourselves.  We need to be considering how to expand to a larger audience: how to market to them, how to get them to the shows, and then get them in the classes.  Who are you targeting with your dance and why? Who would be interested in finding out more.

Then, if we are performing to the general public, what are we presenting to them?  Are we being specific about what we're presenting, or just throwing whatever we feel like at them? For example, over the last several years, there's been something of a trend to perform in more and more casual clothing (and I'm not talking about folkloric presentations). There are many reasons for it: budget, comfort, modesty, etc - but there's also a helping of "not knowing better" meets a touch of "lazy." It's a lot of work to get all of the make-up on, and bedlah can not only be expensive but also really darn uncomfortable....but when we present our dance to the general public, we not only need to make sure the proper information is being put out there via an emcee or program, but that we're following professional stage protocol - for all dancers.  The thing about all performance arts - they're about selling the fantasy, the power of the experience. I am not talking about selling "oriental fantasy" but rather the stage appeal of someone seeing an art presented beautifully and saying to themselves "Wow! I'd love to do that too."

As teachers, it's not only about teaching students a choreography - and the roots of the music and movements they are doing, but also how to look professional on stage.  Sure, there are folks who get into bellydance just for fun or for fitness/health, but that doesn't mean not caring about proper presentation.  We need to instill in our students a respect for the stage and the work involved to getting there - and that it takes more than 6 weeks to get there.

So for the next show you plan, consider not only the importance of what you're putting on the stage and how you're doing it, but who are you seeking to put into the audience and how to reach out to them.

In Conclusion:
In learning and loving this art - and wanting to see it flourish, we need to consider our own personal responsibility to ourselves, to the dance, to the cultures it comes from, and those we present it to.  We need to be ever-learning, ever-thinking, and ever-exploring.  We need to treat ourselves, our teachers, and our students with respect. So what's your next dance move?

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Dance: At the Ocean's Edge

Sunset (Diamond) Beach, North Cape May, NJ
When I am able to visit my beloved Atlantic Ocean (and the temperature allows), I love to take off my shoes and immerse my feet and ankles in the shorebreak. As each little wave comes up to my legs and swirls around them, my feet disappear into the sand, becoming one with the beach and redefining the shape of each wave as it flows and ebbs. Sometimes I will advance forward and immerse my whole being in the water, and other times I will stay transfixed by the breakers, taking it all in.

I grew up with the ocean, and no matter where I travel, the Atlantic is an integral part of my being. I don't have to be submerged or swimming to enjoy the ocean fully.  I can fill my soul by watching the waves, feeling it touch just a part of me.  I can breathe in the salty air and enjoy viewing surfers and swimmers go the extra mile.  When I'm hundreds or thousands of miles away from the sea, I can still feel it inside me, hear the surf tumbling, the sparkle of the sun or the moon upon its surface. No matter what changes have gone on in me, in my life, the ocean has always there been there, waiting.

In that liminal space between land and sea, I find a similar existence with dance.

I find so many of my friends who found the dance about the same time I did, have been struggling with the question of what does the dance mean for them? When is it time to let go and move on? All those years, emotions, and finances invested in the pursuit of the it a sunk cost? Are we different now, will it ever be the same? Is the spark cooling until it extinguishes, or will it flare again? Something else is requiring my attention or fueling my inspiration, so is there an end?

If we keep with the ocean as our metaphor for dance: sometimes there's too many people at the same beach, and they're too loud/rude/obnoxious/polluting and spoil your experience. Or maybe there's no one else there, and you don't want to swim alone.  Sometimes you just really want to hike in the desert or go to the woods.  Sometimes you're tired of sand in your shoes and the salty air drying out your skin - or you get waterlogged and need to dry off. Or you had a scary experience - a near drowning - and you need time to heal and recover.

Here's the thing about the ocean (and dance) - it's all OK. You can take a break, you find a different ocean, you could chose not to visit it at all. You can sell the beach house AND still come back to visit. Basically, there doesn't need to be any ultimatums. You don't have to make any hard and fast choices. You don't need to announce to anyone your intentions. You don't need to tell the ocean (the ocean doesn't care, it's the ocean...ok, well maybe the ocean spirits will care.)  To those that you visit and swim in the ocean with, you can simply say, "I don't feel like being in the ocean right now, I need some time away" and leave it at that.

All relationships change, and that includes the relationships we have with certain activities. For many of us, finding dance was/is about finding ourselves in some way - control over our physical being, emotional and spiritual health, and something to immerse ourselves in. It is/was a safe place, an outlet, an opportunity, relief from a difficult situation, a means for expression. Then it got/gets us past that point, we grow and change, and our relationship needs to be redefined, reconsidered, renewed. It's natural and most importantly, to be expected. It may mean not teaching or performing, or participating in certain events. It may mean the style of dance will change, or a break all together.

There is nothing wrong with any of these things. There is no need to feel guilty or obligated. (Staying attached to something because you feel obligated or guilty is about the worse thing you can do for you/them.) Follow your inspiration, follow your heart, and happiness will follow you.

You don't have to say to the ocean, "I am breaking up with you forever." The ocean knows forever. You, on the other hand, do not. You never know what path could lead you back there.

Even if your toes aren't touching the ocean, it's still there inside you.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Yes Dance.

When you dance, whose approval are you looking for?

Is it the accolades of the general audience?

Is it confirmation from your teacher or peers?

Is it acceptance from the culture the dance originates from?

As a performer, it's important to address the audience and connect with them. As an active learner, it's important to both give and especially receive constructive feedback to advance your journey. When you take on an art form, you acknowledge its cultural roots, so it's vital to do the research and present your work respectfully.

Yet while these are all good places to desire feedback from, they offer little in the way of supporting and sustaining the one person's approval you need the most: your own.

Over the years, I've seen a lot of dancers perform with the main focus to get the high off of feeling special and shiny. It seems to work great when the audiences are large and appreciative, but when the crowd is small, or more interested in their dinner, the pay doesn't balance the effort, or other dancers seem to get more applause, it creates an internal chasm and the dance loses its magic.  The satisfaction of good dance can't come only from likes, zaghareets, tips, and clapping.  It doesn't sustain or allow for growth.

Then there are the teachers who get off on power, recognition, and control, and others who only teach because they see it as the only way to make money off of dance and get stage time. The former wants you to crave their approval, for you to idolize and obey them in order to sanction your dancing. They don't want you to advance, unless it serves them well. The latter will give you lip service, but don't really care who you are or what you do. Narcissism abounds and never fosters.

The cultural perspective is significant and a worthy goal, but it's impossible to get universal approval and acceptance. Opinions and baggage vary from group to group, region to region, class to class, and of course personal experience.You can make yourself batty contemplating cultural appropriation and the place and status of the dance in various cultures.  It can lead into a downward spiral of "why even bother?"

And what hurts me is that as I'm writing this, I know that as many of you read this now,  you can think of one example from above (or all/multiple ones) of people you have encountered in your journey. People who have stolen the joy of the dance from you or those you know, who have left a sea of doubt, pain, and sadness in their wake.  Sometimes that person is you, yourself.

Which is why I'm saying to you, when you dance, you need to dance first and foremost for YOU.  You need to give YOURSELF approval and validation for dance. Regardless of your age, race, class, shape, size, or gender, the only person you need permission and acceptance from is yourself. Stop comparing yourself to the newest, hottest thing out there. Stop trying to be someone else on stage or in class. Don't gauge success by the amount of applause or likes. Don't judge yourself harshly because you don't fit someone else's paradigm. Don't play into the hands of cliques, clubs, and personality cults.  You won't find validation anywhere else.

The message I'm trying to get across is NOT "go do whatever you want with the dance and screw everyone else."  Also, while I do believe in "the only dancer you're competing against is the one you were" - which is meant to mean "eyes on yourself, stop comparing yourself to others" - the thing is, it's not a competition at all. We're all aging, and life is constantly throwing curveballs in the forms of illness, injury, family, work, etc - so that self-comparison can start to get quite cruel and create more guilt than good. It creates another kind of downward spiral that can kill dance dead.

Dance because it means something first and foremost to YOU. Dance because it makes you feel good in your body, in your soul.  Dance in the bathroom, dance in the kitchen, and in your yard. Dance in front of thousands and dance in front of no one.  Dance because you wish to, not because you feel obligated. Dance to lose yourself and dance to connect to others. Dance because you want to, when you want to. Dance to find yourself.

When you say yes to yourself, yes to your own dance, you will find the power comes from within you and grows outward, inspiring not only others, but yourself.

Blessings on your dance.

Friday, February 19, 2016

What is your dance for?

Coming out of PantheaCon this weekend, being on tour and performing for two weeks, and months of contemplation about the place of dance currently in my life (+ discussions with friends feeling in the same place), I feel like I've reached some clarity.  There's nothing quite like teaching movement to a wide variety of very different people who find something new in it - and in their discoveries, I find my own root.

Dance is a tool, a gateway, a journey, a method. Solely unto itself, it is a means to connect the body and mind.  It is a neutral element.  But how you use and apply it can lead to healing or hurting - of both body and mind.

You can build up self-esteem and confidence, repair and reclaim your body, find a new form of expression, and make new connections with others - and yourself.  It can empower you, invigorate you, challenge you, guide you to overcome obstacles, and help foster growth on a multitude of levels.

Or it can be used to build Ego, to hide insecurities and shortfallings, viewed as a means to an end versus as a continual process, and overworked to harm the body.  It can be used to exploit, to separate, and to exclude. In excess the body could exceed the mind, or vice versa causing real damage to both.

For years, I have challenged my students to consider why they dance before they perform it. If performing is a dialogue between you and the audience, it makes a difference if you know what you're going to say and why.  But even if you're not performing, I believe it's important to think about why you dance.

When it comes to dancing, I don't care how young or old you are, how large or small, which gender or sexuality you identify as, what your origins are, how long you've been studying the dance, what style you dance, or how well-known or "famous" you are or aren't.

I care that you come to the dance sincerely, foster it as best as you can, and support others.

I care that you are kind to yourself and to others, regardless of all of the separations, groupings, and labels.

I care that you don't put unrealistic limitations on yourself or others because of age, weight, shape, style, or gender.

I care that you want to learn, grow, and share - and I am honored to be part of such a journey with any dancer.

If you're in this dance solely for "fortune and fame," to build a following for your ego, to use and exploit others so you can feel powerful or pretty or pretend to be superior, I don't have the time, space or energy for you.  And I won't make the room for you anymore.

My dance connects my body and spirit, and in turn allows me to share that unity with others in a way that is different than how I express with my art or my words. It's that wordless experience that goes beyond style, technique, costuming, physical shapes, or branding. It's what drew me here in the first place, and it's the connecting with others - through both performance and instruction that makes dance important in my life.

Why do I dance? I dance because I'm interested and invested in the beautiful unknown that happens in the space between my own dance connection and yours - and the world of discovery within and beyond that space, manifested through culture, music, spirit, and understanding.

Blessings on your dance journey.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

The Heart of Darkness

In the last few weeks, I have unfortunately witnessed several individuals making disparaging, bigoted, fear-mongering, and racist remarks about Arabs and Muslims*. While people displaying their ignorance and hate on social media isn't anything new (alas) - what really and truly upset me was that in their own photos and posts, showing them dripping in Afghani/Kuchi jewelry, Egyptian fringe, while laying on Berber and Persian textiles, these people claimed to also be bellydancers.  From a variety of styles. 

That pretty much broke my brain.  I don't see how you can claim to teach and/or perform this dance, decorate yourself and your living space in objects originating primarily from Arabic and Muslim cultures, and make money off of it, while totally trashing the people largely responsible for all of it.

Whether you're doing Turkish, Egyptian, ATS, Tribal Fusion, Vintage Oriental or Fusion, the roots are clearly there, and when you study and practice a dance, you are (or should be) acknowledging where that dance came from.  Even if you want to claim the fantasy that this dance was done thousands of years ago in temples to honor Isis, Ishtar, or Inanna (which it could have been, we have no way of knowing for sure either way) as a way of divorcing it from the modern culture, you're wearing costuming and jewelry, and decorating with objects made by people LIVING in that culture right now.  Who are not terrorists or extremists, and are just trying to get through life with as little hassle as possible.

Even if you claim that all of your stuff is made here (be it the Americas, or Europe, or anywhere NOT the Middle/Near/Far East), that doesn't take away the responsibility of cultural responsibility.** Here in the United States, we don't just study only American History - there are mandatory curriculum classes in World and European History. Why? Because it's important to know these things, how everything and everyone evolves, and how we are all interconnected globally. So the same is true for modern fusions of the dance - know the evolution, know the roots, respect them.

Which brings us to a very hot and relevant topic in bellydance right now - cultural appropriation, a phrase that often causes hackles to raise - and with good reason on all sides.

First, let's look at the definition of the word appropriate, which in this application means: "to take to or for oneself; take possession of, or to take without permission or consent; to seize; expropriate; to steal." Now, notice the difference in definition for the word appreciate - "to be grateful or thankful for; to value or regard highly; place a high estimate on; to be fully conscious of; be aware of; detect: to raise in value."

To appropriate is to disregard or disrespect the origin of something, while using it for your own gain.  To appreciate is to acknowledge and respect the origin, while raising positive awareness for it through your actions. 

I would rather be guilty of cultural appreciation than appropriation, wouldn't you?

There are those out there using the tagline of "cultural appropriation" not as a means to open up a dialogue (which should be the intent right?) but to draw attention to themselves, as in "I'm pointing out the wrong, praise me for showing how wrong these people are, I did a good thing, and you should totally vilify them."  That's about operating a personal agenda, not raising social awareness and sensitivity - and that sort of tactic tends to bruise more than it heals. It's frustrating, and it's the easy way out, because it is much more scary and difficult to open up a conversation with the Other.  We can get comfortable behind our screens - but so much more good can be done face to face. (And yes, I realize the inherent irony here of a blog, but I definitely work on practicing what I write about in "real life.") 

With that said, it's vitally important for bellydancers to listen, understand, and address these concerns. When someone raises the cultural appropriation flag, we should not look at it defensively as someone yelling at us "You need to stop dancing!" but rather ask ourselves, "What are we doing to honor this dance?"

It is also very important for us to understand what and how the younger generations see us.  As I have mentioned earlier on in the year and last year - there is a decline in younger students.  One of the many reasons for this is that young people are far more culturally aware and sensitive now than ever. They don't want to be involved in something that seems offensive and outdated. So we must ask ourselves, "Are we aware of how we are representing the dance?"

So that solution part I mentioned earlier? Regardless of what style you dance, understand it's definitive connection to both Arab and Muslim cultures.  The least you can do is be respectful of those cultures - and the most you can do is immerse yourself in learning about them, from classes to travel abroad, or within your hometown. Reach out to help with refugees through donations or services, be an advocate against hate speech.  Learn, know, and respect the roots of your dance by treating those people as you would wish to be treated.  That's human thing to do.

*I specifically say "Arabs and Muslims" because not all Arabs are Muslim (they can be Christian, Jewish, Atheist, or whatever), nor are all Muslims of Arabic descent (Turks, Pakistani, Indian, Indonesian, Caucasian, etc).  Hopefully this is not a newsflash, but from the state of the Internet, it seems a lot of folks don't understand this.

**Most bellydance imports today are made in North Africa (Egyptian, Morocco, etc), Turkey, India, Pakistan, and Indonesia.  I can guarantee for you that the majority of those workers aren't Christian white folk.