If you are a belly dancer in America, you owe it to the roots of your dance form to be at least a little bit of an activist in the face of anti-Muslim rhetoric.
First, a disclaimer: Arabic cultures are not all Muslim; nor are all Muslims Arabic (brief explanation of why they’re not synonymous here). The Middle East is culturally, ethnically, linguistically, and religiously diverse. This diversity manifests in their folk dance and folk music among other expressive forms, and in discussing belly dance as a unified art form, I don’t mean to squash that diversity, but rather call attention to a category that’s held some stability over time.
So. American belly dancers. We live in an interesting cultural moment where we practice a dance form that comes from a region and series of cultures that are being nationally vilified, whether as terrorists or unwanted refugee immigrants.
I believe that if we’re participating in cultural exchange, we have some responsibility to not only educate ourselves, but also advocate for the people who partake in those cultures as part of their daily lives, not just as tourists. In other words, one of the key components in making sure we’re practicing cultural appreciation rather than cultural appropriation is engagement when we’re off the stage and outside the dance classroom: educating ourselves, promoting tolerance, and being activists where we can be.
As belly dancer and dance scholar Asharah writes:
However, belly dance is not just a movement vocabulary or a path to greater self-esteem. It is a dance from a region with a gnarled and complicated history with Western Europe and the United States, and part of our education in this dance must include an awareness and, at the very least, basic knowledge about those relations. As non-Middle Eastern people performing a Middle Eastern dance, we have cultural responsibilities.
Right now, I think our cultural responsibilities include speaking out against xenophobia and anti-Muslim rhetoric and actions. A Muslim teenager was beaten to death in Virginia. Other hate crimes are happening, along with the proposed travel ban. How can we stay silent through these things, when we’re also borrowing from their cultures? We don’t have to love and embrace every facet of a culture in order to say “Hey, mistreating these people is wrong.”
What might this activism look like? I think it depends on the person. It could look like responding to anti-Muslim hate speech if you overhear it, or providing correct facts about Islam if you see someone spouting inaccurate nonsense on the internet. It might mean treating dance as outreach, giving your audience some education as to Middle Eastern rhythms just so they have some context for understanding another culture.
It’s important to acknowledge that we all process things differently, and this in turn impacts how we handle conflict. If you’re not ready to be in the middle of a screaming match, then respect that about yourself (but also realize that some people, the targets of xenophobic bullies, may not have the same luxury of choice). If all you have the bandwidth for is sharing stuff online, that’s still better than nothing. (and given my limited bandwidth lately, that’s kinda where I’m at, but I do make sure that when I’m teaching college courses, I include folklore from the Middle East so we can talk about intersections of religion and folklore, and how obviously not all Arabic, Middle Eastern, and/or Muslim folks are homogeneous and/or terrorists)
To end on a bit of a preachy but heartfelt note, here’s what I wrote shortly after the 2016 election in my post If You Love Dance, You Love Diversity:
But in the post-election climate, I worry that some people – mostly outsiders – will look at my little group of dancers and think that we’re anti-American because we’re embracing something that, on the surface, looks like it comes from “over there.” Or that someone will see one of the non-normative identities in the community and assume we’re all freaks, or unethical, or unfit, or whatever. And that’s completely missing the point.
I just can’t fathom how you can embrace dance and not understand that it’s for everybody. It doesn’t matter if your fellow dancers or the folks onstage are similar to or dissimilar from you, so long as you don’t make it matter. All art bleeds in and out of various cultures, and is fueled by individuals occupying different places on the broad spectrum of human identity.
Dance and intolerance do not, cannot, go hand in hand. Anyone who tries to make it so is being willfully ignorant, of both history/context and how creative communities come together to support each other in pursuing the same art form. This is why, when everything around me seems to be falling apart, I cling to dance as a community bonded by respect and love.