Arts evolve spontaneously, impetuously, swirling within the interplay of cultural trends and social changes. Analytical, critical thought follows the arts hesitantly, describing, defining and labeling the elusive phenomena of the artistic world.
The recent explosion in the popularity of belly dance and the proliferation of many diverse styles and trends within it, leave many of us wondering: Where exactly do I belong in this mosaic of genres and subgenres?
The fact that there are now more styles than ever before, causes us to look for differentiating words and definitions. We all do "belly dance" but suddenly there is a need to describe our styles more specifically, beyond the basic term. We want to separate one style from another. Because our dance arts are evolving so fast, it is not surprising that there are a number of genre areas that so far remain "undefined."
Here are a couple examples:
If you dance commercially in clubs and theme restaurants, use showy props such as wings or swords and don't adhere to the modern or traditional styling of any of the defined genres of Raks Sharqi (Egyptian, Lebanese, etc), how do you describe your genre? "American-Cabaret" is hardly appropriate, since this term is most commonly used to denote a retro style, the Turkish-flavored belly dance of the ‘50s-’80s era. So should we call it "modern nightclub/commercial belly dance"? There are nightclubs and nightclubs: some require "cheerleading style" (the dancer performs to club music, the crowd never stops dancing), others retain the"belly dance show" format (general dancing stops, belly dancer enters, performs, then invites the audience to join.)
Most of us, commercial belly dancers, are thus suspended in a dance terminology limbo. Our genre is adjusted to Western tastes, glamorized, dramatized and styled to produce maximum effect in terms of how audiences perceive our skill, and relate culturally to our act. We've left traditional or narrowly-ethnic stylings behind, we've fine-tuned our art to squarely fit the demand, but as we leave our commercial venues and emerge among our peers, as artists among artists we don't have a term to properly define our work.
Example #2 is what this article is about. As an "undefined" modern commercially-performing belly dancer, I also enjoy peer-review and artsy events and productions - the parties where artists perform for artists, such as studio showcases, theatrical productions, or video. For these, I develop performance numbers that deviate from the de rigueur glamour and the "belly dancer look" required at most commercial venues. The success of a commercially-performing belly dancer is in superbly playing the role of a belly dancer. Any deviations are possible as long as the performance preserves the parameters that make the audience recognize me as a "belly dancer" who is there to entertain them. Well, if you've ever performed commercially, you know that the demands of this image are actually quite restrictive.
However, when I am not in a commercial setting, I don't have to be "recognizable" as a "belly dancer" by a consumer of commercial entertainment . And in my artistic incarnation I don't care about consumers. I want to be a mermaid, a demon, a warrior, a dragon...So I start using music that doesn't evoke typical images of belly dance, I cover my body with gold tattoos, I dress like characters from my dreams. My technique is still belly dance, but, unless it's Halloween, patrons of my restaurant shows wouldn't get my drift...
Most of my NYC friends each have their own repertoir of dreamy, exotic highly-artistic non-traditional dances that they perform at peer-review events and in videos. We love playing with spiritual, esoteric, medieval, Gothic, goddess,astrology, mythology, nature, magic, and other themes. Our dances echo the plots of fantasy fiction, and borrow from the fantasy aesthetics developed by a number of subcultures (Rock, Gothic, Comic-book, Pagan, Renaissance/Medieval, and more).
What I am describing is a typical artistic path of a modern belly dancer: There are many of us here in NYC and beyond who develop creatively along these lines.
We embrace and pursue our belly dance dreams with passion, play off each other's unrestrained creative fantasy, follow only our imagination, support each other, grow together, and remain undefined in the panorama of belly dance terminology.
Our NYC circle has created an artistic collective - "Venus Uprising" - working on a number of projects related to our undefined genre of belly dance - shows, posters, art, video, books.
Last spring, a few of us here in NYC woke up to the fact that we need a name, a term... Something to define us as a trend and as a style before our fellow artists. You can't grow a trend if you can't sell it to your peers first, and to do that you first need to define it, explain what it is.
I work with dancers performing in all the diverse genres of modern belly dance - Egyptian, Tribal, Tribal Fusion, World Fusion, Gothic, etc. - and I can't describe my own creative direction to them, because it doesn't have a name.
"I perform....belly dance."
"Um... commercial belly dance....and....err....artistic belly dance - unusual, highly-creative stuff, you know...with imagery from dreams or fantasy novels, or comic books, or..."
"No. Every style of modern belly dance is fusion. Fusion means anything and nothing."
"Does this style have a name?"
We can't grow until we have a way to define our genre, make it distinct, refer to it without stumbling and lengthy descriptions. Give me a name!
"How about FANTASY belly dance?"
A bunch of us here in New York started calling our genre "Fantasy Fusion belly dance," or just "Fantasy belly dance."
What do you think?
Forget about such relics as male fantasy, Orientalist fantasy and harem fantasy.
It's the 21st Century. Think fantasy fiction, fantasy art, fantasy film, manga, anime. ("female fantasy"!)
Our Fantasy unity is based on interest in imaginative, exotic themes, in identifying with fantasy art/fiction characters. Definitely not in similar technique. Some of us stay within the vocabulary and technique of traditional belly dance, others blend it more actively with modern, jazz, and world fusion. And then there are dancers blending Tribal technique, aesthetics and concepts with fantasy themes and images.
Fantasy belly dance is not a technique fusion (such as Arabic-Spanish, or belly dance-jazz). We are talking image fusion. It's fusion of belly dance with images unrelated to either the origins of belly dance or to an image of a belly dancer as an entertainer (commercial belly dance). A good example of an established distinct genre of this nature is Gothic belly dance - a unity of themes and image aesthetics combined with diversity of technique.
Let us bury the word "experimental." There is nothing experimental about our work. Although unnamed, this genre is long established. It has been published and performed on many stages to a lot of acclaim, quite widely since the ‘90s. A lot of this theatrical, imaginative fantasy work goes back to the ‘80s-’90s when fantasy fiction, role play communities (such as Renaissance faires), and other fantasy and escapist genres, often with a strongly-feminine and empowering slant, surged to prominence.
belly dancers sought venues and expressions that would take them away from "sexy" environments such as nightclubs. They were looking for more freedom of expression and creative search, and they sought to erase the burden of "male fantasy" carried by traditional performance belly dance (as opposed to social, family-style bellydancing.) "Tribal" style emerged and solidified as one of the responses to this demand.
Having arrived in the west as Orientalist fantasy, belly dance took root and evolved as a fantasy art for quite a while, revolving around the images of Salome, goddesses, magic, vamps and harem drama.
In the pre-video age, dance researchers and dancers performing in ethnic clubs saw the original "belly dance" - folk and social dances of the Middle East and North Africa performed in contexts close to their native environment. But Western consumers of entertainment and the larger dance community were not exposed to these dances in their proper context until the late 20th century. "American Cabaret belly dance emerged," blending the fantasy "harem girl" or "glamour diva" image with authentic ethnic dance techniques borrowed from a number of dance cultures. It filled the demand for fantasy imagery recognizable by a Western consumer.
But the further we departed from the Orientalist era, the more distant and faint became the echoes of the "harem fantasy." Older generations may still relate to a Sultan's turban on a birthday boy's head, but younger birthday boys and girls can't relate to this retro spiel.
The dance world split and polarized: half of us pursued ethnic dance authenticity, studying various forms of old and modern Raks Sharqi (performance dance art) or folk/social dances of North Africa, Turkey and the Arab world. The other half pursued new fantasy themes and imagery through the eclectic aesthetics of the Tribal style, Tribal fusion, Gothic belly dance and all other directions lumped together as "fusion."
Since this "big split," the word "fantasy" has often been used negatively, as an antonym of "authentic Raks Sharqi." And the word "fusion" is often employed as an apologetic, to ward off purists and traditionalists. Meanwhile there is a world of validity to both terms in relation to our need as modern Western creatives to appropriate things of beauty such as belly dance and put them in a context where we can access them on our own cultural terms.
We all use belly dance technique - more or less "authentic," more or less modern or modified. It can be simplified and streamlined for group improv, it can be spiced with jazz and modern for stage and nightclub performances. Modern Raks Sharqi is a fusion of folk dances with jazz, ballet and ballroom dance styles. Every modern belly dance form is fusion. The big split does not begin with technique. It begins when an artist decides what ultimately inspires her - the cultures of the Middle East and the idea of performing the dance as it has evolved in the Middle East, or the images originating in the West, out of Western music, history, aesthetics, and subcultures.
Many artists follow the path of Gothic belly dance or Tribal fusion because these genres offer a non-judgemental, open environment for work on both new fantasy themes and new belly dance-based techniques.
What if you are not necessarily interested in one individual theme/subculture from the fantasy realm, such as Gothic? What if you don't perform Tribal Fusion? Perhaps you would like to join our worldwide “tribe”...Fantasy belly dance.
"Venus and Tannhäuser" from "Tarot - Fantasy Belly Dance" streaming video / DVD by World Dance New York
Belly Dance performance "Justice" from "Tarot - Fantasy Belly Dance" streaming video / DVD by World Dance New York
Belly Dance performance "Wheel of Fortune" (Cleopatra) from "Tarot - Fantasy Belly Dance" streaming video / DVD by World Dance New York