New Communities, Performance and Identity
Edited by Caitlin E. McDonald and Barbara Sellers-Young
McFarland & Co Inc. (2013)
This is a new academic book about belly dance, which I found thought provoking and very useful for my own PhD about raks sharqi. I recommend it not only for people who have an academic interest in the subject, but also for anyone who is passionate about this dance genre. Belly dancing has only recently started attracting interest on the part of researchers and it is great to see an in depth interest in this art form from the sociological and cultural point of view. The book is worth buying, not only because of its contents, but also because the proceeding go to the charity Women for Women, which helps women in war torn countries to rebuild their lives.
The book is a collection of essays written by scholars who are belly dance practitioners, as well as being involved in academia, and who have done research in the areas of performing arts and/or Middle Eastern studies. The editors are Caitlin McDonald and Barbara Sellers-Young. Caitlin McDonald has been involved in belly dancing for many years and holds a PhD on that subject from the University of Exeter, in the UK. Her PhD thesis has been published in a book with the title: Global Moves: Belly Dance as an Extra/Ordinary Space to Explore Social Paradigms in Egypt and Around the World. Although her starting point for this thesis was Egypt, as a country that is often romanticised by raqs sharqi enthusiasts around the world, it then focuses on how this dance form has spread throughout the world and generated a world belly dance community. Barbara Sellers-Young is a professor in the Department of Dance in York University, Toronto. She has written extensively, academic papers and books, about dance, theatre and movement, as well as belly dancing. A book she has co-written on this dance form, together with Anthony Shay, is Belly Dance: Orientalism, Transnationalism, And Harem Fantasy .
Belly Dance Around the World focuses on a dance form that originated as a solo improvisational form in Northern Africa and the Middle East, which has spread in the last two centuries all over the world. With its transmission across locations and cultures, belly dance has adapted to local understandings and needs, developing in many different forms. Hence, in its journey as far afield as America, New Zealand, Australia and Asia, it has developed new forms and styles, while retaining some common features in terms of the basic dance vocabulary. This books shows how, in spite of all the changes that belly dance has gone through, it still remains a very communicative art form and a dance genre mainly focused on community and on building cohesion between individuals.
Through the essays in this book, the reader will be able to see how different elements can influence changes in a dance genres, as it is transmitted across time and space. The book highlights elements such as the sense of community (both local and global); the way in which the internet has been used as a tool to connect belly dancers with each other; the role of travel and diasporas and how different cultures can influence the same dance form. This gives a picture of a dynamic cultural expression and it is a useful insight in how human traditions in general can develop and transform in a globally connected world. This book includes twelve essays, in addition to the introduction by Barbara Sellers-Young, written by various authors. Topics include different styles of belly dance in various countries and seen from different perspectives. Below I list the titles of the essays, with a brief summary of their contents.
This chapter is about what baladi means for young Egyptians today; about the perception of baladi dance in Egypt and how young Egyptians are rediscovering baladi, as part of their cultural identity, through its commercialisation.
This essay highlights the role of tarab (ecstasy) in Egyptian belly dance performances. The dancer is seen as the means through which emotions are embodied and transmitted in an almost physical way to the audience, who identify with the dancer on both emotional and cultural levels (as the music, and what it connects with, are part of the audience’s cultural heritage).
This is about Middle Eastern diasporas in Canada and how practising belly dance is connected with the sense of identity of women who live in Canada, but were either born in the Middle East or Northern Africa or are from Middle Eastern/Northern African descent. A group of women are interviewed and their points of view analysed.
In this essay the author analyses “how to” books from the 1970s, about belly dance. In the 1970s, belly dance was rediscovered in America for its fitness value and also as a form of activity that was in line with feminist ideals, as it was seen as liberating and helping women to appreciate their bodies whatever their shape or size. However, the author shows how these books imply some contradictions in the way femininity and this dance form are presented.
The authors in this essay highlight how women who practice belly dance in Australia and New Zealand appreciate this dance form for its healing effects. One of this article’s aims is to show how, being transmitted across cultures, dance is not only influenced by the cultures to which practitioners belong, but also by their individual and personal histories.
This essay focuses on American Tribal Style and how its practitioners all over the world feel a sense of connection to each other. They form a global ATS community, facilitated by the internet.
Tribal fusion belly dance is seen under the light of a feeling of nostalgia towards early 20th century vaudeville style in America and Europe. This is seen as a way of connecting belly dance with its western influence, so western dancers can also connect with it through their own heritage. TF still remains relevant and connected to other forms of belly dance, while expressing a different identity.
Pakeha are New Zealanders who are not of Maori descent and, for the author, belly dance represents a way for them to create their own national dance, which Maori people have but they do not. Belly dancing in New Zealand, therefore, has started incorporating elements from Maori culture, both in movements and costumes, becoming a new hybrid art form and a new expression of identity.
This is a brief history of how this dance genre has developed in England in the 1980s through the diverse influences of Suraya Hilal and Wendy Buonaventura. The author explains how these two women have shaped two parallel traditions for this dance form in England and how these traditions can influence practitioners today.
An essay about Delilah’s way of teaching, which connects this dance form with ecological ethos.
The author in this essay first traces a history of the role of belly dancing in Bollywood cinema and how it is linked to a certain type of female role. She then compares the representations of this dance genre in the movies, with claims made by instructors of this dance form in the media and how these can unwittingly reinforce patriarchal mentality.
This last essay in the book focuses on Second Life, an internet platform that allows people to lead a virtual life. The author has researched how belly dancers use this platform to connect to other practitioners in the virtual world, as well as in the real world.