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Friday, September 19, 2014

The Value of "Professional" Choreography

When I choreograph Oriental dance, I generally approach my work as a music visualization, structuring my composition to reproduce the architecture of its accompanying music. Since most traditional Oriental dance music makes use of repetition with variation and of nested call-and-response phrasing, my choreographies tend to take this same form. I typically show musical recapitulations with movement phrases danced first on side, then danced in a mirrored version on the other side.

I am a fan of balanced composition.
Some dancers may be surprised that an accomplished artist uses symmetrical combinations. At the time I am writing, September of 2014, it is not unusual to encounter the sentiment that it is “more professional” to construct choreographies so that they make no use of repetition, regardless of repetition in the accompanying music. Inspired largely by competition aesthetics, but also by influences from the greater consumer culture, many dancers aspire to switch up to a brand new combo at the start of every musical phrase, and do not use the structure of their music to inform the structure of their dance.

To me, traditional-context belly dance choreography that places asymmetrical movement phrases on call-and-response music seems superficial and clumsy, no matter how sophisticated the individual movements or how beautiful the technique with which they are danced. I perfectly understand free-form movement when a dancer is following the meanders of a taxim. I also understand free-form movement, even to structured music, in the context of improvised dance, when a dancer shares her exploration of music with an audience in real time. But to me, the whole point of choreography is not to simulate improvisation, but to show the results of already-completed creative exploration. I create choreography to take advantage of the additional possibilities an artist unlocks when she prepares, with care, in advance.

So, when I first heard free-form choreography described as “more professional” I was bewildered, and, honestly, dismayed by what I perceived as a slight to both my own aesthetic and to common sense. How had my colleagues become so enthusiastic about dances that use music as nothing more than an atmospheric metronome?

After some reflection, though, I've now come to agree that free-form choreography is indeed the professional's hallmark. I don't mean that my tastes have changed; rather I've thought a little more deeply about the terminology. The pro dancer, the wage worker who depends on entertaining merry-makers and pleasing an employer, absolutely demonstrates professionalism when she continually switches things up.

Having worked in restaurants and nightclubs, I know firsthand that a relentless barrage of novelty has the greatest appeal to the short attention span of a typical contemporary audience in a commercial context. (Wings! Next I'll balance a tray! How about some audience participation? Everybody dance! And let's have some veil poi! You've seen cane, but have you seen flaming cane? On roller skates?) I would like to think that Middle Eastern audiences, who in theory have a greater connection to Middle Eastern music and have historically embraced a more subtle aesthetic, would be less receptive to novelty-based choreography. But some of the most haphazard-looking sequencing that I've seen recently has come straight from Egypt, and many of today's most-admired Egyptian-style stars construct dances around accents, spins, spine-whipping body waves, and ceaseless shimmies, paying minimal attention to melody instruments. In the world of Tribal Fusion, too, there's a marked increase in frenetic showboating. With this in mind, a planned and polished atmosphere blast may indeed be the most reliable way to win the acclaim of the undiscriminating masses and secure paying work.

But our dance deserves to be valued for more than the wage a dancer earns. With the greatest admiration and respect for those who succeed at the absurdly difficult task of earning a living through belly dance, I encourage dancers not to lose sight of other approaches and other perspectives. Our community has a tendency to assign the highest value to that which it considers “authentic,” so some may choose to arbitrarily adopt Egyptian, Turkish, or other culturally-conventional aesthetics. We also reward dance which is “professional,” too often forgetting that image, personality, networking, and business savvy strongly affect a dancer's success in the marketplace. But just because a dance is authentic and professional does not mean it is an artistic success.

Good dance can come in all kinds of packages. The mainstream of belly dance is the popular expression of our medium, something like what top-40 pop is to music.  I don't mean to imply that all popular entertainment is necessarily superficial formulaic fluff, only that, like music, fiction, movies, and other creative arts, belly dance can shine in folk, commercial, and "high" art expressions. The popularity of mass-market paperbacks doesn't diminish the value of literature. Or, to those who enjoy it, of fan-fiction published in internet forums. The popular embrace of slickness and novelty simply should not constrain the aesthetic of every dance. Our “niche” products—folklore; fakelore; historic and vintage styles from bygone eras; various permutations of “tribal” dance with attendant acronyms; Goddess invocations; conceptual work in and beyond fantasy, gothic, and steampunk contextual transpositions; my own idiom of “exquisitely crafted belly dance theater”—do not each speak to everyone, but they are cherished by their devotees, and they are the creative wellspring on which the commercial sphere depends. An artist is not diminished if her work speaks only to a select audience.

I value work that shows deftness, sensitivity, and heart. I appreciate creativity, refinement, and rigor. I feel most proud of my most self-expressive work, and I generally prefer to see and study with artists who similarly invest their dances with their own distinctive signature. I value “authenticity,” but to me this means an attraction to artistic honesty rather than an indiscriminate embrace of Egyptian trends.

But to each her own. The Extreme Dance Blast has its fans. And even if it isn't my cup of tea I do appreciate the technical skill of its presenters. I wish more of my colleagues had this perspective. I feel like most of those who, like me, are left flat by haphazard sequencing want to throw the babies of technique and choreography out with the bathwater of the latest trends. I hear from too many dancers who draw the incorrect conclusion that choreography, by definition, is a demonstration of having memorized a laundry list of arbitrarily assembled movements, and that only artists who improvise have a deep and meaningful engagement with music. I see an anti-technique backlash too, led by dancers who seem to not understand that technique can be cultivated as a tool, not something one might only pursue as an end unto itself. “Just give me a dancer who does three moves, but does them well,” they say. “These technique queens are trying too hard,” they grumble.

As the kids (sort of) say, don't hate the game, hate the player. Actually, don't hate the player either. Any given three-move dancer may truly be a delight, but complex expressions that use complex vocabulary have equal—or, I believe, greater—potential to charm, to intrigue, to entertain, to transport. On the flip side, I have abundant, character-building, personal experience with the potential for complex expressions to end in complex catastrophes.  We're still learning our way through this new territory. While some may prefer to stay metaphorically down on the farm, we, as a community, have seen Paris. I love the farm and I love visiting the ladies who call it home, but it's absurd to tell us all that there's no point in exploring beyond its fences. (Young people and international readers who I just lost: try this.)

Having myself participated in more than a little grumbling over the flailings of six-week-wonders who don't try hard enough, I won't malign any impulse that causes a dancer to try “too hard.” I applaud any dancer who is trying at all. I want to give particular personal thanks to those who try hard. In fact, if you are willing to try hard, I challenge you to try even harder. Watching belly dance grow and change, I greatly appreciate the highly technical vocabulary and clean body lines that have blossomed over the past decade, a development in which I like to think I've played some modest part. Now, I hope to encourage a parallel evolution, and inspire dancers to put as much thoughtful refinement into the way moves are sequenced as many of us now put into the moves themselves. Not every dance needs to be choreographed, not every choreography needs to aspire to the level of high art, and not every artistic choreography needs to be a music visualization, but our skill as choreographers needs to catch up with the new sophistication of our vocabulary. I am confident that it will. With risk comes the potential for failure, but ars longa, vita brevis, and you are not getting any younger. If you fail, I'll try not to judge, and I'll try to to keep telling everyone else not to judge you either. On the other hand, you might do something great, and I want to see it.


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Thursday, March 6, 2014

Why I Can't Stand Petty Snark Pretending to Be Social Commentary

Apparently, Randa Jarrar is not a fan of my work.  Not that I think she's talking to me in particular, but Randa Jarrar wants the world to know that she "can't stand" "white" "belly dancers."  She then makes a second assertion (that she doesn't really defend or connect to the first):  "Whether they know it or not, white women who practice belly dance are engaging in appropriation." Here's the essay, which was published a few days ago by Salon.

I hate even posting this link. Randa Jarrar's assertions are inflammatory nonsense, and she deserves very little of the attention she has drawn. But her essay has drawn quite a bit of attention, at least in my corner of the bellysphere, and I'm not seeing every last bit of the nonsense being called out as clearly as I would like it to be. If people are inclined to use this essay as a starting point for discussions about cultural appropriation, racism, Orientalism, and colonial legacies, great. But if people think these are the issues that Randa Jarrar has actually written about, I would encourage them to read more closely. What I see is an essay about body shame, and a nasty wallow in the time-honored tradition of shaming professional dancers. Just because this pettiness is disguised behind a veneer of sensitive issues doesn't mean it isn't just plain old garbage.

It's hard to recap Randa Jarrar's writing because her narrative is so muddy, but she starts with some commentary on the colonial legacy of belly dance and of the very term "belly dance." She then moves on to fond reminiscences of social dancing at home and at weddings, particularly in the company of other women; then expresses distaste at the body, costume, and artistic signature of a "white" dancer she has seen at a restaurant.

The white dancer is [emphasis mine] "not a terrible belly dancer, but," Randa Jarrar continues, "she was incredibly thin..." Okay, people like different things, and it's okay to have and state preferences. But thin-shaming is just as petty as fat-shaming, and a quick internet search reveals the author to be a woman of larger proportions who thinks about body image. Here's an excerpt from Randa Jarrar's blog, from a post titled Lately I Feel Beautiful:
 For years, I was told that because I am not thin, I am not allowed to feel or be beautiful. Well, that’s strange, because I feel and am beautiful right now, everyday.
This is a feeling I am extra-proud of since, also lately- no, my whole life- I have seen movies, magazine covers, TV shows, and articles that declare that I ought not to feel beautiful- or healthy, because of my size.
I am fat- really fat, and in the past year, I have become more and more in love with my fat. I love my body rolls. I love my double-chin. I love my flappy arms. I love my stretch marks.
So perhaps Randa Jarrar brings up the thinness of the dancer as a way of criticizing the narrowness of how beauty is defined by mainstream commercial imagery, and is also rolling in a point about the whiteness of that same imagery. Or maybe she's reaching out with her own story, expressing what it's like to see positive attention being given to a body that is unlike her own. Either topic has the potential to be interesting, but unfortunately I don't think that's what's really going on here.  I think she's just expressing peevish distaste for an entertainer's intention to be entertaining in a thin body. 

(I don't know how “brown” Randa Jarrar perceives herself to be. In the photos that come up in an image search, she looks pretty pale. She doesn't explicitly say that she's defining whiteness in terms of skin color, but her use of “brown-ness” as a device to frame the opposite of whiteness strongly suggests the equation of whiteness and pallor.)

Back to the Salon Essay about how Randa Jarrar can't stand white belly dancers.  Reading on, we learn that the white dancer (who isn't a terrible dancer, but who is incredibly thin I guess in a bad way) is also "in Arab Drag."
"because that’s what that is, when a person who’s not Arab wears genie pants and a bra and heavy eye makeup and Arabic jewelry, or jewelry that is meant to read as “Arabic” because it’s metallic and shiny and has squiggles of some kind."
Apparently the costuming itself is okay. What is deemed problematic is that it is on a non-Arab. Earlier in the piece Randa Jarrar expresses distaste for "white women in flowing, diaphanous skirts, playing at brownness." Here too the objectionable element seems to be the skin color of the diaphanous skirt-wearer, not the skirt itself. I find it surprising that someone who is ostensibly indignant about cultural appropriation has no opprobrium for nightclub costuming. The two-piece "bedleh" costume was invented at the beginning of the 20th century, at the same time that Middle Eastern dances were reconfigured into a nightclub entertainment for audiences of Europeans and wealthy Westernized Arabs.  It's mostly definitely not a folk costume.

Back again to Randa Jarrar's ordeal of fine dining with a floorshow.  The white dancer was thin, she was wearing costuming to which she is not entitled, and 
"she didn’t remind me, in any way, of Tahia Karioca or Hind Rostom or my absolute favorite Raqs Sharqi dancer, Fifi Abdo."
Huh.  I too really like those great dancers from days past, and I like the historical styles they represent. But this "go Fifi or go home" attitude is singularly hardcore. Remember the white dancer was "not terrible."  So I guess maybe she wasn't good either, but this isn't described as an issue of her competency, but rather her similarity to stars of yesteryear.  Is Randa Jarrar really saying that it's inherently objectionable that the artistic trends of belly dance are not frozen in time? If so, Randa Jarrar will never enjoy ANY live performance of professional belly dance, including the dances of plump brown-skinned Egyptian Arabs, because the styling of Fifi (the most recently active of those dancers) is long gone.

Moving on again.  Having concluded her story about enduring the white dancer at the restaurant, the author next veers off into unclear ideas about loose-fitting clothing. She speaks with approval of Fifi Abdo dancing in a gallibeya (weirdly described as "loose robes"), and then shares an anecdote on whose meaning I am unclear:
"At a movie theater in Cairo in 2007, I argued with a male friend about why the lead actress wore a strange, baggy dress underneath a bra-and-skirt dancing ensemble. He suggested that she was uncomfortable with her body; I suggested that the country was becoming more conservative and she was too much of a media darling to appear with her skin exposed."
Does Randa Jarrar share the conservative attitudes to which she alludes? She doesn't share a "male" attitude that someone would wear a shapeless garment because they were uncomfortable with their body, and, remember, she doesn't object to nightclub costuming as long as it is worn by Arab dancers.  But then again, there was that thing in praise of Fifi in the gallibeya...

Randa Jarrar veers off further:
"Years later, the revolution happened, or tried to happen, and when the Muslim Brotherhood took over, and Western news outlets began publishing stories that claimed belly dancing was a dying art. Tell that to the women on the streets and on rooftops and in bedrooms and living rooms and weddings dancing their hips off. (See this video, for example, of actual working-class Egyptian women of all sizes and ages dancing in the streets.)  The one interesting thing about these stories is that they reported that Western, or white women, were beginning to take over gigs in Egypt. These women moved there out of an obsession with belly dance and are now appropriating it from local dancers."
So basically: yes, a conservative regime does suppress professional performance of belly dance, but that's okay, because belly dance as an art form is just fine, if not better off, without professionals.
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So there you have it. To me this looks like a simple case of Randa Jarrar (who also wrote that she did not hire a pro but instead was “her own” dancer at her own wedding) wanting to be the center of attention, and she would like for all of you sharmuta professional belly dancers in your skimpy costumes to stop upstaging her. Unless maybe you happen to look just like her, or you are a nonthreatening video clip from a bygone era – then it's okay if people express approval.

I have a few more thoughts about "whiteness," foreign dancers, professional dance, and the credibility of Randa Jarrar as a cultural critic.

It's true that Egypt's most successful professional dancers, both foreign and Egyptian, tend to have pale skin (and for that matter, straight hair). Egypt is in Africa, but its cultural mainstream does not prize prominent African features or coloration. How much other cultures have influenced this preference is debatable, but the preference predates 20th century colonialism.  While it is unfair, and a real thing to deplore (I wish it's what Randa Jarrar had written about), the reality of the dance market is that it is simply easier for light-skinned dancers, and less open to dark-skinned dancers, regardless of whether they are Egyptian or foreign. Complexion trumps competence.  For Randa Jarrar's idealized brown Arabs, professional dance may very well be an unwelcome job of last resort that doesn't even pay very well. 

Nonetheless, there is no glut of obsessed and predatory "white" emigrees filling vacancies left by brown-skinned Arabs.

For Egyptian women from the Muslim Arab cultural majority, dance is simply not a respectable profession, so dancing professionally is not an option. This is a firmly entrenched cultural attitude that predates current conservative politics by centuries. Perhaps dance is a fine social activity to practice away from the "male gaze" in the private confines of one's home, but the same activity becomes a disgrace when one's body is on display for undifferentiated male viewing, let alone when the dancing body is displayed in exchange for money. Breaching this standard of "modesty" is a shameful transgression – it is often conceived of as a shade on a spectrum of prostitution.  Star dancers suffer less in the court of public opinion, but the majority of working dancers are not stars.

So who's dancing?  Who has the freedom to defy mainstream expectations and constraints?  Foreigners and other marginal "others."  Alien work authorization is notoriously difficult for foreign dancers to obtain, but many of Cairo's current professionals are from the US, Brazil, Europe, and countries of the former Soviet Union. But the fact that many dancers working in Egypt do not represent the mainstream of Egyptian Muslim Arab society is a cultural constant, not a new development. Historically, Egypt's professional dancers have always come disproportionately from the social margins; they are women from ethnic or religious minorities, including Copts and other Christians, Jews, Rom and Dom ("gypsies"); women from the lower classes who are born into a family business of dance and music; or women who are just plain poor. In an ironic twist, sometimes financially-independent college-educated women occupy this same marginal space.  Foreigners and these marginal "others" aren't displacing anyone – they are the only ones for whom dance jobs are real options.

Foreigners are present in Egyptian professional dance explicitly because they are less inhibited by Egyptian taboos.  Not only do foreigners NOT take away native jobs, they enrich the Egyptian economy through their participation in Egypt's dance industry. Foreign dancers are dance tourists and visiting students, customers of Egypt's costume design houses, consumers of Egyptian-produced music, and the patrons of touring Egyptian workshop instructors. Author Randa Jarrar says of Egyptian teachers who teach non-Egyptian students, "their financial well-being is based on self-exploitation." This does not sound to me like a criticism dependent on the skin color or nationality of the student of Oriental dance, but, once again, a blanket condemnation of dance professionals.  

And yet Randa Jarrar did praise a few professional dancers–Fifi Abdo, Taheya Carioca, and Hind Rostom. Why does she fail to appreciate that their skill and stage presence are made possible by their professionalism?  Even in a gallibeya, even in woman-of-the-people non-Oriental mode, to an educated critic Fifi is clearly demonstrating a level of talent and preparation that is emphatically NOT that of "women on the streets and on rooftops and in bedrooms and living rooms and weddings dancing their hips off." Fifi is a pro, and like other professional dancers her artistry was made possible by income derived from the time she spent perfecting her craft.  Dance, like any art, does not flourish if its creators are not rewarded and can not invest in their work.  

But I guess it's okay to be pro if you wear a gallibeya?  And the other dancers mentioned, Taheya Carioca and Hind Rostom (who wore all sorts of things, but definitely had bedlehs in rotation) are just faded and hence non-threatening black-and-white movie memories?... And, you know, Fifi and Taheya and Hind (all of whom I would describe as pretty pale ladies) are so purely uncompromised by foreign influence...

Except that they're not. Middle-Eastern dance of the 20th and current centuries, whether it is social dance or performance, is utterly saturated with outside influence from both the West and other Middle Eastern cultures. This includes "authentic" dance done by Egyptian Arabs for audiences of Egyptian Arabs. Even if one were to take away all of the influence from England, France, and the United States, you'd still be looking at a melting-pot dance created from the remnants of shifting and overlapping Greek, Persian, Arab, Turkish, and Central Asian empires. And in the 20th century, as much–perhaps more–ballet entered Egyptian Oriental dance from the Soviet Union as it did from Europe or the US. Taheya Carioca's professional surname, "Carioca," reflects the one-time popularity of the namesake South American dance. As for Hind Rostom, let's look at the top two search results



Oh no, I can't stand it!  Whether she knows it or not, Hind is engaging in appropriation!



Oh no! Look at that diaphanous skirt.  Hind is dancing in "Arab face!"  As Randa Jarrar says, "Arab women are not vessels for white women to pour themselves and lose themselves in; we are not bangles or eyeliner or tiny bells on hips. We are human beings." Or, wait a minute, maybe this isn't Arab face, because she is an Arab, and that makes it okay, right? And I can tell that she's an Arab because of her brown skin – oh, no, wait, she's actually quite fair-complected. But wait, I can tell that she's an Arab because of her Arabic-sounding name. Phew, there's a bullet dodged! No wonder it is so important to Randa Jarrar that crafty foreigners not start using Arabic-sounding stage names that would make it more difficult to distinguish who is entitled to wear what.  But, no, wait, she only objects to "names that make no sense in Arabic." So "Taheya Carioca," for instance, is not good?

Am I supposed to use a stage name that does make sense in Arabic?  Isn't that appropriation?

Even when I was primarily doing commercial club work for Middle-Eastern audiences, I never wanted to use a "dance name," mostly because it didn't feel right.   But Arab audiences NEVER liked me as "Autumn Ward." They thought it was deeply weird, they didn't know how to pronounce it, and I was even told that it was not respectful of the culture to not try to assimilate. Against my objections, my name got changed into all kinds of things, many of which made no sense:  Fatima (F-autumn-a), Atman, Ottoman (?), Asmahan, Harifa...

Goodnight Randa Jarrar.  You've wasted more than enough of my time already.