Cultural Appropriation and Belly Dance: Examining My Privilege

If a person ever wants to start an intense discussion within the world of belly dance, bring up cultural appropriation. It's one of those topics that elicits several types of responses they range from the thoughtful and inquisitive to the defensive, angry disregard for anyone else's experience. Before you dive into a "yes, but" in the comments, READ THIS ENTIRE POST. Then, step away from your computer/device for 30 min and engage in some sort of other activity while you gather your thoughts and feelings. Keep in mind, I am talking about MY experience as a White Woman who loves Belly Dance and has been considering the implications of the complicated relationship. The first few times I encountered the now infamous cultural appropriation opinion piece, "Why I Can't Stand White Belly Dancers" by Randa Jarrar, I was defensive and angry. How dare this person write such a scathing opinionated piece when she didn't know anything about why I, a white woman, belly dances! I had a similar experience with another article I'd read about racial microaggressions. I didn't want to believe that I was racist in any way, or had ever said or done anything that could be considered racist. Wow, was I wrong about that. I now try to do better and keep learning. I realized that I felt upset because I didn't want to acknowledge that I was a part of the problem. I didn't want to acknowledge that my privilege as a white woman was allowing me to engage in behavior that contributed to racism and cultural appropriation. This dance that I love and make part of my living from, comes from a culture that is not my own. What the heck was I supposed to do with feeling upset about having my privilege called out? I decided to get curious about what my motivations were for being involved in belly dance and if I could evolve my relationship toward appreciation and cultural exchange. 

How I began - steeped in Orientalist Fantasy and Cultural Appropriation

Tribal fusion belly dance

My belly dance journey began in 2003, I had been exposed to Turkish and Egyptian music wanted to know how to dance to it. At the time Shakira was popular and many other musical artists were sampling Middle Eastern songs/aesthetics. I had very little dance experience and went in search of getting myself educated. At the time I lived in a rural foothill community in California, there were only a few instructors.  My very limited concept of belly dance was very much steeped in Orientalist Fantasy and Cultural Appropriation. My mental image of a belly dancer was a woman with long hair, a two piece bra/belt set (bedlah) and a skirt that showed a lot of leg. I couldn't tell you the name of a single dancer from the Middle East. Granted, I couldn't tell you the name of anyone from the US either. Thankfully that changed pretty quickly, mostly due to the wealth of knowledge shared on Bhuz, a now defunct belly dance forum.

My first few years of belly dance education were in American Tribal Style, Improvisational Tribal Style, and Tribal Fusion. I had been taking classes for about 11 months when I took myself to Tribal Fest (also defunct), an event that hosted a broad range of teachers and performers in Northern California. Although the focus was mostly on Tribal variations on the belly dance family tree, there were musicians and dancers representing the diversity of Middle East, North African, and Turkish (MENAT) styles. There were several who were of that culture, I enjoyed their workshops very much. I felt a bit better about learning from someone who could share the cultural nuances so I could be better informed about my dance expression. Looking back, I realize this does not balance the scales in terms of representation or visibility, it also shows my cultural privilege. I will state that there are people, see article above, of the cultures who view these instructors as traitors to their culture. That is a whole discussion I am not going to get into, because it's not mine to host or try to direct the discussion. I would advise that if you appear to be White, don't tell a Person of Color (POC) or a Person of MENAT culture that they are wrong for this opinion. Don't be a dick.

Cultural Appropriation as status quo

Moving forward in time, in 2008, I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area and quickly found a belly dance teacher who encouraged my study of Egyptian dances. She is of Lebanese heritage and loves sharing movement with women and building community. Under her guidance and instruction I opened up to a whole new world of movement, culture, and music. I quickly became of a fan of Samia Gamal, Soheir Zaki, Fifi Abdo, Dina, and Om Kolthum. I began to shed the ideas about what I'd thought belly dance was and see the complex ways these dances exist in their own culture and how they have evolved here in the US. I also began to seek out instruction whenever possible from MENAT dancers and musicians. Getting closer to the source and expanding my knowledge so that I could do more than be a mindless consumer.

Two years later, I started dancing professionally in local restaurants and was encouraged to take a stage name by the restaurant owners. I did what a lot of Western dancers do, find an Arabic name and adopt it as mine. It's curious to me how the owners of the restaurants who are from MENAT cultures, encourage and promote this practice. Asiya (Azhya or Ahseeya depending on pronunciation) was hired to perform for audiences of many cultures, all of them appreciated my performances. I became an avatar, an outward expression to relate to a particular audience. It was a role, a mask, I did not feel that I was Arab or Egyptian in any way. I didn't feel like I was harming anyone, if anything I was being encouraged by teachers, musicians, singers, venue owners who were of the culture to continue.

Cultural Appropriation Crossroads

My journey with belly dance also became a personal transformation, I will share more about that at another time. Through my experiences with dance and other movement forms, I decided to pursue education and training in Holistic Health. I wanted to share the discoveries that I had with belly dance and how aspects of my well-being improved. I do believe that dance is a healing modality that has effects on the mind, body, spirit, and community.  This is where I started to really see how Western culture picks and chooses from other cultures and spiritual paths to utilize for its benefit. White people did not invent holistic healing modalities such as: mindfulness, healing dance, shamanism, yoga, vision quests, acupuncture, tantra, or divination. Despite this, White people are at the fore front of these methods/industries in the Western world. The more I looked for mentors and programs in holistic health, I began to see that people who look like me, as the experts in the field, fill up their workshops and retreats with more White people. People who look like me, are making money using spirituality, healing methods, language, dance and music from other cultures to encourage the healing and freedom of White people.  These programs are also very expensive and only attract those that can afford them, typically White people. This awareness brought me to a place where I realized I needed to be a more mindful student/practitioner and not just consume some other culture.

In researching holistic movement and health I encountered a dance fitness program that connect women to their bodies using ethnic dances and yoga. At first it sounded like a really fabulous thing that was in line with what I wanted to offer to the world. Over time, I became disappointed that the educators in the program were primarily White, and the marketing was aimed at able-bodied White women. The final straw for me was the packaging of Goddesses from around the world for fitness consumption.  Teaching my classes in Oakland where many of the people who come to my classes do not look like me, I could not comfortably and authentically present this program material. I appreciate that the program's initial intent was to connect people to their bodies through movement. I firmly believe that dance is a global healing modality that builds spiritual connection, community, and understanding of the body. This experience did help me in being aware of how I present my current fitness offerings. I enjoy dance and movement, it helps my body feel wonderful, I want to share that with others. I emphasize the core themes of joy, movement, community, and acceptance over the novelty of a cultural dance.

Now I put my privilege to work

I am a highly educated, White, able-bodied, slender, cis-gender woman. I have the ability to navigate a lot of aspects of Western society with relative ease. I have made the choice to be aware of ways that I utilize my privilege. The classes and events I facilitate/participate in, are community focused and allow for experiences and voices that are not my own. I am not trying to be a White savior, I know I cannot give empowerment to anyone else and it is not my place to say/think that I can. I don't shoe horn my way into communities that I haven't been invited to, I don't promote myself as an expert in concerns affecting People of Color. I've witnessed well intention-ed White people do this and I was horrified.

I made the decision to stop using an Arabic name as my belly dance persona. Using my own name, I am transparent about being a White woman who loves belly dance. If I get called out about my privilege, I try my best to not take it personally and get curious about what I can change. Some things I can change, such as not using an Arabic name, and integrating more cultural discussions in my dance classes.  For the things that I will continue to do, performing and teaching, I do with awareness and a desire to make room for people of MENAT cultures.

Agreeing with Randa and looking to the future

In Randa's article she says this in the closing paragraph, "We are human beings. This dance form is originally ours, and does not exist so that white women can have a better sense of community; can gain a deeper sense of sisterhood with each other; can reclaim their bodies; can celebrate their sexualities; can perform for the female gaze." I agree with her statement. White women/dancers should really examine why they are participating in MENAT dance forms and be honest about the reasons. I started many years ago because it was exotic, sensual, and offered a connection to my body. I wanted to be the Arab fantasy woman, as a White woman of German/UK heritage without a drop of MENAT heritage. I fully own that I participated in a way that was cultural appropriation. It has now evolved to cultural appreciation, cultural exchange, and understanding my privilege.

I would love to see a shift in American belly dance culture to encourage MENAT women to be visible, participate in events and teach classes. The heyday of the White American belly dancer as the face of our community, needs to fade into the past and acknowledge where it came from.

Now enjoy this lovely video of Egyptian women dancing.

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