Monday, September 12, 2011

MassRaqs Panel Thoughts: Tradition vs. Innovation Part I: Flies, Liquid Offerings, and Dance

I was honored to be invited to be a panelist at MassRaqs this past weekend in Somerville, MA.  The focus of the panel was "globalization" and "cultural appropriation" in regards to dance.  The panel was made up of instructors from the weekend and invited guests such as myself and Donna Mejia, representing a mix of traditional and fusion-oriented perspectives (including Karim Nagi, Hadia, etc).  It was an intense and riveting experience, with a lot of interesting points brought up, but alas two hours was simply not enough time for everyone to be able to discuss their points and for the audience to ask more questions.  I gave my opening remarks with the intention/thought process that we'd all be able to return to our points in the discussion and question period, and it didn't end up that way. 

Consequently, my brain kicked into overdrive, and I have spent the last 24 hours spring-boarding off the ideas, questions, concerns, etc - that were brought up, but never got addressed.  The bad news is, I lost a bit of sleep in the process because my brain wouldn't shut up.  The awesome news is that I have enough material to post pretty much something every week through the end of the year, just from my panel discussion notes alone.

Looking at my list of topics, I have decided to start off here with one of the key points I did manage to bring up, and it's something that I believe is very vital to our dance community, right here, right now.

As a dancer, I find myself smack in the middle of two perceived camps: those who value tradition and those that value innovation.  I study traditional dance, emphatically, passionately, I can't get enough of it.  Yet my the majority of my performances are clearly fusion, a departure from the traditional. I teach both tradition and fusion, side by side. I support tradition, I support innovation.  Yet, I get flack from both sides for it. Not that that is ever going to change how I approach things (instead, it makes me even more staunchly focused on continuing doing what I'm doing), but it's a fact.

And the other day, I was contemplating the event I'm producing at the end of this month: Tapestry.  I have produced Gothic-only events (such as Gothla US, and smaller events), and I wanted to create something that focused more on the roots of the dance, as well as WHY we dance at all.  I want participants to foster a sense of self, spirituality, and community.  To partake in an event that's not just about performing, but really focused on learning, sharing, and growing.  This is my vision for Tapestry.  Traditional artists, fusion artists, all coming together, bringing to the table what they have to offer in a unique setting. 

So I was considering the demographic of attendees who have signed up for the event, and I think that the majority of them tend to be of a specific age and even style group, and I wondered about it.  They're not quite at either end of the spectrum when it comes to tradition vs. innovation.  They're mostly not newer fusion dancers and they're not hard-core preservationists. Which is fascinating (to me anyway).

And that got me thinking particularly about those at the farther out ends of the spectrum.  And myself.  When did I start really focusing on studying mainly folkloric dances? Did I miss out on earlier opportunities to study it, and why? I remember in 2004, I missed Aisha Ali teaching in San Jose, but not intentionally - I had the flu so bad I had to go to the hospital. But I remembering wanting to go.  I think there were other times that local dancers may have offered folkloric classes, but I remember not being interested for two reasons: 1. I hadn't been particularly moved by their performances and 2. Many of them had not been very pleasant at all to me.

You see, I have the following outlook on life:  Everyone starts on the same line, to be treated nicely and with respect unless actions/words prove otherwise.  Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but I think those opinions should be formed by in-person experiences, and that we all need to be aware of our own baggage.  I prefer to study with individuals that I perceive as having a similar outlook.  If you put me in the negative bin just because you heard I do some crazy fusion, then I have a hard time offering back any mutual respect for what you do.  If I enter your classroom, I'm doing it out of interest and am already showing even-line respect with my intention and my money.  So the "what are YOU doing here?" isn't an appreciated response to someone who wants to learn from you.

Luckily, the bitches didn't get me down. I found other instructors who were not only inspiring on the stage, but in the classroom, and welcoming to me.  They understand I wanted to learn and honored that desire by treating me with mutual respect. But not everyone is as hard-headed as me.  Others get the feeling that they're not wanted, their opinions or experience not  respected, and they avoid anything else similar like the plague.  I can't blame them. Nobody wants to hear "YOU'RE DOING IT WRONG!" hurled at them, right off the bat. Nobody wants to be made to be felt unwelcome.

And then we wonder why more young dancers aren't learning more about the roots of this dance? Is it really that surprising?

Of course, I also know it's not just a lack of a welcome mat that is a culprit, but inexperience/ignorance.  In a time where a lot of dancers are STARTING in Tribal Fusion without even ATS/ITS to start with, some dancers don't realize there are far deeper roots to be explored, and that their dance can benefit from it - from learning Arabic music, folkloric steps, that it can actually be a lot of fun too.  In their desire to becoming the next Amazing Superstar Clone, they're not looking for self-exploration, or considering anything else not within their immediate goal.  But it's also entirely possible that one day, maybe something will happen and they will desire to learn more.

So will we be waiting with open arms, willing to give them the roots they desire? Or will we take away the welcome mat?

Also, are we doing tradition justice when we perform it? What essence do we bring to it that makes it appealing for new generations of dancers? People yell and scream that fusion is the downfall of the dance, but I fear there is much more damage being done in the name of poorly done "traditional" dance, be it folkloric, Raqs Sharqi, etc.  Who are we to consider ourselves ambassadors of the dance (especially if one hails from a different culture), when we don't seek to truly embrace the essence of the dance, and offer it to educate and enthrall? If we refuse to acknowledge that the dance is a living breathing extension of culture that cannot live under a microscope in stasis?  What are we doing that makes other dancers go "wow, I want to learn that!"  How?

When we will acknowledge that there are far more of us in the middle than at the spectrum as well? Yes, there is the "ethnic police" and yes, there are those doing crazy stuff with barely a thread's attachment to bellydance, but I believe that most serious dancers are interested in both tradition and innovation.  We need to both preserve tradition and build NEW traditions through innovation.  That is how art and culture survives - foundation and building.

We do not do this dance any service by polarizing the preservation of tradition and the spirit of innovation.

We do not do this dance any service by polarizing the preservation of tradition and the spirit of innovation.

We do not do this dance any service by polarizing the preservation of tradition and the spirit of innovation.

(sunk in yet?)

As I said yesterday in the panel, if we want dancers to be more educated about the roots of the dance, then we need to realize that we catch more flies with honey, than we do with vinegar.  It starts with a welcome mat.


  1. You said a lot of very truthful things here, and you get a hearty thumbs up from me!!!!!