Wednesday, 10 March 2010

But is it authentic...?

Since I returned to bellydancing eight years ago, I've often been troubled by the question of authenticity. As an English woman from Cheltenham Spa, living near, of all places, Tunbridge Wells, what exactly am I doing bellydancing?

And when I dance, who do I dance as? Do I imagine myself as Egyptian? Do I try, as many do, to recreate the gestures used by Egyptian dancers? Or attempt to feel music the way the Egyptians do?

I remember being in a workshop with Aida Nour, an Egyptian bellydance star of the 1980s, now a popular international teacher. It was an advanced workshop with many experienced dancers. Aida became increasingly irritated because she said we weren't dancing on the beat. And the more we concentrated on just that, the more irritated she became. Finally, exasperated, she asked me to video everyone dancing the routine, herself included. She then left the room (in pretty high dudgeon) and told us to review what we were doing wrong.

Well, I'm a trained classical singer with a strong sense of rhythm and I was flummoxed. I knew I had been dancing on the beat. And the video confirmed it. But oddest of all, the only person who wasn't dancing on the beat was Aida Nour herself! She was behind throughout.

And there, of course, was our answer. We were hearing the beat as punctual Brits. She heard it as a woman from a hot country with little sense of urgency. Arabs use the term 'English Time' to mean punctuality. In practice it means being only half an hour late.

Aida Nour confirmed our suspicions. We were dancing 'early'. And of course the more she had complained, the earlier we had become. No wonder she found us infuriating!

Later she thoughtfully explained that no-one outside Egypt hears the music correctly. It wasn't just the Brits, it was everyone - from the US to Japan, Norway to South Africa. And I've heard that said by Egyptians time and again - dancers and ordinary people alike. No-one dances bellydance like the Egyptians. No-one feels the dance or hears the music like them. Good try but no cigar.

So where does that leave me? Cheltenham born, English speaking, a ballet girl from the age of five. Faced with the realisation that I'm never going to get it right, you can see why I sometimes ask myself the question in that first paragraph.

For a long time I tried hard to recreate 'authentic' Egyptian styling and gestures. To denote heartache or love I would dutifully hold my hand under my ribcage as the Egyptians do. I would take little trouble with my arm technique and try to look 'lazy' in my arabesques.

But the more I tried to be authentic, the more hidebound I felt in my dancing. And the more I felt like a fraud. Because you see, I'm not Egyptian. I'm English. Always have been, always will be. I love the Arab world, but I'm not from it.

The breakthrough for me came, surprisingly, in a workshop by an Egyptian teacher. Professor Hassan Khalil came to teach at Fantasia and brought with him a technique chock-full of ballet moves and ballet terminology. Suddenly I realised I didn't have to deny my years of ballet training; I could draw upon it; I could revel in my ability to dance graceful arabesques, to spin and to posé.

The next revelation was meeting Aziza from the US. Quite simply, her first trip to the UK, which I organised, and now organise every year, changed my personal dance world. Interestingly, Aziza, who styles herself an American Cabaret-style bellydancer was a little intimidated by the fact that the UK has a reputation for being very Egyptian focussed. She feared we may look down on her as not being properly authentic (yes that word again!)

But seeing Aziza dance was an inspiration. I've never seen anything quite as wonderful. Like me, her early training was in ballet, jazz and contemporary dance. But unlike me, she wasn't trying to deny it. Typically American, she had simply grafted her western dance forms onto the middle eastern one. And in the process created something uniquely hers. And uniquely beautiful.

The time since has been a fascinating journey for me. It's a journey I'm still on. I always have to ask myself at what point does something stop being bellydance and become something else. There is a lot of fusion dance around at the moment and, although I respect and enjoy it, I believe one needs to be very sure of what one is fusing and why.

When I started to break free of what I increasingly saw as an Egyptian strait jacket, I knew I needed a lodestar to guide me. A fixed point I could weave around and still know where I was going. I had been lucky enough to have as my first teachers, Hossam and Serena Ramzy - true giants of Egyptian bellydance. Hossam is one of the greatest musicians and composers of Egyptian music alive today. His wife is a superbly musical and beautiful bellydancer.

Hossam and Serena taught me how to interpret the instruments and rhythms of the Egyptian orchestra. They taught me one of the greatest truths about bellydance: that 'the art of oriental dancing is to visually hear the music'. And this has become my guiding principle.

So here, for what they are worth, are my own dance rules. Firstly I dance to Arabic music, secondly I expect to use a significant number of 'core' bellydance moves. And finally I try to show the music through my body.

This is what I personally call bellydance. They are only my rules - and I certainly don't demand others follow them. But they are rules that have perversely given me freedom.

Like a child I need boundaries, but they are boundaries I embrace. Boundaries I hope others understand and appreciate. And which represent my own personal authenticity.