A Case against Standardization in Nomenclature for Belly Dance Instruction

Najia Marlyz
August 4, 1999

Be careful in what you wish or pray for, because you just may receive your wish! Frequently all of us dancers and teachers have heard and have been immersed in the politically correct new "Danspeak". Oriental dancers now struggle with the same issues of legitimacy that arose just as often in the past. "We need a standardized book of terms so that we can speak to each other about our dance art! This will put us on a par with Ballet and other dance disciplines as well!" Current voices plead.

I agree that it would be so much easier if we teachers had standard names for movements and technique. Perhaps expediency is not what we should be wishing for, however. We Oriental dancers do not speak one common language, and those of us who do speak the same language cannot decide whether an elevator is a lift or a truck is a lorry! And.just what kind of truck is it, anyway? A Jimmy? A tanker? A pick-em-up? A dump truck? An eighteen wheeler? A big rig? Let's get specific here!

Back in the 1960's when I first became interested in ethnic dancing lessons, belly dance had barely hit the ground running here in California. It was touted by many aficionados as the "ancient dance of the Pharaohs", and I was attracted to it for various colorful reasons. Its foremost charms were its ethnicity, its "oral tradition", and its loosely constructed lore of instruction, which was, at that time, highly creative, uncommonly sensual, and glamorous.
My main instructor used to refer to Belly Dance as "The back door to the glamour of show business". Well, any port in a storm is welcomed! In those days there were numerous places to find employment as a dancer. The ubiquitous Belly Dance Festival had yet to be invented!

There were a few instructors who were guru-like in their teaching roles. They believed that each "secret of the dance" was to be guarded zealously. Each teacher of the era took deep personal and possessive pride in developing methods for producing a troupe or at least, a phalanx of professional quality dancers who could be expected to "carry on the tradition". But what and whose tradition was it?

We all marched forwards dissonantly with our instructional agenda based in that which Bert Balladine petulantly refers to as "Cultural Imperialism". Cultural Imperialism is loosely defined as the outsider's pompous tendency to reach into a foreign art form, categorize it, intellectualize it, then morph it into something more acceptable to other outsiders.

rubber stamp dancers, clones in a row I thought of my own dance style as "Interpretive Oriental" much like the fine arts I had studied at the Universities of Washington and California. My vision was firmly based on artistic Orientalist European fantasy mixed with instruction from a variety of dance teachers, without benefit of videos and musical cassettes (which had not been invented at the time). Teachers and friends taught me Arabian style folkloric dance, and Turkish cabaret-style dance which they, in turn, had learned person to person and transmitted down to me through the ages. Dancers from other dance forms thought us hairy and wanton Berkeley hippies who carried tokes in our assaphinity bags hung around our dirty necks along with our little vials of patchouli. Back East in "The Big Apple", dancers such as Serena and Morocco were dancing and creating the first dance studios totally devoted to the Middle Eastern dance and musical arts. Out west we became either tribes or individualists.

Belly Dance was not called Raqs Sharqi, or even Oriental Dance, for the most part. Jamila Salimpour sometimes referred to Belly Dance as Danse du Ventre for those of us who hung around the University and fancied ourselves intellectuals, artists, and artisans. (My macramé, tapestry weaving was only surpassed by my harpsichord playing at the time.)

We delighted in our individuality, our freedom and our adventure into the Middle Eastern culture, without benefit of video or travel, as it were.

I was employed by a Greek-American family to dance twice weekly in a Berkeley folkdance taverna, which specialized in folkdance lessons from all lands. I had little need for any dance that was not the favored danse du jour with Turkish music. I had limited desire to learn, or even care about, Egyptian Ghawazees, Rababbas, or canes for Raks Assaya. In other words, the order of the day was to dance with rampant individualism and to learn only on a "need to know" basis. Had I been confronted with the vast sea of terminology and jargon that is now used, I am almost certain that my creative approach to the dance art would have been thwarted.

Cultural Imperialism is insidious outside the middle-east. It seeps into our experiences without notice, often changing the experience from one of "feeling and being" to one of "doing and mimic". We have sought out the Belly Dance as a last bastion of emotional expression and feminine sensuality. Now that we have tasted some modicum of success and power through performance, some of us now seek to codify the dance, possess and absorb it, transforming it to our own personal museum of ethnic Arabism or Turkoman. Rather than learning to interpret music, we have often concentrated on naming everything and have turned to wanting things to be easy to teach and harder to learn rather than easy and joyful, if adventuresome and troublesome, personal discovery.

This afternoon I sat with Leila Haddad and Bert Balladine discussing the current issue of adopting standard nomenclature for belly dance movement.

Leila clutched at her heart and exclaimed, "Why? In whose language would it be?"

I asked the follow-up question, "Do you have specific names for your country's dance steps and movements?" The look of horror and puzzlement on her face and the torrent of discussion that followed answered my question. Readers of Gilded Serpent are located in many different countries and speak many different languages. Likewise, so are dancers!

If any country's teacher, including native Arabs or Turks, were to create a book defining specific steps and movements of Oriental dance, would it freeze the dance in time like a dinosaur! In adopting it, we would deprive ourselves of the rich history and tradition of the self-expressive oral tradition, which are ornamented by personal touches of artistry and individual uniqueness.

Belly Dance seems to be a last bastion of (especially) woman's reclamation of her own body and its ability to move in mysterious, sensual, and captivating ways. Dancers who wish to find true Oriental Dance will find it in self-discovery. Attempts to own and imperialize it, by assuming instructional authority, legitimization, credentialing, certification, and otherwise limiting pursuit of the form, will transform it into just one more frozen bit of dance history.

Cultural imperialism, through the not-so-simple act of standardizing names of movements, steps, and positions, will close one more venue for expression of human interaction through the oral tradition. Potential melding of spirit, music, and movement will be curtailed as well as the poesy and fun of an adventure into personal discovery. No amount of authority, or ease and clarity for instructors could be worth the loss of such a valuable treasure!

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