The Dancer’s Body

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What a complex topic.  I have been thinking about this topic lately because my daughter came home from dance a bit perplexed as yet another person in her class had asked her if she was anorexic.

I think to some girls this may be a badge of honor – very sad.  But for my girl it was hurtful.  She is naturally extremely thin – as was set by her genetics and diet.  Our whole family is vegetarian and for the girls – this has been for their whole life.  We are not strict vegans – but are lacto, ovo, pesco vegetarian (we do not eat land animals – but do have milk, eggs and fish).  Certainly our diet is not extreme – but both girls are hearty eaters with slender bodies. I also suspect that by only have organic eggs and milk – we are avoiding lots of extra hormones that may change development – both girls are late developers.

My dancer girl is arguably very slim and looks ideal for a ballerina and I would think there may be a bit of jealous at her easy maintenance of her perfect “dancer” build.  But hers is not an un-natural body built in an extreme pursuit of an artificially slender form.  She is a very health person overall – and yes – she spends many hours a week dancing but anorexic?  No way.  I am not sure if the girls are curious, or mean to be hurtful all I know is that it makes her feel strange to have others look at her and comment – in any way (other than critique of movement and class instruction).

Dancers in general receive a lot of unwanted comments on their bodies.  They are constantly judged and compared.  There is enough strange societal pressures put on the bodies of women – for  a young dancer the pressure and criticism must be almost unbearable. Going to dance class – wearing tight clothing and often revealing, age inappropriate costumes adds to the burden of growing up.  I worry about the potentially damaging body image that will follow my daughter for the rest of her life.

At least in the oriental dance world – there is much more body and age variety and acceptance.  But it is a delicate balance with the costuming.  Movement for both oriental style as well as some western styles – can also be a bit adult.  I often ask myself if the dance instructors are aware of the age of the kids and take that into consideration… I think our studio is pretty good – but some of the routines (and costumes) we have seen at competitions are cringe worthily inappropriate – do others see that??  Is our culture so “sexual-image” over saturated that it goes un-noticed?

I find it quite amusing that as a “belly-dancer” doing a solo at a regular dance competition – my girl always has the most covered up costume.  I think it surprises many in the audience who consider this dance as very sexy and not at all appropriate for a girl to dance – but it is not – by comparison.  So add the western “cultural expectation” of oriental dance to the body image and it is quite a tightrope to walk.  At least my girl has many lovely role model dancers in the oriental realm who are all shapes and sizes.

Dancing another culture

I imagine that many of my posts will be about the issues of learning and performing dance outside of the culture of origin.  Living in a western country yet pursuing the art of dances from the middle east and Africa (primarily Egyptian style) is a delicate proposition – if you do choose to think about it at all.  I think many dancers here are blissfully unaware or not concerned with the cultural issue of appropriation and how they are perceived.  This has created quite a tension in the “Oriental” dance world.

Ok – a bit of a digression on terminology may be needed.  North Americans call it “belly-dance” but I really dislike this label, it feels dismissive of what is a very deep art form.  So for many years I have used the term “Oriental” dance – which is a closer translation from the Egyptian “dance of the east” or raks-sharki.  But the word “oriental” is itself problematic.  If I say raks-sharki, most do not know what I am talking about.  So… what to call this dance?  Sometimes I refer to it as “Egyptian” dance or Ethnic middle eastern dance – but nothing is so simple or accurate since there is many styles and forms within this dance form – so here we are??  Anyway – back to the issue at hand – how can we dance a form that is not of our culture in a way that respects its roots, history and cultural meaning when we are not within that culture and truly will never know the whole of the culture and dance role within it?

Again – many do not “care” about all this stuff – they enjoy it and just dance.  That is nice (for them) I suppose it is much more simple – but it is like the icing with no cake.  The lack of substance and meaning is very clear.  It is so very easy to make huge cultural blunders and if you dance for an arab audience it can be downright cringeworthy.  The most common issue is with lyrics – doing a dance that has no relation to what the music represents – it can go horribly wrong.  Lack of understanding the movement origins, meaning of gestures can also be problematic.

Why do it at all with so many potential pitfalls?  Well – this dance art is an amazingly personally expressive and wonderful.  It is captivating to learn, do and watch. It is also one dance form that allows for women of all ages and body types.  There is much less (or different) hang ups of with body image for the dancers – it is much more about their personal interpretation and expression of the music and the art rather than the “exterior” image.  These are some of the reasons why I do encourage my daughter to learn Egyptian dance, but mostly she is enthralled by the music and the movement and seems to have a natural affinity for it – more than other disciplines.

So as “westerners” how can we learn a dance of a culture we only grasp in the most preliminary way?  How can my girl progress in a respectful way and dance with honesty and enjoyment?  We do try to be as “educated” as possible – even if it is just scratching the surface.  Taking programs like JtE (Journey through Egypt – an educational series by a world renown dance ethnologist Sahra C. Kent) and learning some Arabic is a good start.  I think it is also really critical to study with teachers from the culture – in this case Egyptians – as much as possible.  To search for the “authentic” and focus on the clearest “Egyptian” style we can find.

I know the label of “ethnic police” is a term of derision for those of us who do pursue a more pure style and influence – but for my young dancer I think it critical that she have a solid base of “traditional” technique before she can explore more of a fusion style – or even know the movement she is actually doing.  But it is difficult to know what is real?  Or how her dancing would be seen in an authentic cultural way.  We really do not want to offend anyone, we just want to participate, enjoy and honor this dance.

Thinking about our role and being aware that we “don’t” know – is a start.

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Hello world

I am interested to share my story of raising two daughters in this often confusing world.  Trying to make them whole and happy while navigating their interests in dance and arts.  My special interest is in negotiating the realm of dance education and a mom’s perspective of this often charged art form.  How to provide the best guidance, training and enjoyment of a demanding and body conscious endeavor.  Our experiences, joy, hurt, triumphs and failures.

First a bit about me.  I am a professional women in a largely male dominated field.  Trying to succeed in my career while balancing the demands of marriage and motherhood.  Living in as a foreign national in my adopted home – but never feeling like I truly fit in.  Bringing many interesting experiences of my own in the art and dance world and raising two daughters that are in many regards so similar to me that it is scary.

I hope to discuss modern culture, history and female power.  Our role in art and dance, and how I am endeavoring to raise two lovely, talented, creative and strong women.

A bit about my girls.  One is a super talented artist – skilled in both hand and digital art.  The other is a dancer – ballet, tap, jazz, lyrical and also ethnic dance (Egyptian and middle eastern ethnic dance, “raksharki” or oriental dance – what westerners refer to as “bellydance”).  The are both super students at school, very quiet and lovely people.  But as girls in this culture they face many weird experiences as they learn to be independent and creatively expressive individuals.

My husband is a nerdy science guy – yes opposites attract.  He is pretty confused by the collective creative females he lives with.  Yet we are all intelligent and also talented in science and math.  He would prefer our daughters to pursue more safe science/math based careers and interests – and they are – but both of the girls true love and talent is in the arts.  This is an alien world for my partner and negotiating the girls interest without his full understanding can be a challenge.  I know his position is one of protection, care and love – but he is simply out numbered and baffled by “artistic types”.  He can write is own blog on how to deal!

So that is where I shall begin this exploration, rant or brag… we shall see where it goes.  I hope that it is interesting and insightful way for me to work thru things.