Sunday, March 1, 2015

Belly dancing and embodied answerability in mobile cultures, II

Wither ‘race’?
There is an issue I set aside last time for reflection: does the race of belly dancers matter? How does it affect the genre’s mobility in global consumption domains?

I think it does, albeit in a less straightforward, if not reverse, way. The Euro-Oriental pop teachings of famous dancers, such as Isadora Duncan, who introduced a hips-free, torso-and-head dominated choreography, blended alleged Grecian with alleged Egyptian movements to make an alien dance palatable to Westerners. Victorian antics had their global equivalents back then. Since shaking any part of the body that connected to domains of reproduction (hips, breast) in front of spectators was de facto indecorous, Duncan’s whiteness should retain its bodily relationship with ‘civility’ in some other way. Though never dissociated from the budding 1920s femme fatale cinematic persona, Grecian stylistics could at least cast an alien genre in archaic European culture’s familiar colours and ‘pass’ as the female dare-nots’ fashion.   

Orientalism redoux
Duncan’s innovations barely reached the folk terrain of the true ‘Orients’ that they cannibalised to generate the aura of professional respectability in the European and transatlantic West. As I explained before, in these contexts, danse du vetre or raqs sharki continued to be associated with prostitution and other forms of generous female mobility. Its subsequent romanticisation in Western pop domains either ignores its twin Orientalist and sexist associations or stresses them to the point that it shunts its artistic uniqueness aside in favour of some bizarre activist discourse. There is, to be sure, ample truth in the twin racist and sexist crux of the dance style’s histories. But its contemporary global commoditisation requires a different approach that allows space for an investigation of new hybridisation, new border-crossings and exchanges between ‘East’ and ‘West’ – if there ever were such uniform geopolitical spaces.

Image R. Tzanelli, 'Helena Bellydancer (Leeds, UK)'

I grew up in a country proudly advertising its own feminine poetics through a version of belly dancing called tsifteteli (literally, ‘of two strings’ to refer to the musical instrument that accompanies the music). Feminist politics abound, the style’s history is sieved through several chapters of persecution, migration and dictatorship moralism (Stavrou Karayanni 2004). However, now that I do not partake in its rituals any more (being an Anglicised migrant myself and living at the other end of Europe where is also ‘home’), I am struck by the significance of ‘appearances’ in the dance’s execution back then. By this I refer to the spectators’ expectation that the dancer (amateur or professional) looks the part phenotypically: that she is a brunette, with long luscious hair and a brown complexion. Belly dancing beauties (conventionally koúkles, dolls) had to be domesticated versions of the Oriental imaginary, for their performance to acquire verisimilitude. This paradoxical expectation is not dissimilar from that which English professionals encounter, as I recently found out. It is as if their Northern whiteness robs them of their bodily skills, their ability to communicate art to students or even be attractive enough to neo-Orientalist consumers (more correctly, ‘attractiveness’ may be dissociated from skill, thus degenerating into harassment).

It seems then, that there is still a politics of race at work in belly dancing discourse, only it is a politics of reversal: the white subject appears to ‘lack’ in essence, in need of providing ‘proof’ (professional credentials) to be granted ‘passing’. In the same context female ‘blackness’ transforms into a phenomenological standard only as ‘surface’, ready to be voraciously consumed by audiences. Entertainment aside, the politics and poetics of belly dancing are to be treated seriously – for their surface is depth in need of investigating in the social sciences. 

Stavrou Karayanni, S. (2004) Dancing Fear and Desire. Canada: Wilfrid Laurier University Press.

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