Context Matters

Imagine I stamp my foot. What style of dance am I doing? Is it tap, flamenco, debke, stepping, clogging, Odissi, Kathak, Moldavian folk, Bulgarian folk (thank you Vanya for all the videos!), Hungarian folk, Irish step dance….?

Let’s look for clues. What am I wearing on my foot? Maybe it’s a shoe with a small heel – could be flamenco, tap, Irish step dance or any of the European folk dances (and their many regional variations). Does the shoe have metal on it? Well, that narrows it down to flamenco or tap, but maybe I’m doing American clogging with slightly unorthodox footwear. Clogs are wooden, American clogging uses clogs with taps whereas regional British clogging uses clogs without taps, so if I’ve got a wooden shoe on then you’ll need to look very closely. Maybe I’m wearing boots, in which case I’m probably doing debke, but then again, it could be one of those folk dances or maybe I’ve branched out into American line dancing. Maybe I’m not wearing shoes, just bells round my ankle, in which case I could be doing Odissi or Kathak or one of the other classical forms of Indian dance.

The music which is playing can narrow down the possibilities. Tabla and a flute – could be Indian, could be Middle Eastern. If there’s a sitar as well, probably Indian, if there’s an accordion, probably Middle Eastern. But if there’s just a solo accordion, could be Middle Eastern or English morris dancing! The two styles of clogging will have different kinds of music to accompany them, British clogging will have traditional instruments such as the fiddle or bagpipes, American clogging will have bluegrass music. The shoes with metal taps – if there’s an acoustic guitar we can be confident it’s flamenco, if it’s a big band sound then it’s probably tap. And if there’s no music other than the sound of feet on the floor, hand claps and slaps against the body? Could be flamenco, could be stepping.

Context is crucial. There are a limited number of ways the human body can move, it is the context they are done in that gives us hundreds of different styles of dance. I know some people sigh and roll their eyes at talk about classifying dance styles but it is about more than putting a label on a thing. Dance can embody history, culture, politics, geography, pride in your heritage, the whole wealth of human experience. The way you dance is a way to distinguish yourself from the people in the neighbouring town or region or country. The labels people use tell us so much more than just the name of their dance.

You can see where I’m going with this. Bellydance is not just a movement vocabulary. It is the movements you use and the music you dance to and how you interpret it, and yes, what you wear. Would you experience Fifi’s dancing the same way if she was wearing a tutu? Once you start taking that cultural context away you have something different. Of course you can do typical bellydance movements to [genre] music, but then what you have is bellydance [genre] fusion. Be honest with yourself, your audience and your students. “World fusion dance” would be a much more honest description for a lot of what is called “bellydance” at the moment, although I would like to see the phrase “contortionistic jazz exotica” gain some popularity 🙂 (yes, I’ve been watching Twin Peaks recently!). Fusion isn’t bad, or wrong! It’s something different. But once you remove everything Middle Eastern from your dance it isn’t bellydancing any more. We don’t question that flamenco is Spanish, or that Kathak is Indian. Why then do people insist that you can have bellydancing which isn’t Middle Eastern?

Yes, things change over time. Styles merge and offshoots break away, new schools are formed from the old. I’m not advocating preserving bellydance in aspic. However I would suggest that the people who innovate successfully are those who have really immersed themselves in the style and who therefore know how to push the boundaries without losing the essence of what the dance is. It’s more than just taking a movement from here and a costume item from there and shouting “But DANCE EVOLVES!” when someone questions your choices.

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