In Praise of Polyglot Culture—and Multicultural Belly Dancing

There isn't anything wrong with respectful appropriation. In fact, it is usually cause for celebration. 
Dancers participate in the belly-dance festival of "Ahlan Wasahlan" in Cairo, which drew participants from more than 50 countries. (Reuters)

The most heartening article on belly dancing I read this week appeared in an obscure book of collected essays titled Culturally Relevant Arts Education for Social Justice.

While abroad in Morocco, the author began to study belly dancing, or raqs sharqi. Doing so helped her to integrate herself into a community of local Muslim women, forming new friendships and a more nuanced understanding of their culture. It also helped her to grow more comfortable in a body she hadn't always loved. Upon returning to the United States, she found a dance studio where raqs sharqi brought together a mutually supportive community of diverse women.

Later, as an educator in Washington, D.C., she introduced raqs sharqi to a group of black high-school students, successfully using it as a vehicle to break down stereotypes about Arab culture and to foster a more supportive community among female students:

We went back to understandings of Arab and Muslim women and discussed the use of female space for dance, celebration, learning, and community. As the girls learned the movements and the style of lead and follow, they verbalized new understandings of themselves and others. Connections were made to reggae, African dance, go-go, and Hip Hop, while some took it upon themselves to introduce their own music to the sessions for improvisation.

Does the educator's race matter to you?

The question is prompted by the most disheartening article on belly dancing I read this week, "Why I Can't Stand White Belly Dancers." In it, Randa Jarrar complains that belly dancing is the object of a "century-old tradition of appropriation," and argues that white belly dancers—even those who've seriously studied the form for 15 years in classes taught by Arab women—are engaged in unwitting racism.

"We are human beings," her jeremiad concludes. "This dance form is originally ours, and does not exist so that white women can have a better sense of community; can gain a deeper sense of sisterhood with each other; can reclaim their bodies; can celebrate their sexualities; can perform for the female gaze. Just because a white woman doesn’t profit from her performance doesn’t mean she’s not appropriating a culture. And ... the question is this: Why does a white woman’s sisterhood, her self-reclamation, her celebration, have to happen on Arab women’s backs?"

After all that, one might be tempted to read up on belly dancing's history, to discover Dr. Ruth Webb, an expert in performance during antiquity, and to quote her saying, "with regional variations, something like Raqs Sharqi seems to have been known throughout the Mediterranean and certainly flourished in Egypt and the Eastern Mediterranean before the arrival of the Arabs in the 7th century."

Funny, that.

But the more important point is that, even if and when it's true, "this dance form is originally ours" is no license to exclude other practitioners due to their skin color. For related reasons, UCLA Law Professor Eugene Volokh's response is instructive:

Appropriation—the horror! People treating artistic genres as if they were great ideas that are part of the common stock of humanity, available for all humanity to use, rather than the exclusive property of some particular race or ethnic group. What atrocity will the culturally insensitive appropriators think of next? East Asian cellists? Swedish chess players? The Japanese putting on Shakespeare? Jews playing Christians’ Christian music, such as Mozart’s masses? Arriviste Jewish physicists using work done for centuries by Christians? Russian Jews writing about Anglo-American law? Indians writing computer programs, using languages and concepts pioneered by Americans and Europeans? Japanese companies selling the most delicious custard cream puffs?

Then he gets explicit:

Maybe—and I know this is a radical thought—artists, whether high or low, should be able to work in whatever artistic fields they want to work in. Maybe they should even be able to work in those fields regardless of their skin color or the place from which their ancestors came. Maybe telling people that they can’t work in some field because they have the wrong color or ancestry would be … rats, I don’t know what to call it. If only there were an adjective that could be used to mean “telling people that they mustn’t do something, because of their race or ethnic origin.”

Amen. 

Appropriation can be insensitive or disrespectful in all sorts of particular instances.

But often, it is wonderful, as I'm reminded every day living in Los Angeles, amid Korean taco trucks and Japanese-inspired gardens. Randa Jarrar writes as if all appropriation is self-evidently objectionable, and if her attitudes were adopted widely, we'd miss out on the awesomeness that emerges from our wonderfully polyglot country. Insofar as anyone considers any aspect of any culture to be partially mine, I hereby cede my share of it to the creative commons. Have at the appropriation. 

Presented by

Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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