Or are you turning your back on a wonderful opportunity?
I must admit, I feel disappointment when I encounter a fellow belly dancer or student, who expresses support for ideas and policies which are in direct conflict with the very essence of what we do as cultural artists and ambassadors. After all, the dance does not belong to us. We cannot just do with it as we please, or take out the cultural contexts we don’t like or understand. It doesn’t work that way.
While not a new phenomenon, in recent weeks I have struggled to understand it. I am an immigrant from Iran. Unfortunately, I’ve been through this song and dance before, through several waves. It was many years, and through the lessons of dance, before I was no longer ashamed of my heritage. The optimist in me wants to believe that everyone is on a different journey and this is all part that journey, for everyone. The activist in me wants to speak up.
But first, a little story.
When I was a school teacher, I often approached my cultural lessons of French-speaking countries, with the notion that I was also educating the parents of my students. One of the first fundamental points of view I had to impart in order to open minds and hearts, was to make a distinction between the government/politics, religion and culture of a county. While these things are highly interwoven in any society, if they could make those distinctions with their own country, then they would be able to apply it to others. The goal was to show that we are not all that different from them. Whether it was in regard to religion, customs or form of government, we could discuss the elements of the culture and language without judgement, toward a common goal of understanding and appreciation.
In the first part of discussions, I had one rule. Students were not allowed to use judging words in reaction to beliefs and traditions which were different from their own. They had to state facts. They could also draw comparisons to their own beliefs and traditions. For example, they could not say “That’s weird,” or “That’s gross.” But they could ask questions, often “Why?” to which I would try to draw a comparison to American traditions. While this was also a great opportunity to learn new vocabulary, the point was to immediately take away judgement, and embrace knowledge through facts. We discussed how the facts of geography, history and art impacted our different customs, clothing and food. Later, the students could share their feelings, after they had sufficient knowledge to formulate an informed opinion. If the brains of elementary school students can do that, why not fully developed adult brains?
I know, for the most part, I am preaching to the choir, so I appreciate you reading this far.
If you are a belly dance student, teacher or performer, no matter what style, this is your time to shine. You have a wonderful opportunity to represent through the dance. It is the least you can do. No matter what style of belly dance you study or teach, thanks to the people’s traditions from cultures of origin, you found an art form that speaks to your heart and soul. Through the freedoms you enjoy, you are able to share your passion with others. You have likely had opportunities (even if you did not take them) to learn from native instructors coming to the U.S. from all points in the Middle East and North Africa. By association and dedication to their traditional arts, you are one of them. If you are committed to your dance involvement, accept and embrace that we are in it together, with them, and with the same goal; to promote our shared humanity through the beauty of dance and music.
Altruistic motives aside, you may even gain new students and performance opportunities. A quote from one of my early influencers, Morocco” a.k.a. Carolina Varga Dinicu, affectionately known as Aunty Rocky, says it all: “The truth is much more fascinating than the fantasy.”
As an artist and teacher of Middle Eastern dance, in everything I do, I must ask myself,
“Am I honoring and showing respect and appreciation for the cultures and people to whom these dances belong?”
“Am I fulfilling my responsibility as a teacher to impart truth, knowledge and insight to the best of my ability?”
I hope that I am, not only in my teachings, also in my daily interactions. Fellow dancers, are you?