Saturday, August 7, 2010

Questioning Tribal

Above: The author in Indian drag

I guess I'm a tribal fusion bellydancer or something, so I will write about that now.

I have been grappling with my label and genre for years. The depth of my identity crisis is abyssal. I have enough creative angst for seventeen dancers.

I cannot seem to find any nomenclature for what it is that I do that doesn't feel grating. Most of this is because I spend too much time thinking about what it is I'm doing-- with dance, with my work, with my life-- than actually doing it, which I know is a problem; but some of it is also due to the fact that the genre is based in some weird ass historicopoliticocultural stuff, of which I have seen too much.

What has been seen can never be unseen.

I find the word "tribal" to be particularly problematic. Frequently I drop it entirely from my bio, and refer to myself as a "fusion bellydancer" instead, but I can't decide whether this the right thing to do or just confusing for the audience.

I feel compelled to share my questions about the genre with you, dear Interwebs, not because I can claim to have found answers-- but because I can't.

Please feel free to disagree with me, leave comments disagreeing with me, send me emails disagreeing with me, become resentful of my pseudointellectualism (I know I am), throw things at your computer monitor, etc.
Just remember, I'm not trying to tell you want to think, just to think about what you think.
I think.

Question One.
What do we mean when we say "tribal"?
It seems like, in using this word, we could be referring to one of three things:
-tribal in the sense of community-oriented;
-tribal in the sense of ethnic;
-tribal in the sense of primitive.
It seems reasonable that American Tribal Style and other group-oriented forms of Tribal can claim to be using the word in the first sense, at least in part (although this doesn't explain our costuming; see below for more about that). However, if we are talking about solo-oriented Tribal Fusion bellydance performance, it's clear that the word is being used in either the second or third sense.
Which brings me to my next question.

Question Two.
Can the word "tribal" do justice to the roots of our dance?
If we are using "tribal" to mean "ethnic"-- well, what ethnicity are we talking about? (Assuming there is no such thing as an a priori, essential "ethnic-ness" that we can refer to. I think it's a fair assumption.)
Well, let's look at our dance.
We are doing a conglomerate of movements from North Africa, Turkey and the Levant, assembled in California, while wearing shit (I mean-- beautiful textiles and jewelry) from India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. (And China, and San Francisco, and elsewhere.) Slapping a simple label on this complex melange seems to obscure the actual origins of its components.
Do you have any idea what you are wearing, where it came from, and what it meant to the people who wore it (or things like it) there?
Do you have any idea where the movements you are doing came from, and what they meant to the people who danced them there?
Do you care? Should you care?
I have noticed a trend in interviews and discussions with various 'top name' Tribal Fusion dancers towards claiming that Tribal is an inherently American dance form. This is, in my opinion, both so true and so false. Many of our movements came from American dance forms like hip hop, sure, but the base of our style, as far as I can tell, came from Jamila Salimpour and other American dancers in the 60s and 70s-- whose dance came from the Arab (and Turkish) diaspora in the twentieth century. It was not created from whole cloth in America. Can we stop talking as if it were?
Now, dance is art. Art can't survive if it can't evolve. I am NOT suggesting that we all need to be doing only "traditional bellydance" (what's that mean, anyway? whose tradition, from where and when?). I am NOT suggesting that Americans haven't contributed to the dance form. Of course we have-- even if not everyone can agree over whether what we've contributed is positive or negative. (I think it's positive, because I like diversity.)
What I'm saying is that we didn't manufacture all the building blocks we're playing with, and there's something a little icky to me in obscuring their various places of origin, even when done unintentionally.
What are we hiding and why?

Question Three.
What if we just mean 'primitive' when we say 'tribal'?
Let's say we do mean "primitive" and not "ethnic". Let's say our dance has nothing to do with any specific culture, but rather an aesthetic and a state of mind. To me this is a stretch from the outset, but I'll let it slide for the sake of this argument.
Is primitive a time or is it a place? Or is it a state of being?
Who is more primitive than whom? By whose measure?
Why are we using Near Eastern and South Asian images, ornaments and movements to convey this meaning? What are we saying about those cultures when we do this, intentionally or accidentally?
Do we really mean "atavistic"? "sensual"? "primal"? "spiritual"? "feminine"?
If so, this is modern Orientalism. In supporting this legacy, we are summarizing, simplifying, stereotyping and in many cases fictionalizing things about a complex and very real group of cultures. Not too far down this road lies a subtle and silent kind of racism, one that's all too acceptable in American culture.
I know, I know, you're not trying to represent Arabs (or whoever else) in your dance. But do you think your audiences understand that? Sure, your bellydancer audiences do, or at least they probably do. What about the rest of the world?
I'm not so sure. Are you?

The question from here is, are these the images we want to continue to portray in our dancing and in our discourse about our dancing-- or do we want to come up with something that doesn't lump our dance's cultures of origin into one faceless, voiceless gestalt? Knowing that we can't control how our audiences interpret what it is that we say, do we want to call our dance by an ambiguous and possibly inaccurate term?

I believe that what we call our dance matters, and it has implications.
I'm not sure I want to call mine "tribal" any more.

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