by Neon

belly dance: from male fantasy to female fantasy - article by Neon

Any living, evolving art has core trajectories and a million tangents that interweave it with other related arts and cultural phenomena. It is true, for every big wave there is a reverse current that both feeds and resists it. Understanding that in art nothing can be categorized with precision, I would like to offer a few observations with an analytical twist, building on my earlier article on Tribal belly dance.

A typical explanation of the flourishing of fusion dance forms in the US is that Americans adapt originally ethnic dancing to their cultural environment and expectations. Another twist to the same reasoning is saying that the proliferation of Tribal and other fusion styles is stimulated by a lack of knowledge or interest in the authentic ethnic dance arts. These explanations fail to recognize the true cultural origins of Tribal and many other fusion styles, and the reasons why they are so compelling.

Tribal belly dance is not a high-glamour "sexy" show that night clubs and restaurants want to display in front of their customers. There are few mainstream commercial venues for Tribal belly dance. Students focusing predominantly on Tribal/Tribal Fusion belly dance are not driven by the hope of getting into the commercial professional arena ASAP. For this reason, Tribal belly dance teachers are less motivated to focus on easy, catchy choreographies, gimmicks, props, and tricks of professional performing; instead they spend a lot of time on isolation drills, body alignment, muscle awareness, and group synchronization - a mode that would easily kill many a "cabaret belly dance" class. Yet Tribal style attracts women of all ages and grades of beauty and skill. They share an immunity to the culture of glamour, and commonly display respectful indifference toward authentic ethnic dance arts.

In my experience the key to understanding the driving force behind American-born Tribal belly dance and other fusion belly dance forms is the word "fantasy." In belly dance-related discussions we say "fantasy" humorously, sometimes dismissively, sometimes as a light-hearted antonym to the academic notion of authenticity. I will use the word "fantasy" as a straightforwardly positive term - as in "fantasy fiction." This concept helps place Tribal belly dance and other "fusion" styles into the larger cultural context. Like a tip of an iceberg, this word points to a gigantic cultural formation - worth considering, whether you are navigating these waters for fun or for profit.

Throughout the '60s-'80s, belly dance in the US flourished in urban ethnic clubs that entertained immigrants and visitors from the Middle East/Mediterranean region. The general public, however, had no knowledge of these clubs. US popular interest in belly dance came from its own cultural tradition - from the echoes of Orientalism and Hollywood glamour - and revolved around such concepts as: "dance for your husband the sultan," "veiled harem girl," "dangerous seductress," "free-spirited gypsy" and other similar themes.

American dancers performing for immigrant audiences sought to find out about stage and folkloric dance styles in the lands where belly dance originated, and achieved significant levels of technical skill and identification with Middle Eastern cultures. There was not much "theater" in the early shows - they were emulating Middle Eastern party entertainment. On the individual level, dancers were motivated to study dance by their thirst for rich, and diverse cultural experience, and their desire to reach out beyond their culture. But with every wave of new popularity for belly dance, the motivation driving mass interest was based on entirely different, self-focused concepts -- "sexy" / "exotic" / "mysterious desirable beauty" / "diva" / "star" / "show girl" / "vamp" / "beautiful slave" / "romantic exotic adventure" / "wild passionate gypsy" -- not on any wide-eyed desire to learn about arts and ways of faraway lands. The origin of this popularity still had Orientalist roots - reenacting "male fantasy," and using Orientalist imagery as an excuse to escape social conservatism and explore human sensuality. The latter will always be a present and prominent motivation to learn belly dance.
Women always seek to free and express their femininity, using various images (Orientalist, Goddess, Gypsy) as an inspiration (or an excuse).

In the last decades of the 20th century, popular culture became flooded by a powerful wave of intensifying interest in fantasy fiction, fantasy movies and comics, and other fantasy and magic-realism-infused arts. Myth, mysticism, imaginary worlds, medieval and Gothic romance yielded an incredible new range of artistic imagery. Fantasy genres have penetrated every medium - film, literature, visual arts, role-playing communities, and, certainly, dance. The Orientalist motifs persisted, but now circumventing the "male fantasy." The new artistic Orientalism focused on the myth and spiritual cultures of the "exotic lands," on ancient rituals, on secrets of sensual fulfillment, lore about the feminine aspects of the divine, on the sacred nature of motherhood. The comparison of Orientalism in James Bond movies vs. Indiana Jones movies comes to mind. As the new belly dance styles of emerged, they followed the direction established by fantasy fiction/movie genres.

'80s science fiction became more technology-oriented and "masculine," while fantasy genres grew more female-oriented (not necessarily "romantic"), and gained unprecedented support among female audiences. The new "fantasy" wave had a strong feminine empowerment aspect: it depicted women enjoying incredible opportunities, had female protagonists emerging as lead characters (as opposed to the-princess-who-needs-saving). Most fantasy fiction/movie plots end with the reestablishment of order, as opposed to learning to live with a new order, as in male-oriented sci-fi. Fantasy is a genre of "longing", of the interest in returning to a simpler time, to communal roots - whether it is an idealized world of a tribal village, a magical elf or vampyre world, or a temple community serving the Goddess - with strong emphasis on brotherhood/sisterhood and on unity with nature, myth-building and world-building. Fantasy heros/heroines often come from humble origins - it's a world of "no divas": anyone can be a hero, a priestess, a leader of a ritual, a free spirit (this is related to the notion of "destiny.")

These features are reminiscent of the spirit of Tribal belly dance: A world that women create and want to belong to, as opposed to the stereotypical "cut-throat," "diva-infested," petty-competition world of commercial belly dance (disclaimer: this is merely a description of a stereotype).

Tribal belly dance became a welcome guest of the medieval/Renaissance role-playing communities. The images of idealized nomadic life where dancers travel with exotic caravans and perform in marketplaces along the Silk Road fit perfectly the plots of fantasy fiction, movie, and role-play genres that explore medieval-style settings.
The androgenous, non-feminine look and feel of some tribal fusion subgenres also has common roots with fantasy fiction. While still enjoying "romantic" genres, female audiences have developed an interest in exploring their connection to humanity as a whole. A lot of fantasy - fiction, films, graphic novels, manga, anime - focus on aspects of human nature in general, on its relation to animal, supernatural, or man-made essences, rather than on harmony or tension between the sexes.

The origin of this approach is the premise (shared by Sci Fi and fantasy fiction - and also pre-Judeo-Christian cultures) that humanity is a marginal presence in the universe. This androgenous approach made fantasy an incredibly flexible genre, capable of entertaining a child and an adult with equal effectiveness. Both adolescent and mature women detect this different, deeper layer in certain subgenres of Tribal fusion and appreciate the dancing that refers to the basics of human physicality and spirituality, while ignoring the voyeuristic "male fantasy" stereotype. Even when the motivation of getting in touch with one's sensuality is still present, in these new subgenres, the theme of seductiveness is excluded.

While the original dances of Central Asia, the Middle East, North Africa and the Mediterranean that belly dance draws on are folk, community, social, and ritual dances, Western belly dance was born as an Orientalist tableau ("male fantasy"), combining diverse movements that looked exotic to the Western eye and clothing them in early-20th-century showgirl costuming. It is only natural that eventually the communal and ritual roots of this dance would come to be addressed. This occurred with the arrival of Tribal belly dance, whose spirit and form allude to the idealized communal experience as envisioned by Western women, using a movement vocabulary streamlined to appeal to the Western eye.

Many fantasy plots and characters are referenced in Gothic belly dance, the dance counterpart of "dark fantasy," and "supernatural horror" fiction, movies, and graphic novels. Extremely versatile and unburdened by dues to ethnic or Orientalist dance, Gothic belly dance meets the demand of expressing the complexity of the modern woman's emotional life. Where traditional folk motifs of courtship, sisterhood, an idealized "village" life, or the Orientalist imagery of mystery and seductiveness fail, Gothic belly dance offers a wide range of inspirations tested via dark fantasy genres. Gothic belly dancers often employ themes evoking male insecurity and patriarchy - female revenge, female vampyre/sorceress, a triumphant femme fatale. The celebration of femininity in these images references a binary system of patriarchy, but their self-sufficient and empowered stance presents the "sexual object" idea as archaic and defeated. Salome is still current, but Shaherezade is passée! We also see "free spirit" and imaginary world-building images - the fallen angel, the dark goddess, the warrior-princess, and other dark fantasy motifs.

Every style and modification of belly dance weaves its way into the ever-evolving stream of cultural trends - be it an original style, such as Orientalist "American Cabaret," American Tribal, Gothic belly dance, music video/showgirl belly dance, or historical styles performed by US dancers who emulate Egyptian, Turkish, or Roma (gypsy) dance. However, it is the coming-and-going of the native-born, American styles that is key to understanding the future of our local cultural demand.

If you are a "Middle Eastern dancer," can you contribute to Middle Eastern dance and create something new within its parameters? Or are you confined to accurate emulation of an art developed by others? It's clear that "American Cabaret belly dance" is not "Middle Eastern Dance," just as jazz is not "African" dance, and hip hop is not "African" music, dance, art, or fashion. Can a "Middle Eastern Dancer" be an innovative trend-setting artist? What if she has never worked in the Middle East, and her contribution to Middle Eastern dance has never been seen and accepted by Middle Eastern audiences? I guess if an artist refers to herself as a "Middle Eastern dancer", her main focus is on the accuracy of portraying this aspect of Middle Eastern culture. What if she has added her own moves, themes, and musical interpretations based on how her Western eye and ear see, hear, and understand Middle Eastern music and dance, expressing what she wants to share as a modern Western woman? Is she still a "Middle Eastern dancer" or is she an "American [fill in the blank - Cabaret, Tribal, fusion, Gothic etc.] dancer"?

These questions reveal the rigors of commitment to- and the limitations of self-expression via- a non-assimilated art form. Western art forms described by the factually-inaccurate but historically-established word "belly dance" follow in the wake of larger Western cultural trends, and offer limitless opportunities of subgenre and style development. So far "fusion belly dance" and "experimental belly dance" are the only terms that describe new native, original forms of belly dance (except for the word "belly dance" itself.) Many artists find both terms insufficiently specific.

I don't like the term "experimental." Life is too short to experiment. "Experimental" is an apologetic, defensive term. Many artists whose work may fall under the "experimental" category perform their works commercially in clubs or in theater productions, publish them as commercial video products, and maintain a thoroughgoing consistency of style. There is nothing experimental about a commercial or non-commercial body of work an artist puts out with conviction and pride, even if the style of that work has not yet crystallized into a subgenre or style of its own. "Experimentation" is the nature of any creative process.

"Fusion belly dance" as a way of saying "a new belly dance style" is reduntant. The term "belly dance" already describes many belly dance-derivative styles without a tribute of apology to ethnic dance. "belly dance" was coined to denote authentic ethnic dance arts, but as a Western term (as opposed to "Raks Sharqi") it has been applied to what Westerners call "belly dance." It says "fusion" de facto - "a Western take on the dance cultures of Central Asia, the Middle East, North Africa, and the Mediterranean, assimilated dance arts." belly dance is not a historical dance form, it is live and evolving, and as it keeps morphing, the term "belly dance" naturally comes to denote new derivative dance styles.


Fantasy belly-dance-performance


"Swan Maiden" from "Fantasy Belly Dance" streaming video / DVD by World Dance New York

Fantasy belly-dance-performance


Belly Dance performance "Spirit of the ocean" from "Fantasy Belly Dance" streaming video / DVD by World Dance New York

Fantasy belly-dance-performance


Belly Dance performance "Aphrodite" from "Fantasy Belly Dance" streaming video / DVD by World Dance New York