Guilty: Interrogating Cultural Appropriation

dance dar!darlene and cathy

I’ve studied North African/Egyptian dance (also called belly dance) and West African dance since 2007.

I’ve felt uncomfortable in my body sometimes–a lot of times–and sometimes unsure of what I was Najla (Me)undertaking in what I call(ed) the study.that's me

When I read this article, I understood my uncertainty.  Randa Jarrar writes:

Women I have confronted about this have said, “But I have been dancing for 15 years! This is something I have built a huge community on.” These women are more interested in their investment in belly dancing than in questioning and examining how their appropriation of the art causes others harm. To them, I can only say, I’m sure there are people who have been unwittingly racist for 15 years. It’s not too late. Find another form of self-expression. Make sure you’re not appropriating someone else’s.

In North African dance, the flat belly was celebrated in all but one of the classes wherein the instructor encouraged bigger women with hips, butts, and bellies to use those features to emphasize their moves. I knew the flat belly ideal was Western and wrong not only from videos of Raqs Sharqui but from its fairly modern history as a marker of beauty.

I miss her class because it was empowering for a girl who has never, no matter how flat it’s gotten, had an empowered relationship with her stomach.

I liked her instruction because the movement was not sexualized for the male gaze.  Sure we shimmied–well, I tried–but more often she chastised me for not smiling; that in dance should be joy.

Randa Jarrar writes of the celebratory nature of the dance:

Growing up in the Middle East, I saw women in my community do Raqs Sharqi at weddings and parties. Women often danced with other women, in private spaces, so that this dance was for each other. When they danced at house parties with men in attendance, the dynamic shifted. When women danced for women alone, there was a different kind of eroticism, perhaps more powerful, definitely more playful, or maybe that’s how it felt to me, as a child and teenager, wary of men’s intentions. At weddings the dancing was celebratory and flirty and beautiful, something a professional dancer would come in to do, and something that everyone else would continue engaging in.

My instructor encouraged us to celebrate our womanness through a style of dance that let us move our hips in a way that called attention to them.

And I always sweat a lot in her classes because we danced even as we practiced isolations–we didn’t focus on technique so intensely that the joy of the dance was lost.

But I still wondered, when we got costumed up for performance, if what I was doing was “okay.”

I was a student of West African dance at the same time.  And it always irritated me when white women would come to the class, their modern and ballet training apparent in the pre-dance warm-up as they stretched like they were models for a LuluLemon ad except that their lapas were often the most elaborate and “authentic” Dutch wax prints.

Reading Jarrar, I realize that perhaps I should’ve been interrogating myself.  I was probably right to be a little wary of my “study” of these cultural dances.

In one West African dance class, I got so annoyed when I discovered the dance we were learning was “influenced” by a dance from the Senegal/Gambia region. Where does “influence” turn to appropriation?  Where does my “study” become instead a Western gaze on the exotic?

I don’t have the answers, but I can say I was enrolled in a modern dance class at the time, so in my African dance classes I wanted to learn a traditional African dance, not some gimmick, err influence, of it.

I could do “influence” in the modern class and at least there could call it that rather than suggest the dance was something it was not.

While I will not discontinue my study of dance, particularly cultural ones, I will constantly challenge my choice of studios and the practice to try to avoid what Jarrar fairly calls out in her article.

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