Setting the Record Straight
Creating Middle Eastern Dance Archives
Michelle L. Forner, M.A.
This paper is a call to action for the Middle Eastern dance community to join the national dance field in an effort to better document and preserve our dance legacy. I will inform you about the opportunity to ensure that the dances we create and the traditions we perpetuate continue into the next millennium, and hope to inspire you to take the responsibility to do so.
It is ironic that one of the oldest forms of art has the least amount of documentation. This is due in part to the ephemeral nature of dance and the lack of a standard or practical way to record it in totality. By nature, dance is an oral tradition passed kinesthetically from one generation to the next. Historically, dances we group under the term “Middle Eastern dance” were not considered significant enough to seriously preserve or study. In more recent times, these dances have occupied a marginal place in society and the larger dance field. Yet particularly during the past few decades, Western interest in Oriental dance and other dance traditions from Northern Africa and Western Asia has increased. The subculture in the United States and elsewhere has grown dramatically to include many dancers who teach and perform as well as scholars and researchers who contribute to our body of knowledge. To those who wish to learn more about Middle Eastern dance forms or their derivatives, the scarcity of documentation is a familiar challenge. While the numbers are increasing, in general there are few published sources on “belly dance,” “Oriental dance,” or “Middle Eastern dance.” Available materials are not always readily identifiable in catalogs, indexes, or other listings. And most pertinent to this discussion, unpublished materials such as photographs, manuscripts, moving images, and the like are inaccessible to most except their collectors. So what are we doing to actively preserve the past and present for the future? What are we doing to create archives, collections of essential documentation that receive responsible care and housing?
Due to the growth of dance scholarship, advances in technology, increased availability of funding, and greater global interconnectedness, we are now in a prime position to promote the continuity of our art form. Since the beginning of the 1990s, leaders in American dance have elicited studies on the current state of dance archives, issued a mandate to create national documentation strategies, and developed projects to provide better access to existing records. As a dance archivist at the Library of Congress, I have participated in these endeavors for the past three years. My work processing multi?format collections that document dance forms from around the world and within the United States has reinforced my knowledge of the value and necessity of proper documentation, organization, preservation, description and access. While it is true that some individuals and organizations in the Middle Eastern dance community are making efforts in this regard, it is time for everyone to contribute to the creation of archival collections of current and historical records of Middle Eastern dance.
In this article I will introduce basic archival concepts and provide a brief overview of the national strategies to better document and preserve dance from the past, present, and future. In addition, I will suggest actions that we can take, on individual through organizational and community levels, to accomplish these goals.
The documentation of dance provides a record beyond the kinesthetic experience of creation and performance. This often entails the use of multi?format materials to record an accurate, holistic perspective on not only the movement technique and performance, but also teaching, production, cultural significance, and so on. An archival collection is essential material that is permanently available for creative, business, scholarly, and/or historic purposes. Archival materials include manuscript and printed material such as choreographic notes, lesson plans, music scores, programs, news clippings, publicity material, field notes, and interview transcripts; graphic materials such as photographs, costume and set designs, and drawings; audiovisual materials such as rehearsal and performance videotapes, documentary film footage, and sound recordings; realia such as props, costumes, and artwork; and electronic media such as computer diskettes, compact discs, and CD?ROMS. In a nutshell, the process of creating an archive or collection entails documentation, the actual recording of all aspects of dance creation, development, performance, and significance through the formats just described; organization and arrangement of the materials so that they have intellectual and physical order; preservation of materials through proper housing, storage and handling; description of the holdings through the development of inventories and catalogs; and access to the collections for those who want to use these resources.
For Middle Eastern dance archival collections, we are concerned with materials that document historical traditions as well as contemporary manifestations. We focus on activity in Northern Africa and Western Asia as well as in countries outside the traditional source, such as the United States. Primary documentation captures dancing and related activities in formats such as videotape, photographs, and choreographic notes. Secondary documentation comments on the dancing, the dancers, and so on, and can be found in materials such as books, magazines, and internet listserves. Fieldwork records the dance traditions as they occur in context, while the past is documented through postcards, writings, artwork, and “Orientalia.” All this information works together to provide a picture of the dancers and the dancing itself, the context of the dance, and the meaning and significance of the dance within the larger cultural framework.
On a national level, securing America’s diverse dance legacy has become a critical concern to leaders in the dance field. More attention has been paid to surveys that describe the state of dance documentation and preservation throughout the country. For example, a 1991 study, Images of American Dance: Documenting and Preserving a Cultural Heritage, noted the following: the lack of organized, sophisticated, and comprehensive approaches to documenting and preserving dance works and records; the immediate need to document the works and words of important dance artists before they are lost to both age and AIDS; and, most salient for us, the historical, geographical, artistic, and cultural gaps that exist in the current record of dance in the United States. In addition, other studies have found that existing materials are often not maintained properly and are therefore being lost, as well as that the expense of proper documentation and preservation is often a lesser priority to creating or performing a work.
In response to such studies, several national organizations have been formed that support more coordinated efforts to address these challenges (Table 1). The Dance Heritage Coalition (DHC), formed in 1992 with assistance from the Andrew Mellon Foundation, is a national alliance of institutions holding significant collections of material documenting the history of dance. The Coalition is comprised of institutions such as the Harvard Theater Collection, Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, the Library of Congress, the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, and the San Francisco Performing Arts Library and Museum. Its mission is to preserve, make accessible, enhance, and augment the materials that document the artistic accomplishments in dance. The DHC focuses on four areas: access to materials, documentation of dance using traditional methods and developing technologies, preservation of existing documentation, and education within and beyond the field of dance. One of its most significant projects to date was the Access to Dance Research Sources project. During a four-year period, project staff at seven libraries worked to arrange, describe, preserve, and catalog previously inaccessible holdings, as well as to develop procedural and cataloging guidelines for use with dance materials. The DHC continues to develop projects, sponsor workshops on accessing computerized information about dance, and provide assistance through outreach initiatives. For example, they publish and distribute Beyond Memory, a booklet that provides information to improve documentation and archival preservation planning for dance materials.
Another organization that was formed in response to the concern about our dance heritage is the National Initiative to Preserve America’s Dance (NIPAD). With a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts and administered through the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, NIPAD was developed as a pilot project in 1993 that made grants for dance documentation and preservation. During two funding cycles, NIPAD awarded $1 million to finance a range of projects. After a recent reassessment of the program, NIPAD has reformed with a new mission: to heighten awareness, advance knowledge, and promote the best use of methods and technologies. It plans to support model projects, collaborate on a program with the UCLA Department of Dance and World Arts and Cultures, and develop a communication campaign.
So what can we do to fill the gap in the record of our dance heritage? For starters, consider your own materials. What do you have stacked in closets and shoeboxes? Are all your videotapes labeled and organized? How about those photographs from your trip to Egypt? As it says in Beyond Memory, “individuals involved in creating and performing dance can take responsibility for documenting their art and careers and beginning to care for the documentation” (p.5). This booklet is very helpful for those beginning to create archival collections. It is available from the Dance Heritage Coalition.
Along with getting your house in order, so to speak, there are other efforts you can make whether you act as an individual dancer/teacher, organization, or community leader. For example: network with other dancers and organizations to pool ideas and resources. Contact the national dance documentation and preservation organizations to become connected to the network of information and opportunities. Seek funding for documentation and preservation projects. Check out collaboration possibilities with local archives, libraries or other pertinent arts and humanities organizations. Consider donating your collections to a dance archive at the appropriate time. These are just a few suggestions to get you thinking and acting.
We have inherited a dance form with a rich, complex history that has evolved through time and place and participants. As we stand at the start of a new millennium, we can look back at the last century as a time of immense change and growth in the field of Middle Eastern dance. What will we pass to the next era? What will serve as the bridge of documentation and preservation of our art form? At the individual, local, and national levels, we all can play an active role in securing our legacy for future generations.
Beyond Memory: Preserving the Documents of Our Dance Heritage. New York: Dance Heritage Coalition, 1994.
Forner, Michelle. The Transmission of Oriental Dance in the United States: From Rags Sharqi to “Belly Dance” (master’s thesis). Los Angeles: University of California, Dance Department, 1993.
“Images of American Dance.” Washington, DC: National Endowment for the Arts, 1991.
Johnson, Catherine. “Toward A Dance Documentation Framework Analysis and Evaluation.” Unpublished paper, n.d.
This article is the text from a presentation at the first Conference on Middle Eastern Dance in May 1997 at Orange Coast College, Costa Mesa, California.
Michelle Forner is a multifaceted professional in the Middle Eastern dance field. She performs, teaches, researches, writes and lectures about Oriental dance and related topics. Michelle earned her MA in Dance Ethnology from UCLA in 1993. Her thesis, “The Transmission of Oriental Dance in the United States: From Raqs Sharqi to Belly Dance,” describes and analyzes the dissemination of Oriental dance in America and the resulting subculture. From 1994 to 1997 Michelle archived world dance and music collections at the Library of Congress in Washington D. C., and then served as the Director of the Dance Heritage Coalition for two years. She currently lives and works in Northern California.