The Gilded Serpent

The Gilded Serpent presents...
“Searching for Your New Dance Teacher, The First Interview”

by Najia El-Mouzayen

"Hi, I am looking for lessons in Belly Dance for a raw beginner. I have never had any dance lessons before at all", said the young voice. The voice on the other end of the phone was "interviewing" me as she conducted a search for her appropriate dance teacher. That put her at least one notch above my previous callers who had begun their calls by asking "Where, exactly, is your studio?" or "What do you charge for lessons?" Of course, everyone has to consider convenience and cost in order to make an intelligent decision about starting a long series of lessons in any subject, but I think that other factors should weigh more heavily on the equation. For instance, the reputation of the instructor and her style of the instruction would spring to my mind!

I am stunned with amazement when people undertake an ethnic study with an instructor who has never traveled to the country or countries of the subject's origin.

For example, I would not even bother to study Hula dancing, from a woman who had never set foot on any part of Hawaii at any time. Yet hundreds of Middle Eastern dance instructors in America do not even own a passport. I do not care how many videos one watches -- there is no substitute for having "been there"! Furthermore, making an effort to meet the people of the culture in question is of the utmost importance when studying foreign subjects. It is through knowing the people and their attitudes, and simply their way of being, that the dancer gains a sense of "belonging" and competence in the exotic form of dance. You do not have to attempt to become an Arab or Turk in the process, but I think that disregard or disrespect for the ethnic dance is shown when it becomes the repository of so much Western fantasy through benign ignorance. (Or should I call it Orientalist fantasy?)

If you are into a fantasy form of your ethnic dance you should attempt to understand the cultural dynamics from which it springs. So I tell every inquiring voice on the phone, "As you shop for your new teacher, be sure to study with one who cares enough to have invested in travel to the Middle-East. She should care as much as she has cared and invested money on lessons, costumes, and advertising!" Some of my callers say, "Well, that makes sense. I hadn't thought of that."

One caller began our conversation by asking, "Just what kind of Belly Dancing do you teach?" (By the way, not one, in the past 30 years has ever asked me for "Raks Sharqui or Raks Beledi, Oriental Dance, or Middle Eastern Dance.) "My goodness", I thought to myself, "people are beginning to know what to ask!" However, I was a bit off track because she quickly clarified her question by stating that she was really only interested in the "spiritual aspects of Belly Dancing". (That was a new twist!) It has always puzzled me that some people consider "spiritualism" to be something visited upon one from external sources, rather than a perceived calling to dance, dance, dance! I gave her the names of several local teachers whom I thought were more full of spiritual hocus-pocus than I.

After hanging up the phone, I became increasingly disturbed that I did not give a better answer. "My dance is just as "spiritual" as the next person’s," I thought to myself. Lamely, I had told her that, if questioned closely, all dance teachers of all dance forms would consider themselves to be dancing with a "spiritual aspect". That is just the inherent nature of dance!

After many days of mulling this over, I have decided that one brings spirituality to whatever one does, rather than the other way around.

Perhaps it would make more sense to ask your prospective teacher if she felt that there was any spiritual value to her dance. Additionally, asking if the dance teacher has ever traveled to the countries of origin to research her subject first hand, would reveal a good deal of dedication to authenticity, somewhat like a pilgrimage to a religious person. If one is on a search for spirituality in dance or in fly fishing, one will find it. It would be a good bit better to identify what it is one is attempting to say though the dance because dance is the medium of the spirit, rather than the end result.

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