As an American and part of a multicultural nation, the idea of finding some “culture” is appealing, but I also always find myself brimming under the surface, itching to add other influences to dance which “are” authentic to my experiences of living in a multicultural world. Does this destroy the cultural authenticity of the dance or make it more authentic to my culture and my personal experiences?
Maintaining ANY form of cultural authenticity has become a challenge in our current times. Not just in dance, but in literature, art, tourism and economic development. Tourism is a big one.
A personal example I’ve witnessed was in the town of Taos, New Mexico, a mecca for artists and the Southwest enthusiast. Here you have an entire community whose economy depends on tourism and the tourists want an “authentic” Southwest experience, thus the population is forced into stagnation and fabrication. Taoseños don’t really live in mud huts anymore, spinning pottery all day, but the pretense of authenticity is part of the facade which attracts the tourists. And this occurs ALL over the world. I think it is important to maintain regional/cultural identity, but it is also impossible to freeze a place in time once it has been exposed to the larger world.
Thus with art. I think cultural art is beautiful and I admire diversity, but I would shudder at the idea of an (let’s just for argument’s sake say) American Indian artist painting buffaloes and tipis when he really wanted to paint abstract Rothko art just because the buffalo and tipi paintings were selling well to the yuppie market. I mean, think about how deplorable that is. It’s a total sell-out of the authentic “self.”
In literature, cultural authenticity is an analysis of the extent to which a book reflects the worldview of beliefs and values and depicts the accurate details of everyday life and language for a specific cultural group. Is it believable? Whose perspectives and experiences are portrayed? Who tells the story? Who is the intended audience? What are the possible connections for students? Readers from the culture of a book need to be able to identify with and feel affirmed by what they are reading; it must ring true to their lives. Meanwhile, readers from another culture need to be able to identify with and learn something of value about cultural similarities and differences. And great storytelling touches people of all cultures because it evokes emotions that have no boundaries, they are present in all human beings no matter where they come from.
I think dance is like storytelling. Sometimes you tell the story to yourself, sometimes you share it with friends and family, sometimes with students and sometimes with a wider audience. I believe the important thing to consider when you are dancing is the cultural setting. Who is your audience? What is going to move them? Are they going to understand what you are doing? If you are teaching the story, what do you want your students to learn? Why are you teaching in the first place?
I heard recently that certain so-called teachers were belittling students, being outright rude, condescending and pretentious to students who were truly seeking to learn. That is not a very good representation. Not to mention people actually paid these teachers money in order to learn more about the dance and culture and were rebuffed. If you do not want to share your culture, then for crying out loud, DON’T teach it to others! The moment you start trying to make a business out of your culture it is no longer authentic, it is a cash cow. If you dislike your students, or think you are better than them, then find something else to do! Once a thing is taught and goes beyond you, it doesn’t belong to you anymore, it belongs to the world.
Students, if you are learning a cultural dance, I think it’s important to pay homage to the place it came from and learn all you can about the context and if you are performing for audience members from the origin culture, OF COURSE you should do it as authentically as possible. Or even if you are performing to a bunch of wonderbread yuppies, if you say you are doing a regional/cultural dance, then DO that dance and don’t deviate. But if you are presenting a “Fusion” dance, where is the harm in mixing it up a bit?
I really like the Fusion style because it feels more authentic to who I am. I am the child of a multicultural world. Multiculturalism is the acceptance or promotion of multiple ethnic cultures, applied to the demographic make-up of a specific place. It is assimilation yes, but in a way, it can also be a healthy form of social integration. Granted, I am an American, and the bastardization of culture is something we specialize in, but that is my authentic culture, that’s what we do. I can’t be anything that I’m not and remain authentic to my true self. I love Flamenco just as much as Ballet, I read Russian literature right alongside the Bhagavad-Gita and then when I need a break, I read trashy American lit. I like broomstick skirts and three-piece pinstripes and Levis and Mandarin dresses. In my car right now, I’m currently listening to Led Zeppelin, Ani Difranco, M.I.A, Beats Antique and Dr. Dre. That’s who I am. I pull from all over the place.
Sometimes when I’m dancing, it feels authentic to my emotions to throw some hip-hop in there, or (insert whatever variety of dance I’m emoting here) because that is what I FEEL. I think that’s why I keep coming back to the Fusion dancers. They dance more authentically to my culture and my emotions and the stories I want to tell. That is not to say however, that I do not enjoy learning from traditional dancers, because I do, and there’s is MUCH to be learned from them.
I think some of the more traditional dancers get angry when a performer is not aware of what they themselves are doing. If you put a Fusion dance under the blanket statement of a “belly dance,” you’re going to piss the traditional dancers off. Even worse, if you do not UNDERSTAND what it is that YOU are doing, you’re going to piss people off. That’s why I ALWAYS present myself as a Fusion dancer because I do not want to offend anyone if, in the passion of the moment, I do something that is NOT a classic move. But therein lies the hazards of sharing culture…it always changes.
Once you put something out into the world, it is no longer yours. It will be interpreted differently and experienced in various ways. I guess the real question then is if you would rather keep something beautiful and moving and inspiring to yourself or if you would rather share it. Either choice is perfectly alright no matter which way you go, you just have to make that decision and live with the results.
In the belly dance community, the dance was shared and it has evolved and transformed and become something that speaks to different audiences, students and performer. But it IS speaking and that is what interests me.