Saturday 8 March 2014

From One White Bellydancer to Another

This post is in response to an opinion piece which made waves in the bellydance world this week: Randa Jarrar's "Why I Can't Stand White Bellydancers," for

Imagine your uncle broke into someone's house on the other side of town, and stole a very beautiful necklace, among other things. Years later, someone gives it to you. You treasure it. One day, while you're walking down the street, the daughter of the woman who was robbed sees her mother's jewellery around your neck. She comes up to you to tell you that the necklace is a priceless family heirloom that was stolen. It had been in her family for generations, passed down from mother to daughter over decades. Would you try to suggest to her that you should keep it, or that she is crazy to try to tell you that she has a greater claim to it? Would you try to compare your love for it to hers?

As white women, we all have that uncle, or appear to. We look like the wives and daughters of the soldiers and foreign heads of state that played a part in carving up the Middle East and helped perpetuate conflict there. The impacts of that violence are not past but present, and the ruptures manifest in the looting of museums, the endangerment of women and minorities, and the erosion of cultural autonomy. We, as dancers, might not have done this, but we have to imagine how it looks to take on a certain costume and dance style and proclaim ourselves protectors of an art form that originated outside our borders.

Even if you are not from a country that directly colonised anywhere, we should remember a few facts. Baghdad has been sacked. Cairo remains tense. Throughout the Middle East, people are dealing with the aftermath and ongoing damage to cultures that have been ripped open partly by white people. Did they do that to each other, too? Yes. Does that exempt us from consideration of our appropriation of their arts? No. 

I think we need to be extraordinarily cautious about dismissing Randa Jarrar as cranky, racist, or bigoted, which has been the tendency of some. She is having the experience of something that is culturally near and dear to her being rewritten, by people who look nothing like her and mostly do not have the history of their culture being exploited that she does. The dance she loves does not belong exclusively to her, but it is woven into the fabric of her childhood and family life in a way that is very different from the experience of most Western dancers.

There is a difference between people adopting the dress and customs of a dominant culture that is actively exported (as in the cases of European dress or American music) and people from a dominant global culture feeling entitled to adopt or adapt the folk arts of another region. In one instance, the originators of the cultural form happily expect to be leading the way, and are validated by the uptake of their trademarks. In the other, people often feel that they are fighting to retain their identities and ways of life in the face of massive pressure to assimilate to "modern" expectations, largely from the global West/North.

The circumstances surrounding who has the luxury of dabbling in what art--including day-to-day discrimination based on skin color, historical facts of empire, wealth and power imbalances, gender politics (and how those are affected by race, nationality and context)--must be taken into account. It stings to get hit between the eyes with racism. White folks are generally not used to that. After we're done feeling our feelings about it, we have an obligation to acknowledge that our attempts to artfully borrow may have collateral damage. And, we have to decide if that changes our approach, or if we're okay with some people feeling the way Jarrar does. She is not alone in her feelings, either. 

It is a mighty privilege to be able to buy another region's priceless cultural heritage and try it on for fun and experimentation. That's what appropriation is. If other cultures feel respected when we do that, we help grow folk arts into global arts, like ballet. If we leave people feeling violated, then it undermines our cause, in my opinion. 

No one can be blamed for finding dance beautiful and becoming enamoured by it, regardless of context. One can, however, be held to account for failing to deepen one's education of context and history, especially in reference to a region where there has been ongoing conflict and war with Western nations, through our lifetimes. Art never happens in a vacuum--it is surrounded by facts and vagaries of history, and the tensions within those. 

If you are not comfortable with the weight of responsibility for other people's interpretation about your interaction with their cultures, I would suggest, as Jarrar does, that you find another hobby. There are some uniquely American dance forms that risk dying out right now--any one of them would appreciate your attention and participation. If they are not as appealing, I invite you to ask yourself why that is. Less amazing jewellery to wear? Not as worldly? Fewer opportunities for personal authorship in dance? 

Because, honestly, many of the things that make this dance shine to newcomers and audiences hinge on motivating common ideas we all have about the exotic, which derive from moments when Western culture became enamoured with the real and imagined worlds "over there." And, while we might once have felt far apart, those worlds are rapidly growing together, ever more mixed up in and exposed to each other. The heady appeal of that opportunity to craft one's own artistry, literally from the pieces of another place's cultural treasures, comes with the great responsibility to not just feel like you are respecting that with your intentions, but to deliver on that respect. 

We can't expect anyone to read our minds and hearts, and interpret our enthusiasm as appreciation. Execution is crucial; it is what defines art. If we intend to honour peoples' traditions, then we have to check to make sure that they do, in fact, feel honoured. The practices we reference in bellydance don't belong to long-gone people of the past--they are borrowed also from their descendants, who have the right to be respected when they speak up for their cultural integrity. If they don't feel loved, we might want to re-evaluate whether what we're doing just feels good to us, to the exclusion of their feelings on the matter.

In the case of Middle Eastern dance, we can choose to engage--artfully and considerately, and hopefully by invitation--with the injuries of conflicts we have directly or indirectly been party to. Or, we can keep blindly dancing in that wound, without regard to the feelings of those closest to the thing we claim to love. I know what I'd rather do.

None of us will get it right all the time. The failures sting, and they should. We should learn from that, and refine our approach. From there, we can begin to integrate the great diversity of opinion that matters outside of our own, and gain a sense of the perspective. We find our audiences, and we lead them somewhere. We can do better than presenting a cartoon of "elsewhere."