What is to be Danced? The Belly Dance and Cultural Appropriation Question.
“Oh no, someone let an uncomfortable feminist argument out of the bottle!”
I am going to be honest here. I love to travel. I love to try new things. Historically, I have collected hobbies like some people collect Dragon Ball Z Action Figures, stamps, and nail polish colors. Wait, I’ve collected those too. I am curious about the world and cultures. I have worn clothing that was inspired by ethnic styles. In the late 1990s, I wore a bindi a few times, as it was the trend then and because I imagined that it made me look like I was a superhero that could blast magical magenta lasers from the gemstone. I drew a comic book wherein I did exactly this. I suck.
So, when I talk about cultural appropriation, it is not because I am riding on some high horse looking down on people. It is because I have a carbon footprint that looks like Godzilla walked by. It is because I want to partake in cultures. It is also because I don’t want to be a terrible white person who stomps on people of color. There is already a lot of stomping in the world.
Thus, this leads me to my latest quandary. Is belly dancing a form of cultural appropriation? In 2014, Randa Jarrar, a Palestinian American writer, wrote a controversial article for Slate, wherein she argued that it was cultural appropriation. Jarrar expressed frustration that white women were basically performing Arab drag by dressing up in costumes that caricatured Arab women. She said that growing up in the Middle East, the belly dance (Raqs Sharqi) clothing she remembered was more conservative and women who perform belly dances professionally were looked down upon. She viewed belly dancing as a performance of women for women, done at parties and weddings. When men were present, the dancing was less playful. Because of the stigma of public performance, she observed that white women were being hired to perform in Egypt. In all, she mostly felt angered by the shameless Arab face performance of white women, who she said sometimes adopted Arab sounding performance names and Arab inspired costumes.
In response to her opinion, the internet exploded with articles and blog posts defending cultural appropriation, cultural borrowing, and belly dancing. This is not a literature review of those articles, but in reading some of responses I saw a jumbled discourse of the power, privilege, and entitlement on the dismissive end of the spectrum and appreciation, art, expression, and feminism on the apologetic end of the spectrum. For the most part, it was hard to find many voices who agreed with her. Roughly, here are a few common arguments against her argument:
Impossible to Avoid Argument: On this side, it seems that a theme was that cultural appropriation is hard to define and no one owns culture. Cultural borrowings are a part of all societies. If a person were to try to avoid cultural appropriation, it would involve extremes like avoiding coffee, potatoes, and algebra. The merit of this argument is that the world is so interconnected by globalization that it is impossible to avoid appropriation. The outcome of this would be extreme isolation between peoples and the policing of cultural boundaries. Main Critique: This is true, but this also evades tough questions about racism, imperialism, and entitlement.
It’s Art Argument: On this side, dance is art. Art is creative and expressive. The rules of cultural appropriation do not apply to art. If belly dance is performed well and taken seriously as an art, then women will grow in their respect of Middle Eastern cultures as they deepen their knowledge of dance, instruments, language, and dance history. Critique: This is true, who wants to censor art and learning? But, art is not inherently benign. Art is political and promotes meaning. What if the art sends the message that imperialism is okay?
It’s Feminism Argument: Belly dancing empowers women by allowing them to express themselves, explore their identities, accept their bodies, spend time with other women, etc. Some pagan feminists believe that belly dancing is an ancient form of dance that celebrates the feminine divine. Belly dancing builds community and sisterhood. Critique: Wonderful. I truly want this for women. But, what if some women feel that the dance does not respect their culture? What if they feel mocked or marginalized? Feminism isn’t about community and self-actualization of some women at the expense of the community and self-actualization of other women.
Unfortunately, what is lacking is a Marxist feminist answer to cultural appropriation. Here I am…a Marxist feminist, trying to make sense of what is a very difficult question. In the spirit of Lenin I shall ask…
What is to be danced?
I have mulled it over and I don’t think that Marxism can really take a position on dance. Dance is part of the superstructure, or the culture that sits on the economy. Dance evolves over time as society changes. It is entirely possible that the pagan feminists are right and there have been gyrating dances since the dawn of time. These early dances might have celebrated fertility, women, female power, etc. This sort of dance might have been characteristic of a matriarchal or matrilineal society wherein women were valued and equal. But, this is capitalism. This is the heart of the beast of capitalism: the USA. Capitalism has reached all over the globe. In doing so it has subjugated other cultures as it has integrated other economies. It is no wonder that in our globalized capitalist society that we would have a taste for the foods, cultures, dances, and languages of other places. We have had a long time to become exposed to these things through imperialism and colonization. Historically, the West has had the power to discover and take. At the same time, we are oppressed by capitalism. We want to escape. We want to travel. We want joy and fun. We want to celebrate and dance!
Without capitalism, we wouldn’t really know about belly dancing. We’d be feudal peasants who perhaps know only of our own village. In the 18th and 19th century, Europeans travelled to the Ottoman Empire and saw dancers perform. Harems really captured the imagination of Europeans. Now, in our Orientalist imagination, harems are places where women dance around for sultans. In my understanding, harems were places for women. Here, women danced for women and most of them never met the sultan. Harems were guarded by eunuchs because men weren’t trusted. Really, it was a female space. To varying degrees it was a way for women to exert some measure of control over the sultan. But, this shouldn’t be idealized as feminist space or power. The women were trafficked from across the empire. Around the same time that Europe was exposed to belly dancing, it was exposed to many things as it expanded into new territories. This era saw a rise in Orientalism, or art, music, literature, and ideas which popularized certain images of the East. The east was exotic and erotic. Having this vision of the east probably made it easier to conquer it, as it was a backwards place, yet exciting places, with strange values.
Belly dancing as an art is deeply connected to capitalism’s global nature. Belly dancing became popular in the United States in the late 1800s through our World’s Fair, at a time when we were just sinking our milk teeth into global imperialism. It appealed to orientalism. Even at that time, it was performance for an orientalist audience rather than a traditional folk art. The dance shimmied across the globe. It was shaped by U.S. Hollywood movies, returned to Egypt, repackaged, returned to the United States through immigrants, and reshaped. Modern belly dance draws from many cultures. It is a simulacrum. That is, a copy of a copy of a copy. A simulacra, according to Baudrillard, is something which has no origin or is a caricature. Of course, real people contributed to the development of belly dancing through teaching, shaping, performing, and costuming of the dance. Some of these people were indeed Arab American.
As workers were are alienated from the production of things. We don’t control how things are made. We buy them in the market place, where they appear magically from far off places. Where did that coffee come from? Who grew it? How was it roasted? What is the process? So it is with the thousands of things we consume. Since capitalism is so global and everything just appears so magically, it is no wonder that there are so many international things to consume. At the same time, being American is also pretty frustrating. For a progressive person, America is a place of religion, racism, inequality, Donald Trump, endless war, professional wrestling, snow mobiles, and Happy Meals. A taste for international foods and activities seems like a lovely alternative.
This leads to the problem. Miss Progressive doesn’t want to learn square dancing and eat corn dogs at the county fair. These things represent America. OR, maybe she feels bad about her body. Belly dancing liberates her from the fat shaming. She feels sexy again. Or, maybe she meets some friends. It sure is lonely taking care of the kids. And, these women are fun and cool. They have tattoos. They aren’t afraid of the Middle East. They might even deeply respect the dance. Women are oppressed. All women are oppressed. In the land of plenty and scarcity, there is a tendency to escape or try to escape our oppression through consumption and identity. Dance is an escape. Can we blame women for wanting some joy in the world?! My god, if I can’t dance, I don’t want to be a part of your revolution. Thanks for the perfect quote, Emma Goldman.
Okay, so Lenin asked the classic question, what is to be done…not what is to be danced. This is about forming a vanguard party for the purpose of spreading revolutionary ideas to workers. I am not sophisticated nor creative enough to tie belly dancing to the vanguard party. But, I can tie this argument to a basic question which revolutionaries must ask themselves. The question is: how do I make a revolution?
This probably sounds bloody and terrible to my readers. So, maybe a less dramatic sounding question is how do I make significant change in society? From a Marxist perspective, capitalism just has to go. To this end, workers just have to be organized. This is because the entire economic is run by workers and would cease to function without the consent to work. Because of our service economy, maybe workers don’t seem that powerful. Oh nooos who will make the hamburgers?! Think instead, who will run hospitals, schools, drive trains and buses, harvest food, ship the food, can the food, make the weapons, remove the garbage, purify the water, and so on and so on. No other group in society wields the power of workers. But, not just workers. Ties must be made to social movements. A socialist revolution must also be a revolution that wins the hearts and minds of all oppressed people: women, gays, lesbians, transgendered people, ethnic and racial minorities. Capitalism depends upon racism, sexism, and homophobia to function. These things divide people. This divides workers.
Relating to oppressed groups isn’t always easy. There is a lot of false consciousness or bad ideas in the world. I am a product of society and as such, my head is full of a lot of society’s bad ideas. But, if there is one rule of being an ally to these groups it is probably: don’t be a dick.
How do you avoid being a dick?
- Listen to oppressed people.
Okay, sounds good. But they say different things! Some don’t even think racism exists any more.
- Listen to the vanguard of oppressed people.
Listen to the people who you think are in motion. Who are the activists? The radicals? They probably can give you some clues about how to treat them with dignity and be true allies.
- What if they say that I can’t belly dance? Or Celebrate the Day of the Dead? Or wear dreadlocks?
These are personal choices. There is no golden rule to what is and what is or is not cultural appropriation. But, listen to the arguments. Consider the offense it may cause. Consider how it shapes your relationship with this group of people. If Arab women feel that belly dancing is appropriation, then consider how you could work with them to make it better and more just. Isn’t that the nice thing to do?
- Weigh/Learn about the issue:
In the end, Jarrar issued another statement. In this, she said belly dancing isn’t that important. The really important thing were things like the appropriation of Palestinian land. She was upset that her article was given so much attention when she had written more substantive things. The appropriation of a dance is far less important than the detainment of thousands of Palestinians who protest Israel’s occupation of their land or the collective punishment of Palestinians who cannot leave Gaza and the West Bank.
- Consider Oppression
Since there are no hard and fast rules about how to live one’s life and politics should not be reduced to personal choices anyway, the big question is the movement. The big picture is not the food you eat, clothes you wear, or hobbies you participate in. It is the oppression. The oppression of women must end. To do this, we must build a feminist movement. This is a circle. To build a movement, we need allies. To have allies, we can’t be jerks. We are all oppressed. We all have to work together. It is easy to think that feminism means freedom and choice, but the heart of feminism is ending the systematic oppression of women. This means that some of our freedoms and choices do impact others.
Belly dancing is small potatoes in the grand scheme of things. I wrestle with it. Knowing what I know, or thinking what I think, should I do it as an activity? Having been raised in the United States, I like to think I can do whatever I want. I have freedom to choose. The world is a marketplace. It is hard to shake off that consciousness. I don’t want an austere, colorless life that lacks culture. I think the worst offense is probably the racialized costume. In this sense, perhaps I would be comfortable taking classes or practicing it at home, but would not want to wear a costume. I can’t shake the desire to learn and explore. The imperialist urge to sample the world. I have tried to be involved with a local Palestine group and with an Islamophobia action that happened in Superior. The boundaries of my life are to think about my actions and do the best that I can to be an ally to women. I will do what I can to be the best that I can in those respects. I will dance in the revolution, but my steps will be cautious and thoughtful.