I saw these comments by someone named Christi in response to discussion about the recent Randa Jarrar article and felt I need to share them.
Don’t you understand that even with the brownie points you get for knowing the name of one Um Kalthum song and not taking a phony Arabic dance name, you’re still part of the problem? For something that is your “#1 passion,” how much have you actually done in the name of sincere advancement of the dialogue? Traveled to the Middle East to interact with and understand the lives of the peoples firsthand? Learned their languages? Studied any part of their cultures beyond belly dancing and eating the occasional shwarma? Right. Thought so. Inta omri, ya raqs!
Dance in the Middle East has social, theatrical, and historical contexts, but it doesn’t have YOU context. You have taken something from somewhere else and layered all kinds of personal meaning onto it that it was never intended to have. Dance is fun and often creatively fulfilling, but most Arabs don’t use it as a personal epiphany or whatever pseudo-therapeutic reason you’re making your experiences into. When you decide dance is all about empowering YOU, and not about the cultures where it belongs and what THEY want it to mean, you’re taking it out of its context and distorting it. No matter how much you dress up your thoughts in sensitivity rhetoric about how you haz all teh PC feels, your dancing is still only about YOU. What the dance means to YOU. What it does for YOU. How it makes YOU feel. How can you be respectful of the indigenous contexts when you’re so busy seeking your own satisfaction out of it? Existential crisis in 3…2…1…
I didn’t say someone from one culture can’t study or do meaningful work in another culture, or there is no enjoyment or empowerment to be had. Sahra Kent, Laurel Victoria Gray, Robyn Friend, Morocco, Aisha Ali, etc., have made their lives doing just that, and in the process, they have spent decades promoting cross-cultural understanding and emphasizing the importance of knowing one’s limitations as external participants in these arts. That is a huge contrast from defining your presence in the dance community with talk of how dancing saved you from yourself, how special it makes you feel, or what rationale you have for remodeling someone else’s traditions into a vehicle for your personal expression. Not everyone has the circumstances to dedicate their life to dance like those ladies have, and I’m not implying everyone should, but “I am an outsider, and I long for a place at your table. Show me what I can do to earn your respect and welcome.” and “I’m on a very important journey of self discovery. If I accidentally ignore or offend you, don’t take it personally because I mean well and I’m trying to make myself a better person.” are not interchangeable motives.
Ask not what these dances can do for you. Ask what you can do for these dances. These dances belong to living cultures, and they are done by real live people. You can’t walk around waving their flags and claiming to do justice to representing them, or even claim much integrity to your scholarly motives, when what you care about most is meeting your own emotional needs.
Grabbed this one from this Gilded Serpent article! This is Diane Webber, known for her gravity-defying bras among many other things. I love the skirt, and it actually looks like a crochet border!
You’ve read it by now, yes? It’s popped up about a hundred times on your Facebook feed. I’m not going to link to it because I try not to link to clickbait. I read it on Tuesday night and my … Continue reading →
You’ve read it by now, yes? It’s popped up about a hundred times on your Facebook feed. I’m not going to link to it because I try not to link to clickbait. I read it on Tuesday night and my reaction was *eye roll*, partly because I’ve read a fair few articles on cultural appropriation and this one is not up there with the best, and partly because I thought I could predict the FB reaction to it. I was wrong. The reaction was much worse than I expected and now I’m starting to think that this inflammatory article needed to be written because the message in the best articles is not reaching the people it needs to reach.
There have also been a lot of people making superb rebuttals to the the article and the more ignorant comments. Nice work! Edit: here is a fantastic take-down. I’m not going to write about the article specifically but rather some of the issues it has brought up.
Art goes beyond borders. Anyone can pick up a paintbrush, or bang a drum, or move their body to the beat of that drum. Art can bring us together. Art is done by people and people are the products of their culture which is defined by borders and language and religion and history and politics…and all those things mean that often art is not an exchange between equals but appropriation. I can’t pretend bellydancers don’t do this:
Dancers performing to music which includes a recording of the call to prayer.
Dancers adopting a fake Arabic accent to talk to people.
Dancers using a complete mishmash of cultural influences such as doing raqs assaya to show tunes whilst wearing an ATS costume.
Dancers wearing face veils, not for melaya lef or Bedouin dance, but coin-trimmed chiffon harem fantasy face veils.
So that’s taking particular cultural artefacts and using them in inappropriate or offensive contexts, putting on someone else’s identity as a costume and reinforcing stereotypes. This is cultural appropriation. I want to think the best of people and I believe that most of this is done out of ignorance, not malice. Ignorance is cured by education, right? But does our dance education always go far enough? I try to lead by example, by choosing appropriate costumes and music and talking about how the dance would be performed in Egypt. I have never said “Don’t wear a face veil” to my students because I didn’t think I had to. Now I think these conversations have to happen.
But to talk meaningfully about cultural appropriation we’ve got to avoid falling into certain traps. I’ve been reading these everywhere:
“Does that mean black people can’t dance ballet? Or Arabic people can’t dance hip hop?” – these things are NOT THE SAME as cultural appropriation because there is an imbalance in power both historical and current. Ask yourself is culture being taken from and imposed upona group of people or is it being shared and received? The former is appropriation, the latter is exchange.
“But my Arabic friend says it’s OK” – I think most bellydancers feel a little glow of pride when someone from Egypt (or wherever your particular style comes from) praises their dancing. That’s also why we feel so hurt when they criticise. Remember, no one person is spokesperson for an entire group of people, so the fact your friend says what you’re doing is OK doesn’t give you a pass. However, that also means that one person on the internet can’t shut you down! Not even me! Read widely. Look for consensus.
“The author is so angry” – if all you can focus on is the anger then you are tone-policing, which is a neat little way of engaging with the argument without actually addressing the content. Sure, you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, but we are talking about emotive subjects (identity, history, religion, culture, oppression) and to expect everyone to couch their opinions in the dry prose of a scientific paper is unrealistic. Besides, why is it wrong to feel and express strong emotion? I have been told off by Egyptian dancers. I didn’t ignore them because I didn’t like their tone, I resolved not to make those mistakes in future. Emotion and respectful discourse are not incompatible.
“Sexism is the real problem, not racism” – this is playing the oppression olympics and the logical conclusion is that we can’t address any issues until we have all settled on the most important one, which would mean nothing ever got addressed. We don’t have to pick the one most important thing, we don’t have to deal with everything-all-in-one-go, we can be aware that there are multiple issues to discuss and address them all in different times and places.
“Arabic people should be grateful that we’re preserving bellydance for them” – oh HELL no.
These are all ways of dodging round a very uncomfortable question. Are bellydancers (who do not have an Arabic heritage) being racist? Noone want to think that they may have inadvertantly been offensive and that squeamishness is why we react so strongly to the accusation of cultural appropriation. I think we have to face it head on even though – because – it makes us uncomfortable. It’s a big and complex question. Let’s start the conversation but let’s start it by LISTENING.
Note: This was submitted on Nazaneen Raq’s behalf.
"In a recent article entitled “Why I can’t stand white bellydancers”, Ms. Randa Jarrar outlined some of her concerns regarding the appropriation of belly dance (known as Raqs Sharqi to many Arabic speakers) by Western society.
As a Persian woman, I understand and share Ms. Jarrar’s concerns about cultural appropriation. I’m not sure whether being Persian meets her standards of “brown-ness” with respect to Raqs Sharqi, but it really shouldn’t. My eyes, curves, dark hair and olive skin may allow me to “look the part”, but Raqs Sharqi is in no way Persian. So “brown-ness” may not be an appropriate metric for cultural appropriation in Raqs Sharqi. Nevertheless, cultural appropriation is a topic of concern for most belly dancers, especially given that most dancers are portraying a dance from a culture not their own.
I say most dancers, because as Ms. Jarrar noted, the dance is increasingly being practiced by non-Arabs, both here in the West and in the Arab world. Nightclubs from Dubai to Cairo are importing dancers from Eastern Europe and the United States, and one can’t help but wonder whether this phenomenon is related to the stigma and reputation of being a Ra’assa (dancer) in an Arab country. In Egypt, one of the worst insults to hurl at a man is to call him “the son of a dancer.” Dancers aren’t “nice” girls in Arab eyes. Sure, everyone wants to enjoy the show, but nobody wants their daughter to grow up to be a dancer. Thus, to insinuate that foreign dancers in Egypt are – in essence – “stealing” gigs from Arab women in the Arab world ignores this fundamental facet of Arab culture.
Whether it’s due to the lack of native dancers or other reasons, women (and men, incidentally) from the United States to Japan have fallen in love with an art form that is not inherently their own. Unfortunately, Ms. Jarrar takes issue with the skin color of these women and men, despite the fact that most professional belly dancers have spent a lifetime studying this dance and the associated culture. The dance does not stand apart from the culture it originates from, and to truly practice it well means to understand that culture, not to appropriate it. Appropriation by definition indicates the incorporation of “the other” in your own culture, not the study thereof. Ms. Jarrar fails to make this distinction in her article, debasing all white belly dancers to costumed imperialists unaware of their white privilege. In fact, the journey of most “belly dancers” usually starts with Raqs Sharqi, but eventually develops into an understanding of the rich vocabulary of folk and social dances that form the foundation of this art. Beyond dance, Raqs Sharqi requires an understanding of Middle Eastern music, and the study of both inevitably leads to a broader understanding of cultural context. Moreover, most of what we know as Raqs Sharqi today was shaped by Mahmoud Reda, an Egyptian dancer who popularized Egyptian folk dance for the stage by blending it with Western ballet. (Interestingly, he was inspired by the likes of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire, by his own admission). In fact, Reda trained many of the most popular Egyptian dancers, including Keti Sharif, Farida Fahmy, Randa Kamel, and Dina Talaat. In short, there are aspects to the dance that are crucial to understanding it in the context of cultural appropriation, which Ms. Jarrar failed to identify or address.
While any art form features varying degrees of mastery and devotion among its practitioners, I encourage Ms. Jarrar, and anyone else for that matter, to look beyond the “brown-ness” of a dancer, as the color of one’s skin has little to do with the understanding of an art form. Speak to the white dancers you encounter, you may find that there’s a lot more happening behind that whiteness and “Arab drag” than initial appearances lead on.”
Thank you for submitting Nazaneen’s rebuttal! -Corinne
[Edit] Name fixed and source added.
Okay, I’m sure most everyone in the belly dance community has read Randa Jarrar’s article on Salon.
If you haven’t, go do so and then read the following articles…
Why I Can’t Stand Petty Snark Pretending To be Social Commentary - by Autumn Ward
In Praise of Polyglot Culture—and Multicultural Belly Dancing - by Conor Friedersdorf at the Atlantic
These articles are for your consideration so you can form a more informed opinion. I will say Asharah’s piece is well done & raises concerns about “whiteness” & other racial or ethnic groups participating in belly dance. Also, the Atlantic article displays a bit of misunderstanding regarding cultural appropriation. There’s no such thing as respectful appropriation and it’s not so simple as tacos being sold in Japan.
If you know anybody else who has written an article in support or rebuttal, please share - especially if they are of Arab descent.
If you wrote about this article on Tumblr, you can let me know or submit. Please be aware, that I have 2k+ followers so discussion may get heated. I’ll do what I can to address any followers who go out of line.