The Wrong Stuff

I recently came across this interview with chef/foodie Anthony Bourdain via my friend Najla and loved the message. Even though it’s about food, Bourdain’s thoughts on cultural authenticity (especially his response to Question #4) struck a very special chord with me:

I am an American girl who lives, breathes and loves a Middle Eastern art. Like most of my peers who grew up immersed in American music, pop culture and social values, “getting it right” is something that rocks my personal Richter scale. Even American dancers of Middle Eastern heritage still have to contend with proper technique and stage presentation, even if they grew up listening to Oum Kalthoum, watching Samia Gamal movies and belly dancing socially at parties and weddings. We all strive to keep the dance alive.

Of course, there are two parallel yet opposite trends in the dance community now. Fusion is more popular now than ever before, and belly dance is getting mixed with hula, hip hop, flamenco, Bollywood, burlesque and anything else that can be mixed. On the flip side, the “ethnic police” have a more vocal presence on the Internet – anything that’s not Reda is not good enough for them. I’m writing this blog from somewhere in between the two poles.

Personally, this whole idea of authenticity means a lot of things to me, including (but not limited to) recognizing the origins of a particular musical phrase and what movements traditionally accompany that beat or that instrument; learning what different ethnic groups like to see and tailoring your music, dance and costume choices to suit their tastes; watching tons of YouTube clips from dancers of all corners of the globe; getting off your butt and learning the full gamut of styles from a variety of teachers (not just what’s trendy or what you like);  studying folkloric because it’s the root of everything that’s hot today; knowing that it’s NOT all about you and your ahhhhhrt and doing whatever the flip you want; and most importantly, finding room for your own personal niche somewhere in this big crazy labyrinth of rules. Of course, your mileage may vary on this one. But as with every art I’ve studied, be it singing or creative writing, belly dance is about knowing when to play by the rules and when to break them. (Now, I finally know why my voice teacher forced me to sing Italian arias and do Bel Canto exercises against my will – without all that projection, belting out Bohemian Rhapsody on my way to gigs wouldn’t be nearly as fun!)

Of course, conversations on forums such as Bhuz can get downright excruciating when it comes to matters of Good Authentic Dancing (TM). Same goes for YouTube. Pull up a clip of Tulay Karaca for your own learning and enjoyment, and you’ll see a 13-page debate on whether the Turks or the Egyptians “invented” belly dance, and why one style is better than the other. I’ve studied with Egyptian instructors who have outright slammed “those scantily clad Turkish girls,” and seen some nasty backlash against American Tribal Style and tribal fusion in recent years.

Not surprisingly, nobody has reached a consensus. You’d have just as much luck finding out the Meaning of Life in a chat room, or searching Craigslist for a lead on who created the universe. Plus, I’d hazard a guess that the answer lies within.

The one quote from Bourdain’s interview that hit home for me was, “We would never have had Jimi Hendrix if he’d stuck to the right way to play guitar.” Ironically, I doubt we’d have Randa Kamel, Soraia Zaied, or Dina if they stayed awake through Egyptian Belly Dance 101. Randa’s too athletic and kicky, not really “subtle” by Samia standards. Soraia mixes little samba booty pops into some of her drum solos (evil fusionista!). And nobody does the drunken stagger and butt waggle quite like Dina. On the flipside, Turkish dancers Didem and Princess Banu have dabbled in Egyptian. They don’t overthink what they’re doing. They just dance.

While you can find commonalities from one regional style to the next, and while certain parameters do exist, individuality always prevails. Just as Americans are not generic, the same holds true for Egyptians, Turks, Syrians, Lebanese. Every individual dancer’s style is the result of her training, personality, body type and preferences. Every performance is infused with that dancer’s emotion, the energy of her audience, and a million intangibles that can’t be replicated from one set to the next. Anybody can do an Egyptian choreography in a Lycra costume and pass as somebody who’s versed in the style. Same goes for Turkish, ATS, cabaret, or any specific style. But to drum up your feelings, put it all into a universal language that brings pleasure to an audience, AND to make it look good? It’s nothing short of an X-factor. And that’s in the individual, not in the paradigm.

As for mixing different styles? We can’t forget that own American dance heritage was largely shaped by an entire generation of old-school dancers who were, by today’s standards, just “wrong.” In a class with Aszmara, who came of age as a dancer during the hey day of New York’s Arab nightclubs, I learned that previous generations of dancers had to learn a veritable goulash of different styles to stay on top of the eclectic musicians who would play for them. When you’re working at the whims of a Lebanese singer, a Turkish clarinetist, a Greek oud player and an Egyptian drummer, you have no choice but to be versatile. In today’s age of recorded music, we can afford to be by-the-books and uber-specialized. As for me, you can just call me old-school, I guess. I see the merit in learning all styles. And while I wouldn’t dance crunchy saidi at an American 50th birthday party, or fudge my way through Bollywood fusion with no background in Bollywood, I will wear a Turkish costume while dancing to an Egyptian song ;)

I’m sure I’ve ranted enough today. But how do you guys keep it real? And what do you think of Anthony Bourdain’s article?


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