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PHOTO CREDIT: Above photo by John Rickman Photography, San Jose, California.

Belly Dance and Cultural Appropriation:
Why Does It Matter?

 

by Juana Garcia

 

 

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Table of Contents

 

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Introduction

For a lot of people of a culture “foreign” to America, people around us seem to pick apart pieces of us they like and want to see more of, while simultaneously demonizing the person whose culture it genuinely is.

For example, there is “The Day of the Dead” celebration that no one actually does the traditional way in the U.S. People just treat the holiday as an excuse to dress up in a costume for a party, and then take off their costume when the party’s over. They don't really research or have reverence for the origins of the holiday, nor do they celebrate the holiday for its intended purpose. It’s a fad rather than an ages-old respected tradition.

 

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My Experience as a Mexican in the U.S.

In an article about cultural appropriation by belly dancers, the author Randa Jarrar basically claims that no white woman, ever, should belly dance.  While I disagree with that perspective, I will say that Jarrar made a good point in a second article: “At the end of the day, it’s not belly dance that people are protecting. It’s the right to take anything they want and not be criticized for it.”

Let’s think about that for a minute.

I have noticed this happening over the course of my almost 30 years in this country.  I’m not Middle Eastern, I’m Mexican, and I grew up in America from the age of two or three.  Back in the ’80s or early ’90s, when I was in kindergarten and elementary school, I was weird because I spoke Spanish.  I tried not to speak it around my schoolmates, as it was obvious that I was “different” from everybody else because of this.  (Kids just want to fit in, you know?)  I never talked about anything “Mexican” to my friends, who weren’t Mexican.  I had a couple close friends, who weren’t white, but who had the privilege of growing up in more educated households than my own, where my mother was illiterate and my father spoke broken English.  In short, I just kind of dismissed the Mexican side of me, so I could blend in with my schoolmates.

I noticed, as I got older, that I didn’t really know anything about Mexican history or Mexican culture, and I barely even spoke the Spanish language.  I had tried to hide my Mexican identity, in favor of creating a false “American” one, because I was afraid to be ridiculed, laughed at (like my mom was much of the time that we went somewhere and I had to translate for her), or even attacked (verbally or physically).  I tried so much to fit in, because I felt this social pressure to do so, that I completely erased the part of myself that was even just a little “Mexican”.  I assimilated.  I assimilated so much that I really couldn’t identify with many of my Mexican classmates, and had maybe a handful of Mexican friends in the course of my 12 years of school.  (Granted, I was also really smart, and really shy, and really an outsider because I was so smart and mature beyond my years.)

Fast forward to my mid-twenties, and some things began to change.  All of a sudden, people were saying to me, “You speak Spanish.  That’s an asset.”  “You’re at an advantage because you’re a Hispanic woman.”  (Wait, what??  Did you grow up in the same world I did??)  “You’ll get a full ride to school because you’re Hispanic.”  (Um, no, I couldn’t afford school, and that’s why I quit, actually.)  Then, I noticed “Dia de los Muertos/Day of the Dead” parties cropping up everywhere.  Dia de los Muertos, if you don’t know, is a holiday celebrated on October 31st, and November 1st and 2nd.  It is a festival/ceremony intended to honor the lives of those who have passed on from this world into the next, with the first day for children and the second day for our other loved ones.  I never really learned much about the holiday, and have had to do some research on the origins, how it evolved over time, and what people actually do for the holiday.  The irony is, if I’d lived in Mexico during even some of my life, I probably would’ve gotten to know this holiday well.

PHOTO CREDIT: Self portrait taken by Juana Garcia, Elko, Nevada.

My point in bringing this up about this holiday all of a sudden becoming “cool” is that this seems similar to me to belly dance, in a way.  For me, the fact that I, as a “foreign” kid growing up in America, had to assimilate into American culture left many gaps in my identity.  I felt pulled like taffy between America and Mexico all my life.  Yet, if I was around Americans, I was very clearly not “just another American,” but when I told Mexicans that I’d grown up in America, they’d say, “Oh, so you’re not really Mexican.”  I can’t tell you how much it hurts to be rejected by both sides of this convoluted identity that I never asked to have.

So, when in my late 20’s, all of a sudden, Mexican culture became this cool thing, and people all around me were celebrating Dia de los Muertos (but not really celebrating it as it was intended to be celebrated) and saying they wished they knew Spanish (“You should teach me Spanish.”), I sort of recoiled, aghast.  I mean, I had been SO UNCOOL my whole life, and had never learned much of anything about my Mexican heritage, and now, all of a sudden, it was trendy?!  When did I miss that memo?!

But the thing is, if I all of a sudden decided to wholeheartedly embrace my Mexican heritage and the things about Mexico that I find great, if I started going back to misa, lighting velas for saints, started speaking Spanish again regularly on the phone with my mamá, started celebrating those Mexican holidays with my children, started dancing folklorico like I’ve always wanted to, and started watching novelas to my heart’s content, I wouldn’t be accepted.  I’d be the “other,” still, because I’d still be misunderstood and misrepresented in the media of the dominant culture.

If any white person goes to a mass, starts learning Spanish, starts watching novelas and starts educating themselves about Hispanic culture, they’d likely be praised for being so open-minded.  So, why is it okay for a non-Hispanic in America to immerse themselves in this culture, but it’s not okay for me – who is a first-generation Mexican immigrant to America – to do the same?  Why is it scary when I am proud of my heritage and start reclaiming it as my own, and openly going to the mercado for some chile, but it’s totally cool when a white person shops in the “Hispanic” section at the grocery store and starts speaking español here and there?

 

Juana Garcia

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How This Relates to Belly Dance

I think, ultimately, it boils down to a woundedness in the person of the marginalized culture. For me, with that Day of the Dead business – I didn’t learn about that, because it wasn’t okay for me growing up to be a Mexican and know my heritage, I was expected to assimilate. And now I turn around, and all these people who aren’t Hispanic are dressing up in Day of the Dead garb and don’t know what it means. They’re allowed to do this and I’m not? That hurts, on a soul level. It’s residual pain from being wounded by the previous generations and their cultural norms.

This brings me back to my point re: the belly dance community cultural appropriation discussion.  Remember Jarrar's quote from way back in the first paragraph?

“At the end of the day, it’s not belly dance that people are protecting. It’s the right to take anything they want and not be criticized for it.”

Perhaps, that’s what Arabs are objecting to. Perhaps, it’s the perception that many people who claim to belly dance can get up and imitate the movements, but have no interest in learning about the culture, the movements’ origins, or the history of the dance itself. I don’t think *most* folks in the belly dance community do that, but I *do* think that this exists, and that it needs to be discussed. To me, it’s like quality control.

So, what, people in the marginalized culture are supposed to just sit back and watch you make cultural faux pas all you want, and not be upset?  They’re supposed to watch you insult an entire culture, and sit idly by, because oh, “you should be flattered” that people like your culture?  They’re supposed to not correct you about your music choices (like, don’t use a political or religious song to perform, it’s offensive), not critique your performance at all, not be bothered that you don’t use any Middle Eastern music, or know any of the rhythms, or even know what the song you’re dancing to is saying, because, well, you just love to dance and you don’t care about anyone’s opinion?  Sorry, but no.

I get where you’re coming from, I really do.  I’ve been guilty of this same appropriation, when I first began dancing.  But as I started to be more involved in the community and learn more about it, I realized that it was important to learn about the dance’s origins.  It was important to learn what rhythms you were dancing to, and to learn what your songs were conveying.  I realized that it was important to be culturally respectful, and maybe learn something from the people with whom you were interacting.  Why was it important?  Because, institutionally, in the U.S., as “foreigners,” Middle Eastern people had been “erased,” just as I had as a young Mexican immigrant.  To learn about the culture of the Middle East, to learn about their individual and collective histories, to learn their struggles, was to “see” who they were as individuals, and as a people.  It was to hear and acknowledge their voices, to continue to improve our understanding of this art form and the people who started it all.  It matters so that you can represent the culture you’re dancing, with respect and reverence, and an understanding of their cultural context and history.

That’s why it matters.

Because to do otherwise would ensure that the marginalized community of Middle Eastern people remains marginalized, remains misrepresented, remains subdued, in America.  They have stories to tell.  Why not listen?

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Nathan Horne, Elko, Nevada.

An article by Christina of Sihaya Designs that appeared on tumblr said:

“So, in short: you are not a terrible person for genuinely liking, learning, and performing bellydance. But you do have the added responsibility of constantly thinking about how you are presenting cultures that are not your own when you use elements of those cultures in your artistic performance, and adjust your presentation accordingly.

I know there are many professional dancers who do this regularly– they are scholars of Middle Eastern & Turkish cultures. Who have lived and practiced their art in Egypt. Who have spent years or decades studying those cultures because they understand that you cannot decontextualize bellydance from the cultures from which it comes. For those people, I’m sure I’m preaching to the choir.

I am also tired of hearing that white women wearing articles of clothing from minority cultures (which may have religious meaning) is no different from Arab women wearing blue jeans. Cultural exchange is not evenly weighted on both ends. Institutional racism plays a HUGE role in what is appropriation and what isn’t. Educate yourself and stop making these dishonest false equivalencies.”

I agree that sometimes people such as Randa Jarrar who talk about cultural appropriation in belly dance come across as angry and seem to be ranting, but I also understand (as a woman who has experienced this very thing in a different context) that this anger stems from a place where there is a significant amount of hurt. Me, personally, it hurts to not be connected to my culture, which is an important part of who I am, and then to see that culture put on like a costume by people who wouldn’t want to invite me to their party. Anger comes from that place of hurt, from being tired of being hurt, time and time again. By dismissing the perspective behind the anger, you’re feeding into that anger by *not hearing* the point, and refusing to hear the point at all.

I am *not* saying that white people, or anyone else who is not Middle Eastern, should not ever belly dance.  On the contrary.  I differ from Randa Jarrar on this point.  What I am saying, though, is that when you do choose to learn a dance form so deeply rooted in a certain culture, with a million little nuanced points and a thousand bullet points of etiquette, you should make an effort to educate yourself about those nuances, that culture, those details that make the dance what it is.  Please know that I, in no way, am saying that anyone should quit dancing right now, just because one author says she’s angry about people appropriating her culture.  Please also know that what I am saying is that you should look upon your performing and teaching this dance like any other dance, as serious as ballet, as steeped in culture as flamenco, as important to its originating culture as folklorico (Mexican folk dance).  Take it seriously.  That’s all I’m saying.

Juana Garcia

 

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Closing Thoughts

I’m sure the issue of cultural appropration has touched a sensitive nerve with belly dancers because

  1. No one likes to think of themselves as an appropriator, since it would mean we’re doing something harmful to someone else,
  2. So many people deny the existence of “racism” now as a “thing.” They can ignore it because they don’t have it in their faces a lot of the time, and
  3. We don’t want to be told that a dance that we love is something we “shouldn’t” be doing.

HOWEVER....

I think, again, the point of cultural appropriation conversations is that we should be educated about the context, the nuance, and the culture of the dance, so as to represent it respectfully.

In addition, it’s important to note that many marginalized groups have been rendered institutionally voiceless, and what we are saying by saying “please consider my perspective on this topic of appropriation” is that we would like, for once, to have a voice.

That’s all.

 

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Related Articles

  • Appropriation vs. Assimilation. By Juana Garcia. Juana explains why it's not 'cultural appropriation' when immigrants straighten their hair, wear blue jeans, or otherwise conform to the dominant culture.
  • How I Became a Belly Dance Purist. By Sedonia Sipes. Sedonia explains why she abandoned fusion and embraced traditional Middle Eastern raqs sharqi.

 

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About the Author

Juana is a writer based in the United States. She is passionate about social justice issues and her writing explores race/identity, rape culture, mental health, and healing from trauma. She is currently at work on a memoir of her experience with growing up undocumented in the United States entitled First-Generation, and she is also working on a Dystopian novel about one woman's search for peace and healing among chaos entitled, Chameleon.

You can find more of Juana's work and connect with her as follows:

Web Site: www.juanagarciawriter.com

Facebook: www.facebook.com/jgblogger

Instagram: www.instagram.com/therealjgblogger86

Twitter: twitter.com/jgblogger86  

Juana Garcia

 

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