Back in 2014 I rescued some vintage bellydance magazines from a shop in New Orleans. Not only a glance back in history, what initially caught my eye were articles on Ruth St. Denis (one of my idols) and North African dances. The following summer, I was gifted a bunch more vintage bellydance publications, several of them coming from the city I now live in. Between the two hauls, the majority of issues spanned the 70's through the 80's.
As I sat down to enjoy them, my eye was drawn away from the prize articles and delicious photos to editorials and articles discussing the state of the dance. Issue after issue, dancers voiced their opinions about quality of dancers, whose style was more authentic, what was appropriate costuming, who could dance to what music, where was the line between fusion and authenticity, undercutting, 6 week wonders, double-scheduling, lack of professionalism, etc. With no punches pulled and lacking the art of critique, dancers ripped apart each other, rival events, and so forth.
Rather than being inspired by history, my heart sank. I flipped close the magazine in my hands and looked at the date on the cover. 1978. I said to myself, "these people have been arguing about the same old shit for as long as I have been alive." I remember many stories from my dance mentors, so it's not like this was a new revelation for me. But seeing it in print, page after page...it sucked at my soul.
All that time, and seemingly so little progress on these issues.
I could go into extensive detail about how these arguments have continued to play out for the entire time I have been involved in dance. How many times the community has essentially set fire to itself in that timeframe - in ALL of its factions, regardless of what label you want to use. But I'm tired of/from hashing it out again and again. Of lip service and no action.
In early 2015, I talked about the decline of the dance community population. Throughout the last two years, I wrote about issues and solving problems, from fostering innovation and expanding community to tackling cultural appropriation and considering why we dance. And so much more, even if it cooled down to about a post a month.
And here's the thing, I didn't just write about these things. I did them. Everything I write about, I practice. In my classes and workshops, at events, in what I produce and bring to the stage. And I'm going to continue doing that, even if I'm not writing about it. I know it works, and see the growth.
Y'all can argue about labels and styles all you want, but it's basically arguing about what the gravestone should read and who gets to carve it, all the while kicking the body into the casket. There are bad representations of the dance in EVERY style, and no amount of labeling is going to fix that internally or externally. Yes, there's plenty of stuff labeled as bellydance that makes me want to tear my hair out, but that doesn't change what *I* can do.
It all doesn't matter if there's not a new generation of younger dancers coming in. If we're not fostering an inclusive, positive environment for people to come to. The hilarity of the young vs. old bitch-off is the "young" dancers are mainly now in their late 30's-40's, so perceptions need to drop on all sides and reality needs to set in. Another divide the drama sinks into, when there are real things to consider.
So if you're interested in growing the dance and building community, here's the bullet list I recommend for doing it:
-To get more interest and classes growing, there needs to be outreach and interest for a younger generation, as well as reaching out more to the general public - a larger, more diverse demographic. Dancers for dancers is lovely, but it doesn't grow the dance. Promote outside the dance box, and be welcoming to all ages, sizes, genders, cultures.
- ALL areas of the dance need to address the sticky topic of cultural appropriation vs. appreciation. It's not going away, and it can be handled with grace on all sides. Tradition has always held hands with innovation, both can be encouraged and positive for each other.
- ALL teachers of the dance need to address history and culture, connect movement with music, promote professional ethics, behavior, and give constructive feedback. Even in a "for fun" class, students can be exposed to the cultures the dance comes from, see both tradition and innovation, be introduced to building community, and professional standards.
- Practice collaboration vs. competition. Foster positive and open communication in your town/city/state/country. Separation doesn't help, working together with mutual respect does. Nobody wins playing shark in a empty fish tank.
My (hopefully) last words on all of this: I don't think we're going to be able to build a bigger community in the next few years to come, but I do believe we can each build a better one where we dance.
And final words by Billy Joel: "We were keeping the faith. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Keeping the faith. You know the good ole days weren't always good. And tomorrow ain't as bad as it seems."