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PHOTO CREDIT: Above photo by John Rickman Photography, San Jose, California.

Yes, But Is It History?

by Brea Morgiane

 

Bellydance, as with many things of which people become enamored, has its own fair share of mythology swirling around it like a veil.  Many people, even well-known dancers, often propagate these myths, sometimes for money, sometimes out of innocence, sometimes out of religious faith. 

I am a historian that specializes in romanticism, and how to avoid it.  This is often called otheringOthering is the process of viewing another culture as more exotic and mysterious than your own.  Often othering portrays some other culture as nobler, more connected to the earth, and more spiritually ‘right’ than we are today.  Othering Middle Eastern culture is known as Orientalism, which Edward Said wrote about in his book of the same name.  There are variants on this theme that include the noble savage ideal, when people are believed to be exotic and dangerous.  Often othering was used as propaganda, such as the idea of the White Man’s Burden – saving the ‘child’ India from itself, with Britain in the role of the good parent.

The problem with othering is that it takes away the culture’s legitimacy, and treats that culture as though it is less important than the created fantasy.  The damage is obvious in romanticized nations everywhere; the true culture is rudely pushed aside for the tourist dollar, which pays for the Orientalist fantasy.

How can you be a responsible ambassador of culture as a bellydancer?  Certainly you may not be Middle Eastern, but you are participating in a Middle Eastern cultural dance.  To give the culture and history of this intriguing area of the world its due, it is only fair to represent it as accurately as possible.  This comes from the responsible study of culture and history, applying logic to any information you read or hear.  I tell my students, don’t just believe anything you hear, even from me!  Do your own research.  The following are some methods of research that stand up:

 

Who Said It? 

Even the smallest suggestion of an idea in a historical paper needs a footnote, indicating who said it. Not only that, but it cannot just be a random person off the street. Historians must check into the background of the person who said it. Several years as a bellydancer does not equal several years as a historian. However, there are bellydancers who are seriously invested in history and the background of the dance. Again, consider the source

Generally speaking, the Internet / web pages / Wikipedia are not proper sources unless they are documenting scholarly papers, and there you need a footnote also. Even some scholarly works have been called into question - investigate the reputation of the author, and where they found the information they are claiming. Several published books on bellydance are also woefully inaccurate, so a good rule of thumb is: don’t believe everything you read. 

An author using primary sources is also not necessarily a reliable place to find information, because people will often interpret primary sources to fit their own ideas of what happened (that is, their pet theory), as opposed to historical fact.  Since there are always people with agendas pushing what they want to be the truth, serious study and research are necessary when dealing with a subject in which so many people have a vested interest in portraying a certain way.

 

Logical Thinking

Whenever anyone says anything to you regarding history or culture, apply logic.  Think of what you know about the Middle East and its culture, for instance.  Does this fit?  Does it sound fanciful?  Applying logic is best, and being cautious about what you believe is important.  If it is a matter of faith, then it is faith only, not history or culture, and should not be misrepresented as such.

 

Modern Culture

Studying current culture and language is also important in order to understand the dance’s place in the larger context of its homeland. What do we know about the culture of the modern Middle East?  What might this tell us about our dance?  What do modern Middle Eastern people say about the perception of this dance in their home country? 

A caution here: simply because a person is from the Middle East, again, does not make them an expert on dance culture.  For instance, if you are Scottish, does that automatically make you an expert on Highland Dancing?  Or if you are American, does it make you an expert on square dancing?  However, it can give you insight into the opinions of Middle Eastern people about the dance. Always apply logic and caution when educating yourself and others.

 

Be Willing to Give Up Stories You Like

Often people will continue to hold onto a belief or idea even if they themselves know it to be false. It is one thing to be fond of a story, to find it comforting or exotic; it’s quite another to believe it to be historical or cultural fact and worse, to teach it as such. 

Stories are just that, stories, and unless there is rock solid evidence for the claims being made, it is irresponsible to teach it as history or cultural background.  This is the worst kind of Orientalism: assuming that the story being told, charming as it may be, is better than the reality of the Middle East, their culture, and their people.  Aside from that, the real culture and history is often far more fascinating than the fiction.

 

Closing Thoughts

I hope that this article helps other dancers understand that it is important to do their own research, for the sake of the dance, for themselves, and for the representation of Middle Eastern culture.  We have a responsibility as dancers to portray the dance in its reality.  The beauty and rich cultural history is incredible enough without resorting to the invention of daydreams.

 

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About the Author

Brea Morgiane is a professional Oriental dancer with nine years of experience.  She has danced in such far-flung places as Hawai’i, Nova Scotia, Key West, Scotland, and Minnesota.  She currently teaches class in Wisconsin.  She is a historian and anthropologist.

She is also a writer of novels, screenplays, and short stories, and has been a writer long before she was anything else.

See also Brea's poem Serpentine and Elven elsewhere on this web site.

Photo of Brea Morgiane

 

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