The Continual Re-Mixing of 'Bellydance'
Pity the poor raqs shaquri. the dance so shunned even the name is not her own. For all the calls of 'I wanna see you belly dance", a name even elements in the native culture have picked up, the reality is that it is know far better in the native lands as "raqs shaquri", "Dance of the East".
Which leads to the obvious questions: Which East? Plenty of people have ideas but few have proof thats is tied to the fabled origins of the form.
And which origin would you like with your coffee? Ancient Temple Priestesses, too soon cut down, only their "belly dance" surviving? Perhaps the theory about "Biblical" raqs shaquri, Salome the tantalizing and forbidden evidence? Or the Romany brining it out of the land of Egypt, like so many shimmying Moses? No... the one where it was "always a part of the culture", passed on by Harem women? Or some intriguing mélange thereof?
Dancers have heard and seen them all, repeated and revamped a thousand times, over coffee while sewing up costumes, resting between sets at some intense weekend dance seminar, walking each other to cars after another exhausting dance class. And like a cultural virus - or a meme - the ideas of forbidden origins pass into the Mainstream, stuck between bits of wispy writings about colorful costumes and swaying hips and dances named after exposed body parts, not places where real people live.
And real people don't just live in the lands this dance comes from, they dance. In the Middle East, on up into Turkey and Iraq, we have the social, popular form of this dance, not to be confused with simple or inelegant. Just because its looked down upon to dance for money does not mean that many, many folks in the region don't dance for pleasure. They are on the far end, the opposing ends, from so-called "Islamic terrorism"; all too full of joy of life and family, the core of an Islamic life both modest and open. Not too far at all from Western life.
The contrast between their lives, even the wealthy ones, and the "rock-star"-like life of the huge dance stars who perform raqs shaquri on stage can be amazing. Raqasas - Arabic for dancers - like Fifi Abdo of Egypt and Amani of Lebanon sometimes walk a tightrope between Islamic ideas of decent and indecent. The Pat Robertsons and Jerry Falwells in America might see these talented and smart artists/ businesswomen much as the Islamic Fundamentalists see them, today, as purveyors of sinful acts, no matter the long history of their art. Entities like the Egyptian group Muslim Brotherhood shut down much of dance in Egypt both big and small, leading to the top dancers hiring the top bodyguards to protect themselves, a minority terrorized by another minority. For that plus many other reasons, Egypt, oftentimes seen as the Mother of modern raqs shaquri, issues forth fewer and fewer children. She's come to start adopting foreign raqasas as her own with mixed results and reactions. Many, like the dancer named Morocco, learned and live here in America, going there for further study. Others stay there for years, earning a living as a dancer, doing the dance they love in the region that loves it best.
Both native and foreign dancers are drawn to those forms, the change to dance in Lebanese, Egyptian, Turkish style. Each style with subtle yet real differences, each reflecting the uniqueness of each dancer, even as she expresses the same joy that the social dancers bring. It may not be all of one piece, but it springs from the same set of positive emotions and stands in stark contract to how may Westerners see the people of the Middle East.
Indeed, for some dancers "over here" in the West, though, the native raqs shaquri - when and if they ever saw it - was only the beginning of a dream. From the 60's on, as Arabic nightclubs popularized themselves in the US, women began discovering raqs shaquri - the "belly dance" - in the oddest of places, becoming the progenitors of the "gone native" foreign dancers of today. They'd catch a glimpse in an Arabic nightclub in the North Beach area of San Francisco or perhaps New York City. Or, maybe they'd seen it on TV with opening scenes of the Robert Urich show Vega$, or in the slowly increasing number of articles on the form in Women's Day or REDBOOK. You might pick up Serena Wilson's Belly Dance book, or Ozel's "How to be a Sultan to your Husband". And best of all, the occasionally seed aspect of the dance was overshadowed in the 70's by the fusion of raqs shaquri with the Women's Liberation movement. Now, as women saw it as a dance they owned, and the menfolks saw fit not to argue, it could "legitimized". After all, how could it be bad if Betty down the street was doing it?
And the 70's saw the explosion of "belly dance" books, records, clubs and studios; no one got right, but a lot of dancers got ink, and students flocked to classes eager for anything that gave the slightest hint of "exotic bellydancing". It was everywhere and nowhere, launched up and then sputtered out with Feminism, with the coming of the Reagan Era. But sudden growth, combined with years of "exotic" and mythological concepts about the dance and its native cultures left a mark on raqs shaquri in America. The most obvious mark? The near universal use of the term "bellydance", coined during the first craze for the form in the early 20th Century. It never described what the natives saw in it, only what the Carney artists wanted to sell, and many were willing to buy, and believe.
**what happens next for this dance? Part II of "Raqs-spora" coming up...**
About the author:
Troublemaker, dancer, political junkie, programmer, layperson historian, costumer, geek, and Guy who Blows Stuff Up: Woodrow Jarvis "Asim" Hill's time is usually taken up by avoiding new projects like the bubonic plague. A man who's quiet interest in raqs shaquri as a lad of 16 has transformed his life and his outlook on the world, he's currently coming out of a recent 4 year dance hiatus, and does NOT recommend it "for the waters" -- or for anything else. He still seeks "The Big New Thing", fascinated by the lines and lies between mainstream and dance culture, even as he digs for ancient information on raqs in history. He writes a raqs/dance-oriented blog called APOSTATE: Angry Young Black Man Does Raqs., which contains enough writing to get him banned from the dance for life. Woodrow can be reached at email@example.com, but warns that any brickbats won't hit him until he gets back from his so-called "vacation".