THAT Article, or, Bellydance – We Need To Talk

You’ve read it* by now, yes? It’s popped up about a hundred times on your Facebook feed. I’m not going to link to it because I try not to link to clickbait. I read it on Tuesday night and my reaction was *eye roll*, partly because I’ve read a fair few articles on cultural appropriation and this one is not up there with the best, and partly because I thought I could predict the  FB reaction to it. I was wrong. The reaction was much worse than I expected and now I’m starting to think that this inflammatory article needed to be written because the message in the best articles is not reaching the people it needs to reach.

There have also been a lot of people making superb rebuttals to the the article and the more ignorant comments. Nice work! Edit: here is a fantastic take-down. I’m  not going to write about the article specifically but rather some of the issues it has brought up.

Art goes beyond borders. Anyone can pick up a paintbrush, or bang a drum, or  move their body to the beat of that drum. Art can bring us together. Art is done by people and people are the products of their culture which is defined by borders and language and religion and history and politics…and all those things mean that often art is not an exchange between equals but appropriation. I can’t pretend bellydancers don’t do this:

Dancers performing to music which includes a recording of the call to prayer.
Dancers adopting a fake Arabic accent to talk to people.
Dancers using a complete mishmash of cultural influences such as doing raqs assaya to show tunes whilst wearing an ATS costume.
Dancers wearing face veils, not for melaya lef or Bedouin dance, but coin-trimmed chiffon harem fantasy face veils.

So that’s taking particular cultural artefacts and using them in inappropriate or offensive contexts, putting on someone else’s identity as a costume and reinforcing stereotypes. This is cultural appropriation. I want to think the best of people and I believe that most of this is done out of ignorance, not malice. Ignorance is cured by education, right? But does our dance education always go far enough? I try to lead by example, by choosing appropriate costumes and music and talking about how the dance would be performed in Egypt. I have never said “Don’t wear a face veil” to my students because I didn’t think I had to. Now I think these conversations have to happen.

But to talk meaningfully about cultural appropriation we’ve got to avoid falling into certain traps. I’ve been reading these everywhere:

“Does that mean black people can’t dance ballet? Or Arabic people can’t dance hip hop?” – these things are NOT THE SAME as cultural appropriation because there is an imbalance in power both historical and current. Ask yourself is culture being taken from and imposed upon a group of people or is it being shared and received? The former is appropriation, the latter is exchange.

“But my Arabic friend says it’s OK” – I think most bellydancers feel a little glow of pride when someone from Egypt (or wherever your particular style comes from) praises their dancing. That’s also why we feel so hurt when they criticise. Remember, no one person is spokesperson for an entire group of people, so the fact your friend says what you’re doing is OK doesn’t give you a pass. However, that also means that one person on the internet can’t shut you down! Not even me! Read widely. Look for consensus.

“The author is so angry” – if all you can focus on is the anger then you are tone-policing, which is a neat little way of engaging with the argument without actually addressing the content. Sure, you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, but we are talking about emotive subjects (identity, history, religion, culture, oppression) and to expect everyone to couch their opinions in the dry prose of a scientific paper is unrealistic. Besides, why is it wrong to feel and express strong emotion? I have been told off by Egyptian dancers. I didn’t ignore them because  I didn’t like their tone, I resolved not to make those mistakes in future. Emotion and respectful discourse are not incompatible.

“Sexism is the real problem, not racism” – this is playing the oppression olympics and the logical conclusion is that we can’t address any issues until we have all settled on the most important one, which would mean nothing ever got addressed. We don’t have to pick the one most important thing, we don’t have to deal with everything-all-in-one-go, we can be aware that there are multiple issues to discuss and address them all in different times and places.

“Arabic people should be grateful that we’re preserving bellydance for them” – oh HELL no.

These are all ways of dodging round a very uncomfortable question. Are bellydancers (who do not have an Arabic heritage) being racist? Noone want to think that they may have inadvertantly been offensive and that squeamishness is why we react so strongly to the accusation of cultural appropriation. I think we have to face it head on even though – because – it makes us uncomfortable. It’s a big and complex question. Let’s start the conversation but let’s start it by LISTENING.


* “Why I Can’t Stand White Belly Dancers” by Randa Jarrar on Salon. It’s been suggested I include the title to increase the potential readership (I don’t make money from adverts or anything so that is not an issue for me) but I’m still not linking to it.

7 thoughts on “THAT Article, or, Bellydance – We Need To Talk

  1. I have avoided ‘the article’ so far and have been watching facebook responses with interest. You article is just excellent and reasoned. I am now ready to go and read the other…

    • Thanks Rita. I think the responses are more interesting than the original article at this point. The authors position of “I hate you; just stop” is so simplistic that it overshadows everything else she has to say. That unyielding position doesn’t invite engagement but I don’t think that was her aim in the first place. Bellydance is enjoyed all over the world now, she can try and shut that door but the horse has well and truly bolted.

      However she’s not making it all up out of thin air.

  2. Thank you so much for this post. So many of the responses to That Essay have been worse than the original article in terms of hate and pettiness and illogical baiting. Nice to see someone address these issues as well as the issues behind the article.

    • That’s also how I feel about it. The responses to this from the bellydance community have highlighted that we absolutely *do* have a problem, and burying our heads in the sand won’t make it go away.

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