Souher Zaki on the BBC
Cultural Influences in the Dance

While listening to World Watch I was amazed to be hearing a report from the BBC on the Cairo Festival. While cringing at the "classic Egyptian belly dance is a heady mix of quivering limbs, naked navels and suggestive eye contact." comments what held my attention was an interview with Souher Zaki. When asked if Western dancers could match the locals she said something like "They donít have the spirit. They donít have the sense of humour. They donít understand the music. They only perform steps that they learn - 1,2,3,4." (Now this is not exactly what was printed on the BBC web site but closer to what she actually said on the radio.)

The Med-List was up in arms. One asked, "What's Souher so sour about, anyway?" Another reinterpreted in to mean "only native dancers have the ability to ME dance, i.e., it's in their blood." Yet another whined "She's quite happy to take westerners money during the festival for classes though! Surely if a teacher thinks the pupil is not capable of doing something they should tell them, not carry on taking their money for private tuition or classes." And again, "I think Souher Zaki is a little too proud".

Souher Zaki had struck into the Western heart. Was she considered "sour" because she didn't praise the visitors to the sky? (Some apparently performing for the first time) Or because she had her own idea of what made a good "belly dancer"?

And what about those foreign students? What did they want? Any bets on wanting 'steps' - or the fancier version - a choreography? Iíve seen it again and again at workshops with indigenous teachers who wanted to share what the dance meant to them and the students bitched about not getting a choreography. And it isnít limited to Australia/NZ. Another lister recalled how Hossam Ramzy was trying to explain what a drum solo means in Egypt and the interplay between drummer and dancer which lead to a number of students to ask for their money back because they didnít get enough "moves". If the foreign students asked for "moves" and that is what Souher Zaki gave them, is it her fault they are missing what she considers is an essential part of the dance?

She was saying that there are cultural aspects to the dance. That to dance without reference to this (in her opinion) is not to be a great dancer. Nothing she said implied that any "native dancer" just could get up and do it either.

And what of pride? If she is proud of her ability as a dancer - I think she has the right. If she is proud of her culture - then there too I think she has the right to be proud. Why should she accept another culture's redefinition of her dance? One that takes the things out which she is most values? It doesn't mean there are no good dancers outside of Egypt - it means there are no (or few) good Egyptian dancers - ones that have the (Egyptian) spirit of the dance, a sense of humour, and an understanding of the (Arabic) music. I believe few Western dancers value these things. We redefine the dance with our values. Well, one of the originals is striking back. I think she has the right.

This leads each of us to look at what we are doing. Each of us has our own ideas about what the dance means to us. If we believe we are doing Middle Eastern Belly Dance then what does that mean? How far do we go? What is the minimum amount of culture that we need to know about? Appropriate movement styles? Rhythms? Music? Language? Dress?

If we are doing Western Belly Dance, then again Ė what does it mean? What kernels need to be maintained to hold the link back to the source? If there is no links back to the Middle East/Mahgrib then why are we leveraging off the brand? For instance, to a certain extent ATS has been clear that theirs is a totally manufactured style. Yet they still leverage off "belly dance" as linked to the mysterious orient. No one seeing a Tribal dancer thinks "Celtic" or "Maori" or "Idaho".

Here and overseas, there have been calls for standardizing the language to describe movements and certification for teachers. Yet, no-where has yet satisfactorily addressed the two basic questions Ė "what do we call the dance?" and "what is the dance?". That is not to say there cannot be a broad community of interests. But when we lose sight of the origins of the dance I think we lose something very valuable. Then, in the words of Souher Zaki, we are reduced to just performing steps - 1,2,3,4.

Over to you.

June 2001

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