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The Issue of Cultural Appropriation and Egyptian Belly Dance

A belly dancer in Cairo, Egypt with a live band.

Belly dance originates from Middle Eastern and Northern African countries (such as Egypt and Turkey) but is now a global phenomena. Danced mostly by women, it is loved by dancers because it can be enjoyed by people of all ages and is a wonderful form of fitness. Whilst certain core moves are central to belly dance, this dance is also fluid and open to self-expression.

The term ‘belly dance’ can be traced back at least as far as 1893 to the French term ‘Danse du Ventre’ meaning ‘dance of the stomach’, when the Chicago World Fair took place. Belly dance is a very generic term that includes a wide range of dances from Northern Africa and the Middle East (thought to be as old as thousands of years, though this is still debated and its origins are unclear), as well as American tribal belly dance (a style invented in the USA in the 1980s) and other styles developed worldwide. The types of dance called belly dance have in common the fact that they involve movements of the torso (hips, chest and shoulders) in isolation from the rest of the body.

Belly Dance is especially important in Egyptian culture, as one of the homes to this dance, although in Egypt, the Arabic term ‘Raqs Sharqi’ is used and translates as dance of the East. For many who study belly dance as dancers and seek to also understand its core, spending time learning this dance in Egypt becomes a dream. Studying belly dance in Egypt is akin to learning Taekwondo in Korea, tango in Argentina, or samba in Brazil.

In Egypt, it is normal for belly dancers to dance to music from live musicians.

Belly dance in Egypt can be danced socially by everyone or professionally at weddings or in nightclubs. The modern professional version of Egyptian belly dance started developing in Cairo in the 1920s and reached its top between the 1930s and 1970s. During that time, Cairo was equivalent to Hollywood for the Arabic world and many movies were produced there, most of which included dance scenes, particularly raqs sharqi. Many star dancers, featured in these Egyptian movies, such as Tahia Carioca, Samia Gamal, Soheir Zaki, Nagwa Fouad and Fifi Abdou.

Egyptian belly dance is quite earthy; relaxed; and focuses on small movements of the torso. Traditionally, it is danced solo, with live music and the dancer expresses the feelings from the music and connects with the audience. This expression of feeling and connection with the audience in Arabic is called tarab, which can be translated as ecstasy or enchantment.

The global diffusion of raqs sharqi, whilst a very positive thing in many respects (such as because it is enjoyed by so many in so many locations globally), also creates the issue of appropriation. Appropriation refers to how something is re-made or reproduced.

In a digital globalised world where Internet access has almost reached 4 billion users, videos of dance can now be transmitted from one corner of the world to another in less than a few seconds. This makes controlling arts such as dance all but impossible and in a sense, why would we wish to limit the ability for these beautiful art forms to be shared and appreciated?

Traditional belly dancer in Cairo, Egypt.

The issue of appropriation for many is the issue of misrepresentation of their own cultural heritage, particularly in an attempt to benefit commercially. A restaurant in a given country (let’s say the UK) might market an event that they call ‘A Night of Traditional Belly Dance’ for example, and yet they could knowingly hire a dancer who clearly has no real understanding or background of dancing in Egypt, Morocco or Lebanon. When the terms authentic or traditional are used, for commercial gain, and with no intention to provide an authentic performance, this, it can be argued, is cultural  misappropriation.

Authenticity is a very difficult concept to define, particularly for a type of cultural heritage such as dance, which is complex, because it combines many different elements, such as movements, dancers, costumes, props and music. Also, dancers have always borrowed from different cultures. For example, raqs sharqi included some elements from ballet and ballroom dances, when developed for Egyptian movies. However, raqs sharqi still maintains a specific cultural identity and is rooted in Egyptian culture and this needs to be acknowledged.

The argument from many who are concerned with the issue of appropriation is that even if belly dance and other art forms are to be enjoyed and spread, effort could be made to respect the cultural roots of these forms of heritage. This could be done by acknowledging that a certain representation is a creative invention and, even if it inspired by a certain tradition, it is something different. Alternatively, much greater effort could be made to connect and represent something close to the true traditions and cultural heritage of the art form, i.e. belly dance in this case.

The issue of appropriation though flows deeper. The debate extends to the question of if only those from a certain cultural background or ethnicity are those to whom certain arts and artefacts belong. An example is the recent cancellation of an art show in Canada because of complaints from indigenous activists. Similarly, in Seattle in the U.S., debate has centred on performances of Madame Butterfly and the lack of Japanese or Asian cast members.

The debates will continue as arts exist to be shared and yet cultural heritage and traditions are what give us identity and represent our place in the world. Whilst we cannot change our ethnicity or background, we can at least seek to understand and value the traditions.

A greater emphasis by governments and organisations ( UNESCO, for example, have a role to play in helping to protect heritage) could go into trying re-enforce the use of terms such as ‘traditional’ or ‘authentic’ and with emphasis given to certain standards needed in order for something to be called traditional. For example, dances such as flamenco and tango are listed by UNESCO. At the same time, it is important to allow heritage to be flexible, to incorporate change and give people the freedom to create.

As a belly dancer who loves Egyptian style, visiting Egypt was essential for me. I have been there twice, during which time I experienced dancing to live music and gained a deeper understanding for the dance, by discovering more about the context in which it originated. However, I have my own style and I will never dance like an Egyptian, as I am not one, but I acknowledge this and I will keep on trying to learn more about the culture of this beautiful dance.

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