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!