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Gilded Serpent presents...
The Untaught Teacher
by Reanee Temple

Hopefully, when a woman walks into a Belly dance class (of any style) for the first time, she is taught basic movements of the dance, and also the history of the dance art that we have come to love so dearly. A teacher should be the guiding light leading the student out of dark and uncertain seas, safely into the ports of knowledge and grace. A teacher must be a dancer with experience, passion and talent who will lead us through rough waters in a swirling sea of competitive desires, encouraging students to reach out to audiences through interpretation of the music. We stand behind our teachers as surely as any sailor in rough waters follows a lighthouse beacon. They are experienced, after all, and educated in the dance! We assume that they are more skillful than their students are.

At least, that is what teachers are supposed to be!

What then, do we do about a teacher who has been misled, apparently, concerning the history of our dance?

Even if he or she stands on what he thinks is "true" Middle Eastern Dance, I believe that it is our job as fellow dancers, and even our responsibility and obligation as fellow dance instructors to educate everyone--even the untaught teacher.

Recently, an article was published in my local area in the Reno News and Review about a dance troupe nearby in the Reno, Nevada area. Troupe members were qualified for a newspaper interview because the troupe had been named by popular vote “the best dance troupe” in our area. They had performed at many local events and had been an organized dance troupe for over eight years. Their newly appointed president gave an interview over the phone.

The first question, as always, concerned the idea of body-image as it relates to the Belly dance. That question seemed simple enough to answer.

The interviewee expanded the discussion, however, into the history of Belly  dance. "The first Belly dancers came from the East and were in Seattle at the World's Fair at the turn of the 20th century."

Holding a collective breath, we hoped that she was misquoted! Because she was the president of a noted dance troupe, that is what we would have liked to think.

She clearly established that she had no connection to the Las Vegas showgirl look of current American Cabaret dancers, while omitting mention that to some, it seems apparent that Hollywood may have had influence upon the creative costume evolution of the American version for her style of dance. I should mention also, that the burlesque industry of the same time could also have collected some credit for contributing some costuming ideas into the mix.

In a fifteen-minute interview, this spokesperson gifted the American cabaret dancer the distinguished image of a sexualized, unauthentic vixen!

The image for which Cabaret dancers had fought during the last thirty years was handed back to them on a silver platter by a dancer who should have thought of herself as “one of their own”.

The interviewer asked her this question: "So, is [your troupe] more into the traditional [style of] dancing?"

Her response was, "Yeah". A spokesperson and representative who has been university trained, and who has had years of dance experience behind her, should have mentioned that there are over twenty-two countries that comprise the Middle East. Most countries of the Middle East have been irrevocably changed by the domination of the Romans, Christianity, English colonization; even Hollywood has helped to change standards and images throughout the world. With so many societies lost through “modernization”, how can any dancer claim to understand "traditional" dance?

She continued, and the newspaper article quotes her, saying that women have studied the history of the dance by going back to Africa and the Middle East to look at the dances performed there in the outlying villages. In an evident attempt to give her troupe style more credibility, she said that her group dances more like women in a “hut”!  

Regrettably, in response to a questions posed about male dancers, the article went on to say, "A lot of the best dressed ones [male dancers] are drag queens."
  • Any person who has made a cursory attempt to look at our history in dance could easily learn that, while some male dancers are gay, many are not. Though there were young boys who historically dressed and danced as women in countries such as Algeria, most men in dance are not drag queens.  Men in Middle Eastern Dance play a very important role, reflecting Middle Eastern values and life.
  • If the interviewee had researched the history of our dance, she would have been aware that the introduction to the art of Middle Eastern Dance happened at the Chicago World Fair at the turn of the 19th Century.
  • If she had had exposure to anthropology, she probably would not have used the word "hut". 
  • Even if some extremely polished dancers are “drag queens”, why would she make reference to these few in a short interview as if they were the rule rather than the exception and rarity that they are? 

Perhaps it is not her fault that this inadvertent representative of our dance community simply regurgitates whatever she has heard here and there and does not place it into perspective.  Perhaps, it is ours!

Shame on the interviewer/reporter for helping put her absurdity into print!  I would wager that our dance community would most likely feel shame for her lack of common judgment if they had read the interview. If there were any silver lining in this cloud of shame upon our dance form, it is that we dance teachers in the area, and perhaps in other communities too, now know how much work that must be done inside our own dance classes first, so that we, too, do not become parties to misleading the public about our dance.

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Check the "Letters to the Editor" for other possible viewpoints!

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