Thursday, December 20, 2012

Your Dance Belief

Stereo Vision Gina Simon-Photography
"Beauty/Beast" at Raven's Night
Every time this year, I tend to write a post about the Winter Solstice - whether it's about the balance of dark and light, or facing the challenges of Winter. This year, I'm going to keep up the timely tradition, but I'd like to write about something that's been on my mind since June when I seemed to have the same discussion with several different sponsors along my tour route, and the holiday season is bringing it to the forefront of my mind again.  And that something is Religion.

Nearly every organized (and disorganized) religion has some sort of celebration this time of year.  There's a lot of talk about the reason for the season, about being PC, not offending anyone, offending everybody, celebrating love, fighting commercialism, who started what tradition and why, and so forth.  And of course, everyone thinks they're right.

And well, the same is true for the bellydance world.  We each (whether we like to admit or not) have our own dance religion. What we believe, how we practice it, what we think others should believe and practice.  And we span the range from fundamentalists and dogmatic practitioners to eclectic reformers and agnostic polytheists. And if you've spent any fair amount of time in the bellydance community, you have probably heard some, if not ALL of the following:

-"Egyptian style is the only REAL bellydance" (or Turkish or Lebanese...)
-"Tribal isn't bellydance." (or Gothic or Fusion...)
-"ATS is the ONLY way to do Tribal right."
-"Tribal style is for REAL women and REAL sisterhood...Cabaret is for sluts and strippers."
-"You can't do both X and Y, you just can't. It's either one or the other."
-"Bellydancing is for women ONLY."
-"X's Style is the only way to have proper technique, if you don't do it her way, your dance is crap."
and so on, and so forth, etc, etc.

Why? Why do people believe/say these things?

I've come to the conclusion that when we come to this dance, we fall in love with it.  And we invest so much of ourselves - our time, our money, our bodies - that it becomes important to believe that you're doing it right, that your investment is worthy.  And let's face it, most people starting out don't even know the complexity they're about to run into. Tribal? Oriental? Canes, Swords, Veils, and Fire? Oh my! How do I know I'm doing it right?

Some people react to the smorgasbord with glee : "I'm going to try it all! Weeee!" but a lot of people cling tighter to what they know and are familiar with - which is a very common human condition: whatever is strange/unfamiliar is possibly sinister/wrong.  Which is a great survival technique, but not a terribly good social/communal one.  There is also an explicable fear of BEING WRONG: "If Betty does Tribal, does that make me wrong for doing American Cabaret, or her wrong for doing Tribal? It does look more authentic, but it's really NOT, so there.."  And then there are instructors who further feed into these fears - whether because they're pushing their own religion, or they're afraid of losing students, or they just hate Betty's guts.

And here's where we come to the amazing thing about religion: It's about your personal relationship between you and whatever your chosen deity/path is.  It has NOTHING to do what what anyone else does. If it works for you, that's awesome.  And it's invigorating to share common beliefs and goals with others. But it doesn't make what anyone else is doing automatically wrong.

Egyptian is the only way for you? That's awesome!  Travel over there, study everything you can - there's a LOT to discover (like different eras, regions, history, and like the overlaps between Lebanese and Turkish). American Tribal Style floats your boat, fills your soul, and makes you stupid happy? Fantastic! Study where it comes from, and see what other variations are now out there and why - it's not blasphemy. Bellydancing helps your connect with your inner goddess and makes you feel empowered and beautiful? Rock on! Just remember, "over there" - EVERYONE does it - children, grandparents, women AND men. And just because some wrote some pretty myths and published them doesn't make it fact. Dancing TWO styles? Well, a lot of professional dancers learn and perform multiple styles of dance - generally through more than a single 6 week class.

I could go on and on, but what I'm saying here is: do what works for you, do it to the best of your ability, WHILE respecting that other people feel the same way about what they do and how they dance.  Learning about and accepting that other forms are valid does NOT invalidate what you believe and practice.  In fact, you may learn something new that expands or builds upon what works for you.  It doesn't make you weak or inferior - rather it's just another one of those things that makes you stronger and a better human being as well.

As teachers, we need to remember that what we share is OUR own experience, our own path.  As students, we have to remember this as well - that we are not only getting that person's experience, but are also filtering it through our own experiences. As performers, we also share our experience with the audience when we dance, and again, they filter it through their eyes and hearts. 

So the next time you may feel threatened by what someone else is doing, or fearful that you may be doing it wrong, relax - take a moment and think about the way.  Ask yourself what is at the root of that emotion, and what does it mean if you are indeed wrong?  Will the world end? Nope.  Can you learn more and expand as a dancer?  Yes indeed.  So, go forth and be awesome!


  1. Wow! This is great! I've often thought of dance as my own little religion only in that I'm as obsessed with it as my truly religious friends and family are with their faith, and that it's the closest I come to a spiritual experience... But I've never considered the parallels that you drew here :)

  2. Well said Tempest. As someone who often finds it hard to clearly define my iwn personal expression of dance with accepted labels, it is wonderful to hear others affirming the need to be true to your own path and to immerse yourself in it. I also believe it is so important to the art form to honour others expressions, even when you don't fully understand them. Afterall, if we were all the same, how terribly bland the dance would be!

  3. This is a wonderful post! There are a lot of points in common with a post I just made on dance and religion over at my personal blog:

    1. Excellent! They make a good pairing (like wine and yummy cheese), pretty much coming at it from both sides!

  4. I tell my dancers that in dance there is no right and wrong, only right and left.

  5. I really appreciate your words. As a performer that is just starting out I always worry that if I embrace the music and focus more on the emotion rather then sticking with a specific genre and doing what is expected, It will perceived as wrong.
    Dance is part of my way of practicing my religion and each dance is a offering. I don't limit my views to one religion nor my dance to one style.

  6. I truly like to reading your post. Thank you so much for taking the time to share such a nice information..
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  7. Laura, thanks for this post. When someone like you (well known, respected) says something like this, people listen. Here in Tulsa, we have a really big belly community, but it is fractured and can be incredibly separatist. I am trying to help create a more unified dance community, and my contribution has been to start an all genre dance show. It has been a great success so far, but immediately I lost dancers who felt they couldn't share the stage with burly-girls, and dancers began asking why THEY hadn't been invited to perform, because CLEARLY they were better performers...having been a part of this local dance community for so short a time I was unprepared for the dance rivalries and cattiness that I encountered. I can only imagine what you must have to deal with in the larger professional community! Again, thanks for this. I would love for you to make your way down our way some day - this would be a great workshop topic!

  8. I really enjoyed this, as always Tempest. Your posts are so thoughtful.

    I suppose one could take your analogy still further, and remember that a lot of what the arguments circle around these days is mirrored in both religion and dance: definition. Compassionate progressive Christians feel undermined by bigoted fundamentalists. But they both call themselves Christian, which leaves the general public--those outside of that circle--judging one by the other. They say they are the "same" by labeling themselves the same, but what you get with each is so wildly different, it becomes difficult to continue to ignore the huge disparity and confusion that comes from it.

    As a tribal dancer, I have been part of such a debate, of course. Bellydancers who saw what I/we did and were frustrated at the confusion it caused their audiences when we also called what we did bellydance. I don't blame them for wanting clarity.

    And so it goes...