Sunday, August 29, 2004

What is the Oriental Dance? I just got off the phone with a friend who remarked à prós of recent goings-on that fusion seemed to be breaking out all over. I agreed adding, in absolutist mode, that except in the hands of a very few gifted dancers I couldn't see why it might be interesting and was certainly not necessary. She, feeling tolerant, answered better fusion than watching one boring belly dancer after another. She has a point there. We certainly don't want to watch one boring belly dancer after another. I said something like, the Oriental is an inexhaustible form of great power and depth in the hands of dancers who can actually perform it. There is no need for us to be subjected to a parade of mediocre dancers; we shouldn't be subjected to mediocre dancers at all. Furthermore, novelty does not excuse mediocrity.

That chat echoed one I'd had a few days ago with another dancer friend during which we dissected the local scene and trends, of course not to anyone's advantage, not even our own. That conversation was triggered by a look at Sausan in San Francisco's website. Sausan's been in the Egyptian-style end of the business for what reads like ages and sounds like she's mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. She is killingly blunt about what Raqs Sharqi is not: no inner goddesses, no spiritual gropings, no tribal fantasies, no male dancers, and minimal folkloric anything. According to Sausan Raqs Sharqi is the female solo dance as performed in Egypt prior to Reda-ization and the advent of stage shows and that's it. Sausan further maintains that there is no authentic belly dance in Turkey or anywhere else outside of Egypt. May Sausan live long and prosper but on the last point she and I definitely part company in our definitions of the dance.

So what is it? My personal working definition of Oriental Dance extends beyond Raqs Sharqi. It is to me a solo female dance performed to music from Egypt or elsewhere in the the Levant and Turkey (plus, though to a lesser degree) Greece and Armenia employing steps native to the regions from which the music comes. To me the Oriental is something of a museum piece frozen in time to the form in which it was performed from the 1950's through the mid 1970's using either the music available then or, rarely, newer compositions with the same structure and flavor. There's nothing wrong with fixed forms--poets are not going to use up all possible sonnets, nor, for that matter, all possible limericks. Oriental Dance requires an experienced and skilled dancer who is able to embody the music at the same time as she shares her heart. Properly performed, Oriental Dance makes us care what the dancer is going to do next, to hang on her every move, to feel her every gesture. Beyond careful training it demands musicality, emotional maturity, and generosity of spirit. Anything more is superfluous; anything less is unacceptable.

The performance itself is a structured improvisation composed of short prepared combinations of steps appropriate to the music plus unplanned sequences appropriate to the moment. This dance is like the music to which it is performed: living, spontaneous, emotional. While a dancer may have a set of songs assigned to her (as club dancers often do) she should approach each show as an opportunity to use her familiarity with the music as a means deepening her interpretation and stretching her movement repertoire. Performing set choreography, especially someone else's choreography anywhere but on a formal concert stage seems to me to be to contrary to the soul of the dance. And here, speaking only for myself of course, I find almost all stage performance to be distortions of the nature of Oriental Dance.

Why? Because the dance is more than a series of well executed movements. It is an intimate and direct communication shared among the dancer, the musicians and the audience in which small, subtle movements and nuances of expression convey vital information. There are moments when the eyebrow is more eloquent than the hip. The dancer takes the music into herself and personifies it making it visible. In doing so she interacts directly with the musicians and the viewers knitting them together in way that is unique to her. Leaving aside for this essay any examination of the psychological impact of audience size on the qualitative experience of artists and viewers, removing the dancer from the audience turns a shared endeavor into a spectacle.

Enough for now...

Added 3/16/09: To the person who left an anonymous comment at 8:16 P. M. EDT -- If a comment has a negative statement about a specific person I won't post it unless the commenter is willing to leave a verifiable name and take responsibility for her statement. Thanks.

1 comment:

Sirena at belly dance oz said...

I'm a relative beginner so I haven't had time to get tired of watching "one boring belly dance after another"! In fact, I find myself having quite the opposite reaction - I get irritated when yet another dancer appears with yet another silly gimmick. Veil pois, swords, double veil, fan veils, snakes, even Isis wings - all these accessories detract, rather than add to, the dance IMO. While using these props, even the best dancer is limited in the movements she can make, and thus the dance is impoverished.

Give me plain old boring belly dancing any day!