A Question of Cultural Authenticity

A Tangential Exploration by Moi
A discussion I had with a friend recently sparked this little stream of thought in concern with cultural authenticity and dance. It is a question I always ask myself again and again while learning African and belly dance. How to represent, interpret and perform something that is not “culturally” based in my own? I am neither African nor Middle Eastern, but I am fascinated with the dances from those cultures. But is it wrong for me to borrow from different cultures and interpret their styles in my own way?In the belly dance community, I have noticed a rift between the more traditional Egyptian and Cabaret dancers and the ATS style and Tribal Fusion dancers. The argument being one of preservation. The more traditional dancers seem to take great offense to the quote “bastardization” of their art form, saying that the tribal style is not “authentic.”My argument however, is that the organic roots of belly dance have no place on a stage to begin with. The moment something leaves the boundaries of its folk or ritualistic settings, it is no longer authentic, it is stage craft. The so-called “authentic” forms of Egyptian and Cabaret which are so often presented to Western audiences, is a strange blend of the folk dances from the Middle East (remnants from an even older female-oriented ritual dance) and Western dance styles. The very look of the costumes themselves were heavily influenced by American movies. So just how “authentic” is that?

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.


6 Replies to “A Question of Cultural Authenticity”

  1. thanks for this discussion britta. even the african dances change. they may have a long history, but they do change & evolve.for myself, i try to learn as accurately as i can from what each teacher is giving. then i embody it and make it my own. when you tap into oneness, which is where they all came from anyway, the movements create & dance themselves.

  2. great discussion… a book i read recently included the attempts of the author/cinematographer to "capture" the "old" ways of her own culture. I couldn't help notice that in her attempts she was actually the stimulous for change in the families she was trying to documentm, but she was in complete denial…

  3. I've been reading this book by Gabrielle Roth (she was in that film about Ecstatic Dance Deja) called "Maps to Ecstasy: Teachings of an Urban Shaman." There's a section on imitation and then ingenuity and invention. All students must imitate in order to learn any craft. This is the general rule for all art, all life really. In order to learn, we must imitate. An artist will study the masters, a writer will read and emulate the great authors of the past, and a dancer must imitate the form. But then Roth talks about the moment of inspiration, when you suddenly break out of the form and start doing something new that is completely unique to you. She calls this the moment of transition from self-conscious to pure conscious. The moment you tap into your own unique energy, your own unique style, you become the authentic individual the Universe wants you to be. In any case, all of the forms were someone's original thought at some point in history. I think finding the moment of inner authenticity in anything you are doing should be the point and I think others can tell when you are being yourself and respond to that.

  4. I appreciate the nod to all arts… It is true that your product as a teacher of any type is the student not your own ego or work. I hate it when people use the academic institution as a spring board for their own purposes without paying it forward or in some cases paying it at all. I love dancing. I like the way I can connect not only to my body but also to the rhythm. It has given me a new outlet to express myself without words. I understand the spacial conversation between my mind, body, and the music.

  5. I think you're spot-on, Britta! I think the change and evolution of all art forms is both inevitable and desirable. This change is present everywhere, in the evolution of music (Medieval to Classical to Contemporary and everything in between) and in visual arts, like how we went from classical Master paintings to Impressionism to Cubism and on and on. (I forget what order that goes in, really.) Traditionalism is wonderful and has its place, and keeps a balance from letting change and revolution run a little too rampant; but, progress/changing things is a necessary component of human creativity. Therefore, it can not be separated from any art form, which is inherently creative. Combining that idea along with the fact that the origins of bellydance are ambiguous and mulitcultural anyway, I think the tension between the styles is quite silly. All have their merits. (Did you read that article by Dr. Deagon on the topic of bellydance origins? It's brilliant.)And just think: if ballet had not changed, it would still be performed solely by very rich French men.

  6. @ ArtGirl – "I understand the spacial conversation between my mind, body, and the music." That is beautiful! @ Lauren – I think you are brilliant. I'm so blessed to have so many female friends who are so in tune with themselves.

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