Musings on Karim Nagi’s lecture
This lecture is very interesting. "Gateway drug", indeed! 10 years ago or so, when I started dancing, I had only a vague idea of the origins of belly dance. While I've always had a fascination with "The Orient", it was exactly that – a sort of Orientalist fantasy of the Arab world. I didn't know any better than that, even my initial visit to Turkey, I viewed it through those eyes. Through learning belly dance, I came to love this culture and its other dances. I've learned about its food, some of its language, its politics, its culture. Part of it, of course, as we come up on the anniversary of September 11th, was that I wanted to oppose what my country (the United States) was doing in these other countries, the way that people were being portrayed. I'll never forget how everything was being blamed on the Palestinians at first, before they knew – and I was already sympathetic to Palestinians since one of my friends went to work at a relief organization in Israel/Palestine during college, and carried back her stories. I'll never forget my horror as my colleagues at work cheered on the bombing in Iraq, which to me I could see as innocent people being killed for being in a place. I did not want to be part of the ignorant masses who generalized all Arabs as Islamic terrorists. So, not on a conscious level, but probably as some kind of subconscious reaction, I threw myself more into learning about Arab culture than I might have otherwise.
I had to evolve though; at one time, I would have questioned why I would want to do a folkloric dance where I didn't get to wear a "sexy" costume. I had to grow up as a person, as a woman, and through exposure to people like Karim Nagi, Katia, Shadia, and other people who work so hard to maintain these dances in the context of their original culture, grow into the person that I am now. I can't see how any of us outsiders can achieve that without the leadership of natives – Arabs or Arab-Americans. On the other hand, I'm not sure how financially rewarding it can be if you _don't_ pander to the "fun and fitness" crowd. That's something I have been struggling with lately. To invite interest, do you market the dance to the potential audience (let us say, the general American public) in the way that it is most palatable to them? Or do you market it for what it really is – and risk not having a market? I was reading a description of dance classes in an Adult Ed catalogue and noted that Persian dance was being listed as Persian folk dances, and wondered – why do we never see "Egyptian dance" in these catalogues – always belly dance and therefore, at best, it is Raqs Sharqi if it is related to Egypt at all? Would people take an Egyptian dance class that _wasn't_ bellydance? If they would take a Persian dance class, or a African dance class, then why not an Egyptian folkloric dance class?
Of course, this video is mainly about how Arabs need to represent themselves in the belly dance industry. It is not about how I, a non-native, represent their dance; but of course, for me, it is. That's what I have to take out of it – am I helping – or harming – these folk dances [and Raqs Sharqi too] – which do not belong to me?
Just one small thing now, about something mentioned in this video. It's the term "Middle Eastern Dance". I have understood Karim's reasoning for some time, since the Arab Dance Seminar he held in Boston. However, I still believe you need a bucket term beyond Arab dance, and here's why. At least, for Raks Nativity, I can answer why we chose to subtitle it "The Christmas Story in Middle Eastern Dance". It's not just a marketing thing or a fear of using the word "Arab"; it's because I wanted to be able to include a Turkish-style dancer or Greek-style dancer if the show called for it. It has not happened yet, but it could. We could also someday include a Persian dance – perhaps. I like to allow the show to shift and change, depending on the talents of the casts. One day, we may have the three magi representing three countries – India, Persia and China even. Unlike Tchaikovsky's nutcracker, however, I would only want to do this if we could find dancers that were knowledgeable in the dances of those cultures.
Currently the show is mainly Arabic-style folkdances including:
- Raqs Baladi (Egypt)
- A Bedouin Dance (??? – I didn't compose this one so I'm not sure which Bedouins it represents)
- A Melaya Character dance (Egypt)
- A Saidi dance (Egypt)
- A fantastical representation of Andalusian (which was based on a fantasy dance created by an Egyptian, since no one knows what the Andalusian Moors danced like)
- Raqs Sharqi (for the Angel Gabriel and the North Star)
In our past incarnations, we also had the horse dance, which was modeled after a dance I had seen on Youtube and folkloric videos, going back again to Egypt. Plus there is plain old bellydance, in the form of the street performer balancing a tray of tea on her head, or the villagers at the end dancing to a drum solo (though that, I might argue, could also fall under Raqs Baladi). The focus on Egypt is probably due to my personal attachment and love of Egyptian dance in particular.
Overall, one of my goals for the show – beneath the ultimate goal to entertain – is to share the _other_ folkdances, beyond Raqs Sharqi, with a more general audience.