What Draws British Women to Learn Arabic Belly Dance?
Al Raqs al Sharqi (Dance of the East)
Category: Contemporary Art
By Anne White for LIBERTY Blog
For the last 30 years or so, Middle Eastern art and culture, especially Arabic Dance, has successfully entwined and embedded itself into the UK heartlands and national stage. Although Al Raqs al Sharqi (Dance of the East) has many other names, it has been popularised as “belly dance”. However, since this term has wider Orientalist connotations, many are careful to use other names instead. A main conduit of the popularity of the dance is that British people have totally embraced aspects of it that appealed to them, and via educational programmes in schools, for example, and Arts Council funding, created a higher and more visible platform for Arabic arts in the UK.
What motivates people who do not have an Arabic lineage or connection to explore this world? As a British woman who is immersed in this field, I can outline some of the reasons for this phenomenon.
The musical structure has a resonance that appeals tremendously to Westerners and non-Arabs. Many find a freedom within it that entices them and enables them to explore their own creativity, whilst simultaneously creating opportunities for greater inner dialogue. This is a subjective definition and I refer to it as exploring one’s own personality and psyche in a meditative and contemplative way. This is one of the major benefits on a transformative personality level, which I will also address. One can find a song for every mood and a movement for every beat. Some prefer the upbeat tempo of Shaabi (music from the streets, influenced by folk culture) and pop music. Others prefer the majesty of Tarab (the highest and purest form of Arabic classical music, performed by orchestras), or they yearn for the collective of Tawhid (union with God/altruistic ideals), which is represented significantly by Om Kolthoum in the Arab world.
While the music we listen to and dance to, as students and lovers of this dance, can be either secular or spiritual, we quite literally lose ourselves within it. In comparison, English culture is not as widely embraced, as we have lost our connection with our own arts. Discos and clubs are the provenance of the younger generation. Nevertheless, a growing market has emerged for this dance and it includes all ages, creeds and races; it has become a thriving industry.
As a Westerner, when we live in a cold climate, we are always covered up and are not as in touch with our bodies as those who reside in places with a hot climate. We are also noted for our reserved culture, and that we value the intellect over the body. Many who learn this dance find it challenging to control and master on their own. Although we can sculpt our bodies at the gym, while dancing, we yield to the softness and fluidity of the form; we become a highly tuned instrument, expressing the poetry of line in the melody or the percussive sequence of the rhythm. We learn to love and accept our bodies and this promotes greater self-esteem.
British funding has been provided over the years to artistes working in Arabic dance genre. The initial mandate in the 1980s, via The Arts Council of Great Britain, funded Ethnic Arts to create a higher platform in the UK. One of the first beneficiaries of this was my former teacher, Suraya Hilal, who brought this dance to a Western stage and presented it in theatres. This approach was similar to that of Mahmoud Reda, who founded the Reda Dance Company and created a National Platform for Egyptian Traditional Folkloric Dances in the 1950s. Suraya’s contribution to the UK’s awareness of belly dance is immeasurable, as she was a wellspring for many who followed.
I have been funded many times (to teach and perform) by the Arts Council, various charities and the Big Lottery. I used testimonies from many of my students to apply. These testimonies included students in the fields of physiotherapy and psychotherapy, as well as cultural leaders. Here are some of their statements and observations addressing the benefits of learning this dance:
Great physical benefits can be achieved.
This dance promotes flexibility of the joints and spine, builds up stamina and muscle tone, increases mobility, and it is low impact (i.e., it works with gravity), therefore it is good to the body.
Aside from the physical benefits, there are also psychological benefits, as it lifts the spirits, raises morale and self-esteem, and promotes creativity and self-expression. The class brings people from different cultures together, to socialise and exchange different ideas, thus instilling a sense of community.
Positive female roles are established. This dance is very empowering of the feminine principles. This can be a very bonding experience. Individuality is encouraged and given permission to be expressed. This is very liberating. We live in a society that has certain female stereotypes, which are difficult to live up to; this dance educates participants to find the freedom to stand apart and have their own healthy attitudes, as part of their individuality/self-expression.
As a dance form and as an art, belly dance is incredibly expressive and we take pleasure in translating what we feel within the music through bodily movements that match, be they choreographed or improvised. It is an utterly and compelling feminine art, which honours the feminine body and enables a better-integrated psyche as a result. It also bridges cultural divides and promotes tolerance, acceptance and understanding of other peoples and cultures.
Many assume that what we learn, promote and do is purely an Orientalist stereotype found in smoky clubs late at night, where we only seek tips from male customers. Many forms of this dance exist and many new forms, which are unrecognisable to most Arabs, have been created. Innovations continue to find new ways of bodily expression. Belly dance is a woman’s dance performed by women for both women and men who appreciate artistic bodily expressions.
Today, it is also a platform of art performed mainly by non-Arabs, who in their own execution of their performances are, to some extent, either representing Arabic culture or raising an awareness of it. Whilst it is true to say that Arabic artists represent Arabic art in the UK, in terms of this dance, the non-Arab performers are primarily driving this phenomenon and enabling flourishing industries to develop alongside art festivals, dance schools and event organisers. It is becoming a commercial force majeure. Likewise, those individuals who are active and successful in performances do not always conform to traditional Arabic stereotypes.
Historically, in the Arab world, this dance was promoted under the aegis and patronage of the Royal Courts, and the Awalim (respected and honourable learned women) were the exemplary Ambassadresses of it. Of course, it is also true that during military occupation, be it Roman or more recently Colonialists, such as the French and the British, it was also a form of entertainment, sometimes of a different kind. Now, however, this dance is enjoying an entirely new platform, and whilst one can still see soloists, we are also witness to a new exploration, such as a darker genre of feminine energy where Gothic themes are presented. Every big town in Britain now has an Arabic hafla (party) and theatre productions and dance competitions abound.
A sense of community is created between belly dancers who start off as strangers and then become friends. Through classes and dance events, we find a sisterhood bond, which fosters closer relationships between women. Likewise, we find templates within this community, which promote tolerance, awareness of others, greater self-acceptance, more self-expression and many other positive experiences as well. Our Arabic sisters learned this dance from their female relatives and thus, in a way, there is a continuance of this model in dance classes and events.
Belly dance has the capacity to transform us. On a physical and kinesthetic level, we learn to love and accept our bodies, to interact with people in a better way and to witness positive behaviour modelling. Our confidence and self-expression improve, and this enhances our self-esteem. We learn to dance and to walk with an innate confidence. We are able to literally dance our feelings and thereby find an outlet for every mood and that makes us better-integrated people. It is liberating, transformative, it enables us to grow and individuate. Belly dance has also been combined as part of both therapeutic and spiritual practice. Performance opportunities abound and that allows us to adorn and bejewel ourselves, of which the value can never be underestimated. It also enables us to test ourselves, to take risks and grow. Although sometimes, we might show off the moves and compete with each other at the disco, the kindred spirit we all have flavours it with a playful quality.
For me, as a British belly dancer, dance has been my biggest love since I first embraced it. It nourishes my soul; it feeds my spirit and it fills my heart. Many others feel the same way. I feel very blessed indeed, as it has also helped me to know more about myself as a woman.
“Anne White has studied Raqs Sharqi for over 20 years, and has been
a performer and teacher since 1990. She specialises in Egyptian
techniques, and has over 15 years’ experience as a performer at major London venues such as the Hackney Empire, the Bloomsbury Theatre and Alexandra Palace, and has toured East Anglian theatres as part of her Arts Council. Anne has taught privately and in Adult Education and has worked with television production companies, development teams and fitness centers”.