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

Presenting Dances from Somebody Else's Culture

 

by Kristin Raeesi

 

 

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Dancing a Culture

Respectful presentations of culture through the arts is an important topic that dancers should be mindful of when creating workshop lectures, choreographies and performances for a general audience. Many people who enjoy belly dance and associated regional folkloric dances may not have their own ethnic roots in the countries or cultures where these dances originate, which means they need to spend time researching and practicing how and why these dancers are done, and in what context.

As a Romani person, I have no issue with non-Romani dancers who know their stuff teaching, performing and sharing about Romani dance and culture. The problematic issues arise when people are presenting and teaching cultural dance forms and histories to a broad general audience but do not have an adequate foundation in the dance form itself, the accompanying cultural and historical background, and/or are presenting it in a way that is discourteous to the origin culture(s).

ABOUT THE PHOTO: This photo was taken by Carl Bostek Photography, Anchorage, Alaska.

Misrepresenting Culture

Using Greek culture as an example, there are valid ways to belly dance to Greek music, and there are also ways to not do it. If you are dancing to a Greek tsiftetelli song, that would be totally fine for belly dance because that rhythm and associated music has a relationship to belly dance in Greek cultural contexts. However, I have seen people use Greek line dance music for their belly dance performances. This demonstrates a lack of cultural knowledge. Greek people I have spoken to do not like to see their dances and culture misrepresented in that way.

This also applies to what I have experienced with my own Romani heritage. I have seen dancers use the term "Gypsy" to market their dance troupe as a way of seeming more exotic. I have seen them present dances in "Gypsy face" complete with all the accompanying stereotypes. (Read more about why the term “Gypsy” is not preferred on another article I have written). These are inaccurate portrayals of our culture, and the word brings to mind all of the worst stereotypes. When I see these kinds of performances, I am disappointed because our actual cultural dances are infinitely richer and more interesting aesthetically than the invented fantasy versions.

What is just as upsetting are dancers who do not know anything about actual Romani dance or culture childishly insisting they have the right to do whatever they want, including using the term "Gypsy" as it suits them. It remains difficult for me to understand why dancers would choose not to learn the authentic versions of our dances, or use respectful terminology.

Kristin Raeesi

Those of us whose cultures people borrow from have the right to comment on the misrepresentation of our cultures when it occurs. We have the right to comment on people's use of our music, names, and dances. Our arts are part of our identities, and essentially they are portrayals of who we are. We should be afforded the opportunity to comment; this is where the exchange can happen. By engaging with and asking questions of people from "origin cultures", dancers can learn the do's and dont's. This allows them to be more accurate in what they present, and more respectful.

I know many belly dancers who were involved in the belly dance and folkloric dance scene during the 1970's and 1980's who did exactly this: they engaged with people from various cultures, learned from them, and presented what they learned. Ideally, I think this is how it should be.

Dance is hard. Navigating cultures is even harder, perhaps, but laziness cannot be an excuse for ignorance. Giving others joy through dance is awesome, but it needs to be informed.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: This photo of me was taken as I presented my research at the "Culture Beyond Borders: The Roma Contribution" conference at Harvard University in April 2017.

Kristin on Harvard Panel

Difference Between Exchange & Appropriation

Some people from mixed cultural heritage may claim that because they personally don't have a clear ethnic affiliation of their own, they should be able to take whatever they want from other cultures. However, even people with hybrid backgrounds shouldn't be given a blank check to cherry pick from oppressed cultures in the name of "sharing". Sharing implies that someone from the culture is giving you something, not that you are taking whatever you want, and that's an important distinction.

There is cultural exchange and then there is cultural appropriation. These are two very different things. It depends on the person's engagement with the cultures of origin, and it depends on respectful interaction, actual consensual sharing, and accurate representation.

While many people of color are not experts in their cultures merely by virtue of birth, many of us have spent a great deal of time researching, writing and gaining expertise on the broader histories, issues, etc. that impact our own groups. We are experts, both through lived experience and also through our academic and/or activist work.

The frustration for many of us, I feel, comes from seeing repeated inappropriate and disrespectful presentations of our culture at the hands of those who clearly have not taken the time to actually learn about what they are doing. Yet these people ignorantly/aggressively insist they have the right to use our cultures as their play thing. That's also wrong and should be addressed.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: In this photo I am performing as the opening act of Princess Farhana and Issam Houshan's BaLAdi Tour for their Anchorage show.

Kristin

 

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What You Can Do

Many dancers often feel uncomfortable discussing issues of cultural appropriation or exchange because it may also lead to discussions of privilege, race, politics or other “-isms”. These topics can become sensitive or heated quickly, depending on who is participating in the discussion.

However, I would argue that it is precisely because these issues are sensitive and important that we as dancers must discuss and address them. Even if in the end we agree to disagree, we can articulate our positions clearly and demonstrate that we have thought deeply about the content we are generating as artists and why.

My suggestions:

  1. Begin reading on the topic of cultural appropriation vs exchange and understand what the differences are. Being aware of the difference can help you avoid misrepresenting another dance or culture unintentionally.
  2. Increase your expertise! Make sure your own education and background of the culture you are teaching is rock solid. Ideally, you will have studied intensively with several expert teachers, especially those from the culture you are researching, before you present the dance movement vocabulary and associated historical/cultural aspects to others. Identify the experts you want to learn from, and plan out how to make it happen: in person in a workshop, on Skype, and via online discussions. Seek out credible articles to learn from, and attend conferences or workshops where you can learn as well.
  3. Be prepared to hear critiques that are not flattering, especially if you are a fusion artist. Sometimes even our best intentions fall flat or miss the mark. When that happens and people of the culture question you on something, listen even if you don’t want to, and decide whether you would like to pursue your art in the same direction moving forward. Some may choose to do this, but should be able to articulate an informed defense of their artistic choices, especially if their aesthetic choices include fusion elements not already present in “traditional” forms.
  4. When in doubt, ask questions. Perhaps you have studied extensively with several experts, and perhaps you have researched, but you are still on the fence about that choreography, music or costume choice you’re considering. That you thinking about it is a good sign!
  5. Reach out to one or several other dancers and experts in your network whose advice you trust. Sometimes you may discover a consensus emerging, or have alternative options mentioned that you hadn’t considered.

Best of luck to each of you in your dance journey!

ABOUT THE PHOTO: In this photo, I am dancing in a pop-up showcase with a diverse cast of local Alaskan artists.

Kristin

 

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About the Author

Kristin Raeesi is a Romani / Métis researcher, activist and performance artist.  She holds a master’s degree in Communication with an emphasis in critical and cultural theory and audio-digital storytelling.  Raeesi has been involved in activist work on behalf of the Romani community, serving on the Board of Directors for the California-based non-profit Voice of Roma and as an independent consultant, lecturer and administrator/creator of a free online GED program geared towards Romani adult learners. She has been a panelist at Romani Studies conferences at University of California Berkeley and New York University. In 2017 she presented at the at the Fifth Annual Roma Conference “Culture Beyond Borders: The Roma Contribution”, at Harvard University to mark International Roma Day.  She has also given media interviews and written op-eds for national news outlets on the topic of Romani rights and representation.

Raeesi is also a performance artist who believes in using music and dance to bridge cultural divides and promote greater understanding and appreciation for a diversity of cultures through the arts.  She is especially interested in educating dancers about both Romani and Domari culture/s, music and dance. She is currently publishing an article series in The Belly Dance Chronicles magazine on the influence of Romani and Domari peoples on folkloric dance and music in the Middle East/North Africa.

If youu would like to contact Kristin, you may email her at kristin.raeesi@hotmail.com, or reach her via Facebook.

Kristin Raeesi

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