A “brown” dancer responds to “Why I can’t stand white belly dancers”

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Nazaneen Featured

Guest blogger Nazaneen has written a response to the incendiary “Why I can’t stand white belly dancers” from Salon.com. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Nazaneen!

In a recent article entitled “Why I can’t stand white bellydancers”, Ms. Randa Jarrar outlined some of her concerns regarding the cultural appropriation of belly dance (known as Raqs Sharqi to many Arabic speakers) by Western society.

Nazaneen of SeattleAs a Persian woman, I understand and share Ms. Jarrar’s concerns about cultural appropriation. I’m not sure whether being Persian meets her standards of “brown-ness” with respect to Raqs Sharqi, but it really shouldn’t. My eyes, curves, and dark hair may allow me to “look the part”, but Raqs Sharqi is in no way Persian. Thus, while I may be Middle Eastern and “brown” in some eyes (even though many persons of Middle Eastern descent are, by definition, Caucasian), “brown-ness” may not be an appropriate metric for cultural appropriation in Raqs Sharqi. Nevertheless, cultural appropriation is a topic of concern for most belly dancers, especially given that most dancers are portraying a dance from a culture not their own.

I say most dancers, because as Ms. Jarrar noted, the dance is increasingly being practiced by non-Arabs, both here in the West and in the Arab world. Nightclubs from Dubai to Cairo are importing dancers from Eastern Europe and the United States, and one can’t help but wonder whether this phenomenon is related to the stigma and reputation of being a Ra’assa (dancer) in an Arab country. In Egypt, one of the worst insults to hurl at a man is to call him “the son of a dancer.” Dancers aren’t “nice” girls in Arab eyes. Sure, everyone wants to enjoy the show, but nobody wants his or her daughter to grow up to be a dancer. Thus, to insinuate that foreign dancers in Egypt are – in essence – “stealing” gigs from Arab women in the Arab world ignores this fundamental facet of Arab culture.

Whether it’s due to the lack of native dancers or other reasons, women (and men, incidentally) from the United States to Japan have fallen in love with an art form that is not inherently their own. Unfortunately, Ms. Jarrar takes issue with the skin color of these women and men, despite the fact that most professional belly dancers have spent a lifetime studying this dance and the associated culture. The dance does not stand apart from the culture it originates from, and to truly practice it well means to understand that culture, not to appropriate it. Appropriation by definition indicates the incorporation of “the other” in your own culture, not the study thereof. Ms. Jarrar fails to make this distinction in her article, debasing all white belly dancers to costumed imperialists unaware of their white privilege. In fact, the journey of most “belly dancers” usually starts with Raqs Sharqi, but eventually develops into an understanding of the rich vocabulary of folk and social dances that form the foundation of this art. Beyond dance, Raqs Sharqi requires an understanding of Middle Eastern music, and the study of both inevitably leads to a broader understanding of cultural context. Moreover, most of what we know as Raqs Sharqi today was shaped by Mahmoud Reda, an Egyptian dancer who popularized Egyptian folk dance for the stage by blending it with Western ballet. (Interestingly, he was inspired by the likes of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire, by his own admission). In fact, Reda trained many of the most popular Egyptian dancers, including Keti Sharif, Farida Fahmy, Randa Kamel, and Dina Talaat. In short, there are aspects to the dance that are crucial to understanding it in the context of cultural appropriation, which Ms. Jarrar failed to identify or address.

While any art form features varying degrees of mastery and devotion among its practitioners, I encourage Ms. Jarrar, and anyone else for that matter, to look beyond the “brown-ness” of a dancer, as the color of one’s skin has little to do with the understanding of an art form. Speak to the white dancers you encounter, you may find that there’s a lot more happening behind that whiteness and “Arab drag” than initial appearances lead on.

About Nazaneen
Born to an Iranian mother, Nazaneen was raised in a household filled with middle eastern culture and dance.  She began her training in Raqs Sharqi (belly dance), pan-Arabic folk dances and Persian folkloric styles in early childhood under the guidance of her mother and grandmother.  As a teenager, Nazaneen began to pursue her dance goals further, studying with various renowned instructors across the United States.  Since then, Nazaneen has continued to expand her dance education, studying intensively with some of the biggest names in Middle Eastern dance.  Professionally, Nazaneen is passionate about furthering the art of Middle Eastern dance in the United States and across the globe with a focus on preserving the cultural roots of the dance and delivering authentic, high-class performances that reflect these cultural roots.
Learn more at http://www.nazaneenbellydance.com

One Response

  1. Claiming that “not-brown” people shouldn’t be doing belly dance is along the same lines as me (a Rroma, in part) insisting Spaniards shouldn’t have started doing flamenco. Even better, coffee brewing and consumption has deep cultural significance in Ethiopia, and likewise tea in China. So by extension, Persians and Europeans shouldn’t be consuming either. Let alone anyone outside American smoking tobacco.

    We lost the right to keep our traditions packed away from the light of day when trade routes went global, and the tiny planet of the 21st century just makes it that much more ridiculous to expect people not to grab on to traditions not their own (which is also becoming an increasingly difficult claim to “prove”). As the planet becomes more and more globalized, it will become even more difficult to claim cultural “dibs” on anything, especially without being racist when doing so. This is already apparent in Ms. Jarrar’s article. Like you pointed out, not all folks from the Middle East are dark skinned. As long as the culture is respected, and not thoughtlessly co-opted (or worse, stereotyped. I rightfully cringe at “Gypsy fortune tellers” in gypo drag, speaking in faux-Romanian accents), then there can be no valid problem.