Naming the Dance

From time to time there is a call to standardize the names of moves in the dance. This over looks an even more basic question – "what do we call the dance?"

The national body in New Zealand is called the Middle Eastern Dance Association of New Zealand. In the UK many equivalent associations use "Arabic Dance". Most dancers tend to use the label "belly dance". Some use raqs sharqi or Oriental Dance (or danse orientale). None really fit any large group of dancers.

For me the term "Middle Eastern Dance" captures the source of the dance – or almost. Unfortunately the geographical area covered isn’t always clearly understood and it ignores the influence that North Africa, or the Maghrib, had on the dance. Many of those who perform Middle Eastern Dance would include Tray Dance (Raqs as Seniyya) from Morocco or Pot Dance (Raqs al Juzur) from Tunisia in their repertoire. (However another member said many actually perform "Influenced by Middle Eastern Culture and Western Fantasy Dance".)

"Arabic Dance" is even more fraught. First how do you define "Arabic"? If you look at the Arab League it includes several African countries with no connection to the dance. Further that excludes a number of non-Arab countries that do have a connection – for instance Turkey and Iran. There is also the point that the dance is older than the spread of Arabic culture.

"Raqs Sharqi" (the Arabic term for the dance) has some drawbacks too. First, it is not understood by the general public. Using this term would require a huge education effort. Second, it refers to a sub-set of the dance – namely the solo, torso intensive interpretative dance found in Egypt and the Levant. It excludes debke, haggallah, saiidi etc etc. Third, it is also used by Suraya Hilal to describe her own creation – a blend of modern and middle eastern with more credit to Martha Graham than Fifi Abdou.

"Danse Orientale" is the French translation of raqs sharqi; or in English plain "Oriental". French is the language of the dance in Egypt. But using a French translation of an Arabic term seems odd to me. The English "Oriental" has some things going for it. It is the term used by professional dancers in the Middle East in contrast to folkloric dance. Historically it covers the right geographical area – North Africa and what is now the Middle East. However, in contemporary culture it has drifted to mean the Far East. The other problem is that it, as with raqs sharqi, covers only a small subset of the dance. In fact it can describe an even smaller subset of the dance as it usually refers to classical raqs sharqi performed to multilayered, orchestrated music.

So what is wrong with "belly dance"? The term is credited to by Sol Bloom (around 1893) to titillate the public at the Chicago World Fair. (However, his biography disputes this) This was something so shocking that women were not allowed in. It had the desired effect – he made money hand over fist. Unfortunately, something of the sleazy has attached itself to the name. "Oh, a belly dancer" – wink, wink, nudge, nudge is not an uncommon reaction from the general public.

Another problem is it is an inaccurate label. We don’t dance with our bellies (unless we are doing an ouled naïl piece – origin of the term danse du ventre). Sure some have added a few belly rolls to keep the public happy – but the control is a side effect of the dance not the purpose. More accurate terms would be "hip dance’ or even "bum dance".

Maybe the worst problem is that it is a cover for egos that want to perform without any training or talent. Can you imagine a raw student coming along to a ballet class and asking for a couple of moves and choreography because they intend performing in 4-6 weeks? Or saying they don’t need practice or feedback because they are women and this dance is an expression of their experience as women?

Using the label "belly dance" also obscures the origin of the dance. I suspect for many this is deliberate; an easy path. No need to learn difficult rhythms or another culture and language. No expensive workshops to attend.

No, I don’t think we need to freeze the dance in time but we should have some idea of its roots. When you study painting you aren’t let loose with a box of paints and told to be creative. You learn about colour and form. You learn how to use different media. You learn techniques and history. By all means create a contemporary piece, but do it knowing full well what you do. Do it honestly. Please, please do not impose your personal mythology on your audience. In general, western audiences are not well enough educated to realize you are indulging a creative flight of fancy.

So where does that leave us? None of the labels really fit. What is it that we are doing?

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