Why I can’t stand neo-segregationists
As is my wont, I was hovering spectrally in the internet’s howling dark when my friend sent me a message with a link to this trainwreck on Salon.com, along with the demand that I “tell her why this article rubs her the wrong way.”
The article is titled, “Why I can’t stand white belly dancers,” which for a lesser man would be reason enough to nope right out of here, but this is my struggle, gaiz. I’m doing this for you. You’re welcome to play a game and see how far you can get without actually laughing out loud.
For me, that point came one sentence in, with, “The term “belly dance” itself is a Western one.” That’s the kind of deep and profound linguistic insight that deserves a paywall.
There’s also this nugget:
Google the term “belly dance” and the first images the search engine offers are of white women in flowing, diaphanous skirts, playing at brownness. How did this become acceptable?
Translation: “I googled belly dancers expecting to find people who looked like the stereotype I had in my head of a belly dancer, and I was upset when my prejudice was not reinforced by reality.” Seriously. This whole article is the author fighting against coming to terms with the racial diversity of the middle east. I mean, look at this white appropriatior!
Oh wait, she’s Turkish. Well look at this other horrible white woman playing at brownness!
Oh whoops, she’s Lebanese.
Hmm what about this horrible white appropriator?
Oops, she’s Egyptian!
You get the idea.
In Arabic, this kind of dance is called Raqs Sharqi, or Eastern dance.
One thread that runs through the article is that this author has apparently never heard of Persians or Turks, because she thinks that all belly dancing attire is “Arabic drag” and all *true*
scotsmen belly dancers invariably pass the Randa Jarrar paper bag test. Yes, she can tell immediately whether a woman in a picture on a google image search has the appropriate ethnocultural background to be wearing a particular kind of costume and moving her body in a particular kind of way. I eagerly await her next piece, entitled, “Why I can’t stand black ballerinas.” She can write about how a black woman came to her ballet studio and spent the whole class envying her lithe body.
Also, let me take a minute and say that the fact that it’s called Raqs Sharqi in Arabic raises some red flags. I did some research, and found that this was the version of it in other languages of the region. In Turkish, a language I have some competence in, the word is “Oryantal Dansi,” which is obviously just a translation of “Oriental Dance” into Turkish phonetics, probably from French! Isn’t that kind of weird? To name a traditional cultural dance with reference to Europe, much less to name it using European loanwords? It’d be like if jazz musicians in New York had named the genre “Musica de los Norteamericanos.” I’m fairly confident there’s more to the story here, so if anyone can shed light on it, that’d be awesome.
Oh, but then we get into the truly circular reasoning underlying the “belly dancing is appropriation because it’s appropriation” argument:
Belly dance, as it is known and practiced in the West, has its roots in, and a long history of, white appropriation of Eastern dance. As early as the 1890s in the U.S., white “side-show sheikhs” managed dance troupes of white women, who performed belly dance at world’s fairs (fun trivia: Mark Twain made a short film of a belly dancer at the 1893 fair). Many white women who presently practice belly dance are continuing this century-old tradition of appropriation, whether they are willing to view their practice this way or not.
Did you catch that? Because white people made money with belly dancing in the past, and they also presently make money wtih belly dancing, it’s appropriation (because shut up) and has been for a hundred years. Don’t ask me to justify the claim that it’s appropriation – just take the fact that I referenced other people doing the same thing as evidence that my value judgment on their actions is accurate.
Then story gets an interesting psychosexual twist:
When women danced for women alone, there was a different kind of eroticism, perhaps more powerful, definitely more playful, or maybe that’s how it felt to me, as a child and teenager, wary of men’s intentions.
I can’t help but read this as an admission that what’s going on here is that the belly dancers inspired some homosexual feelings in the author that she was not comfortable with acknowledging or exploring, and as a result she sublimated those feelings into a sort of intense cultural patriotism, convincing herself that the feelings were part of the belly dance (or should I use the clearly less Orientalist name, ‘Dance of the Orient’?) experience. Later, when she was sitting at home one day, googling “belly dancer,” and finding images of people who she believes were not legitimately a part of her culture, those feelings remained, challenging her self-deception that her feelings of desire for the belly dancers in her childhood were about cultural pride rather than queerness.
Instead of dealing with her issues, her solution is to demand that white women cover up and stop gyrating to stop making her aware of her own desires. Sorry, it’s an appealing offer, but no thanks.
More lack of awareness of the existence of Turks and Persians and general racial diversity in the Middle East:
The last time I forgot, a white woman came out 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 — and began to belly-dance.
Now this next part really pissed me off. The author first acknowledges the existence of rising Islamic fundamentalism in English, and its effect on bellydancer outfits:
I suggested that the country was becoming more conservative and she was too much of a media darling to appear with her skin exposed.
Then, at the end of the same paragraph, it’s suddenly a big fucking mystery why there’s not a lot of Egyptian belly dancers in Egypt under the Muslim brotherhood, to the point where white expats were taking over some of the paid bellydancing gigs:
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.[…] 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.
Clearly those white women are the real villain of this story, not the Muslim Brotherhood and all the horrifying shit they inflicted on Egyptian women who didn’t toe the Islamist party line. Maybe there’s like, a connection between their violent, politicised religious fundamentalism, and the sudden reluctance of Egyptian belly dancers to be publically known as such.
Find another form of self-expression. Make sure you’re not appropriating someone else’s.
She wrote in English…
Instead, I point out that all this means is that it is perfectly all right with these teachers that their financial well-being is based on self-exploitation.
What a busybody! A skilled artisan chooses to teach her skill to others, and gets financially compensated for doing so. To call this “self-exploitation” is some of the most outragiously patronizing bullshit I’ve read in almost three hours.
This dance form is originally ours, and does not exist so that white women can have a better sense of community; can gain a deeper sense of sisterhood with each other; can reclaim their bodies; can celebrate their sexualities; can perform for the female gaze.
“This dance form is originally ours.” Just disgusting. What an utterly emetic sentiment.
Then to end on a high note, enjoy this expression of cowardice combined with hypothetical wit is hilarious:
We wanted to call these women up and say, “How is this OK? Would you wear a dashiki and rock waspafarian dreads and take up African dance publicly? Wait,” we’d probably say, “don’t answer that.”
Thank you so much for this. I’m a professional middle eastern dancer (I actually don’t like the term belly dancer because it’s inaccurate; the dance involves way more than the belly, but that is the label most people know it as, so whatever) and I saw this article and just couldn’t bring myself to deal with it.
When I read the Salon article initially, the big issue it seemed like the author had was that white people who were doing belly dance were using the culture as a costume. When you learn ballet, you learn the moves and the French names for those moves, but you typically perform in tight-fitting exercise wear for practical purposes (tutus are actually pretty infrequent) and you don’t adopt a ballet name or anything. It seems like in belly dance, not only are you learning the movements and their names, you’re putting on a very stereotyped outfit and makeup and some people are even adopting fake Middle Eastern-esque names. THAT, I would say, could qualify as appropriation.
But yeah, “you are not allowed to move your body in this manner because WE DID IT FIRST” is a bit, um, odd.