Long read ahead!
We had a lovely show last weekend showcasing students at our workshop weekend at Oasis. Those students included lots of levels, both student level, pros and semi pros of differing styles. I received an email and welcomed giving my response to the sender.
We as instructors don’t have all the answers to some really tough questions about a dance form we live for but I tried (below) to do my best to share our mission, education, and thoughts on such matters.
Although we find it very flattering when people of culture think we must be from Egyptian descent by the manner in which we dance, we aren’t. We don’t make any bones about it. But what we are is passionate about learning more and more as instructors of this dance form!
In this business, we encounter people from the general public who don’t know what the dance form is, where it comes from, and have seen others dance it in a very different way. When possible we like to talk to them, announce what they are seeing and try to be worthy ambassadors of Egyptian dance. Our students are of every level and from many cultures. They do have a commonality, they love to belly dance, and to learn about the dance in its many forms from Cairo style to folkloric styles. Below are my responses as a dancer and studio owner:
Dear Ms. Claire/Faaria Lynch,
I was at the New Jewel of India last weekend and enjoyed your hafla very much, so much so that I would really like to study raqs sharqi myself to gain a better relationship with my body and to improve my balance and to become more graceful.
However, I have some ethical concerns about whether studying belly dance would be in keeping with my wishes to avoid performing cultural appropriation and to be morally responsible in how I express my appreciation for other cultures, which are elements of my career goal of teaching ethnic minority literature; while Arab American literature is not one of my specialty areas, I certainly owe Arab Americans the same ethical attention and respect that I give to the minority groups whose literature I do study. I therefore would like to ask you some questions about your background and your teaching philosophy which aren't answered on your website:
1) May I respectfully ask if your family heritage and your studio staff's heritages include any of the countries with longstanding belly dance traditions (eg Egypt, Lebanon, Turkey, etc)? I'm asking not because I think, for example, that only people of Korean descent are qualified to teach taekwondo, but because I understand that it is good when a profession makes an effort to make sure that opportunities are available to qualified members of the ethnic minority group which originally created the profession, and that it is something to be especially celebrated when a member of an ethnic minority group is in a position to share his/her culture with a wider community.
Cultural appropriation is an issue that both I and my Assistant Director have spent much time educating ourselves and listening to the thoughts from people of culture on the subject.
I am not Egyptian and do not pretend to be (my heritage is Dutch, German, and Danish). Simply put I love Egyptian Dance! Is that enough? NO. Educating myself about the culture of origin is key AND passing that along to my students and future generations of professional dancers I train.
When you attended our show you were seeing students attending our workshop weekend. Some of those dancers were performing fusion styles; they came to the workshops to educate themselves about Egyptian dance to further their knowledge.
2) May I ask whom your teachers have been?
I am forever a student and seek out instructors who are both great dancers and knowledgeable in their own right about this dance form, it’s history, and culture. My Assistant Director and I are JTE certified Levels 1 & 2. We are traveling to Egypt in the spring of 2018 to take our Levels 3 & 4 certifications (4 being the highest). Those 3 weeks will provide us the opportunity to widen both our academic knowledge, study with Egyptian instructors, immerse ourselves in the culture, and meet our costume designer and his dear mother in person finally (more about that later).
The JTE Program (Journey through Egypt) is a program that educates dancers and dance teachers about the reginal dances of Egypt, Dance History, and culture.
JOURNEY THROUGH EGYPT
“Journey Through Egypt is the brainchild of Sahra C. Kent (Saeeda). After studying Dance Ethnology at UCLA and studying Egyptian Folkloric dance under Farida Fahmy Sahra moved to Egypt to conduct research for her master’s thesis on the Zeffat al’Arusah. During this research she discovered more and more about the culture & dances of Egypt. Applying her learning of Dance Ethnology and the advice of many of her local resources in Egypt the idea for Journey Through Egypt was born.”
You can read more about the program at their website:
Aside from the JTE program my training spans both dance instructors from cultures of origin, Fifi Abdo, Ahmed Hussien, Khaled Mahmoud , Issam Houshan, Yousry Sharif, and Oreet of The Sharqi Method,as well as knowledgeable western origin dancers such as Aziza, Melissa Gamal, Saida, Nourhan Sharif, Bozenka, Sherina, and many more
I have studied with those I admire for both their dancing whether that be a pure interpretation of Egyptian Dance or other styles in keeping with that root tradition. I bring those differences in style back to students and state what I am teaching and who I learned it from. It helps to study with both and see the interpretations of this dance form all over the world.
3) May I ask about your teaching philosophy about contextualizing belly dance? For example, do you discuss the domestic context of discrimination against the Arab American community in the USA, and/or the international context of the current conservative regime in Egypt which has caused belly dance to be associated with lack of respectability? I have read pieces pointing out that it is ethically irresponsible for non-Arab people to cherrypick the fun parts of Arab culture (most commonly, belly dance) and to fail to show support for Arab Americans facing discrimination which pressures them to downplay their cultural backgrounds, and this is a grievance held in common by various ethnic minorities in the USA, so I am especially concerned about this and would really like to find a teacher who can help me approach belly dance respectfully and responsibly.
I do not pretend to truly know what Arab discrimination feels like. I can only do my best to listen when people talk about how they feel. I can strive to do my best with my students and members of the community I encounter to present this dance form in an authentic, respectful, and dignified way. I start my beginner students of with the statement: This dance has a people, a place, and a culture of origin. We must not take it and do whatever we wish with it without respecting the culture and people it came from, and the history that brought us to today’s dance in the name of creativity. There are many many fusions of this dance, and they are beautiful. Properly labeling them does a great deal to keep the general public from a state of confusion. Educating both students and the general public on its pure form and its fusion forms is essential.
At Oasis we feel it is vital to support vendors in Egypt. Since 2007 we have ordered costumes from our designer in Cairo, Amr. We do this to both support the country of origin and present dance in a proper way (i.e. no cheap costumes made from underwear bras). When we present regional dances we do so in proper costumes. Yes we sometimes buy costuming pieces in the US but do almost all of our purchasing from Egypt.
We dance to music exclusively from people of origin and buy music from them.
We feel using Egyptian music and not western music furthers the dance and the musicians creating it.
As to the statement about belly dance lacking respectability, it does in many places. It is wrong as a non-Egyptian to say one is “elevating the dance.” Egyptians have done this for many many years and do not need westerners to “save” their dance for them (how people view belly dance in Egypt and in all cultures is complicated) we can only hope to live up to their standard of dancing. I teach dance and little by little where it is appropriate, insert culture as it relates to dance.
Dancing professionally, both my Assistant Director and I have danced for Weddings, birthdays, you name it, hired by people of culture and have always been well received. When dancing for western audiences have also been well received and see it as an opportunity to show what a beautiful dance form and culture it is. Obviously those are very tiny things in the big scheme of things but every little bit helps.
A few closing thoughts:
Teaching culture as it relates to dance is important at Oasis. We have women from all cultures that we welcome. Each and every one of them has a deep respect for the dance form all the while having fun. They find that not only learning dance but culture and history thrown in are appealing.
Any person wanting to study Raqs Sharqi (more commonly known as belly dance) and its folkloric regional forms (the root of belly dance and wonderful dances from all parts of Egypt) should ask questions of their instructor. “What kind of belly dance do you teach” Not having an answer is a problem! If the instructor says they teach Egyptian or Turkish ask questions, does the information they give come up the same as your own research (yes you should look up the dance form you are studying!).
I have witnessed many teachers and dance groups doing whatever they want in the name of fusion and/or mislabeling what they are dancing. I love fusion (knowing both dance forms equally well) just not confusion (knowing only one or none) My mission (through years of study) is to put MY students on the path to start and continue to learn about this beautiful dance in all its forms.
The same thoughts can be noted with Salsa, Polynesian, Irish, Flamenco and any other cultural dance forms. Taking the culture and history away disrespects the people and culture of origin.
My Assistant Director and I have a deep love of this dance AND spend much time, personal resources, and energy educating ourselves because we would have it no other way.