Thoughts From A White Belly Dancer: Why Appreciating Another Culture’s Art May Still Be Seen As Offensive

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I am very white. My DNA is a combo of the most average of Midwestern blends. The closest genetic non northern European member of my family tree is a grandmother of watered down Cherokee descent and another one with a French maiden name. I have ash blond hair, blue green eyes and could easily have posed for Ruben. I also practice Raqs Sharqi, otherwise known as belly dance.

I spent my 20s teaching abroad, which gave me a chance to participate in and appreciate many cultural events. My job description usually included phrases like “developing strong relationships with local communities through foreign language education and international exchange activities.” Some of these initiatives were wonderful, immersive learning experiences and others were zoo-like exhibition aimed at showcasing stereotypes. It really depended on who was sponsoring the activity and how much input the teaching community had. I was uplifted and offended during my globetrotting years which led me to wonder where exactly the line between cultural appreciation and appropriation should be drawn, or if it could even be demarcated at all.

Randa Jarrar wrote an article on Raqs Sharqi in March that blew up the media sphere and reignited the appropriation vs appreciation debate. The title of her piece, Why I Can’t Stand White Belly Dancers: Whether they know it or not, white women who practice belly dance are engaging in appropriation, was published in Salon as part of a collection of essays by feminists of color. After its debut, the article garnered such backlash that Jarrar was prompted to pen a follow up, I Still Can’t Stand White Belly Dancers: My Salon essay generated a lot of hateful responses. Let’s walk through the criticisms one by one.

Both articles were written in a tone that is more colloquial than academic. They are pure opinion pieces that happened to have gone viral. The interesting thing is that Jarrar has done other articles on what many people would consider much hotter topics (the Boston Bomber, unconstitutional deportation attempts by the US government and her illegal detention in Israel to name a few). However, it is these two personal essays on dancing that everyone seems to be losing it over.

The titles of the essays cover the basic berth of her thesis. In her original article she states, “Many white women who presently practice belly dance are continuing this century-old tradition of appropriation, whether they are willing to view their practice this way or not.” (It should be noted she didn’t write all white women, but many.) Either way, appropriation was the theme of her pieces. It made a lot of people uncomfortable at the very least. So, what exactly does this push-button word mean?

Well there isn’t a definitive answer, which makes the debate flame on. Cultural appropriation is a relatively new term for a practice that can be argued is as old as humankind. If you do a quick internet search of the word, you will get a broad spectrum of definitions associated with it. All in all it tends to be described as the act of borrowing aspects of another culture. Often implying that they are being stolen in the process. It depends on how negatively this is viewed, who is doing the borrowing and what they are borrowing it for, that leads to this practice’s level of offensiveness.

Cultural appropriation is rooted in and sometimes mistaken for colonial appropriation, which comes from the concept of colonialization. This is where one group steals the property of another’s, leaving the colonized group to no longer have any physical ownership of their original property. The British Empire’s colonization of India from 1857-1947 is an example of this practice.

While cultural appropriation is the borrowing of a tradition, wherein the original source culture still maintains rights to their tradition, but the appropriators may still offend by reinstating negative stereotypes that affect the source group. Blackface is an example of cultural appropriation. It can be argued though that tap dancing (which is usually cited as being a combo of Juba dancing, Irish stepdancing and English Lancashire Clog dancing) is also a form of cultural appropriation. Most people wouldn’t place tap into the same category as blackface though. Why is that?

I would debate that tap dancing falls more under the category of cultural appreciation. Cultural appreciation is the study and interpretation of another culture’s traditions. The source culture retains its original rights and the appreciative group is respectful and learns from the experience. Sometimes the group adopts and adapts aspects of the source culture. This fusion can create new traditions. (Sounds like tap to me.)

So, what’s the difference between blackface and tap dancing? The level of offensiveness and the people who are borrowing/interpreting the traditions. Since tap was created by a non-dominant group, it is seen as less threatening. Is this always the case? One of the main fears behind cultural appropriation is that once the item in question is removed from its original context it can diverge from, or be less nuanced than, the source culture intended. Is this only when its roots are traced to a minority group, or does it depend on how sacred the item is? If so, who decided on the level of offensiveness? Is it a personal choice? Who defines what a minority group is?

Now, clogging and step dancing may look like a bunch of white people hopping about stone-faced in exaggerated costumes, but both art forms have significant historical/political claims. Step Dancing may have originated on the Emerald Isle before Christianity hit it. (The exact dates are unknown.) The Gauls were later assimilated into the Gallo-Roman Empire and lost their tribal identity. Of course this happened roughly around the 1st century AD.

While, Tap dancing started in the plantation fields of the Deep South and then wound its way to the jazz scene, eventually splintering into two main categories; Rhythmic and Broadway. Ironically, coming full circle so that many stepper and clogger progeny are now more likely to have taken a tap class than one that is aligned with their cultural heritage.

So, am I offended, as the descendant of Irish stepdancers, that my ancestors’ art form was appropriated, or more likely appreciated, and then used to help influence a new one? Have I lost some of my tribal roots? Yes. Could I choose to be offended by tap dance? Yes. Am I? No, I think it’s great. Here’s the thing though, I’m also a white woman living in 2014 in the USA. I choose not to be offended because my tribe lost its original identity so long ago that it merged with others and is now lumped in with the dominant one. It is my inheritance whether I like it or not. Were my people enslaved, degraded and discriminated in the past? Most likely yes. Does that make it less tragic? No, but it’s in the distant past. Jarrar’s cultural issues are in the present.

It’s practically inevitable that cultures that interact with each other will adopt/adapt traditions from each other. This is very true in the case of Raqs Sharqi and Raqs Baladi. These are the formal and informal Arabic terms for belly dance, but they go by many other names depending on the part of the world you’re in. Would I know that if I hadn’t been practicing them from three years? Probably not. I’ve learned more about the Middle East from my interest in their art.

Here’s the funny thing though, I happen to have grown up in the company of many white belly dancers. My stepfather is originally from Greece. These Greek-American ladies who performed at social events were amply built. Though it can be argued whether or not Greeks are “white” they’re usually not seen as Arab either. Jingling about, they definitely put the “belly” in belly dancing as they shimmied their way around wedding venues and social Halls. These memories are the main reasons I had no problem taking up the practice when I was searching for a low impact exercise.

Three years ago, my yoga studio started offering an intro to belly dance class. I remembered the performances I’d witnessed in my youth and thought it would be a fun way to work in some cardio. I never dreamed of performing, or participating in brownface. I considered it another cultural exchange I could learn from. When I lived abroad, I often participated in similar activities. Some positive side effects of my starting this practice are that it has given me a community and sisterhood with a wide mix of people, a higher degree of fitness and a sense of empowerment.

In her articles Jarrar never mentions non-white, non-Arab belly dancers. (Several members of my class fall into this category.) Are they guilty of appropriation, or does their non-white/ non-dominate status negate them from the discussion? Also, is there a time limit on appropriation, can it transcend into appreciation? The Greeks have been practicing Raqs Sharqi for nearly 2,000 years. Are they still “stealing” culture at this point?

In her follow up essay, Jarrar states that she was targeted as being an angry Arab. Much of her hate mail surrounded comments she made in her original essay’s conclusion. One such declaration included, “But, here’s the thing. Arab women are not vessels for white women to pour themselves and lose themselves in; we are not bangles or eyeliner or tiny bells on hips. We are human beings.” Here Jarrar is pinpointing, all be it in an inflammatory tone, a fetishization that has swept some of the dance world. She basically laments that white belly dancers have hijacked an Arab art form and are systematically coopting it and turning out a bunch of Princess Jasmine impersonators in the process. Does that mean that all white belly dancers fall into this category? She herself stated that her thesis applied to many white belly dancers.

Jarra goes on to conclude, “This dance form is originally ours, and does not exist so that white women can have a better sense of community; can gain a deeper sense of sisterhood with each other; can reclaim their bodies; can celebrate their sexualities; can perform for the female gaze. Just because a white woman doesn’t profit from her performance doesn’t mean she’s not appropriating a culture. And, ultimately, the question is this: Why does a white woman’s sisterhood, her self-reclamation, her celebration, have to happen on Arab women’s backs?”

What if it’s not happening on an Arab woman’s back, but by her side? What if it furthers exchange and education? Practicing Raqs Sharqi has led me to study more about the cultures that created this art form. My class is a ragtag multicultural group. Our size and shapes vary greatly. We have a lot of fun together. We perform as a troupe once, or twice a year. We don’t perform for money. We don’t kohl our eyes, or sport stage names. We do wear billowing skirts/ pants, but so do traditional Arab dancers. Some folks choose to bare their midriffs, but that’s more of a practicality because we happen to inhabit a very small space and it gets really hot when you’re shaking it all about.

Our dress isn’t traditional, but we also dance to a wide range of performers who even include Missy Elliot. I’m not sure in this debate if our clothing and music choices would be deemed more or less offensive. I view them as an evolution, like in the case of tap dancing, instead of as a spinoff of a sheik show. The intentions of our practice are that it be simply an act of joy and a celebration of a cultural exchange. Is that white privilege in its most insidious incarnation? Members of my troupe consider their practice a form of appreciation and interpretation. I would agree, but concede that we could also still be offending Jarrar and like-minded others.

Who is it that gets to deem acts as appreciative, or appropriative? It may always fall into the gray space. The best way I can explain Jarrar’s side of the appropriation vs appreciation debate comes from my time in rural Japan. I taught at a public middle school that happened to have an excellent music program. At a spring concert they did an awesome rendition of Amazing Grace. I was unexpectedly unnerved by their performance. At the time, I wasn’t a practicing Christian, but I had been raised in the United Methodist faith. Amazing Grace is an old standard in every UMC hymnal. The origins of the song and its author are controversial. It held an uneasy meaning in my heart.

When asked my opinion of the performance by my students, I was honest in that I praised their singing technique. I inquired about what led them to choose a hymn of all things. Apparently, it was the theme song on a very popular, Japanese medical drama. I then explained the song’s history. They were shocked to find out that the same hymn was never supposed to be sung in a US public middle school and that it was a highly religious ballad. Even after my explanation they were still blissfully unaware that their song choice could be misconstrued and performed it for a regional competition. My students definitely appreciated the song as a piece of art, but none-the-less, even as a non-practicing Christian I was offended. Their performance was well executed, but it still bothered me because the meaning was lost. When I related this experience with a peer from a similar background she didn’t have the same reaction to it. Was I just being too sensitive?

Maybe that’s the crux of Jarrar’s argument. Even the purest appreciation of Raqs Sharqi could also be deemed a white washing, wherein the best intentions miss the mark completely, ultimately, accidentally desecrating the sacred. The question remains though how do we demark this in a melting pot, or even can we? TC mark

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