Sunday, 16 December 2012

Creating a new style of bellydance

I’ve always struggled with the concept of authenticity. As I said in a past blog post: I’m not Egyptian, I’m from that most English of towns, Cheltenham Spa, and now live near its uptight and green-inked cousin, Tunbridge Wells. You can’t get much more English than that!

After many years of trying to recreate Egyptian styling and Egyptian sensibilities I finally came to the conclusion that in aiming to be ‘authentic’ I was in effect being its exact opposite. I was pretending to be something I am not. When I was trying to dance with the soul of an Egyptian woman I was certainly not being true to myself. And I believe that if I’m to communicate through my dancing I must say something that is real and true to me.

But what should I do, as an English, middle-class, ballet-mad girl who grew up into a jazz dancing young woman, studied contemporary dance for her degree but then fell in love with bellydance in her twenties? As for so many women, bellydance felt like it was made for me. The movements seem created for my body. They celebrate my curves rather than encouraging me to starve them away. And the first time I saw a bellydancer, and then tried the moves out for myself, I knew it was what I wanted to do.

But one of the major difficulties for me is that the dance I love comes from another culture. It’s middle eastern. So I don’t feel I own it, despite having danced and taught it for decades. And my inner conflict has been deepened recently by news stories highlighting the sometimes shocking treatment of women in the middle east. I read reports of organised gang rapes of women in Cairo, or the recent beheading of young men and women for dancing in mixed company at a wedding in Afghanistan, and I wonder what I, as a western feminist, am doing teaching a dance from a part of the world that thinks it is shameful and wicked for a woman even to dance socially with a man, let alone bellydance in public.

To be truthful I have sometimes even thought about giving up bellydance in recent months. It’s started to feel wrong to me. I’m a feminist, I believe in freedom and equality for women. So I’ve been deeply affected reading about the lives of women in that part of the world who seem to me not to have the freedoms and the respect that I take for granted.

I’ll also be honest and say too, that for a long time I’ve found the bellydance movement vocabulary narrow compared to the dance forms I grew up with. Much of that comes from the costuming - there is little opportunity for expansive leg gestures in a bellydance costume. A full chiffon skirt hides anything going on below the hip line and a modern lycra skirt is way too tight. And the weight! It’s hard enough work hauling all those crystals and sequins and stiffening around the stage, let alone trying to leap and twirl and soar.

And here we find ourselves back to the subject of culture. Leaping and twirling and soaring is not what a nice Egyptian girl does. Let’s face it, she’s not even meant to dance in public! I find it noticeable that the grand, exciting stuff in Egyptian dance: the jumps and leaps and dynamic movements are given to the men. The female vocabulary is far more internalised, smaller, more ‘feminine’.

I’m also painfully aware of the fact that bellydance as a performance art just doesn’t cut it with a western audience. Small, internalised isolations don’t work well on the big stage or even on TV. And the narrow dynamic range and lack of dramatic, exciting movements leave modern westerners frankly a bit bored. I believe it’s one of several reasons bellydance isn’t taken seriously here.

Yet bellydance is a truly beautiful dance form. And it has a remarkable ability to help women feel good about themselves and their bodies. Moreover, for me, as a musician (I’m a trained opera singer) it has a unique and very deep association with music. I adore the way a bellydancer tries to show the music through her body. To me it’s very profound and has the ability to deepen the whole experience, both for dancer and audience.

I'll always love traditional, culturally authentic bellydance, whether it's performed by Arabs, Turks or Westerners. And I really don’t want to give up the dance I love so much. Even if I am sometimes frustrated, often troubled by inner conflict.

But maybe, as with so much art, inner conflict, limitation and frustration is the mother of creativity. Because I’m finding that the limitations and the conflicts and the feeling of disassociation are driving me towards creating a new style of bellydance. My style of bellydance. Without constraints, without cultural baggage, without apologies. Just dancing the way it feels right to me to dance.

If I allow myself to break free from the cultural straightjacket what will happen? If I no longer have to worry about whether what I’m doing is ‘correct’ or ‘authentic’, what will my dancing and my teaching look like? Where might it go?

My thinking is also driven by my desire to create a large spectacular bellydance show sometime in the future. Whatever happens with the Hollywood film - whether it is made or not, and if it is, where it leads - all my creative energies at the moment are working towards trying to create a style of bellydance which will work on the big stage and appeal to a western audience.

I started with Project Lift Off - my initiative to try and raise British bellydance nearer to the professional standard of other styles of performance dance and to work with larger, more dynamic movements. But I’ve found myself terribly constrained by the desire to teach ‘authentically’. I’ve found it impossible to break free from the cultural and historical background of our dance. Of course I could ignore the cultural relevance. I could just teach bellydance moves without caring about their provenance, but that would go against my grain. I know bellydance has a cultural core and I can't ignore that.

So I’ve made a decision to stop trying to copy or recreate, and instead to create.

I’ve found it helpful to think in terms of creating a new style of dance. With a new name, so that I don’t feel I’m doing something inappropriate. Right now in my mind I’m calling it Western Oriental style bellydance. Because that to me is what I’m trying to create.

I’ve started by working with two superb young dancers who come to my Project Lift Off classes and who have agreed to be my muses - the clay for me to work with. And I’m going to start teaching jazz-bellydance classes at Dance Works in central London from January onwards, as a way of experimenting with marrying bellydance to the western dance forms that have influenced me and breaking away from my natural desire to do things ‘right’.

I’m sure there are people reading this who will think what I’m doing is wrong, or at the very least arrogant. But every style of dance has had its innovators, including bellydance - tribal and tribal fusion are wonderful, exciting styles which rightly take their place alongside Egyptian or Turkish bellydance. I’m just trying to do my bit. For myself, if no-one else!

And for those people who might think I’m rejecting Egyptian bellydance, please know this. I will never reject Egyptian bellydance, it’s part of my dance heritage. I may have deep inner conflict about cultural attitudes towards women and dance in the middle east, but I truly love the Egyptian people, women and men both. And I don’t believe that will ever change.

And I'm sure I will always teach classic Egyptian style bellydance. I love it and my students love it. I’m just trying to do something alongside it. To develop something that feels more like me, rather than trying to pretend I’m something I’m not.

It’s really exciting for me to be travelling down this road. Exciting and pretty scary too. I’ll write more about the journey as I travel it. And I hope some of you will come with me to see where it takes us. Hold tight, it could be an exciting ride!


  1. what you write is very inspiring. And the bit about frustration being a mother of creativity - that will certainly help me on my bellydance path :) good luck, Charlotte!

    1. Thank you Domi! And good luck to you too, on your bellydance path. I hope you achieve everything you want to. And enjoy every moment!

    2. I'm doing a theatre show in January as part of a big showcase and the producers keep saying to me "We are worried it's going to be too subtle and not big enough!" Which really frustrates me as a lot of bellydance is about subtlety and I always feel that my pieces are a bit skimpy on the bellydance technique part and a bit heavy on the big gestures part :S

    3. Demi that is such an interesting comment. And I think it goes to the heart of the problem we have with dancing on stage or TV and therefore to getting bellydance accepted by the mainstream.

      I think the thing is that bellydance was developed for the small space and intimate gatherings - either in the home, or cabaret club or restaurant. Even in modern times in the bellydance community (and this goes for modern styles such as tribal fusion as well as classic BD) a lot of our dancing goes on in haflas which are far closer and more intimate than on a big stage with an audience seated theatre style.

      So the dance is far more focussed on one-to-one communication and subtlety - the little wink as you come close to an audience member and show her/him a clever isolation or shimmy and the subtle movements that people can see and appreciate if they are a couple of feet away from you. If we do very big isolations it can look crude and too sexual when we're dancing close up.

      But the challenge of the big stage was really brought home to me when Chantel and Cheryl were on Britain's Got Talent. They performed on the massive stage at the Hammersmith Odeon with an audience of thousands and they fell totally flat. I was in the audience and as soon as they came out on the stage I could see it wasn't going to work. The audience were completely dead to them - hardly any reaction at all, even though they were doing a very streety style which I had thought was big and bold when I saw it in rehearsal.

      When Mahmoud Reda was asked to put Egyptian folk dance on the stage and to make it art, he drew from ballet and American film musicals - dancers like Gene Kelly - to create something that would work on stage. And that's the sort of thing I'm thinking of right now. I'm drawing my inspiration from outside the bellydance world as well as within, but in particular from musicals and West End shows, rather than hip hop or other styles which also tend to be smaller in scale. I'm interested in big exciting foot patterns and jumps and turns and trying to work them in with bellydance vocabulary.

  2. I think being authentic to who you are is important. If you want to honor the women in Egypt who don't share the same freedoms you do, support them by using your freedoms while finding a way to support ways for them to have the same. Just my two cents.

    1. Thank you. And yes you're right. If there are people in the middle east trying to silence women and take away their freedoms, then running away and hiding from middle eastern dance could be said to be playing into their hands.

  3. Hey :)

    I think its important to dont mix politics with our art form. Its to totally different things, and its sad that someone get affected in the name of art :( The art is bigger than that, isnt it?

    I have some thoughs I want to share. I understand you Charlotte, and I like the idea of your new own style. But why do we need names for personal styles? Its not like that in ballet and other danceforms. I feel that all the names will kill the dance to the end. And im disagree when you say that western audience get bored of "the egyptian style", if we dance with REAL feelings, they will NOT be bored no matter what moves we make. This is the thing i belive in most, that the dance will not get bored, then we have to work with our feelings and open our heart to audience. That is the biggest key to sucseed in bellydance, i belive.
    I love that people have different styles, but my problem is all the names? The dance have orgins, and everybody has a personal touch in their dance. I dance from the west too, and i dont think is good to call it something like "western style". because it seems to presents bellydancers from the west, whitch is very different from dancer to dancer. Do you understand what im trying to say? Pleace convince me that im just a old-thinking dancer, maybe I have to open my mind?

    Anyway, I love your blog and I look forward to come to Shimmy in the city this year :)


    1. HI Sara thanks so much for the comment and for the kind words. I'm really glad you like the blog.

      I totally understand what you're saying about all the names - why shouldn't we just call everything bellydance? The reason (for me at least) is that, as a teacher, I need to be clear about what I'm teaching. When women phone about my classes they often ask me what style of bellydance I teach - usually they want to know if I teach Egyptian or Turkish style. In the past it was an easy question to answer - I could say I taught Egyptian style bellydance - but these days I find it increasingly difficult to answer that question.

      I think it's very important that a student knows what they are learning. For example, if someone comes new to a bellydance class and the teacher is teaching tribal fusion but she just calls it 'bellydance' the student is going to get an incorrect idea of what bellydance is. So that's why, for me, it's important to make clear what I'm teaching. And to do that I need to label it unfortunately.

      And I completely agree with you about feelings - they are everything. If we can transport an audience emotionally they won't get bored.

      See you at Shimmy in the City! xx


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