Belly Dance on America’s Got Talent: a Semi-Scholarly Analysis

This is one of those beautiful blog posts that requires little introduction. For all you wise people who don’t watch television: Belly dancers Kaya and Sadie were on America’s Got Talent. They got booted. Everybody’s talking about it.

Without further ado, the belly dance blogger opines.

Perhaps, the most amazing part of Kaya and Sadie’s performance was not their performance itself, but the buzz around it, and the strong feelings the duo has stirred up within the dance community. The AGT thread on Bhuz is 13 pages long and growing. There have been countless threads on Facebook and Twitter. And there appears to be an exactย 50-50 split between “If you didn’t love everything about Kaya and Sadie’s performance, and if you didn’t vote for them 40 times, you’re anti-bellydance and you suck,” and “Kaya and Sadie are misrepresenting our ahhhrt, and P.S. – they need a bra fitting.” If you’re like me and refuse to take sides, then that just makes you un-American.

Personally, my stance is more along these lines: Kudos for making a respectable effort to expose our beautiful dance form to a larger mainstream audience. It takes some serious “brass cymbals” to do what you did. But you just didn’t bring it.

Nothing wrong with rooting for the “home team.” But just because I’m a belly dancer doesn’t mean I’m wowed every time somebody puts on a costume andย executes a flawless choreography. While it really was a shame that they didn’t make it to the next qualifying round, I also thought it was too bad that those ladies didn’t mix up their routines to show off their technical chops and versatility. Belly dance is not all about pop-lock-tick-tock precision all the time. That’s an exciting part of our movement vocabulary, and it’s something K&S do masterfully, but it’s not the be-all, end-all of what most belly dancers do. I strongly believe that if they did something just a little bit different – either a slow dance or something folkloric – it could have been enough to keep them in the running. Then again, a mesmerizing taqsim might lack the “wow factor” that the judges were looking for.

This brings me to my next point. Maybe the venue simply didn’t do the dance a justice. Does straight-up belly dance really lend itself to the over-the-top, bing-bam-boom showmanship that seems to be prized on shows like AGT? Bellydance Superstars is the closest thing I can think of to “bellydance that wows,” but even BDSS takes a lot of creative liberties, fusing in Bollywood, Polynesian dance, flamenco, circus tricks and acrobatics to create a spectacle that is and isn’t authentic Middle Eastern dance. Authentic belly dance works in much subtler ways. If the AGT judges or Miles Copeland saw a dancer like Samia Gamal from Egypt’s Golden Age of film, surely they would ask why she wasn’t doing the splits or dangling from a trapeze.

But hey, all picky critique aside, I also think you’ve gotta hand it to those girls for at least making an effort. It must have taken some serious guts to get out there and be critiqued in front of millions of viewers. (And they didn’t even trip or have a choreography brain fart or get their veils stuck on their heads!) Plus, I have never seen a dancer or dance group present Middle Eastern dance in a venue as mainstream as America’s Got Talent – and people are talking. Many of my non-dancer friends even called me to rave about the belly dancers they saw on TV. Heck, even my parents, who are not the biggest fans of my career choice, actually brought up belly dancing in casual conversation yesterday. This has never happened. And I was able to use our conversation as an educational sounding board to tell them what the dance community liked and disliked about their show.

I guess it’s all onwards and upwards from here. Love them our hate them, Kaya and Sadie have drummed up interest in our dance form. So let’s keep working to achieve our personal best and represent the dance with class. And if anybody says, “Oh, do you dance like those girls on America’s Got Talent?” (while mimicking a sharp chest pop), all you have to say is, “Yes, and no.”



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