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Staging Unstable Bodies

Staging Unstable Bodies

The Practice of Oriental Dance in the West Within the Context of the Postmodern

by Diane Oatley

My own practice of Oriental dance and observation of the dance community in Norway have resulted in some questions relating to issues of the feminine body, and the question of the Oriental dancer as subject as opposed to specularized object. It is my thesis that Oriental dance forms stage both these positions. What I am interested in addressing is the extent to which the West has sought to reproduce “belly dance” in Orientalist trappings. Is the body that is staged but another variation on the theme of the objectification of women? Or is the practice of this dance form by western women representative of a sophisticated, interrogative body-subject,2 intent on exploring the potentials of its own erotic identity and power and the possibility for the transcendence of delimiting social constructions of gender and embodied identity? The dance form itself certainly contains the potential for this latter expression, dancer as subject exploring sexual, gender, and cultural issues. But to what extent do the particular expressions of the dance that we find in the West stage this? Are women motivated to practice and learn the dance by this potential expression? Even if they are not so motivated, which issues about their own bodies and identities do they in fact stage when practicing the dance? Lastly, as a platform for further discussion, I am interested in exploring the extent to which the resultant expressions (of necessity?) modify what is generally perceived as the authenticity of the “original” tradition.

The objectification of dancer I will term here as “flux finds form”; dancer as body-subject is then “form embraces flux”. I borrow the term “flux” explicitly from the 1996 production by the Norwegian contemporary dance company Ingunn Bjørnsgaard prosjekt entitled “The Flux Position of an Insulted Eye”. This postmodern dance piece interrogated gendered body identities with a point of departure in the portrayal of these in classical ballet. The flux position of the eye in this case implied a potential on the part of dancing bodies/identities to subvert a traditional phallic gaze, thus opening for a possibility for the creation of new images of the feminine and gender as embodied identity or dancing subject. The aspect of “flux” adheres then to a supremely postmodern aesthetic contingency—we are both a reproduction of the conventions that comprise the structural discourse we are born into while simultaneously facing the possibility of exceeding these, of being beyond them. There is a flux of sorts inherent in the dynamic between the divergent co-existent positions of such a postmodern dance landscape. The indefiniteness of seeking place outside of traditional definitions of subjectivity produces a flux related not only to gender, but also to issues specific to the lived body.

Such a perspective becomes not only more explicit, but also gains greater relevance to the concreteness of dancing bodies through phenomenological thought: Maurice Merleau-Ponty in Phenomenology of Perception maintains that a dynamic between the extremities of a scopic position vs. a more tactile, kinesthetic perceptive stance, for instance, characterizes the way in which we in our bodies address the world. He perceives the body as both subject (doing) and object (receiving, being done to) in the body’s capacity for double sensation. This, too, implicitly defines the body as dynamically divided, as both spectator/viewer of the other/dancer and as subject/doer of the dance, the other doing. And it is this very “flux” of the body between these two extremities that characterizes the nature of all movement, as an action which both informs and creates meaning, intermingling the simultaneous information of different positions: in short, Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy also underlines and addresses a supremely “postmodern” awareness with regard to issues of the body, informing the concept of flux with the visceral energy and material potential specific to bodies in movement.

Such a body in flux is potentially ever open to other ways of being/knowing as well as being a source for these. It follows then that any study or practice of movement must be attentive to this inherent precariousness, this open, dynamic indefinability, rather than striving to cement a definition, to stipulate movement as one thing once and for all. It essentially becomes obvious that a hermeneutics of movement must also be mobile in its underpinnings. It is my contention that an awareness of this mobility and the incorporation of experiential data in addressing and practicing or creating movement, can lead us to confront a wide range of issues on the body as regards instrumentality, self-perception, identity and gender. It is on the basis of such a hermeneutic starting point that I would move on to address some aspects of the practice of Oriental dance in this same postmodern dance landscape and particularly the aspects of a body in flux which Bjørnsgaard’s work—both in the piece referred to here and in other productions—so lyrically stages for us.

Authentic Reproduction or Creative Practice?

If we return again to Bjørnsgaard’s “Flux Position”, taking this piece as an expression of the status of the body and the feminine, it provides for us an image of the possibilities for subversion that are conceivable at this particular time. As such, it must certainly be perceived as a regression if women sign up in droves for Oriental dance courses (as has been the case in Norway over the past five years, where the interest and popularity of the dance has virtually skyrocketed), which, granted, give them a space within which to work through in practice questions/desires/imagings of a kinesthetic “unspeakable” nature, but which in some cases, lead to the dancers’ transcribing that same seeking body into yet another, highly specularized image of femininity. The question which then arises is whether such an expression—a feminine dancing body, the intent of which is the coveting of a phallic gaze—is in fact a given to the dance form itself. To put this in another way, when the primary focus of the practice of a dance form is essentially the attempt to copy, in this case, ancient and foreign traditional movement patterns, does the practice then become by definition representational? Is the practice non-creative to the extent that those forms diverge from what one would like to term, however problematically, any inherent need or desire to create movement, or an innovative and liberating existential space? It is my contention that it is upon owning/mastering the movement vocabulary particular to Oriental dance that the hard creative work begins, and it is at this point too that the dancer is perhaps first confronted with her own motivations and desires with regard to the type of body she is intent on staging. These are points that I will return to below.

The degree to which the movements of Oriental dance are primal, or “natural”, in other words inherent to us all, is a basic assumption often underlying their practice. Initially I believe that the practice of the basic movements that are particular to this dance form inevitably involves a sense of liberation on the part of the dancer, a sense of winning or gaining access to a source of strength and creativity in the mere execution of the movements. Here I am thinking of the basic pelvic, abdomen and hip movements in the Oriental dance vocabulary, which release constrictions that our own social norms serve in a very physical sense to enforce. This in itself holds an immediate value in the dance for western women. But again, if the energy that is released from one position of repression, as such, is then in turn reinscribed into another divergent but equally repressive representation, then the value of the aesthetic realization and projected force becomes thus another matter altogether. In the Middle East the dancer in many cases represents, contains and inhabits the locus of a highly repressed common sexual desire, the exact force of which is not to be found in western society, where one finds not only women in various stage of undress everywhere one looks, but also numerous stagings of bodies male and female in avant garde dance/theatre productions, as well as in the cinema, TV and pornography—in the media at large. The dancer practicing Oriental dance in the West cannot represent the same release and focus in any sense as she does in the Middle East. What then is the motivation of the dancer/community to reproduce/see the dance reproduced? What are the dancers seeking to create and what characterizes creative practices involved in the learning of the many dances to this tradition in itself?

The Staging of Orientalism: Cultural Identities in Flux

Wendy Buonoventura documents in Serpent of the Nile western perceptions of Oriental dance and in so doing refers to Edward Said’s work Orientalism. Although she makes visible the occidental phantasms that have contributed and continue to contribute to the shaping of the raqs sharqi2 form as practiced today—not only in the West, but also in the Middle East—she seems reluctant to take a stand as to whether in fact this has any implications with regard to the perpetuation of extremely outdated Euro-centric illusions in that practice. The extent to which raqs sharqi is in fact a living representation of a discourse about the Orient, a discourse that Said so thoroughly and indisputably documents as having in fact been in force for the entirety of western civilization, does not necessarily detract from the force of the dance as an art form. In fact, it hereby contains an enormous potential for commentary on precisely that discourse. But such a practice would again stipulate an awareness, within the dance tradition itself, of the complex and offensive perceptions of the Orient which continue to pervade the occidental consciousness, an awareness of how this might be made visible in the dance itself, and lastly a desire to comment upon, make explicit and subvert these, not least with regard to their implicit stagings of the feminine body.

That such a critical distance to the practice of the dance form is lacking in a country such as Norway is not so surprising in that the dance “tradition” in this specific case is quite young. Oriental Dance as stated above has only just begun to take off in this country—while the neighboring countries of Sweden and Finland have both had active professional communities for many years. One might describe the dominant motivation for the practice as such: a search for authentic “true” dance and movement from the Middle East and North Africa, a desire to reproduce these movements as something foreign/other to one’s own cultural context. The dance practice as such would appear to exist in a separate, closed space, resistant to the ideas about movement, the body/feminine which otherwise are in circulation within the postmodern dance community. This corresponds roughly with Said’s illustration of perceptions of the Orient as intrinsically other, a dead, non-regenerative culture, which an occidental mind alone can grant sense. He says of the Orientalist attitude that: “It shares with magic and mythology the self-containing, self-reinforcing character of a closed system, in which objects are what they are because they are what they are, for once, for all time, for ontological reasons that no empirical material can dislodge or alter ” (Said, p. 70). One might presume then that such an attitude with regard to the dance would immediately infuse it with a stagnancy, a non-creative focus—the dancer functioning with such a perception is interested in perpetuating a myth, in containing deviant aspects of the body and eroticism in a closed, implicitly dead space.

But this is not a foregone conclusion—for the aspect of a “closed system” may also inadvertently tell us something productive about our current body subject and social prescriptions for movement. We can also read it as an expression of how potentially dangerous a highly charged and sophisticated feminine erotic body remains in our time, and of how our society remains incapable of integrating the full weight of feminine sexuality into daily life, not to mention its aesthetic productions: thus the need to locate it elsewhere and produce closed landscapes wherein it may flourish. As such these landscapes become solutions or strategies rather than the problem itself. So the question becomes whether such a dance practice does in fact serve as both an expression and confirmation of certain difficult and “inappropriate” aspects of the body. One might posit that although the West does not prescribe the same social limitations on a woman’s sexuality and freedom of movement that contribute to the force of the dance in the Middle East/North Africa, we do in another fashion ascribe certain elements as taboo and/or superfluous. They remain in flux. As such it would follow that these elements must seek a space outside the accepted norms at work in society.

 

Oriental Dance as Tradition

I want to reemphasize at this point that I am describing here the specific practice of Oriental dance in the West, within the context of the current postmodern dance pool of ideas and expressions, with an eye towards exploring the specific imagings of the body which that practice represents. It is not my contention, as touched upon above, that experienced dancers in the Middle East, and elsewhere in the world for that matter, who have truly mastered the tradition in all of its complexity are staging a specularized feminine object: that the dance tradition in itself stipulates such a position, as it were. Certainly the above points would also further testify that on the contrary, when the dance is truly mastered, it offers for the viewer and the dancer a highly transcendent experience with regard to the understanding and expression of feminine sexuality and identity. This must certainly also be considered as a motivation for many new dancers learning this tradition in the West. What I am essentially trying to establish is if this is in fact the dominant motivation.

Beyond this, I am attempting to create a starting point from which to illuminate the possibilities for transcendence and empowerment or embodiment of a feminine dancing subject inscribed in the conventions of the tradition itself, and if these are somehow modified—for better or worse—in their practice in the West. What happens for instance when one displaces a movement form from one cultural context to another, as is the case with Oriental dance in the West? The displacement is often carried out by persons with only a limited understanding of the original context and tradition. I return once again to my own experiential base, that of the case of women practicing Oriental Dance in Norway, but I believe its example here is relevant to other nations as well. The majority of the current generation of practitioners in Norway have never spent any significant period of time in the Middle East/North Africa previous to their beginning to learn the dance, and their knowledge of the culture from these parts of the world has been acquired primarily through the dance form itself. What is the nature of the expressions that follow? Specifically, are these pale copies of a greater, more authentic truth, or do the women dancing truly “own” and recreate the dance?

First of all, it goes without saying that in order to identify not only deviant practices within a tradition itself, but also any possible evolution with regard to an “original” tradition, one must possess a working knowledge and solid comprehension of the tradition itself. The difficulties inherent in isolating a focus in this fashion are clear—in that raqs sharqi as a form arose in the Middle East also in relation to and based on impulses from not only western dance, but also expectations and responses from western travelers and spectators roughly throughout the course of the last century. It is then questionable whether one can unproblematically denote raqs sharqi, even as practiced in the Middle East, as being a pure dance form untainted by western perceptions that is later transported in its pure form to the West and sufficiently “polluted” by our misconceptions and misrepresentations. The very hybrid nature of this particular expression—in all of its constellations—containing as it does influences from classical ballet and modern dance, Hollywood film images, and Indian dance, illustrates clearly that it is virtually a hopeless project to attempt to distinguish a pure, original raqs sharqi form. It has been in development as a conglomeration of influences since its conception, the anchoring in the Middle East contingent upon its direct connection with and interpretation of the music created in each particular nation of its practice. The practice of raqs sharqi is nonetheless solid enough to allow for its definition as a tradition with all the accompanying conventions—its hybridity is thus one of the defining features constituting that very tradition.

Points of Intersection: Migrancy into the Flux

The hybrid nature of this tradition returns us again to concerns relevant to postmodern dance. For one finds another relevant point of intersection between the two practices within the aspects of current theater and dance production which pertain to the breakdown of traditional boundaries between performance forms or genres: the postmodern production is, in other words, by definition explicitly hybrid by virtue of its interrogative non-hierarchical stance, which always minimally questions its own position within a tradition, and further incorporates elements from the margins—text moves into dance, the elements of a happening and biography, authentic elements invade and disrupt the conventional structure of a dance or theater production (Arntzen, p. 40). It becomes pertinent to question why in such a context Oriental dance, also a hybrid form, would appear to remain in isolation in the West, in a world unto itself. Again, I refer here to the practice of Oriental dance in Norway; one may very well find examples in other western countries, for the reasons mentioned above, where the two do in fact converge and modify one another. The development and practice of the tribal dance form must certainly be a valid example in this case. One would certainly expect to find further such practices. For if postmodern dance practice continually seeks outside of its formerly established definitions, it would follow then that it is overtly open to the inbreeding of immigrant forms and understandings of performance.

Iain Chambers, in his book Migrancy, Culture, Identity, explores the significance of such immigrant esthetic expressions in the meeting with the West and other imported entities. On the issue of the sought translation of one form into another cultural context, he says the following:

If the act of cultural translation (both as representation and as reproduction) denies the essentialism of a prior, given originary culture, then we see that all forms of culture are continually in a process of hybridity. But for me the importance of hybridity is not to be able to trace two original moments from which the third emerges, rather hybridity to me is the “third space” which enables other positions to emerge”(p.67, Chambers).

Such an understanding of hybridity adheres well to the other stipulated theoretical premises of this article, namely in the sense of accepting as a given the impure, un-locatable aspects of movement and other bodily expressions. These are inherently heterogeneous, conflicting or hybrid, ever in process and as movement predicated on instability, precisely those qualities inherent to the body itself. By seeking to inhabit and give expression to a “foreign” dance practice, such as Oriental dance in Norway, or the West in general, a “third space” is potentially created that will enable “other” positions to emerge. Such a position both allows space for emergence of the “foreign” expression and a meeting with one’s own starting point in a potentially creative divergence from both. As Chambers says elsewhere in the same text, and his comments relate not only to the context of immigrant cultures and dance forms in our society, but also to our positionings with regard to the body/dance as other:

We may share the languages of representation, but your history, your experience cannot be simply exchanged for mine. Each is marked in different ways; they contain elements (linguistic, religious, cultural, historical) that are impossible to translate into the transparency of common sense. In the ensuing dialog of difference, our sense of each other is displayed, both of us emerge modified. (Chambers, p. 85, my emphasis).

My emphasis here returns us to the aspect of flux and the unstable nature of the body and movement—as such it is perhaps a given that a westerner’s practice of a “hybrid” foreign dance tradition in the West will to a certain extent also modify that same tradition. But more importantly, this process should ideally also modify the practitioner, allow them to witness a transition taking place in their own dance in the opening of the third space, and hereby the possibility of staging through the interpretation of ancient folk traditions, highly individual expressions.

Ideally, both the dancer seeking to reproduce an authentic dance from the Middle East and the dancer choosing a more deviant stance will realize in various fashions a transcendence of repressive social norms with regard to the feminine body, and thereby also inevitably that of an embodied subject. For in the specific case of Oriental dance as practiced in the West, one might go so far as to stipulate that the relationship to the imported dance form would appear to reflect a kind of nostalgia or compensation for a body-knowledge which our own current social structures do not provide space for or in any sense tolerate or produce as posited above. As such, many of the expressions that do arise are of supreme value: they grant us most obviously the beauty of an esthetic experience that exists in its own right and has value therein. Beyond this, however, such expressions also possess the potential to tell us something about our relation to the other, to the concept of Orientalism, and the body’s capacity to represent and inevitably transform the history of the contemporary subject.

Footnotes

1 The term “interrogative body-subject” draws among other things upon a postmodern understanding of the feminine body, which under a traditional masculine or phallic gaze can not exist other than as an object, i.e. a construction of that same gaze, without own intent or subjectivity. It is my contention here that Oriental dance is one of many possible dancing strategies allowing subversion of such a structure. Body-subject would then in this context imply a dancing body with subject status intact, interrogative to the extent that this same subjectivity is preoccupied with an exploration and thwarting of conventions, such as the phallic gaze, under which the female body is either non-existent or existent only as a production of male fantasy.

2. It must be understood that I am working here with a rough distinction between the practice of folk dance(s) in countries of the Middle East and North Africa, and that of raqs sharqi as a separate dance practice that has its own separate rules and conventions. Again, this is a troublesome and somewhat misleading distinction in that folk dance patterns are not only the foundation to the raqs sharqi form, but also are often performed authentically as folk dance in the night club context within which the raqs sharqi form has grown and is still commonly performed. This relates to its hybrid nature that I address below. As with any dance tradition, the various practices of Oriental dance in each of their contexts are governed by social mores and taboos. For instance, while all women may dance in the company of their families and each other, women who dance in public, in costume and for payment fall into another moral category: nice girls don’t dance in public. However, those dancers who do so and succeed in realizing a celebrity status enjoy an enormous amount of respect and adoration from the surrounding society. This serves to illustrate the significance of, as well as the complexity involved in, defining the practice of Oriental dance itself with regard to such surrounding conventions and how these have effected the development of the art form.

Bibliography

Arntzen, Knut Ove, “New Norwegian Dance in the Even Newer Mimetic Mirror” in Ballet International – tanz aktuell, 12/97.

Buonaventura, Wendy. Serpent of the Nile, Women and Dance in the Arab World. Saqi Books. London, 1994.

Chambers, Ian. Migrancy, Culture, Identity. Routledge, London/New York, 1994.

Engelsrud, Gunn, “Kroppen som subjekt” in Samtiden, 2 / 1992.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Phenomenology of Perception. Trans. Colin Smith. Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., 1962.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. Vintage Books/Random House, New York, 1979.

Originally from Greenwich, Connecticut, Diane Oatley has lived in Oslo Norway since 1982. She works with literature and dance in a number of capacities, including as a freelance writer, dance critic, translator and teacher of Oriental dance. Expressions of the (feminine) body has been an ongoing focus in her dance practice as well as in her writing, which has taken the form of essays, criticism and poetry published in newspapers, periodicals and in book form in Scandinavia, USA and Great Britain. Her focus in Oriental dance is best described as a creative exploration of its hybridity. She holds a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from the University of Oslo. email: dianeoatley@c2i.net

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