Is fake belly dancing a form of cultural appropriation? (Trick question: Of course it is!)

This group performed a combination Middle Eastern belly dance and a Chinese dragon dance together at a festival. No, it was NOT authentic on either count.

This group performed a combination Middle Eastern belly dance and a Chinese dragon dance together at a festival. It was NOT authentic.

I read with interest a recent Salon commentary by novelist Randa Jarrar provocatively titled “Why I can’t stand white belly dancers.” She made the point that the popularity of “belly dancing” in the U.S. often has nothing to do with the rich cultural heritage that “Eastern Dance” has in the Middle East, where she grew up. She calls out “Arab drag” at restaurants and argues with Caucasians who take up Arabic-style dancing.

Jarrar notes the origins of American belly dancing in 1890s “side-show sheikhs” with their harems of exotic dancers.

This history of Arabic cultural appropriation has similar historic parallels in the use of blackface minstrelsy and the introduction of Asian images in the American pop culture of the late 1800s and early 1900s. By today’s standard’s Al Jolson singing “Mammy” or the ghastly fake-Japanese of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Mikado” seem ludicrous, but they were common ways that Asians and blacks were portrayed more than a century ago.

You’d think we’ve progressed – and we have, in many ways. But think back just a few months ago to the American Music Awards, and Katy Perry’s ghastly faux-Orientalist performance that featured the proverbial everything-including-the-kitchen-sink array of props that signaled “Japan” and “The Orient” without actually being authentic Japanese or Asian. Just imitation Asian, like the imitation Middle Eastern exoticism of belly dancing.

In recent years a similar discussion has gone on around the origins and current state of yoga, and how far Westerners have taken it from its Hindu spiritual roots to a mere healthy-living fad.

A couple of days after Jarrar’s opinion piece, a response essay came from a white attorney, Eugene Volokh, who blogs for the Washington Post.

His equally provocatively-titled piece, “What would Salon think of an article called, ‘Why I can’t stand Asian musicians who play Beethoven’?” reminded me that people – even smart people — don’t get it.

Though I don’t think he’s racist, he’s reducing the legitimate cultural concerns of people of color down to a black-or-white, all-or-nothing argument that makes people of color the bad guys for pointing out these obvious cultural appropriations.

Volokh’s argument, of course, is that if belly dancing by white people is bad, so must be Asians playing European classical music. It’s a specious point to hide behind, as if world-class Asian musicians who play Beethoven or Bartok are practicing in simple cultural appropriation.

That’s a position he can afford to take because he’s been blessed all his life with what’s called “white privilege.”

Wikipedia explains white privilege thus: “The term denotes both obvious and less obvious unspoken advantages that white persons may not recognize they have, which distinguishes it from overt bias or prejudice. These include cultural affirmations of one’s own worth; presumed greater social status; and freedom to move, buy, work, play, and speak freely. The concept of white privilege also implies the right to assume the universality of one’s own experiences, marking others as different or exceptional while perceiving oneself as normal. It can be compared to and/or combined with the concept of male privilege.”

Most people of color that I know are familiar with this concept – even older JAs who may not be so interested in stirring the pot and complaining about such social inequities. Too many of the white people I know unfortunately don’t know the term and deny the concept.

Volokh’s response was underscored by a bunch of comments, most of which agreed with him and disparaged Jarrar. Some of the haters just plain hated; others pointed out that Jarrar was herself a cultural imperialist because “belly dancing” didn’t necessarily originate from Arabic cultures. Either way, I understand her point and it’s important not to dismiss any such discussion out of hate or defensiveness or intellectual haughtiness (or white privilege).

I’m not as much a hard-liner as Jarrar. I’ve known too many white Japanophiles who speak better Nihongo than me, who have learned Japanese dancing and music, or cooking, or folk arts, or martial arts, from authentic traditional masters. I don’t think these people are mis-appropriating our culture – my culture – for their own ends, or to show a phony appreciation for Japan or Asia.

Instead, they’re proving their real appreciation for Japanese culture.

There’s a level of respect that allows cultures to spread from one geopolitical time and place to others. And in this shrinking, connected world we live in, the spread of cultures happens even faster than ever before.

So I’m OK with teenaged fans putting on a bathrobe and thinking they’re paying homage to their favorite anime as if they’re wearing a real kimono. But not Katy Perry spending jillions of dollars barfing up Japanese stuff all over the stage.

And, I do acknowledge that the typical anime fanatic’s level of objectification is just scratching the surface, and not real. When that fan goes on to study Japanese in college and serves as a bridge for Japanese culture and commerce as an adult, I’ll know that her teenaged obsession was real and respectful.

For now, I can put up with seeing her and her friends at the Cherry Blossom Festival, and I’ll roll my eyes and put up with bad belly dancing palmed off as the “real thing” at a Middle Eastern restaurant.

UPDATE: Randa Jarrar has posted a response on Salon to the verbal attacks she’s taken from haters who disagreed with her commentary (and also noted those who were supportive). She also lists some of the most common arguments people have sent her way, in “I still can’t stand white belly dancers.”

I admire her willingness to stand her ground in the wind tunnel of public opinion against those who oppose her perspective.

(Note: a shorter version of this post was submitted for publication by the JACL’s Pacific Citizen newspaper, for which I serve on the Editorial Board.)

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5 Responses to Is fake belly dancing a form of cultural appropriation? (Trick question: Of course it is!)

  1. As an Asian American who has been studying, performing, and teaching Oriental Raqs Sharqi/Middle Eastern dance for the last 45 years…my perspective and experience has been that there is a wide range of performance of this dance in the US and around the world. Confabulation of mashed-up fusion performance which bears little resemblance to dance from the Middle East – to respectful, artistic performance which pays homage to the music, culture and art form. Those who perform under Raqs Sharqi/Oriental dance forms tend to be respectful artists who have studied the music, rhythms, and art form. Randa Jarrar’s objections to “white belly dancers” stems from the Arab equivalent of “white privilege” perspective – the brownface Orientalist façade which usually implies that “you must be born Arab to be an authentic Oriental Raqs Sharqi dancer”. As one who has performed overseas for Arabic audiences and with many different Middle Eastern orchestras – my experience has been that musicians the world over appreciate a dancer who is respectful and knowledgeable of the music and the dance art form.

  2. Gil Asakawa says:

    Hi Ma*Shuqa, thanks for posting your comment! I agree with you that there can be respectful performances of traditional arts and culture even if you’re not a member of the original ethnic community. But it takes respect and serious commitment to the artform to do it right. Thanks for reading, and then taking the time to share your thoughts….

  3. A. Towne says:

    MaShuqa, and your response to her comment, have actually highlighted one of the many problems at the core of Randa Jarrar’s very problematic essay, that is, that in order to judge whether a “white” dancer is or isn’t engaging in respectful and seriously committed work one has to ASK HER. Just as one would have to ask her her background to ascertain whether she is white and Turkish (acceptable to Jarrar, one presumes, as it’s historically part of that culture) or white and of some other background that Jarrar has ruled out-of-bounds for doing this particular dance. And it should be noted that Jarrar herself has said that intention makes no difference; if a woman looks wrong to her, she IS wrong.

    Jarrar’s original essay and follow-up both suffer from incredibly sloppy reporting and writing, and her argument seems to come down to a simple “I don’t like what you’re doing so please realize your wrongness and just stop.” There is no nuance to her argument which ranges all over the place and is so obscured by a very personal anger that it is hard to take it seriously. As a woman of Native American (and white) blood, I take the issue of cultural MIS-appropriation very seriously, but Jarrar has not helped to forward the discussion about this topic. In fact, she has trivialized it by not getting her history or facts straight, by her insistence on victimhood, and by her refusal to follow-up with any effort to address the several serious and thoughtful essays which addressed her first one. She has perpetuated the idea of herself as victim by only mentioning the flat-out racist responses she got or dismissing others as “whitesplainers”, which isn’t very helpful. If we want people to take us seriously when we, for example, denounce white men who sell “sweat lodges” as frauds, we can’t get hysterical when a white person wears a necklace we, privately, wince at.

    There’s also an argument to be made that all dance belongs to all people, as it is an art form, and the arts have always been the one place where sharing has been seen as entirely positive. I would hate to live in a world where any artist is not permitted to make art because it’s culturally taboo. Mosaic, one of my own art forms, originated in the Middle East and surrounding countries–as has so much of what we call art and culture–but I’ve never been accused of cultural appropriation because I make mosaics myself.

  4. I found this post interesting – thanks. I’m going to echo Ma*Shuqa that there is huge variation in the dance performed by non-Middle-Easern bellydancers. Some dancers may indeed be the culturally unaware fantasists that Jarrar assumes us all to be, but others have devoted their lives to study, much like the genuine Japanophiles you mention. I certainly see some highly questionable (and in some cases, distressingly orientalist) things performed in the name of ‘bellydance’, but I also know dancers who are obsessively geeky about Arabic music, are learning to speak Arabic, spend enormous amounts of time watching footage of Middle Eastern bellydance and folk dance performances, and generally have a great deal of respect for the people and culture as well as the dances.

    Another thing that I found bothersome in Jarrar’s article was that she generalised her own personal experience of Arabic dance as a social dance done in street clothes to being the only authentic/acceptable form of bellydance, thus competely erasing the existence or vaildity of the professional dancers performing Raqs Sharqi in the Middle East. It seems like she sees all ‘bellydance’ done as public entertainment as invalid or appropriative (or fake?) and a Western invention – but in fact, at least in my part of the world, most professional-level ‘white’ dancers follow fashions set by the stars of Cairo, in both costuming and dance style. And dance has been performed in public by professional entertainers in Egypt and elsewhere for a very long time, pre-dating the colonial era, although obviously that dance was different to what is performed today.

    I also agree with A. Towne above, in that I’m sure if Randa Jarrar saw one of my performances, she would judge based purely on my two-piece sparkly costume (never mind that it’s from Cairo), stage makeup (so people can actually see my face!) and pale skin that I was a disgusting appropriator of her culture. Never mind that my dance itself is as close to authentically Egyptian style dance as I can get it, or the sheer amount of care, effort and love that I put into learning about Arabic culture and music and representing it respectfully.

    If you don’t mind me sharing, I actually wrote a blog post about this issue a while back, in response to the backlash against Randa Jarrar’s original article, aimed at people within the bellydance community:

  5. Gil Asakawa says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Rasha, and the link to your post on the topic!

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