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Belly dance isn't just a dance; it is a force to be reckoned with. It is almost impossible to tell the origination of the art form (Egypt, Greece, the Roma of Eastern Europe, Turkey, Syria, Uzbekistan and India all make a claim) — but I'm assuming it originally must have spread via traveling caravans during ancient times.
This contagious force disseminated throughout the Middle East, including to Israel to North Africa to Greece/Turkey/Cyprus and Eastern Europe, and from there to the Caucasus; to Persia and the Central Asian 'Stans, to India and the Far East — via the roads of the Levant, the Aleppo, the Persian Royal Roads, the Roman Roads into Europe, the Silk and Khyber Roads, the Grand Trunk across the Indian subcontinent, and the desert roads of Northern Africa — you name it – belly dance has slithered on it. Belly dance is the Dance of the Roads.
Belly dance is the dance of the snake. Ohrwurms – 'ear-worms' — were discussed here not long ago; but belly dance is not the dance of some pathetic worm. It is a much larger animal, that slithers, crawls, and gets into your head and never escapes. You want the worm to leave, but never the slithern. Snakes slither; roads slither; bellies slither.
The dance first came to America via the 1893 Chicago World's Fair (where, under the social pressure of increasingly 'liberated' roles for women, serial killer H.H. Holmes was luring female victims into his lair and sensationally murdering them).
The dance was kept alive in the American consciousness through cheap 'zines, vaudeville and burlesque; possibly traveling around in early medicine shows and carnivals; captured by painters of 'Orientalism'; and then finally spreading to early film – such as Edison early shorts, nickelodeons, and the peep-shows designed to get repressed Victorian men's rocks off. Finally it shows up in (Louisville!) filmmaker D.W. Griffith's 'Intolerance' and other early silents that made the Arab world seem exotic and magical – producing cinematic icons such as 'The Sheik,' 'Cleopatra,' and 'Salome' – and which reflected the new fashion in belly dance. (Isn't there a Star Trek episode where a green girl alien seductively bellydances on the pilot of Star Trek — bellydance will invade other planets!)
Early 20th -century artists such as Ruth St. Denis and Isadora Duncan were the first American dancers to say this was an art form to be respected and taught — not a cheap, throwaway, tawdry kind of a gimmick to titillate men – but seeing the art-form more as the sort of folk-dance that it was considered in its native ethnic locales to be. Although class instruction did not start to pick up until the late 60s, 70s and early 80s.
But such American influences also changed the movements, the dress – the midriff-showing, coin-bespangled, bra-besequined, transparent outfit we normally associate with belly dance is an American invention — even the names of the dance, which were originally things like 'Raqs-al-Sharqi' or 'Belledi,' became, in the American lingo, 'danse Orientale,' or 'danse du ventre' (= 'belly dance') – or 'the shimmy and shake'; or (finally and most famously) 'the hootchie-cootchie.'
This new, American-export style of belly dance-fusion (which is ironically, and wrongly, being solely native to Egypt) was spread worldwide anew through American Silents and talkies like Little Egypt, the films of 'Cairowood' and the even more famous and influential Indian films of Bollywood (or is that 'Bellywood'?).
Belly dance may be likened to Alexander the Great — the ancient Greek conqueror who presumptuously pushed his way through the Middle East, Persia, and Central Asia until meeting his demise in what is now Iraq. He conquered each town as he went, incorporating all of them, no matter their native cultures, into his growing Empire –- so that it was now all part of 'Greece.' Belly dance is no different: it invades a particular place, incorporates native elements, and moves on — it snowbellies. But belly dance is more of a conqueror than even Alexander the Great was — it reinvades after conquering: from the Middle East to the surrounding vicinities in Europe, Africa, and Asia, and thence to America and the rest of the world — and then back again, through print media, film, and dance.
Has belly dance stopped growing and incorporating other styles? — of course not — American Tribal Style Belly Dance out of San Francisco in the '80s revolutionized the dance once again — crossing all boundaries, encompassing all cultures (not limiting its movements to those of Middle Eastern Dance, but adding in those from Indian, flamenco, Polynesian, West African, etc. — we may even wish to include Yoga and Pilates) — the dance of the snake, this 'dancing in the shape of sound,' has an insatiable, unstoppable appetite; an unquenchable thirst — always inventing new styles, always incorporating other influences — the cycle never ends.
This mimicry of other styles of dance also makes it the dance of 'double talk.' Remember Sid Cesar, the great TV Legend of the fifties, who could 'mimic' (a word he didn't like) the sounds and words of other languages, and make it sound like he was actually speaking the language? He said he was imitating sound (in a respectful but not mocking way). He was mimicking the 'shape of sound' through vocalization. Belly dance does a similar thing — mimicking the 'shape of sound,' so that it 'double-talks' through form of dance.
Belly dance is the dance of the forbidden — the word 'harem' means forbidden — the dancers of early harems were protected, isolated, and kept from anything that would harm or cheapen them. Look but don't touch. Despite this, and the social and cultural conditions surrounding its origins (the Arab view toward sex and women needs no explanation), belly dance is associated with sex, seduction, and sensuality more than is any other dance. The sexuality of the body, the dance's oneness with the body, is central to its form – belly dance seems to be the most fluid of the dances: not only malleable in terms of style, but also in its reflection of how the body moves. I will also not ignore that there is also a playful innocence to bellydance that might even be more important the sexual aspect. There may also be an aspect to bellydance where it is not only to impact the world of men — but it to playfully dance for and entertain other women in a non-sexual way. Bellydance — the dance of innocence and the dance of sexuality.
Belly dance not only metamorphosizes in terms of art-form and dress, but also in how people view it – from cheap thrills for men, to feminist empowerment, to an accepted art form. And, with that, how (so to speak) its dancers are viewed over time. I'm reminded of the Botticelli painting 'The Birth of Venus' – perhaps the ultimate (Western) painting of Aphrodite — and one which reflects the dual aspect of 'virgin and whore' which is assigned to antiquity's goddess of love: an earthy, sexual, secretive, sensual, sinful divine individual; and/or a pin-up goddess who inspires lasting love in bonded relationships and friendships. Isn't this a thought of Plato's?
The sultan-protectors of these long-ago harems seem to have viewed their belly dancers in much the same way – unsure about: is she a black widow/femme fatale, like the Biblical tradition's Salome (most likely a belly dancer), who demanded the head of John the Baptist from King Herod for her dance? or is she like the notorious, purported spy Mata Hari (who belly danced)? Note, I say 'purported,' because it is entirely possible that Mata Hari may have been innocent — there seems to be evidence that she was never was a spy. Could the fact that she was a bellydancer have caused the authorities to think she was sinful and therefore guilty?
To these female figures, who are largely defined by their role as practitioners of belly dance, we might add author Colette, the creator of Gigi (an Aphrodite-type with a dual nature?). (And what do we say about Shakira?) All of these women pose for us the riddle of whether the belly-dancer figure 'is there' to mildly titillate men – (so that they then need to be protected from their audience's resultant lecherous intentions) — an Aphrodite born on the half-shell to inspire and awaken, but then, perversely, prohibit touch? Or is she the representation of all that is fiercely independent, strongly feminine, and is most fundamentally in touch with her own body and sexuality? To me the belly dancer is all good.
But then I'm probably biased.