Once I’ve been scrolling my Instagram feed as usual and bumped into a new word in another belly dance post…sorry, MENAHT-inspired dance post – and you’ve probably guessed what the new word was, right? In this article, I’m talking about how come we got a new style name when some of us haven’t yet processed the term Transnational Fusion and why changing names can become a tricky thing to do. But first, if you are not a belly dancer and have no idea about March 2020’s naming crisis, let me give you some context.
1. THE TRIBAL CRISIS
Belly dance is not a one-of-a-kind homogenised and unified dance style. Under the big Belly Dance umbrella there are many subdivisions and separate branches developing in different directions, undergoing their own changes and experiencing various outside influences. Remember those dancers from the Intro post who told me ‘I actually don’t like belly dance’? What they meant to say was ‘I actually don’t like the mainstream belly dance’ that you also may know as raqs sharqi, oriental dance, oriental cabaret, etc.
I and my interviewees represent the belly dance branch for many years known as tribal belly dance – until 2020, when the call from the USA was heard to ditch the word tribal from the style name (Donna Mejia, 2020; FCBD, 2020).
Why? Wait, let’s discuss why was it even called like that.
The first sprouts of tribal style emerged in the 1960s in the USA and developed into a global independent substyle in the last 20 years, first featuring the term tribal style or tribal belly dance in the late 1980s. I’m not investigating here the complicated lineage of different tribal substyles (American Tribal Style, Tribal Fusion, Improvisational Tribal Style) as that would constitute enough material for a separate article (coming soon!), so let’s just focus on the terminology. The word tribal in the name of a new belly dance substyle served for two purposes:
- to refer to the tribal aesthetic of the style, thanks to the popular in the 1980s Modern Primitive movement (large tattoos, abundant piercing, dreadlocks hairstyle) recreating and embodying the imaginative persona of Noble Savage, connected with nature and unspoiled by civilization. In this context tribal is often interpreted as ‘primordial’, ‘ancestral’, ‘ancient’, ‘ethnic’ and ‘folkloric’;
- to highlight the cohesive nature of relationships in the dance collective – it is more than just a group of dancers, it’s a dancing tribe! (Scheelar, 2012: 61) Moreover, the relationship between the dancers is often described as ‘sisterhood’ to highlight how strong and supportive the tribal dance community is (FCBD, 2020).
Thus the word tribal incorporated two main values of the style: freedom of expression and sisterhood. Based on these values, tribal belly dance is often perceived as the opposite of mainstream belly dance, providing an alternative space where dancers can challenge the conventional belly dance frames: to wear a less revealing costume or dance to non-Arabic music. Sounds legit, right?
However, now, as these values are established, the word tribal can go for retirement.
Why? Again, two reasons.
- Style’s aesthetic is no longer fitting in tribal aka ethnic, folkloric, primordial frames.
Dancers find inspiration in different epochs and styles and you do not necessarily need to look like an Amazon warrior when you go on stage. Moreover, several years ago you could even provoke some gossips if you claim to be dancing tribal but wearing a too-much-revealing-belly-dancy-style skirt (yes-yes! You would be judged by the style purists!) and now you can wear whatever you want, no one cares. I should also mention the movement influences: it is really weird when you are going on the stage introduced as a tribal dancer and then do something heavily inspired by hip hop to a piece of music that makes some sensitive ears bleed.
- The second reason is much deeper and, to be honest, I did not face it while living Ukraine.
In my language, the unusual word tribal served as an empty vessel for an unusual dance style. However, when I moved to the English-speaking environment for my studies, I’ve realised how cringe it actually sounds. For example:
– Hi, I’m Maria from Ukraine, I’m dancing tribal fusion
– Oh, I did not know there were tribes in Ukraine.
– Hi, I’m Maria, I’m dancing tribal fusion
– Oh, I know, that’s African, right?
*by the way, that’s another big topic: correctness (nope) of perceiving Africa as a monolith entity inhabited by some… mm… tribes?
We gonna talk about it at some point here in my blog too, but now let’s get back to the belly dance business. Ok guys, there is a problem. When a white chick goes on a stage and says she is dancing a ‘tribal’ dance, people with a real indigenous heritage feel some butthurt. For Ukrainians: the same as we feel seeing how Russian movies depict our nation. For Russians: same as you feel seeing the Russian mafia in Hollywood movies. Perpetuating the set of stereotypes is not cool.
Thus, the question of changing the style name escalated in March 2020, provoked a huge discussion in the tribal dance community… and wrapped up in a week because the WHO declared the global pandemic and we had to worry about much more important issues.
Now we have half of the global community who keep calling themselves tribal dancers and half adopting new names of different kinds. And I can understand the first half: imagine putting your resources in the promotion of the style name and when finally it becomes more or less recognisable for the general audience, the news is coming from far away that it’s not correct to use the word tribal anymore. Who would care, really?
However, I belong to the second half, who was happy to ditch the tribal as it no longer was representative enough to describe what I’ve been dancing. So I’ve decided to go with the fusion dance or fusion belly dance, pretty sure I’ve been doing the right thing. And when I finally admitted and accepted that I belong to a big belly dance family, suddenly the term belly dance was also on the black list. Whaaaaaat?
2. THE BELLY DANCE CRISIS
As you may guess, the term belly dance is not an authentic one. The English term is believed to be a direct translation of the French one danse du ventre that in its turn emerged thanks to the painting ‘Dance Of The Almeh’ by a french painter Jean-Léon Gérôme. Here it is:
In 1863, when the painting was first exhibited, it produced the reaction among the society that could be compared with the reaction of modern conservatives to LilNasX’s music video where he slides on the strip pole to hell (go check it if you still haven’t). The painting was claimed to be immoral and provocative, depicting some blasphemous danse du ventre – yes, this term was used primarily as a derogative one (same as if today we would call twerk a ‘booty dance’.. oh wait)! Ironically, this term appeared to be a long-living one and even made its way to other European languages. Another commonly used term, the Oriental Dance, found its way to the Arabic language and that’s how we got raqs sharki. Thus, non of these terms is an authentic name but a western invention. What are the modern ‘woke’ westerns supposed to do instead of deconstructing belly dance myths? Correct, invent one more term.
And that’s how we got the MENAHT:
- ME — Middle Eastern
- NA — Northern African
- H — Hellenic (Greek)
- T — Turkic (attention: not Turkish, but Turkic — turks, tatars, Azerbaijanis and other ethnic groups of Central Asia).
Actually, the term MENA was imported into dance studies from Geopolitics, International Trade and other serious shi… practices, where it was used since the first part of the XX century. The dance community in its turn took care of commemorating Hellenic and Turkic influence on the style and added ending -HT to MENA.
But wait, it’s a trap! The term MENA is also not ultimately correct. Check out this video with the Egyptian feminist Nawal El Saadawi who’s crashing the Europocentric approach to modern geography with her question ‘Middle to Who?’ (She Spoke The Unspeakable, 2017) If you are looking at it from London, yes, that’s the Middle East, but what if you are looking from India? From South Africa? From Australia? That’s why in some scientific circles the term WANA, Western Asia and North Africa, is promoted as a more correct version (HIIK, 2021; The Wana Institute, 2018). Well, until someone starts questioning again what is West and is North, I guess, hehe. The point is, no matter how often you change the name, it won’t become absolutely correct and acceptable for everyone.
Yes, changing the vocabulary and dance terms could be important for establishing the new image in collective memory and raising awareness about the problem (again, example for Ukrainians -> compare with #KyivnotKiev initiative). However, a name change per se should not be treated as a panacea. Deconstructing the social stigma around the old name requires a systematic change in presenting the narratives, explaining the history, adopting the holistic approach to teaching dance – not only movements but histories, socio-cultural and political aspects as well.
(that’s why I’m here, hiiiiii)
Yes, I don’t like the term belly dance either (check the name of this blog again) and the stereotypes surrounding it. But I’m working a lot on changing the perspective and educating people about my dance style. And I believe, one day it won’t be cool to be a dancer without being able to understand and explain the history behind your style. The real history I mean, not the ancient divine feminine bullshit.
So, shout out to the name-changers, both anti-tribal and anti-bellydance – focus on educating, explaining and challenging more than on exterminating the old terms. Otherwise, people on the other end of the world may have hard times understanding and approving your actions.
Donna Mejia (2020) Transnational Fusion Dance… An Open Letter to My Dance Community. Donna Mejia website. Available at: https://donnainthedance.com/2020/01/10/transnational-fusion-dance-an-open-letter-to-my-dance-community/
Fat Chance Belly Dance/ FCBD (2020) Name Change Statement. FCBD website. Available at: https://fcbd.com/name-change-statement/fireside-chats/
Gérôme, Jean-Léon (1863) Dance Of The Almeh [Painting]. Dayton Art Institute, Belmonte Park North, USA. Available at: https://www.daytonartinstitute.org/exhibits/jean-leon-gerome-dance-of-the-almeh/
HIIK (2021) Renaming of the “MENA” working group. Heidenberg Institute of International Conflict Research. Available at: https://hiik.de/2021/02/15/renaming-of-the-mena-working-group/?lang=en
Kardash, M (2020) ‘But Actually I Don’t Like Belly Dance’: Complexities of Belly Dance – Tribal Fusion Interrelations. MA Thesis for Choreomundus (NTNU, RSU, SZTE, UCA).
Lo Iacono, V. (2021) HISTORY AND ORIGINS OF BELLY DANCE. WORLD BELLY DANCE AND DANCING PORTAL. Available at: https://www.worldbellydance.com/history/
Scheelar, C.M. (2012) The use of Nostalgia in Genre Formation in Tribal Fusion Dance. University of Alberta Libraries. DOI: 10.7939/R3NH8Z Available at: https://search.datacite.org/works/10.7939/R3NH8Z
She Spoke the Unspeakable (2017) Directed by J. Nicholls. Available at: Dailymotion, https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x5cu7f1
The WANA Institute (2018) Why WANA? The WANA institute website. Available at: http://wanainstitute.org/en/why-wana