Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Styles of Belly Dance

For students new to belly dance, it can be confusing to understand the differences and distinctions between the various styles of belly dance. I know in my own personal dance journey, it took me many years to be able to understand and recognize the different styles.

Depending on who you ask, you'll most certainly receive different responses on what the main categorical styles of belly dance are. For example, some dancers may include Lebanese as its own belly dance style. While there have been particular Lebanese dancers, like Nadia Gamal, who embody their own distinct style, as a collective group, I personally don't see enough distinction in Lebanese belly dance to formally recognize it as its own style of belly dance. For me, the classifications below are the six main belly dance styles.

Modern Egyptian: Modern Egyptian belly dance, is a style of belly dance originating, as the name denotes, from Egypt from about the 1970s onward. Modern Egyptian is basically an evolved and polished up version of raqs beledi.  Raqs Beledi is a traditional folkloric dance of Egyptian sharing much of the same basic dance vocabulary as belly dance. (Stay tuned for a future post on raqs beledi which will clarify and delve into this dance in more detail). Raqs Beledi first paved the way for the creation of Vintage Egyptian style belly dance (see below), and later unfolded into what is known as Modern Egyptian.  Modern Egyptian belly dance was shaped in large part by the influence of Mahmoud Reda, who incorporated ballet into traditional Egyptian folkloric dances, and also trained belly dancers. This transfer of influence is seen in the Modern Egyptian style in the elevated carriage of the dancer, frequency of isolations and traveling steps performed on the balls of the feet, and the graceful arm and hand positioning. Other distinctions of Modern Egyptian style include powerful hip shimmies performed with a "straight leg", intricate hip articulations, quick changes of weight, and an absence of floorwork, due to it being frowned upon by current day Egyptian culture. Dancers who perform this style of belly dance include Dina, Lucy, and Randa Kamel.

Vintage Egyptian: Vintage Egyptian has many similarities to Modern Egyptian, but the main difference is that there is less ballet influence and more beledi influence, since this style was closer to the beledi source and a precursor for Modern Egyptian. Vintage Egyptian is distinguished by isolations made predominately in the hips, minimal upper body isolations, and deeper grounding through the feet. This style of dance is also typically distinguished by soft, rounded movements, rather than the sharp, staccato isolations seen more frequently in current styles of belly dance. This style of belly dance had its heyday in the 1920s to 1960s, and was made popular first by the influence of Badia Masabni and the dancers she trained for her nightclubs, including Tayhia Karoka and Samia Gamal, and then by the inclusion of these dancers and others, like Naima Akef, in popular Egyptian movies. In my opinion, it was Badia Masabni and her nightclub, Casino Opera, who can be credited with taking traditional raqs beledi, a folkloric dance, and changing it to create modern day belly dance.

Turkish: Turkish style belly dance is lively and dramatic, due to influences from traditional Romany folk dance, which also embodies that same spirited nature. Distinctions of Turkish style belly dance include small hops, kicks with the feet, spins, and prominent use of floorwork. Turkish dancers are also more likely to play zills, then Egyptian dancers who are more likely to be backed by a full orchestra, thus negating the need to play a musical instrument themselves. In terms of costuming, Turkish costuming originally included heavy use of long fringe, which has in more recent years given way to more risque trends marked by reveling splits in chiffon skirts and sultry cutouts, which is likely due in large part to the influence of the costume designers Bella and Sim Moda Evi. Dancers who perform this style include Didem Kenali and Ruby Beh.

American Cabaret: As the name implies, American Cabaret is a style developed in the U.S. Dating back to approximately the 1950s and 1960s, this style of dance, drew from vintage Egyptian dancing, but also drew a good deal from fantasy and artistic license to bring to life American ideas of exotic orientalism. This style of dance was also influenced by necessity. Dance sets in the U.S. used to be much longer than they are today, with dancers frequently performing for up to 45 minutes at a time and thus needing more elements to incorporate into their performances to maintain variety and keep audience attention. Thus, American Cabaret utilizes props much more heavily than its Middle Eastern style counterparts. Veil work and draping became a prominent feature of American Cabaret. Whereas in Egyptian belly dance, the dancer typically only enters with the veil, swirls it around a few times, and then discards it; American Cabaret frequently features elaborate veil wraps and technically advanced veil work. Sword dancing was also an American Cabaret invention, and in more recent years, this style has also added other props like Isis wings and fan veils. Belly rolls and flutters, and even coin tricks, also became a prominent feature of this style. Early American Cabaret also set the precedent for the standard five part belly dance set: upbeat intro with finger cymbals, a slow taqsim potentially including use of veil or floorwork, another upbeat or possibly folkloric song, a drum solo, and an exit piece.  Dancers who perform this style in include Delilah of Seattle and Suhaila Salimpour.

Tribal: Tribal belly dance is also an American invention. The key distinction of tribal style belly dance is the use of group improvisation as created by Carolena Nericcio of FatChanceBellyDance, using inspiration from Jamila Salimpour and her troupe, Bal Anat, as well as Jamila's student, Masha Archer. Carolena's creation became known as American Tribal Style. Group improvization involves one dancer using predertermined cues to signal to the rest of the group the combination of movements that they should perform, with the lead dancer rotating throughout the group during the performance. Offshoots were developed later by other dancers, such as Improvisational Tribal Style (ITS) created by Amy Sigil of Unmata. Tribal style belly dance has very unique and distinct costuming, which includes voluminous skirts and pantaloons and heavy ethnic jewelry, frequently reminiscent of Kuchi tribal jewelry (nomadic Pashtoon tribes near the borders of Afghanistan and Pakistan), and often also includes decorative hairpieces and dark, smoky makeup.

Fusion: Fusion belly dance is a melting pot category for what's left over, and as the name implies, typically involves fusing belly dance with some other type of dance. Fusion belly dance could easily be broken down into further sub-categories, such as tribal fusion, goth belly dance, steampunk belly dance, hula hoop belly dance, and on and on. Examples of this include former Bellydance Superstar member, Sabah, who fuses belly dance with ballet on pointe. Or another former Bellydance Superstar, Rachel Brice, who performs her own unique style of tribal fusion, complete with amazing Turkish drops.

Folkloric: Folkloric dance is not actually belly dance.  In my opinion, folkloric dance is its own genre of dance, and thus a miscategorization to list it here. However, I wanted to include it to make that important distinction. Folkloric dancing refers to the simple dances performed by and for the people in any given country of origin. The dances are typically simple in nature so that they can be executed by people who are not trained professional dancers. They are also typically dances that date back many years and originally involved traditional styles of dress. Examples of these styles of dances are the Moroccan guedra, Egyptian fellaheen, and the Lebanese debke. I would also put Egyptian beledi in this category and not under the umbrella of belly dance. Folkloric dances can also be turned into theatrical folkloric dance, which is taking the basic components of a folkloric dance and adding additional non-traditional embellishes and choreography to make it really capture and hold the attention of an audience. Mahmoud Reda and the Reda Troupe were a prime example of this. You can read about Reda and his world-famous troupe here.

Whether you agree with my classifications or not, I think one fact is undebatable: belly dancers are a creative bunch. New fusions styles and influences are created all the time. In recent years, there has been considerable influence coming from Russia, with the formidable Dariya Mistskevich leading the way. Maybe someday Russian will be recognized as its own style of belly dance. Only time will tell.

Photo Credit: Ruby Beh

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Is Belly Dance Anti-Feminist?

In the last year or so, the concept of feminism and who is or isn't a feminist has garnered quite a bit of media play. Female celebrities, like Shailene Woodley and Taylor Swift, have come out and said that they aren't feminists or don't identify with the term. Additionally, for the first time in U.S. history, the rights and beliefs of corporations were allowed to precede the rights and beliefs of individuals in the realm of women's health care choices. Adding more fuel to the fire, we somewhat recently crossed the 40th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, when all the while, the term "war on women" was being slung back and forth across the aisles of congress. Fast forwarding to just last week, Patricia Arquette lobbied for equal pay and rights for women in her Oscar acceptance speech, only to be later decried by certain cultural subsections, that she apparently didn't do it correctly.

Yes, it's been an intense time for women. Which started me thinking about how belly dance fits into all of this. Whether directly or indirectly, I think all belly dancers at some time or another have been looked down on as being engaged in some low-brow type of profession, only one step up from strippers and prostitutes. Of course, this varies greatly by country, with these type of stereotypes existing heavily in certain parts of the world and less so in others. But I don't think that in any country, do belly dancers ever really escape fully from under this umbrella when viewed by society at large.  This in turn puts belly dancers in a societal category that may potentially not represent a position of empowerment for women. Which made me question: is there any truth to this?

Is dancing around in a form-fitting, abdomen and cleavage revealing costume degrading to women? Is getting paid based on a presentation of one's body, in conjunction with the custom of accepting body tips, a step backward for women? Does the realm of women's equality have room for gyrating hips and shoulder shimmies? Is a women who presents herself this way in public asking to be objectified and stereotyped? Is she reinforcing ideas that a woman's value resides solely in exterior beauty?

In short, is belly dance anti-feminist?

To answer this, I think we need to start at square one. What actually is feminism? I personally believe that many of the starlets who have come out and said that they aren't feminists is due to not having a correct understanding what that word really means, and instead associating the label with negative connotations that have accumulated around it. Per Webster's dictionary, feminism is "the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities."


That's it. Pretty simple. Some people may have come to mistakenly believe that feminism or a feminist is a bra-burning, man-hater, who wants women to rise to the top at the expense of men. While I'm sure that there are some women out there who feel this way, that's not the true definition of feminism. Let's now laser down onto this definition of feminism in the context of belly dance. Thus when asking if belly dance is anti-feminist, I'm really asking, is belly dance acting against the equal rights and opportunities of women?

While some of the initial answers to the questions I posed above might lean toward the answer of yes, especially by those not intimately involved in belly dance or the belly dance community, I believe that the deeper, underlying answers are all resounding nos.  And I think that it all comes back to that concept of equality. Equality is just that: equal at all times and in all respects. It's the exact opposite of what one of the characters in George Orwell's Animal Farm famously said, "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others." Women aren't equal only when they choose to engage in certain "condoned" and "respected" activities. They are, and should be considered, equal all the time. Thus, a dancer on stage is just as equal as a mother at home with her children. A woman in a revealing outfit is just as equal as a women covering all of her skin. Belly dancers stand up for this idea of equality at all times and in all circumstances by refusing to let any negative connotations or stereotypes stand in their way, and instead hold fast in their dedication to, and passion for, their art form.

I also believe that in addition to this argument, belly dance is actually very pro-feminist based on the way it makes women who engage in it feel. Belly dance provides an outlet for creative expression for women of all ages, sizes and nationalities. Frankly, there aren't many dance genres out there where this is a true statement. From first-hand experience and from observing other dancers, I believe that belly dance fosters confidence and self-esteem in women, as performing gives women an opportunity and a platform to stand up in front of a room full of people and command their attention and their respect. Overall, I see belly dancers as a very confident and empowered group of women, who don't care what society's standards may think of them. They believe they have the right, and take advantage of the opportunity, to present and express themselves as they deem fitting through their art form. They embrace their bodies and aren't afraid to tastefully reveal them, knowing that a women's body isn't inherently sinful, nor does it require covering because someone else said so. They know that beauty isn't one size fits all and that they don't need to conform to a certain mold to feel good in their own skin. Through their practice, teaching and performance, they take time out of their day to focus on themselves and what brings them joy, rather than just executing the tasks that conventional society may say a woman "should" be doing.

I think one of the most important tenants of feminism is respecting each other's choices and realizing that feminism means the freedom to pick the life of your choosing and still command respect and equality, whether that means being a dancer, mother, or executive. Whether that means wearing a dance costume, a power suit, a bikini, sweatpants, or nothing at all. And I see belly dance as intrinsically part of this choice and part of a woman's right to be who she feels called to be.

Yes, I truly believe that belly dance is one step on the long and winding ladder to elevate women up toward equality. So to my sisters in dance I say, dance long and proud. You are beautiful. You are equal. You are valuable. You are a feminist.

Photo Credit: Unknown