This dance form has a rather sordid past. Borne of the Orientalism and sensationalism of the late 19th century, transnational dance (more commonly known as belly dance) is rooted in colonialism, cultural appropriation, and the sexualization of others who were “lesser”. But today’s dancers try to ignore this. We study Arabic rhythms while tuning out the British occupation of Egypt. We adopt Arabic or Greek stage names that our teachers suggest. (We’ll skip the issues around getting a gig as Mary O’Brian.) We pin pictures of early 20th century Salomes and label them “Vintage Belly Dancer”. We are ignorant that the movement of these actresses and dancers was usually Indian or Balinese. The hip movements of Middle Eastern dancers were too lewd.
We learn the dance vocabulary compiled mid-20th century from a plethora of dancers of many countries. Many focus on an “Egyptian” style that is a conglomeration of truly Egyptian folkloric dance, movements stolen from elsewhere, and a bit gleaned from Fred Astaire. We filled their places dancing in restaurants today as we did in the days before strip clubs. We were willing to fill the demand and do what no Arab American family wanted their good daughter doing. Then, we were part of the fantasy. Now, we are part of the tradition.
In recent years, we have tried to move beyond our dance’s beginnings. We strive for cultural sensitivity. We learn enough Arabic so as to not act coy and shy to a song about war. We become versed in regional music so as to appreciate the rich depth of the tradition. We blend the depth of the movement vocabulary with other dance forms to tell new stories to new audiences. We reimagine our history as our dance form becomes something different.
And we move on, wondering if we will ever be permitted to move beyond our origins.