Thursday, June 26, 2008

I just don't get spiritual bellydance

My, my it HAS been a while since I've blogged on here. I figured I should pop in once in a while to brush the ol' cobwebs off my dance blog and get my thoughts out.

Today's post: Spiritual Bellydance.

Let me first say that, not being a participant in this dance form and not being amazingly well versed/informed as to its origins, I am not posting this as any form of authority. This is purely an opinion piece.

Actually, scratch part of that. I DID participate in spiritual bellydance a few times, but not in a public display/show. As a matter-of-fact, it was my first exposure to "bellydance," but I'll get to that in a moment.

I just don't get Spiritual Bellydance as a form of public performance. I can understand incorporating bellydance elements (hip circles, undulations, mayas, etc.) into your spiritual practice as a form of meditation, trance or celebration, but I cannot for the life of me understand why you'd exhibit it for a live, public show. There are a few reasons why I feel like Spiritual Bellydance as a public performance are out of place and, honestly, a bit bizarre, which I will highlight now.

Firstly, if you are doing this as part of a religious or spiritual act, it's odd to put it on a stage for display because so much of religion is personal and intimate. You don't just see one act walk off stage in a variety show to be followed up by a priest giving a sermon. Nor have I seen people file on a stage and perform a wiccan ritual for entertainment purposes. Thusly, the few occasions that I have been at a bellydance showcase and seen a Spiritual Bellydance/Worship piece have felt uncomfortable and unsettling, not to mention out of place. There are reasons that we don't display religious and spiritual practices as part of an ordinary entertainment show and that's because they ARE intimate and meaningful beyond a regular entertainment performance. These moments are sacrosanct and precious. There is something very beautiful and raw about being able to witness religious rites or spiritual rituals and to put them on display and give them the same weight as we might a regular old Tribal Fusion Soloist performance seems sacrilegious.

The second issue I have is that if you're not an affiliate or member of the religious/spiritual following being represented, it's sometimes hard to understand what you're seeing. At the shows I've witnessed that have Spiritual Bellydance pieces, I've often heard crowd members utter, "what IS this?" and ridicule the performance. One that comes to mind was a Goddess Bellydance piece in which a group of ladies, all in what I would categorize as Greed Goddess Halloween Wear who then proceeded to do what looked like a cross between a kitschy temple dance, modern dance and improv tribal style. This performance was not entertainment and was not moving or dramatic, as I believe was their intention. It was confusing, odd and bizarre. I categorize these dances as Crazy Aunt Dances, because I liken it to how one feels when a family member does something wild and inappropriate at a family gathering, causing all present to trade those, "OMG what is this and when will it end???" looks. Did some people who knew the participants understand it was supposed to be a dance worshipping/honoring The Goddess? Sure. But most of the audience was perplexed, by my understanding. For the life of me, I have not seen one Spiritual Bellydance performance that did not inspire an unsettling or bizarre reaction from the audience. I really think this is because, honestly, your religious rite isn't all that entertaining to people who are wholly ignorant of what you're doing or could really care less. It's just... odd.

And finally, I don't think it works because Spiritual Bellydance, being associated with ones freedom to practice religion as they choose, opens the door for loss of form, structure and technique. Performers of Spiritual Bellydance can and, in those instances I've seen often do, eschew good posture, composition, performance value and technique all in the name of spiritual/religious expression. Instead of seeing a bellydance performance that seems cohesive and beautiful, the final product can feel like a weird mash of various elements and styles, all of which clash like a 40 piece band that has no conductor and isn't using the same music. The freedom to do whatever one chooses takes it out of the structure of being a dance form and into being freeform- and that's not bellydance. Bellydance has structure. It has a style. You wouldn't take vanilla ice cream, mix in chocolate, raspberry, peanut butter cups, sprinkles and mocha fudge ripple and sell it as Pure Vanilla Bean. Because, simply, it's not anymore. It's an odd amalgam of things that, though there is SOME vanilla in there somewhere, is far from being accurately described as vanilla ice cream.

As I said, my first exposure to bellydance was at fifteen, wherein I participated in a Winter Solstice ritual. One of the members of the coven was an Egyptian bellydancer and taught my friend and I a bit. At the ritual, she brought us up and we engaged in spiritual bellydancing as part of the festivities, undulating and snaking and zilling and using veils. It was an amazing, ethereal experience that I will not soon forget. It was precious, trance-like and free. But it was done amongst a close group of like-minded people, all there for the ritual and combining their good energy with ours. We weren't performers on a stage, we were participants in a sacred moment. And for that reason, with that experience, I can totally understand Spiritual Bellydance in a spiritual setting, but not in a general performance. In the confines of a religious/spiritual rite, it all is one fantastic event where adhering to structure and technique is not necessary. But in a public forum, it just isn't right.

Lyra out.


At 1:41 PM, Blogger Desiree said...

That was a great post, and I agree with you entirely. I'm not opposed to spiritual or ritual bellydance (far from it actually because I know that dancing for me can be a very numinous experience), but I do not understand why some people use it as a performance. I think that it is often bizarre and unsettling to watch, even if I understand the deeper implications of what they're attempting to do. I think that it should be something personal between the dancers and whatever Gods they are honoring with their dance. To present that type of dance in the context of other non-spiritual bellydance performances, in my opinion, also may cheapen it.

I wonder sometimes if the people who like to do such performances in a general bellydance venue (in contrast to a religious gathering) are really doing it to try to bring the audience into the sacred experience they are engaging in or if it is more a form of religious exhibitionism. Sometimes I fear it's more like the dancer is conveying "Oooohhh - look at me, I'm involved in an arcane-looking artform. I'm so mystical and deep!" than actually being involved in the ritual dance for its own sake. I have one or two DVDs which contain such performances.


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