photo by York Wilson Photography

Monday, March 10, 2008


A Quest for Authenticity

I have been thinking a lot lately about doing a post about my creative work ethic, inspired by similar posts I've read in other blogs and places online. I am always intrigued to hear what other people write about themselves and their creative processes and to find out how my process compares to theirs.
I am currently obsessed with a single theme, a quality I call "heartfelt authenticity". I realized recently that the more performances I see and the more I understand about dance in general, the more I gravitate and respond to dancers who seem to express something "authentic" from within on stage without contrivance, pretension or excessive theatricality. This doesn't require a lot of heavy emotion or onstage "venting"-- although, if this manifested in an unforced, natural way, that would certainly resonate with me. Speaking in terms of facial expression, even just a slight, actual smile conveying real happiness or enjoyment is more than enough. What I see as complete heartfelt authenticity encompasses the whole dancer; not just her face, but each nuance of movement, every gesture and articulation, and, going beyond the physical self, her creative ethic and professional attitude.
We hear a lot in the bellydance community online about what steps, costumes, and gestures are or are not culturally "authentic" within any given context. I understand and appreciate why this discussion is so important. Far too often, poorly educated dancers inaccurately label their dances as coming directly from this country or that ethnic group, while what they are doing bears little to no resemblance to the actual dances of that region, or, at best, is a poor imitation. Similarly, people are too willing to call things "(insert dance style here) fusion" when they haven't studied the dance they are "fusing" with BD on its own for even a minute. As a community and as individuals, I believe we should understand what we are doing and call things what they are, and not perform or support bad folk dances or bad fusion.
In my opinion, cultural authenticity should naturally be of paramount importance if your goal is primarily anthropological. Many of us, however, use dance as a vehicle for self-expression and wouldn't exactly identify ourselves as dance ethnologists. Cultural accuracy is not what I mean by "heartfelt authenticity" at all; in fact, I think the two can compete with each other. Striving to recreate a cultural dance you do not fully understand will only result in awkwardness. As I see it, unless you have observed and studied a folk dance until you have totally internalized it and can express it from your core without pretense, you are better off sticking to modern, "American" (or that of whatever country you hail from), or fusion styles. Why should any dancer be ashamed to call himself fusion? Isn't that far better than a dancer billing himself as, for example, Egyptian, when what he is doing is really just, say, American Cabaret? I would much rather watch a fusion dancer who dances naturally and without calculation than a folk dancer who looks like they are just "going through the motions".
Personally, I know my style is not an anthropologically accurate version of much of anything. I respect and admire dancers who can reproduce dances from another region as if they had been doing them in the womb, but I can't see myself joining their ranks any time soon. I am far too attention-deficit for such an endeavor. I'm stylistically promiscuous; I want to take classes in anything and everything dance-related. I don't like feeling like I need to edit out certain moves in order to fit into a stylistic box. If a movement feels natural and fits with the music, it meets my standards. Lately I find myself drifting away from even thinking about stylistic conventions within the realm of fusion, seeking instead whatever movements spring from within. Of course, I'm still in what I see as the early phase of my dance development. Maybe eventually I'll find one single style to call my home, but until then I will keep seeking, keep trying whatever I can.
I think we risk jeopardizing our creative potential when we allow ourselves to become too concerned with the boundaries between styles. In my opinion, no style within bellydance (or Oriental dance or raqs sharqi or what have you) is sacred. It does not diminish traditional Egyptian dance when people in other countries perform fusion variations thereof. Egyptian dance continues along its own evolutionary path, just as all the other styles change and mutate. Unlike hula, for example, this dance contains no religious meaning, and back in its birthplace, the locals are constantly changing it to fit their taste, so why can't we?
I believe that there is no pure style, no true style, no correct style. Art shouldn't be packaged with a vacuum seal, to be discarded if signs of tampering are present. Art and culture do not exist solely for the anthropologists to coolly and indifferently exhibit; they exist for every one of us to consume and digest, to recreate in our own image.
I do not begrudge anyone their right to believe what they will about the dance, to analyze it and approach it as they see fit. Quite the contrary- I am happy, for example, that there are people out there who have dedicated their dance careers to anthropological study and I feel they are doing the rest of us a great service. What they do is no less useful, in my opinion, than the dancers that relentlessly seek their own creative voice. But, at least to me, it's not any more legitimate to be a dance ethnologist than it is to be any other dancer on a quest for heartfelt authenticity.

I have to agree with you. The truth is, as far as I can ascertain, no one is really sure what constitutes "authentic" anyway. So let's stop worrying so much about cultural authenticity and concentrate on dancing from the heart instead. That means no gimmicks, for one thing!
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