If you’ve been dancing for while you probably know a fair bit about the history of your dance, the steps and combos, dancers who made them and the dance itself famous and of course also a bit about the cultural context of the dance today. Or do you? Many dancers don’t seem to be interested in studying the background or know the culture which has shaped and continues to influence the dance that they enjoy and practise. But it’s essential to have a bit of background if you really want to understand the roots, the cultural references within it, as well as the direction of its current development.
I have just returned from a weekend in Wiltshire, where I was helping to deliver parts of the JWAAD Course on the Influence of History and Culture upon Belly Dance. I must admit that personally this is one of my favourite knowledge courses, because there are so many aspects to it which directly influence the steps, gestures and even the costuming of the dance today. There are also discussions about everything from veiling and terrorism to FGM, which are also extremely interesting and helps to understand the cultural context in which this dance develops. On this course we had Yasmina of Cairo joining the teaching team, which added even more first hand knowledge and insight into life and dancing in Egypt today.
You can read more about the course and other JWAAD training courses here.
But there are many ways to find out about the history and culture of belly dance and the internet is a brilliant place to start. There are many free resources and many Cairo based belly dancers have blogs which are worth following to get a good insight into Egyptian life, culture and dance (a few a mentioned below).
But as with any kind of research it’s worth analysing your sources and remembering that no one can be totally objective when conveying information. Everyone is likely to put their own social and cultural perspective to it, which is something often forgotten when trawling thorough the internet looking for information. So where do you start and who can you trust to tell the truth?
There really isn’t one clear cut answer. An example I saw today on Facebook was a mini discussion on where Nagwa Fouad was from, some saying she was Palestinian, others that she was born in Alexandria, Egypt, whilst others say she was actually from Haifa in Israel. You can of course argue as to what the importance of her birth place really is, when she turned out to become such an iconic and influential dancer, but it just shows that you can’t take someone’s word for it just because they read it somewhere. Most information has to be taken with a pinch of salt and then you, the researcher, will have to look at as many different (and relatively trustworthy) sources that you can, before building your picture and opinions about it.
Good places that I regularly recommend my students to look for information online include:
If you’re a teacher it will help you feel more confident that you are teaching the right things. Being more knowledgeable will also help you add things to your classes and make it more interesting for your students. This can make you stand out more if there are several dance teachers in your area and it will add extra gravitas to your classes too. This doesn’t mean you have to launch into hour long explanations each time you teach, but that you can add additional information along the way, which will be of interest to your students. For example, if you’re teaching baladi you can add information about its history and origin, which will help explain why it’s so grounded yet can be so playful. I often find that drip feeding information works the best, as not all students are equally interested in the background information, but it will still add an extra level to the classes. Those students keen to know more will relish this, but make sure you keep your classes about the dancing, as sometimes I find it can start discussion which last quite a while, meaning the students start to cool down and forget what you’ve just been working on.
If you’re a performer then it can help you ensure your music, costume and gestures are appropriate to your act. Cultural appropriation can of course be taken too far, which by all means isn’t necessary. But it’s often the little things that will make you stand out as being an experienced performer. Technique is obviously important, but knowing which gestures are ‘safe’ in belly dance and what should be avoided is also key, as is not dancing ‘Oriental style’ to a Shaabi song. If your audience is your other class mates then it may not be that big a deal, but if your audience is more experienced in belly dance (i.e. dancers themselves or from the Middle East) then it will. So if you’re copying a choreography or elements of it, then make sure to check out the little details too, as it’s often these that complete the performance (and don’t forget to credit credited the original dancer/teacher if performing at a show or Hafla!). If you have a regular teacher then by all means ask them their advice too, they will hopefully be able to help you out.
If you’re really interested in submerging yourself in the history and culture, and also want to develop your belly dance network and contacts, then I can only recommend the JWAAD training courses. But as mentioned above, the internet is also a fantastic tool these days to gain quick knowledge about almost everything. YouTube is a fantastic inspiration in itself, as it will allow you to view current as well as historic clips of belly dancers from all over the world. But please do make sure that you take your time to study your videos or texts with care, so you can understand the full picture as good as possible.
Have you come across any good free resources that you’d like to share? Have you ever been in a situation where you wish you would have known more about the dance before a performance? Leave your comments below and keep the conversation and knowledge sharing going. Happy – and confident shimmies – always…
Did you miss my last post? Read it here: Final curtain call at Hafla at the Hall