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

How I Became
A Belly Dance Purist


by Sedonia Sipes


"Belly Dance Purist" and "Belly Dance Police" are terms that one encounters frequently in the dance community; often, the terms are used disparagingly. Purists typically describe themselves as supporting or preferring traditional forms of belly dance, whereas non-purists might describe purists as stifling creativity or not accepting the inevitable evolution of art forms such as dance. In this article I explain why I have worked so hard to learn the traditional forms of belly dance and North African folkloric dances, and why I try not to mix them up with other dance styles. I’m a belly dance purist, and here is my story.

I didn't, as some might imagine, spring indoctrinated from birth from some kind of purist belly dance school. I started out learning what I could, and much of that was a mish mash, made up fantasy, or otherwise not really within the traditional parameters of the dance. For me, it was an experience I had in about 1999 that shook me out of my fantasy and set me on the path to becoming "purist".

I was in a student group based at a university in Logan, Utah. At that time, we didn't have a permanent teacher, we had a very mish mash style loosely based on American Tribal Style (ATS, a fusion style) but not exactly ATS either. Oh, but we were all so in love with the dance. We practiced all the time, and were very proud of how synchronized we all were. Looking back, I can see clearly that we were overly focused on *movement*, as though dance were only movement and not cultural expression.

Anyway, we somehow got invited to do a performance in a cultural diversity class on the campus of our university. We rehearsed our choreography very well. (Indeed *I* was the choreographer, so I am free to admit that, though it was composed of belly dance movements, it bore little resemblance to what I now understand as belly dance). We put together our mish mash costumes of fantasy, ATS, folklore items and showed up to the event.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo of Sedonia by Kymberlie Birkenkamp of Misfit Hue Photography.

The whole time, we were assuming (without really even thinking about it, really) that we'd be performing for American students (northern Utah is, as you might guess, very white). Well guess what? There were no Americans in the class. It was a special class for international students. Some of them were from parts of the world from which belly dance originated. Others were in parts of the world that didn't belly dance, but from where various items from our mish mash costumes came from.

I was suddenly very nervous. We did our perfectly executed, perfectly synchronized choreography. My choreography. I am being nice when I say it was not well received. The women in the classroom, and even some of the men, were looking away from us (no, our costumes were not overly revealing).


After the dance, the teacher wanted us to do a question answer session. An Arab guy asked us what country the dance was from. He was, very politely, calling us out on our rubbish. He was probably feeling very indignant that his culture had been appropriated in such a negative, ignorant way. We stood there with no answer. I finally made up some kind of answer about it being made up of steps from different countries, but I couldn't name the countries.

Someone asked where the music was from. I didn't know. I learned later that the song was a traditional Turkish song, but it was being played by an American band and to me it sounded vaguely North African. Yep, I had chosen the song because it "moved me" but I hadn't bothered to find out where it was from or what it was about. Granted, this was before information was so readily available with a 5 second google search, but still.

Someone asked what country out costumes came from. Again, we had no good answer. Much of it had come from our Orientalist fantasies and imaginations. One of us in the group had just purchased a real coin belt from Cost Less Costumes. She told the class where the coins were from -- French Guiana. None of us had any kind of explanation as to why a belly dance costume would be made from South American coins. Our greatest sin, in my opinion, was not "fusing" or using modern costuming components, but in not really knowing where what we were doing fit into the larger picture.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo of Sedonia by Nathalia Monteiro.

Before this event happened, I had joined the MED-dance email list (it was the olden days, before online forums existed), and was very put off by all the posts by the purists. One of them especially, some queen of the belly dance police who called herself Aunt Rocky, and was constantly posting about how ATS and other fusion styles were something different than Raqs Sharqi (heck she was such a purist she didn't even use the words "belly dance"!)

I had no clue who she was, to me she was someone who seemed full of (to quote someone on bhuz) "pompous jibber jabber". I'm not making fun of her words; they honestly could have been mine at the time. Just who did Carolina Varga Dinicu and those other purists think they were, anyway, to tell me I wasn't a belly dancer?

It wasn't just Morocco, but others as well who were posting at the time and part of this belly dance purist contingent: Laurel Victoria Grey, Baraka, Morwenna Assaf. And some woman named Tedi Thomas who at one point emailed me off list trying very nicely to clue me in as to who I was arguing with.


Fast forward to the cultural diversity class fiasco. I stood there in front of that class feeling completely rotten about myself and what I had just done. Major cognitive dissonance, I suppose, because my brain didn't want to connect all the purist stuff I'd been reading on the MED list to what had just happened to me and my group. I still didn't know how exactly to fix the problem, but I knew I never wanted a repeat of it.

Eventually, I sorted it all out enough to get myself on the pathway I needed to get on. I started seeking out instructors who could give me the knowledge and understanding I needed. I stopped arguing with Morocco on the MED list and instead started an honest email conversation with her — about why she considered some things raqs sharqi and not others. About how she thought studying pure forms should come before doing fusion, so that the fusion would be based in knowledge and not ignorance, about how exactly I could get to said point of knowledge.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo of Sedonia by Marybeth Hanson.

That is my story. I'm not going to out any of my fellow purists, but I know quite a few of them have similar shameful experiences that pushed them to where they are now.

There is a lot of really great fusion dance out there. It is not that I don't like good fusion, because I do. (I also love world fusion music and own a huge collection of it.) It is because I feel that I need to devote the woefully little time I have to devote to dance study to the one thing I've decided to focus on: Egyptian dance. I will probably never be sufficiently expert at two things to feel comfortable exploring fusion.

My point is, don't discount the various purist opinions that you hear, even if you don't agree at this point in time. Keep learning, keep seeking information and understanding, and see where it leads you.




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About the Author

Sedonia been studying and performing traditional Middle Eastern dance for over thirteen years. Her dedication to maintaining the cultural integrity of the dance has garnered her admiration from international and American audiences alike. Her speciality is Egyptian belly dance, as well as the Egyptian folkloric dances from which this style evolved.

Sedonia began her journey into this dance in the unlikely niche of Logan, Utah, and since then has studied with many instructors throughout the U.S. She considers herself an eternal student of the dance and continues her training regularly through private instruction, master classes, and intensives. Ballet and Alexander Technique training have supplemented her Middle Eastern dance education.

Sedonia recounts that she was initially drawn to the glittery costumes, but continued her study after falling deeply in love not only with the dance but with Middle Eastern music.

Sedonia said, "Of all dance forms I have ever seen, only belly dance channels the music so completely that the music seems to emanate from the dancer's body. It is beautiful, feminine, expressive, earthy. I love this dance!"

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo of Sedonia by Marybeth Hanson.





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