RaqSpora: The continual re-mixing of Raqs Sharqi Woodrow Jarvis Hill

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NOTE: This is a edited version of an 2-part article for Root Magazine <http://rootmag.typepad.com/root_magazine/2006/08/raqsspora.html> & <http://rootmag.typepad.com/root_magazine/2006/08/raqsspora_part_.html>

Pity the poor raqs sharqi, 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's known far better in the native lands as "raqs sharqi", "Dance of the East." Which leads to the obvious question: Which East? Plenty of people have ideas. But few have proof that's 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 sharqi, Salome the tantalizing and forbidden evidence? Or the Romany bringing it out of the land of Egypt, like so many shimmying Moses? No...the one where it was "always 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 it's 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 that perform raqs sharqi on stage can be amazing. Raqasas1 like Fifi Abdo of Egypt and Amani of Lebanon walk a tightrope between Islamic ideas of decent and indecent. Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell might see these talented and smart artists/businesswomen much as the Islamic Fundamentalists see them, today, as purveyors of sinful acts. So-called “religious” entities such as the Muslim Brotherhood shut down much of dance in Egypt, big and small, leading to the top dancers hiring the
1 Arabic for dancers.

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 sharqi, 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, and hates, it best. Both native and foreign dancers are drawn to those forms, the chance 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 to the floor. It may not be all of one piece, but it springs from the same set of positive emotions, and stands in stark contrast to how many Westerners see the people of the Middle East. Indeed, for some dancers "over here" in the West, though, the native raqs sharqi was only the beginning of a dream. From the 60's on, as Arabic nightclubs popularized themselves in the US, women begin discovering raqs sharqi -- 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, perhaps in NYC. Or on TV, with the 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". Best of all, the occasionally seedy aspect of the dance was overshadowed, in the 70's, by the fusion of raqs sharqi with the Women's Liberation movement. Now, as women saw it as a dance they owned, and the menfolk saw fit not to argue, it could be "legitimized". After all, how could it be bad if Betty down the street was taking it? Thus the 70's saw the explosion of "belly dance" books, records, clubs and studios; no one got rich, but a lot of dancers got ink, and students flocked to classes, eager for anything that gave the slightest hint of "exotic belly dancing". It was everywhere, and no where, and launched up and then sputtered out, right alongside 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 sharqi in America. The most obvious mark? The near-universal use of the term "belly dance"; 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 carnie artists wanted to sell, and many people were willing to buy, and believe. Many newly minted American dancers were working "without a safety net", not that there had been much of one to begin with. More women took up dance from someone who's studied with someone for a bit in “the 70’s”, who might have known the culture, or maybe was just going for a quick buck in the boom...but had little experience in the form and almost no expertise with the people, or the culture, in the Middle East. The artistic visions of these dancers flew high and sometimes landed well. Re-mixes happened often, as dancers took a bit of this, a piece of that, and a smidgen from some other dancer they knew. Some stews were amazing, and some smelled of a mix that Betty Crocker would never approve.

But by then, the mold, and the mainstream concepts, of raqs sharqi were broken. In America, all too many of the new dancers should have been "raqasa", female dancers and artists to be respected and feared and shunned, as professional dancers were in the Middle East. Instead, they were simply American "belly dancers", a source of thrills of many kinds, along with derision, of sniggering, and of friends wondering what dignity lay in sequins, gold lame and push-up bras. The artistry of the dance was still there, always there, could never really leave. Yet, in America, the entire dance was labeled by the look and feel, not by the skill of the dancer. This is why the irony of American Tribal Style Bellydance is that, in no small part, it is raqs sharqi. The movement vocabulary is an evolution, one again --- this time, from the Jamila (now Suhaila) Salimpour technique first developed in the 60's. So too, some of the aesthetics, as Jamila's seminal Bal Anat dance troupe featured performances with the kind of ethnic look-and-feel that would end up being re-mixed heavily by two generations of women in San Francisco. The 2nd Generation, Carolena Nericcio, founded the seminal Tribal troupe, Fat Chance Belly Dance, and the concept flew from the first videos she made. The look-and-feel, if not always the demanding dance style, launched out of San Francisco, across the US. The elements of dancers dancing for an audience and their fellow dancers were new, and novel; the embracing of serious looks and strength avoiding the "cutesy" aspects of raqs sharqi, opening up new aspects which keeping many of the original Salimpour moves. The emphasis on anti-establishment looks was, perhaps, the final kicker; body art and darker costuming hooked into an America that was about to discover and embrace Nirvana over Whitesnake, and an ex-pot-smoking boy from Arkansas over "another rich white guy". Yes, despite the unique and complex improvisation format, a dance-by-the-seat-ofyour-pants style whose execution stuns many dancers, it is always the aesthetics, the look and feel, which first captures the viewers of ATS. An ATS dancer looks like she stepped out of a National Geographic magazine, like an Amazon of unknown origin. And, indeed, in the best -- or worst -- of American ingenuity, Tribal aesthetics are a conglomeration of worlds, a re-mix of everything we know about native cultures; Ottoman-style pantaloons got together with Indian cholis to slide past Romany Indian skirts and meet back in Turkey to swipe the turbans off their heads before running over the Spanish Flamenco flowers-in-hair. Multiculturalism run rampant, it's oddly intoxicating. Based upon its growing popularity, ATS was Change Writ Large. Yet change doesn't stop because you want it to, and dancers new to the form, enthralled by the look of women, strong, with muscles rippling their tattoos and piercings in the dark rooms where the early ATS dancers worked, took it home…and re-mixed it yet again. Another flowering of ideas, built on another remove from the "Motherland of Raqs". Tribal Fusion Bellydance was born, with groups both branched off from Fat Chance, like Ultra Gypsy, and others merely influenced, like Zafira. And they added influences from everywhere; hip-hop, modern, Romany Indian, no form of dance that could be minded was left unplundered. And if there is any truth to the ideal that raqs sharqi is a Universal Dance, these estranged Grandchildren in their odd outfits are it, as they birth Gothic Bellydance and a dozen other re-mixes of American life with Oriental Myths. This has worried and concerned conservative raqasas, who see the native forms as honorable, and worth emulating and saving. As the popularity of "fusion" forms grows,

and the Belly Dance Superstars tour the Western world, a battle of words brews between "conservative" and "progressive" dancers. And the battle is interesting, not because of who'll win, but because the dance has grown so large and popular that it's seen as worth fighting over. It's a far cry from reading magazine indexes in the 80's, and finding not a single article on the form in the Mainstream press. Raqs sharqi has made an impact, for good or for ill, on the Mainstream that, this time, might not be washed away. Just as the lovers of the traditional forms are in resurgence for well-deserved attention and respect, the New Kids on the Block, symbolized by the popular dancer Rachel Brice, present the way of the West - to re-mix, re-develop, and, just maybe, crack the whole form into the Mainstream, once and for all. Did Shakira's hips make things better for raqs sharqi -- or worse? Time will tell. But tell me, what do you think? ================ 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 sharqi 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 asim@mindspring.com, but warns that any brickbats won't hit him until he gets back from his so-called "vacation".