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Notes on belly-dance

Within less than a week, three different yet similar articles were published in Egypt on belly-dance and belly-dancers, including both contemporary dancers (Safinaz being the most popular) and late dancers — referred to as “icons” by one writer. The approach and the views presented reflect a crisis in thinking about this type of performance.

A quick reading showed that the three texts lacked objectivity — never mind a methodical or critical approach. They contained a flimsy superficial moral discourse, socially conservative and divorced from reality, combined with a narrative about “meaningful art” and racist undertones (what else could it possibly mean when a writer declares that there’s “something” about Egyptian dancers that’s attractive despite their lack of physical beauty?). There was also a common thread of adolescent infatuations, lustful for the female body, projecting on it various fantasies and desires that are irrelevant to a rich and complex type of performance.

The questions and ideas put forward revolve around the crisis of the female body, a body defined by dilemmas: who owns it, who has access to it and who can “use” it. Such questions see the female body as a site of conflict under a patriarchal authority in its individual form (husband, father, brother) and its abstract form, the state, which preserves public morals through the female body by regulating relationships using the public moral code and that which goes against it (prostitution, promiscuity, indecency, obscenity), as well as personal status laws (marriage, divorce, inheritance).

Amid this chaos of anxiety over the female body and how to possess, attain, repress, oppress, kidnap, violate, misappropriate or enjoy it, dancing as a chiefly performative art is completely lost. This anxiety cannot be ignored: It casts its shadow over all attempts to examine belly-dance not only as a social phenomenon but also as an artistic phenomenon, even though it has produced a rich heritage worthy of contemplation, that should not be forfeited to lustful adolescent fantasies, or to the adamant moral authority of the patriarchal system.

Apart from the moral choices of performers and audiences, certain elements created this phenomenon, and they can be traced and analyzed to reach an understanding much broader and deeper than stating that “dancing is a meaningful art,” or describing Naima Akif (1929-1966) as a “butterfly.”

The main concern of nearly everyone who has addressed belly-dance and its performers has been to reject the potential eroticism of a physical act (and almost any physical act can be erotic, not only dancing), or to naively glorify because they have been deprived of forming any relationship with the female body outside the context of sexual possession. (Even Edward Said fell prey to adolescent fantasy while examining Tahiya Kariokka’s biography, relating his teenage passion for her as an introduction to understanding belly-dance.)

I’d like to make a few notes on how belly-dance is viewed, beyond the moral debate around justifying it as a non-sexual act or glorifying it as a true expression of the latent desires of a repressed society.

First: A non-institutionalized practice?

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a bizarre dichotomy evolved between this physically performed expression and the problematic relationship of women and their bodies with the patriarchal authority, embodied in the modern state. Consequently, the state ignored it at best, or attempted to legalize it under weird, unintelligible labels (like licensing nightclubs under “entertainment” rather than performing arts). In such a context, variable with changes in those relationships, belly-dance evolved as a form of performance art outside the modern state’s institutions. Belly-dance was not, for instance, included in the dramatic arts curriculum when the Institute for Theater Arts was founded in 1930, nor was it included in popular arts studies when the Art Academy was founded in 1959 (except in its “folkloric” forms).

Belly-dance remained outside the state’s authority, which was the sole definer of “accepted” and “authentic” art — even though this is no longer the case, a connection remains with certain aesthetics for a number of social classes. (Even Farida Fahmy (b. 1940) has not identified herself as a “dancer” in the traditional sense, a conflict bypassed by referring to all the contributions made by her Reda Troupe as “heritage preservation”). This seemingly intentional marginalization, which reveals the conflict over the status and meaning of belly-dance, gave this art a great margin of freedom. There was never a “high council for belly-dance” to determine accepted standards. There were no definitive methods or approaches for teaching, defining, or chronicling it. There were, of course, “mistresses” who had “schools” and followers, yet their authority remained unofficial and non-binding for dancing professionals.

As a result, diverse dancing styles and approaches developed: from Samia Gamal (1924-1994) incorporating ballet moves and Latin American dances into her choreography, to the neo-classical approach of Tahiya Karioka (1919-1999), to Naima Akif’s perfect synchronization between music and performance, among many others. If there was one dancer who could define the art, it would be Badiaa Masabni (1892-1974), who rightly earned the title of godmother of belly-dance — not only due to her contribution to redefining it as a performance art, but also because for over three decades in the early twentieth century all professional belly-dancers were influenced by her in one way or another.

A non-historical practice

Viewing belly-dance as a phenomenon that transcends history is a problem. As an artistic and social phenomenon, it cannot be isolated from overall developments in its context.

For instance, the rise of the educated Egyptian bourgeoisie in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth centuries, together with a political structure that granted economic and social privileges to a large group of expatriates, created a cosmopolitan class that developed a certain taste in relation to the arts, while also consuming them. A prominent result was the increasing popularity of theater in all forms (musical, classical, etc.) as a “new” cultural product, in addition to the increasing popularity of “revues” or entertainment programs in casinos or cabarets (the best example may be Badiaa’s casino in Cairo). These developments not only changed the content of belly-dance (Badiaa introduced a chorus of dancers behind herself, the principal dancer — an idea inspired by ballet), but also the way it was presented (she also invented the belly-dancer’s costume as we know it today) and how it was received (no longer the preserve of public or private spaces, it became part of the entertainment industry, cut off from its origins in marginalized groups like the Ghawazi or gypsies, for example).

These fundamental changes were a natural result of the surrounding context. Therefore, decades after Badiaa’s death, we can’t see this form of belly-dance as an eternal unchanging form. It is a product of a specific epoch, with certain cultural, social and economic characteristics that formed the practical and artistic choices made by people like Badiaa or her followers.

The logic of performance

One of the most contentious aspects is probably the logic of performance, meaning the relationships between the elements of a performance. In the case of belly-dance, the elements include, but are not limited to: performer, movement, audience, music and rhythm, and movement space.

The logic of performance does not propose an ideal conception for how those relationships should be. It assumes that any attempt to understand a performance should follow the features of those relationships, without omitting any element or its relation with the other elements in their entirety. Because it is chiefly improvisational, belly-dance presents endless possibilities for those elements and their relationships. This flexibility gives belly-dance a truly collaborative nature (between performer and music, audience and performer, or performer and space, etc.), but this complexity is overlooked, reduced to debates about cultural originality, meaningful art or other obscure terms.

An improvised live performance

While most types of dance and music are live performance arts, belly-dance is the only form of art that requires the presence of an audience at the time it is produced. It therefore cannot be understood outside its context. As an improvised art, it is a product of the moment when its elements come together and collaborate in creating a complex product. Thus, the performer cannot be identified as the sole creator of the product or style — quite the contrary.

Therein lies the dark irony. The nature of belly-dance as a viewing relationship between performer and audience is what defines this relationship and audience expectations. For instance, when the audience requests a certain performance from the performer to increase the erotic effect of a move, we cannot assume that this was the decision of the performer alone. Those who lament the “dancers of the golden era” forget that the dancer does not dance in a social, political or economic vacuum.

All the various contemporary styles and dancers are a product of this problematic relationship with a performance art rich in structure and elements, but constrained by futile ideas about originality, contemporariness and lustful teenage fantasies that rush after Safinaz’s sexy bust shimmy, disregarding the fact that Kitty Fotsaty, the sexy Greek dancer with smaller breasts, gave belly-dance something that Safinaz and many others never gave or ever will: the complexity it deserves.

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