by Luna

by Luna

Luna

Luna

Blog Intro

Hello, I'm Luna, and I'd like to welcome you to "Kisses from Kairo,"* my blog about living and working as an American belly dancer in Cairo.

Life in Cairo isn't easy for dancers, foreigners, women, or even Egyptians. It is, however, always exciting. That’s why after living here for seven years, I've decided to share my experiences with the world. From being contracted at the Semiramis Hotel to almost being deported, not a day has gone by without something odd or magical happening. I will therefore fill these pages with bits of my history in Cairo—my experiences, successes, mistakes, and observations. Admittedly, my time here has been rather unique, so I want to stress that while everything I write is true, my experiences do not necessarily reflect the lives of other dancers.

In addition to my life as a belly dancer, I will write about developments in costuming, performances, festivals, and, of course, the dance itself. I will also make frequent references to Egyptian culture. I should note that I have a love/hate relationship with Egypt. If I make any criticisms about the country, please keep in mind that I do so with the utmost love, respect, and most of all, honesty. Egypt has become my home, so I want to avoid romanticizing and apologizing for social maladies, as most foreigners tend to do. Nothing could be more misguided, patronizing, or insulting.

I hope you find this blog informative, insightful and entertaining, and that we can make this as interactive as possible. That means I'd love to hear from you. Send me your comments, questions, complaints, suggestions, pics, doctoral dissertations, money, etc., and I will get back to you. Promise. :)~



My Videos

Saturday, October 20, 2012

From Ballet to Belly

I’ve forgotten the names of all of my elementary and high school teachers, but one name that will remain with me till the day I die is Dorothy Lister.  Dorothy Lister was my ballet teacher at the Joffrey Ballet School in New York City.  I studied--more like suffered--under her tutelage until the age of 15ish, at which point she quit the Joffrey, and I quit ballet. 

Miss Dorothy was, oh, just your average ballet nazi. :) Old enough to be my grandmother, she was a stickler for discipline and had zero tolerance for lazy feet, lifeless limbs, and other similar ballet crimes.  And she’d punish us too.  Whenever she caught us slacking off at the barre, she would angrily clap her hands and let out a shrill “STOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOP!!!”  At which point the class, the piano player, and all of 6th Avenue would freeze in frightened paralysis. She would then sarcastically imitate our mistakes to show us how dumb we looked, and literally yank our body parts into the correct position.  Miss Dorothy always ended these torturous episodes with her signature dirty look, which masked her grin of sadistic satisfaction.  She’d then carry on with class.  
 
Being that I was never prima ballerina material, Miss Dorothy and I had many, many of these episodes.  I remember one incident in particular in which she embarrassed the pointe shoes off me.  We were doing triple pirouettes across the floor, on pointe.  It was my turn to spin, and though I got off to a good start, I landed flat on my tush.  As if that wasn't embarrassing enough, Miss Dorothy then ripped the flowery hair tie off my head in front of the whole class.  Talk about traumatizing.  Especially at the vulnerable age of 14 or whatever I was.  She then barked that the reason I fell was because I didn’t spot my head, because I didn’t want my hair tie to fly off.  She was right.  

Those were the days when dance class was more like boot camp.  We reported to class 6 days a week.  We got corrected, yelled at, insulted, and sometimes even slapped.  We were told we were too fat, too skinny, too this or too that.  We learned discipline through the dread of Miss Dorothy.  We thought she hated us and thought we hated her, but deep down inside, we knew she loved us as much as we loved her.  Most importantly, we became better ballerinas because of her. 

You see, Miss Dorothy was a true artist.  For her, ballet was more important than anyone’s psychological wellbeing.  She was more interested in making sure the right people danced than in massaging her students’ egos.  There was no concept of “sisterhood.”  Interestingly, she got results.  Many of the girls who studied with her went on to perform in the most prestigious ballet companies.  Those who weren’t good enough, on the other hand, were told so.  They had the option of either quitting or continuing dance recreationally.  But performing?  Never.  In the ballet world, performing is a privilege, not a right.  The stage picks its performers, not the other way around.  Actually, this is true of most genres of dance.  Seriously.  I mean, have you ever seen weak hip-hop dancers in any music video?  

What dug Miss Dorothy up from the trenches of my memory is my ongoing exposure to the international belly dance scene. After seeing every type of “interpretative dance” imaginable being taught and performed in the name of belly dance, I’ve come to the conclusion that belly dance suffers from a serious lack of Miss Dorothyism.  

Don’t get me wrong.  I think it’s great that belly dance has become so popular around the world, especially since it is dying in Egypt.  And the feminist in me is all for sisterhood, female empowerment, and artistic license—all things lacking in the Egyptian belly dance community.  However, the purist in me is yearning for a Miss Dorothy to set things straight.  I mean, this goes way beyond bad technique.  We’ve reached the point at which we’re doing belly dance to American pop music.  We’re wearing black Playtex bras and spandex pants, jamming to the latest movie soundtrack and calling it belly dance.  We’re putting bindis on our foreheads and balancing everything but the kitchen sink on our heads.  And I'm wondering, why?

Let me make it clear that this is NOT yet another rant against the more established fusions such as Tribal and American Tribal Style (ATS), which have a codified technique, stage-worthy costumes, and have become independent dances in their own right.  I appreciate the depth of “the dark side” and am actually itching to try it.  Nor is this an attack on other types of ethnic fusions in which the performer exhibits a mastery of the dances she’s fusing, as well as appropriate costuming.  What I don’t get are all the careless mumbo-jumbo mish-mosh confusions I previously described.  The dancers who have limited to no technical foundation in any dance form who then jiggle their stuff to the latest hip-hop hit wearing Playtex bras and coin belts.  And then call it belly dance.  I mean, why not just do straight up hip-hop?  

(Don't get me started on the older generation of dancers who know better yet still produce and teach this kind of garbage.)

I know we Americans are all about creativity, and that’s generally a good thing.  It’s one of the reasons we’re a superpower (if I’m allowed to use that word to describe America).  However I think we’re taking it a little too far when it comes to belly dance.  Yes, technically we’re “creating” when we come up with our own homemade concoctions, but not all creations are created equal.  Some are just plain bad.  Creative evolution or fusion of any dance(s) should be based on a thorough knowledge of the mother dance(s)…as was the evolution of modern dance from ballet… as was the evolution of ATS from belly dance.  

There’s also something to be said for mastering an already established art form without necessarily creating a new “genre”…

I realize that there’s a market element to all of this.  Novelty sells. Whoever starts the latest craze winds up making and selling DVDs as well as the music and props that go along with it.  As my younger brother, of all people, painfully reminded me, this is what’s in demand these days.  To quote him directly:  “Why don’t you get your @$$ out of Egypt and start belly dancing to techno music here.  You could make mad money doing that.”  Exactly.  I could make “mad money” reinventing a dance that was never mine to reinvent in the first place.  I think I’ll continue being a starving artist, thank you very much. 

So why do we belly dancers feel the need to confuse belly dance with everything else?  What’s wrong with good old fashioned belly dance?  Is it too foreign?  Too difficult?  Is it not impressive enough?  Is it too sexy?  Not sexy enough?  Have we grown bored with it?  Have we even mastered it to the point where we’d have the right to be bored?  How many of us can dance to Um Kulthoum, or know how to interpret a mawal? (How many of us even know who Um Kulthoum was or what a mawal is?) And why are we dancing to American music?  Is Arabic music inferior?  Or do we just not understand it?  Are we not being taught properly by trained professionals who have studied and/or performed in the Middle East?  Are we too busy becoming instant super stars to invest time into learning the music, language and culture of the dance?  Are we content to fool our audiences because after all, the dance hasn’t gone mainstream and no one will know the difference anyway?  And then blame it on the “short attention span” of American audiences?

I think one of the biggest reasons we get away with all this garbage is that there are no authoritative institutions to define our dance, let alone set high standards and bring it into the mainstream.  We still don’t have the equivalent of a Joffrey Ballet or an Alvin Ailey.  There are also very few Miss Dorothy (and Simon from American Idol) types being honest with students about their potential. No one to tell us we’re too this or too that.  There are, however, too many of us looking for instant fame and fortune.

If there’s one reason for hope, it’s the fact that belly dance has made it to the universities.  Yes, most of the belly dance that is currently happening on the American campus is confusion, but perhaps some serious-minded students will approach the dance with the same academic rigor and integrity with which they approach the more traditional subjects.  Perhaps they will take the time to learn about the music.  Maybe even learn a little Arabic.  Because belly dance is inextricably linked to Arabic language and culture.  One really does have to have some level of familiarity with the culture to dance properly.    

Though I have nothing against people experimenting with art, I think we need to make a distinction between dance that’s worthy of the living room, and dance that’s worthy of the stage.  Especially since there’s already so much misinformation about belly dance and the Middle East.  This why I sincerely hope more women take a genuine interest in the traditional styles of belly dance.  Obviously, I’m biased towards Egyptian style, but there's also Turkish and Lebanese and even American cabaret.  The reason I love Egyptian style is because I find it extremely rich in technique, expression and emotion.  From Abd il-Halim to Abd il-Baset, there’s an enormous range of diversity in this genre that just doesn’t exist in our homemade fusions.  Not to mention all the different folkloric styles.  That alone should be enough to motivate us to take the dance seriously and do it justice.  

We shouldn’t need a Miss Dorothy to frighten us into dancing correctly, nor should belly dance class have to feel like boot camp.  Belly dance is much more enjoyable than ballet, and shouldn’t need that “do or die” approach to motivate us.  For the time being, however, I think a bit of that ballet-style discipline wouldn’t be a bad idea.  Or maybe I’m just spending too much time in Cairo, the only place where you don’t get a chance to dance unless you meet certain artistic and aesthetic standards.  But that’s how it is with every other dance around the planet.  Why should belly dance be any different? 

25 comments:

  1. This has just depressed me a lot. I'm an Egyptian-style belly dance student, and all of my previous choreographies have been to Egyptian music, and I literally just posted on my BD blog about how I'm worried about the solo I'm currently choreographing, which is to a western song!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. LOL! Don't be depressed! :) You are obviously an educated dancer who's just experimenting with something new. That's cool. My comments were more directed towards those who have limited knowledge of any real belly dance style and then make up their own. Most importantly, these are just my views. I'm sure others would disagree, so you don't have to take anything I say as gospel. Thanks for commenting and have fun dancing. :)

      Delete
    2. I am certainly only a recreational dancer. My teachers, however both seem to be very invested in teaching the culture, language, and history of the dance (as much as anyone can know to be true about ancient things)as an integral piece of their classes.

      I get a little confused about "fakeloric" moves and props which are readily accepted as "ok" in belly dance, and costumes and fusions which are NOT.

      I also understand your distress about people adopting rather different approaches, throwing them on a stage and calling them belly dance. I think, largely any dance people want to do is fine: just Label it appropriately. There seems to be this urge to protect the integrity of an already largely misundersttod form of expression.

      While, I also understand, and to some degree agree with what you're saying, I keep coming back to the idea that truely "authentic" middle eastern dance was never meant for the stage to begin with. Again, at what point and under whose authority does an adaptation become ok?

      Now for the personal part: As an older, plus size dancer who has finally found an outlet for my NEED to dance, something about your post triggered a panic reaction. I feel like if SOMEONE were given the authority to tell me I don't move right, don't dress right, and don't look right and therefore simply do not and will never belong on stage, that would be a severe blow to my SELF. I don't think anyone has the right to put limits on someone else's joy.

      Delete
    3. Haha, okay. It's exam time for me at the moment, so I'm mentally drained and feeling very insecure and fragile about everything, haha! Just another week and I'll be back to my happy dancey self :)

      Delete
    4. I feel ya. Good luck with exams!

      Delete
    5. @Anonymous, thanks for your comment. I agree this dance was never meant for the stage, and that our staging it has a lot to do with the blunders I was talking about. Regarding what you said about your right to perform, I can understand how you feel. However, other dance forms do exactly what you don;t like--tell people who has the "right" to perform and who doesn't. I see how that can be a major blow to a person's sense of self, but then maybe we shouldn't be looking for self-validation in dance? Or, rather, on the stage. I don't know, I have old-school ballet mentality, so that's where I'm coming from. Thanks for sharing your thoughts though, and keep dancing. :)

      Delete
  2. Hi Luna,

    I love this post and am in complete agreement with you.

    Although my approach is not like Miss Dorothy's or the stereotypical ballet style, I do try and instill a respect for our artform and discipline for the study of our artform in the class I teach.

    For me and my curriculum, I feel there is some wiggle room for using American music to choreograph belly dance to, but beieve it is the artistic exception - and not the rule - and only available once a dancer has earned her "stripes" and can thoroughly demonstrate her ability to dance / choreograph / perform to authentic Middle Eastern music in the appropriate style (ie: Egyptian music, Egyptian style dance).

    From a business standpoint, I do think there are ways to manage the performance issue. I have a school with about 100 students at this time. I hold four performance opportunities a year. Beginning and intermediate students are welcome to perform in group and class dances. Soloists must audition for a solo spot and demonstrate proficiency at their artform.

    The mission of my dance curriculum is to create artists and the best dancers in my area. To put my money where my mouth is, I have two paid for soloists spots at our prestigious Annual Awards Banquet and Show. Each slot pays $50 and requires 7 to 8 minutes (soon to be 10!!!). The auditions are performed in front of the ensemble team and the team gets to cast their vote as to whether the audition was paid-for performance worthy. I also cast my vote (which is the deciding factor).

    It's the way I balance the business need for dancers who want to perform to have a goal and work for it and the protect the artform.

    Right now, it's working :) Alhamdulillah

    Hugs and happy shimmies,
    Raksanna

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Wow Raksanna. What an interesting and creative and effective approach to teaching. Good for you. I like the idea of having auditions and then having people vote.

      I also agree that there is wiggle room for non-Arabic music, but that it should be the exception, not the rule. The problem is that in the States, it's become the rule. This is what prompted me to write this. I hope more teachers can use your approach or something similar as an example. I think it strikes a perfect balance between creating good artists, on the one hand, and being nice, on the other. Thanks for sharing. :)

      Delete
    2. Oriental dance has been impacted by influences from Morocco all the way to India. The Modern Egyptian style is one part (albeit large one) of Oriental Dance.

      Delete
  3. It's so funny, once again you read my mind. :D Altough I never danced ballet (but I wish I did because I simply adore it!), I have been trough 16 years of piano playing, giving recitals, practicing for 6, 7 hours per day and let me tell you, nothing has taught me more discipline and, even more important, more respect for traditional styles and good old hard core work in art, and that's precisely what these wannabe bellydancers all around the world lack. I dream of a day when a proper belly dance academy will exist, only I'm not sure if I will live to see the day. :)
    Cheers,
    Zinka

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Zinka, glad we're on the same page. You're right, there's no substitute for good old fashioned hard work. Don't know what about this dance makes people think it's the exception. I too am hoping a proper belly dance academy will be founded. Let's not hold our breaths though. LOL.

      Delete
  4. Thanks, Luna. You just clarified some of the questions in my mind about what's going on and why. I haven't been able to verbalize what it is that has been irritating me so much about the belly dance as we so often see it now. This helped a bit. Of course there is the oddity of dancers here (in the USA) so often being our own primary audience. I think that plays a very significant role in the why dancers feel the need to do something different all the time without necessarily learning to do one thing well. I keep ending up with the thought that they - the belly dance and the new stuff dance - are becoming less and less a part of the same thing. Sure wish I could articulate this better - it's been driving me crazy!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I totally understand what you're saying. The fact that 90% of the time we're performing for other dancers makes us want to impress and outshine one another-- so much so that we're going beyond the traditional boundaries and doing weird stuff. It's so interesting being here in Egypt though, where 99% of the time, I'm performing for regular people, be they Egyptian or foreign. None of that fusion or prop work would cut it here. There's no substitute for good dancing.

      Delete
  5. Hi Luna,

    I love this post and am in complete agreement with you.

    Although my approach is not like Miss Dorothy's or the stereotypical ballet style, I do try and instill a respect for our artform and discipline for the study of our artform in the class I teach.

    For me and my curriculum, I feel there is some wiggle room for using American music to choreograph belly dance to, but beieve it is the artistic exception - and not the rule - and only available once a dancer has earned her "stripes" and can thoroughly demonstrate her ability to dance / choreograph / perform to authentic Middle Eastern music in the appropriate style (ie: Egyptian music, Egyptian style dance).

    From a business standpoint, I do think there are ways to manage the performance issue. I have a school with about 100 students at this time. I hold four performance opportunities a year. Beginning and intermediate students are welcome to perform in group and class dances. Soloists must audition for a solo spot and demonstrate proficiency at their artform.

    The mission of my dance curriculum is to create artists and the best dancers in my area. To put my money where my mouth is, I have two paid for soloists spots at our prestigious Annual Awards Banquet and Show. Each slot pays $50 and requires 7 to 8 minutes (soon to be 10!!!). The auditions are performed in front of the ensemble team and the team gets to cast their vote as to whether the audition was paid-for performance worthy. I also cast my vote (which is the deciding factor).

    It's the way I balance the business need for dancers who want to perform to have a goal and work for it and the protect the artform.

    Right now, it's working :) Alhamdulillah

    Hugs and happy shimmies,
    Raksanna

    ReplyDelete
  6. If we had teachers who were half as strict as ballet teachers, belly dance in the US would be a lot better! I have also been thinking about this. If people don't want to do authentic belly dance, or find it boring, then don't do it. I have seen many people say they are doing "belly dance" just because they want to look sexy. To be honest, I don't have much of an attention span to watch those acts.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Exactly. If people don't want to be authentic, they shouldn't belly dance. There are so many other forms of dance out there. I too lack the ability to sit through these performances. They bore me to tears.

      Delete
  7. What I like most about your article you said "you would rather be a struggling artist than get paid lots of money" That means you have alot of respect for the art form and its background. Which I also interpret as you will never stop learning which means you may feel that not even you have mastered all of what cairo has to offer in terms of the "dance" as my mom would say to me "referring to myself" you havent even scratched the surface yet to be so big headed. One of the things I have seen is that when you talk about teachers even some of the teachers who were once students beleives in their minds that they are owed a certain dollar amount to perform as if somehow there's a price on belly dance. #1 what gives you the right to put a price on a dance? #2 where is the Belly dance court that certified you and told you , you yourself are even worth x amount of dollars and at what point does she or he beleives he's a star in his own right. Some of the BS that goes around just makes me laugh so hard. Which brings me to this if teachers cared half as much about their students learning the true art form meanwhile telling them "dont perform unless you get x amount of money for it" what does that say about the dance itself? When did we own this dance and put a price on it "us Americans" any who enough about that I just want to say thank you for your perspective thank you for being humble and thank you for not pimpin out the dance for a dollar. Last thing I dance classical egytpian and what warms my heart the most is when people ask me if I am egyptian and "why" its because they notice the dance and its authenticy when someone can look at me dance and say hey that's egyptian and not have to ask twice it means I'm headed in the right direction of my "goal" everyone has a goal and a dance style they like so I'm sure those out there can relate when someone recognizes the style and they too feel good about it

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for your comment, and for bringing up some really thought provoking questions. I too find the money aspect a little interesting. Here in Egypt, we perform for very little money. I personally have been attacked by other dancers for accepting such low pay for my work. My response to the person who attacked me was number 1, I'm NOT undercutting, it's just that my venue has always paid poorly and always will, and it's my right to accept that or not, and number 2, the joy I get from working at that venue, which respects and appreciates me, is worth far more to me than money.

      Which then reminded me of the concept of the starving artist. Many of the world's greatest artists lived in abject poverty and only became famous posthumously. So, you're right to ask what gives us a right to slap a price on the dance.

      Regarding who tells us we're worthy of the prices we charge.... well it seems that we're worth as much as people are willing to pay. But sometimes a lot of what people are willing to pay is determined by students who don't know any better, or who are deluded by all the promotional hype that said artist engages in. I think we all know famous belly dance teachers who charge an arm and a leg for their classes/workshops, but don't deserve it. They neither teach nor care. But just because they have a "big name," they demand big money and get it. This is what happens when we cater mainly to other dancers--when we teach and perform for western dancers, who, I'm sorry to say, don't always know a good dancer from a bad one. It's funny to see all the teachers who call themselves "stars" because they hop from country to country doing festivals. Yet they would never cut it dancing in Egypt or the Middle East for the people whose opinions really count--Arabs! Nor do they have performing careers. They spend most of their time teaching and flying, and do a 5 to 15 minute performance at a different festival every week. And they call that stardom. Half of them have never even performed belly dance in their lives! You know the dance is in major crisis when the people we consider "stars" have little or no performing experience. Sad.

      Good for you though that people recognize your dance as Egyptian. I know how good that feels, and glad your talent is appreciated.

      Best of luck to you,
      Luna

      Delete
  8. Great blog post, thanks so much. I'm in agreement. There is such a wealth of knowledge in bellydance and it's origins to learn. So many opportunities to get it right -- yet so many opt to dilute it or make it completely unrecognizable - and what's worse very often with poor (unsafe) technique. I'm not against new or experimental but, please, call it what it is. Don't just label it bellydance cause it has a few shimmies or hip drops in it.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Right. Many opportunities to get it right. There's just no excuse anymore. That's what's maddening.

      Delete
  9. I love your article. Thank you so much. Much of what you are talking about has stopped being taught or was never known by a large number of dancers even in previous generations. Thanks for the reference to "mawal" I consider myself an educated dancer but I probably still would have referred to the mawal as a vocal taqsim so I learned something new today :)

    Its good to hear that there are dancers sticking to their principles and presenting only the highest quality and separating professionals from students. it can be very difficult to stand up for this because a lot of the time your standing alone.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Unfortunately what you say is true. A lot of really important information has been lost on generations of western dancers. Hoping we can make that change. And yes, I do feel like I'm standing alone when I say these things. In fact, it took me a while to muster up the guts to post this blog. Obviously though, I'm not alone, as all the positive feedback I received proves. Thanks for reading and commenting, and wishing you the best in dance. :)

      Delete
  10. Preach it, sister! :)

    I am all for self expression, but it needs to be done within the parameters of each discipline. I would not enter a painting in a quilt show, and I would not wear a tutu to perform the tango. They are all viable things to do in the correct context but will draw questionable looks if they are not.

    You want to wear camel tassels, a bindi, and Thai fingers all at the same time? Go ahead, but it's not remotely belly dance at that point. Sadly I have seen this costume.

    I think in the U.S. we get caught up too much in thinking this is supposed to be fun. It can be fun and be done properly all at the same time. If cabaret isn't your style try a little Ghawazi or Saidi. If it's a spiritual thing you're looking for hold a zar.

    I'm not opposed to cutting up and having fun at times and dancing to Western music. If it's done in the proper context (hafla, etc.) it can be quite entertaining. If you don't like Middle Eastern music of any kind and never use it then you're not a belly dancer. The dance is tied to the music, and as you know the music is so important to the Egyptians.

    Unfortunately, dancers who feel that the integrity of the dance should be kept intact are labelled as boring, intolerant, mean and are called the belly dance police or dance Nazis. I understand that art of any kind is subjective and standards change over time, but anything goes does not equal a viable new art form!

    Thanks for the courage to post about this. You've had some time to work up to it, but I've only had a few minutes. :) Just know that you're not alone!

    ReplyDelete
  11. I love your posting, and I completely agree. We need more teachers like you here, Luna! I get bored when I see mish-mash and mambo-jumbo dancing. I think it's weak as both belly dance and contemporary dance. But I think it's here to stay because the American audience understands it better then ethnic style belly dance. A lot of dancers don't get the chance to perform for an ethnic community and instructors have to adapt for an American public.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Anca,
      Thanks for reading. :) I'm wondering though if the problem is with the American audience or with American dancers. I mean, I doubt that Americans walk into a venue and request a particular style of mish-mosh belly dance lol. I think dancers really need to start thinking about authenticity, regardless of who their audiences are, otherwise, as you say, what they produce is very weak. I'm glad you and I are on the same page though. ;)

      Delete