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A Review of

Earth Dancing:
Mother Nature's Oldest Rite

by Daniela Gioseffi

 

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Summary

In this book, Daniela Gioseffi proselytizes something she has dubbed "earth dancing", which is essentially Oriental dance (belly dancing) done for the purpose of celebrating the female anatomy and the great Earth Mother Goddess.
Cover

 

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Fact Sheet

Title

Earth Dancing: Mother Nature's Oldest Rite

Author

Daniela Gioseffi

ISBN

0811721167

Publisher

Stackpole Books

Category

Non-Fiction: General Belly Dancing Information

Rating

StarStar

Number of Pages

223

Published In

1980

 

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Description

This is a book-length opinion piece advocating the use of Oriental dance as a tool to celebrate the female body and a Great Mother Goddess-based spirituality. Asserting that raqs baladi (belly dance) originated as a birth ritual used in antiquity to celebrate the Great Mother Goddess, the author recommends that modern-day women return to using this dance form to reconnect with the divine feminine.

The book opens with what it claims to be history. To me, it reads more like "wishtory" (wishful thinking about the past). First there's a bit of turgid prose about a fictional priestess in Etruria (an ancient civilization located in what is modern-day Italy) who surrenders herself to ecstatic movement while using belly rolls to mimic giving birth. Following this is a chapter that purports to offer a history of belly dance, but offers no footnotes or other references to substantiate the claims it makes. This chapter is full of 1970's-era feminist wishful thinking about ancient history, mother goddesses, celebration of the female body's ability to give birth, and the assumption that the origins of raqs baladi must have something to do with all this.

In a chapter on dance in America, Gioseffi explores the appearance of dancers at the 19th-century world's fairs, the portrayal of "Arabic" dance by early 20th century dancers such as Ruth St. Denis and Isadora Duncan, and then mentions a variety of modern-day dancers such as Morocco, Bert Balladine, Jadaya, and others. This chapter includes many fascinating vintage photos.

Following these historical sections, Gioseffi turns her attention to advocating her "earth dancing". She begins with a chapter on her philosophy that underlies earth dancing, invoking Isadora Duncan, yoga, Carl Jung, and trance-invoking movement. Then she moves on to a how-to chapter that advises the use of visualization to invoke the chakras as a warmup, and suggests dancing naked. I must admit to being puzzled about why Gioseffi advocates using a chakra-oriented meditation to warm up the muscles for movement. She uses words and photos to describe a number of moves associated with belly dance, including stomach rolls, flutters, hip circles, figure 8 variations, hip bumps, pelvic tilt, shimmy, and traveling steps. Her instructions include such colorful statements as, "If you stand in a slightly lusty, animal-like stance, your feet gripping the earth, it is easier to execute." A follow-on chapter describes how to do "advanced" techniques such as floor work (which she calls the "birth mime"), spins, veil work, arms, and facial expression.

A chapter on music begins by recommending recordings suitable for this dance form by various artists. At the time the book was written, this music would have been available on vinyl LP. Some of the recommended artists have re-released their work on compact disc, but some are now out of print. The chapter concludes with information about using finger cymbals to create your own music for dancing. It recommends suppliers for finger cymbals, and also suggests some books and recordings for use in learning how to play them.

The brief costuming chapter provides a cursory look at costuming ideas, including not only what people would normally think of as a belly dance costume but also other random assorted looks such as togas, saris, etc. It recommends Zarifa Aradoon's Belly Dance Costume Book, and offers some superficial suggestions on costume style and color. There's not much substance to this chapter.

The book closes with a chapter titled "Earth Dancing Toward a New Era". This summarizes Gioseffi's philosophy, creating a peculiar connection between belly dancing, ecology, Mother Goddess philosophy, and celebration of the female capacity to give birth.

After the final chapter, a "Resources" section contains several appendices. These include recommended reading, a directory of raqs baladi instructors around the U.S., music vendors, costuming vendors, and a detailed index. Considering that this book was published in 1980, most of these resources are no longer available.

 

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Is It Right for You?

 

You Will Probably Enjoy This Book If...

  • You want to use raqs baladi as a form of spiritual expression, particularly Pagan.
  • You would enjoy seeing photos of U.S. dancers and musicians who were prominent in the 1970's.
  • You are researching how the U.S. feminist movement of the 1970's intersected with the rise in neo-Paganism and Wicca of that time.
  • You were part of the U.S. belly dance scene in the 1970's and you would enjoy a trip down memory lane.

 

This Book Probably Isn't Right for You If...

  • You are looking for a reliable resource on the subject of raqs baladi (belly dance).
  • You are annoyed by questionable scholarship.
  • You prefer to focus on information about this dance form as it is practiced in the Middle East, where it originated.
  • You feel uncomfortable reading a book that advocates a mentality of cultural appropriation.

 

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What I Liked, What I Didn't

 

What I Liked:

  • There are some wonderful vintage photos of well-known dancers from the 1970's, including Morocco, Bert Balladine, Jadaya, Anahid Sofian, and others.
  • There are some interesting illustrations of historic artifacts such as statues and paintings.
  • The book discusses the involvement of early 20th century dancers such as Isadora Duncan, Ruth St. Denis, and La Meri in portraying "Arabic" dance.
  • The various appendixes are cleanly categorized in ways that makes it easy to find the specific types of items I'm looking for.
  • The index contains sufficient detail to be a useful tool when looking for specific information in the book.

 

What I Didn't Like:

  • The historical claims are ambiguous and often erroneous. For example, in a timeline titled "A Chronology of the Belly Dance" Gioseffi claims that in 5,000 B.C.E. "Dancers appear in tomb paintings." I find this curious, because the oldest known depictions of dancers in tomb art that I've been able to find in my own research appear at the Saqqara necropolis in Egypt, which is estimated to date back to only 3,000 BCE. (i.e., 2,000 years later). I wish she had told us which tombs, exactly, and where.
  • In her "Chronology of the Belly Dance" Gioseffi lists many random bits of trivia that have no relationship at all to this dance form. For example, she states that in the year 300, "Closing of Goddess temples begins under the Byzantine emperor Constantine." This has nothing to do with raqs baladi.
  • I'm appalled that Gioseffi barely mentions ground-breaking dancers Tahia Carioca and Samia Gamal in her discussion of the history of raqs baladi, yet devotes an entire chapter to the dance in America. Her priorities are all wrong.
  • The book comes across as very self-serving. Gioseffi gloats multiple times about a poem she had published in Ms. Magazine during the 1970's, and about a novel she wrote, and about a tour in which she taught feminist dance workshops. The book seems to be a 200+ page advertisement for her other projects.
  • Gioseffi repeats herself frequently throughout the book. By the time I finished reading it, I wearied of reading about “the cabaret spectacle”, her poem that appeared in Ms. Magazine, her novel, the origin of raqs baladi as a “birth mime”, and the use of belly dancing to express female sexuality. I’m not saying it was “bad” to mention these topics, but once or twice at most for each would have sufficed.

 

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Conclusion

I personally find this book somewhat painful to read because of the author's determination to twist a dance form from another culture to her own personal agenda. She advocates what amounts to cultural appropriation from beginning to end. She declares raqs baladi to be rooted in a ritual tied to giving birth, while ignoring the fact that the dance contains many, many moves that have nothing to do with delivering a baby. The entire book is built around this flawed premise as she advocates her own made-up format which she has dubbed "earth dancing" as a tool for celebrating goddess spirituality in the fashion of a modern-day Pagan.

If you collect vintage memorabilia about belly dancing, you may want to add this book to your wish list. Or, if you are researching how the U.S. feminist movement of the 1970's intersected with the rise in neo-Paganism and Wicca of that time, you may find this book interesting as a resource.

I would not recommend this as a resource for learning more about belly dance itself. But it does tell you a lot about what the mentality of many belly dancers was during the 1960's and 1970's.

 

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Disclosures

I've never had any contact with Daniela Gioseffi, though some of the people whose photos appear in this book such as Morocco and Bert Balladine have been friends of mine.

 

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