Fantasy seems to be the growing new reality for bellydance in America. Winged goddesses, mythological archetypes, masked creatures and elementals are re-emerging from the depths of our psyches to become the inspiration for many bellydancers in this age. Theatrical plays, concerts and works on video, enacting famous myths or personal dramas incorporating several dance forms, are becoming the norm. This trend has been growing steadily since I can remember, but caught fire recently due to the instantaneous broadcasting of ideas and styles on the worldwide web and the proliferation and availability of video in this generation of dancers.
The long ancient history of dance in the Middle East, North Africa, Mesopotamia, The Levant, Mediterranean and influences from the Far East, India and other parts of Asia teach us that dancers used vocabulary of movement that many would label modern fusion bellydance today. I will elaborate on this in Part II of this article.
Fusion, confusion and delusion are subjects which deserve their own book. To navigate through the maze of creative fusions, sub-genres and sub-styles in our field can be overwhelming to new dancers trying to identify what style of bellydance they should study. Dramatic themes, and the eccentric use of movements easily recognizable as bellydance but which depart radically from how and why oriental dance was performed and the cultural context in which it originally evolved out of, leave many wondering.
All that has defined oriental dance of the past hundred years is often gone. The style of music can be unrelated in any way to Middle Eastern culture; idiosyncratic costuming, emotional expression devoid of the eastern style of femininity, anatomically bizarre postures, modern western dynamics, extreme aggression, and unusual interpretations of even traditional music and vocabulary can be beautiful, shocking, entertaining, a mystical experience, or annoying and puzzling.
What does this all mean? It just means this dance took root in a land known to be a melting pot, where neither rules nor restrictions exist while divine technology brings the inspiration of the entire world to our door and, thus, human innovation takes over. I think trends are nothing more than the fact that change is constant, change is a need in many and discontent is very human. People, including aspiring dancers, are endlessly fascinated with themselves and the world. They have the ability to create and tinker around with what already exists. The need to keep busy, to stand out or to be recognized is common. To feel discontent, and to want to rise above the human condition to change and then transform those around us, is all part of the human condition.
All traditions in dance were at one time new thoughts, steps and feelings – innovations that caught on the moment they were released into the world. When many relate to something, they want to share and preserve it. I, for example, am a dancer who is rooted in Middle Eastern tradition. However, being a dreamer who grew up exposed to so many other arts and cultures led me to fuse it all together. Since I can remember, I kept one foot in alternative dimensions, receiving visions that would later show up in dance. Most of them are still in the process of manifesting because growth takes a lifetime. The dream, or fantasy, of what was and what could be in dance and trying to manifest it is my reality. I preserve traditions and honor the past but also venture into unknown territory and explore possibilities.
We all have incredible potential and imaginations. This stage of discovery in our art form is healthy and necessary to fearlessly experiment. However, it doesn’t mean every attempt is something great or that tradition should be wiped out. It is always wise to study the roots of an art form and understand it so it isn’t abused or confused simply because a dancer desperately wants instant gratification from performing or quick notoriety for being different.
I hope this article will shed light, inspire and open a discussion, leading to greater harmony and unity within our multiverse. The long ancient history of dance on the continent where our contemporary bellydance originates – Asia, including the Middle East – teaches us that many sacred dances used a vocabulary of movement that some would call fusion bellydance today, including gymnastics acrobatics and sacred postures and gestures. Elaborate ritual choreographies mimicked elements in nature, the cosmic play of the zodiac, gods and goddesses. Dancers often dressed as powerful archetypal figures wearing elaborate masks, headpieces, veils and also used props, musical instruments, poetry and song.
As we move forward into the past we should remember that there are specific lines of energy and postures that turn our physical bodies into graceful, free-flowing and strong instruments. This has been known and practiced for at least thousands of years, so why throw it all out the window or try to re-invent the wheel? To have a free, creative mind in a restricted body is absurd, especially for an art form that is supposed to be expansive. Therefore, caution and respect when re-inventing bellydance technique would be wise.
The melding of fantasy or mythological themes with bellydance may seem like a departure from the traditional oriental dance that was, and may still be the most popular. However, as we go further back in time and take a closer look, we see how this “new trend” has been evolving quietly, in the Middle East as well as in the west, out of the radar and away from the watchful eyes and scrutiny of the new bellydance internet generation.
The pervasive web dominates the world we live in today: magnifying and exploding every idea and carrying it like wildfire through the dance community. It is both a positive and negative phenomenon, like everything else in life. In previous decades, adventurous pioneers in bellydance came from all walks of life and naturally put their own unique spins on the dance. However, they didn’t and couldn’t have as far-reaching an influence because there wasn’t the immediate access to the rest of the dance community and the use of video wasn’t as widespread.
Today many of us drawn to create similar, primal choreographic visions can make them unique and enhance the concepts by using unusual new musical sounds never before available. Even most of us with small budgets can use the divine gifts of technology – allowing magical lighting effects, multi media visuals, materials and fabrics from all over the world for sets and costuming and, also, ideas from once remote cultures and unknown authors. Philosophies, history and dance styles are merging in our minds creating both clarity and confusion… but ultimately a potentially harmonious new world culture.
On a personal note, I don’t blame lack of opportunity for my silence with most of my work. I have been on the frontlines of edgy bellydance and I did have access to media but chose not to release embryonic ideas on a large scale – until now, as the fruit is maturing. I also digressed from dance for many years in order to create genres of music that didn’t exist – with new spirituality, sexuality and drama – so that I, and other like-minded artists, could express the other-wordly dances longing to be born.
DEMON OR ANGEL
Dance of passion truth and lies demons and angels behind these eyes
Anything you desire creatures of earth air water and fire
Mermaids swim a fairy flies behind these eyes
Dreams can take us far, when we become who we really are
Demon or Angel what do you see…. reflecting you, reflecting me
Demon or Angel Demon or Angel Demon or Angel
Whatever you can imagine is what I’ll be… tell me your secret fantasy
So many creatures waiting inside,. waves of thought…enjoy the ride
Tell me your secret fantasy
My journey has brought me to extreme places in life and, therefore, in dance. Although I am grateful for the rich experiences I had as an “authentic/traditional” working bellydancer, I am more blessed for the amazing opportunities I had with alternative work – collaborating with magicians, shamans, musicians, painters, singers, healers, yogis, bullfighters and circus performers.
The interest that the west has for fusion and fantasy is very natural: a result of the adventurous spirit, curiosity and freedom that Americans have to experiment in all fields, including Bellydance. For me, this direction began in early childhood when my grandfather – who was a charismatic storyteller, writer, poet and mythologist with the knowledge of Joseph Campbell – not only read, but acted out, the myths and legends of the ancient near East and Mediterranean that would become one of the strongest influences on my future. Salome as a nightly story was the obvious, but others are now surfacing. My other grandfather told me tales of the Arabian Nights.
SHEHERAZADE (Metal Mix)
1001 nights carried me away from the world..Too real from things I didn’t want to feel… I didn’t want to feel,When I was a little girl …. Can magic lamps and flying carpets still save me from the darkness I’ve known… I’m still pretending, dancing in a world of my own. … A story keeps unfolding unraveling my mind, dreams that have no end never knowing what I’ll find… I dance but there’s no solid ground, drunk on my imagination…All at once I’m lost and found in ecstatic self- intoxication…Save me, fantasy, save me tonight…Sheherazade! Save me save me save ….Sheherazade!
I want to live the greatest story, I will believe in love and glory… I’ll rewrite what I’ve known, create a world of my own….
When I was just beginning to dance professionally in NYC in the 1980’s some dancers on the scene, such as Elena, were beginning to seek other avenues of expression. I looked to her, Serena, Ibrahim Farrah, Valerie Camille, Marta Zorina, Mateo, La Meri, Phaedra, and further back to the mothers of modern dance – who were highly influenced by the east and by fantasy and were innovating new techniques – such as Ruth St Denis, Loie Fuller and Martha Graham to name just a few.
The orientalists and fantasists spawned a generation fascinated by the dream of oriental dance, which in turn made another generation who investigated the roots and traditional eastern dance techniques. Now many have the need for spirituality and fantasy again, but replacing the harem girl with an empowered, multi-faceted woman. Many women trying to find their strength and purpose in dance art relate to the warrior/heroine… the goddess…the priestess.
Adorned and jeweled we undulate but naked is the soul,
Watch our silent language, read the secrets never told,
We sway our hips and armies fall we conquer with a glance
In this dream where rhythm rules and love is the only dance
Warriors rise..,.Shattering lies… Breaking the ties…. Touching the skies….
Meditate upon the womb raise the lotus to full bloom
Wings unfold upon the snakes and consciousness awakes
It is tempting these days to literally become a poser…creating heroic images of ourselves as archetypes, goddesses or any creature we imagine. With incredible graphics used in photos on DVDs and web site…just add an exaggerated bio and one is an instant bellydance star. This short-cut can feel validating and empowering on many levels and can actually be a good first step towards discovering true inner strength and beauty. But it can also stunt growth and become a trap. We must never forget one of the greatest myths of all, the story of Narcissus, and have the awareness not to be mesmerized by the satisfaction of our glorious, perfect, re-touched image reflecting back at us…masking emptiness, lack of technique, experience, and quirky “flaws” we may have that make us unique. Technology, as everything else, is a mixed blessing: the downside is that it allows us to run from activities and experiences that challenge our soul to grow.
I have learned over and over that it is far more satisfying to live your dreams and make them “reality”. To simply create a perfect image and then hide behind it is stifling. Being a “bellydancer” then becomes the lock instead of the key; trapping us inside a rigid identity instead of becoming a fluid, expansive, liberating force that hopefully brings us closer to a state of enlightenment and compassion. It is always a struggle to resist the temptation of the easy path.
Fact can not only be stranger that fiction/fantasy, but more beautiful and more intense. What most call ordinary reality is divine creation – more impressive than anything we can possibly re-create or take pride in. When we realize that magick is everywhere we should be humbled.
Fluid visions pass before my eyes… electrifying rushes through my mind…I feel the stillness in the dance, bathing in a violet trance, supreme imagination flowing free… through my veins runs the primordial sea, magick weaves through every cell, with every breath I touch divinity captured by an intangible spell
I foresee that the finest oriental dance technique combined with elements of classical western dance and theatrical storytelling and soul will one day be able to give this dance form the high regard it is beginning to achieve. I leave you with this thought: be inspired, courageous. Imagine, explore, create magick, transform and inspire others.
Believe in infinite possibilities and variations upon variations; In Dance As In Life….