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ETHICS AND INTEGRITY IN FUSION DANCES of RAQS SHARQI TRADITIONS, A CONVERSATION

By Donna Mejia, MFA and Drake von Trapp, MA



As a global community, belly dance does not have a universal code of conduct that

governs the preservation of beloved raqs sharqi traditions, nor monitored practice of

innovating and remixing belly dance. This has resulted in a number of fractures

throughout the community. Yet, this dance community is not the first to face complex

questions, confusion, and tension around the trajectory of popularization, globalization,

and glocalization of a dance form. Hip Hop, Ballet, Salsa, Dabke, Samba, and many

cultural movement practices have experienced similar trajectories. Here, we propose

and invite the reader to ethical practices with the acknowledgement that as many dance

forms move through the trajectory of popularization and globalization, there are waves

of questioning, cultural collisions, new influences, and disruptive distortions through

questionable commodification of the dance. Among all of these investigative questions,

what remains painfully clear are the harms perpetuated by colonialist legacies

throughout MENAHT and Arabian Diaspora cultures. To minimize further harm, but

avoid fueling new kinds of discrimination, we wish to offer a starter kit of questions and

best practices for furthering your journey with integrity.

We crave conversation about reconciling the challenges of exploring and participating in

fusion, innovation, and preservation of traditions, which all well-studied students and

scholars of dance know has been a part of the trajectory of all dance forms. The “new”

part of this discussion is how we collectively negotiate integrity, practice cultural

humility, create a framework for continuing education and discussion, outline

responsibilities and considerations for a dancer in a style with a history of colonialism in

an era with unprecedented and lightning fast global, human connection. Rather than

perceive ourselves as arbiters of integrity in fusion, we offer this article as a mode of

furthering of the conversations we crave to have about Fair Trade Cultural Exchange:

cultural and intellectual humility through equity.

What do we mean when we say ethics? It is undoubtedly slippery due to a contentious

splitting of hairs between different fields of study and schools of thought. As the authors

of this article, to us, ethics and ethical practices should be redefined in light of our

emerging global citizenship. Previous definitions are tinged with Eurocentrism, Western

exceptionalism, colonialism with heaps of benefits reflecting the agendas of

dominator/colonizer cultures. Global citizenship implies acknowledgement of

interconnectivity, intersectionality, interdependence, our stewardship of the ecospheres

we co-inhabit, and affirmation that tradition/preservation, and innovation/remixing can

coexist meaningfully and peacefully.

For some, ethics cannot be separated from the subjective experience; the mere act of

belly dancing as someone without cultural membership to MENAHT is inherently

unethical (Jarrar 2014, “Why I can’t stand white belly dancers”). Others believe that

practicing raqs sharqi or Middle Eastern folkloric dances are permissible, but

intentionally hybridizing it with something else is like putting “ketchup on ice cream”

(2018, “Raqs Sharqi/MENAHT Dance Discussions”). History demonstrates that

restriction of someone’s activity and learning based on identity breeds an insidious kind

of discrimination that takes generations to undo. Take, for example, the discrimination

faced by the first African American Prima ballerina, the first female conductor of an

orchestra, the first indigenous race car driver, etc.

On the other side, there are those who argue that all belly dance is hybridized to a

certain extent, so the vilification of certain stylizations of fusion is hypocritical and

fallacious. While it is true that there is no “uncolonized” version of concert belly dance,

there remains two unacknowledged components of this perspective that have to do with

sovereignty and power dynamics. For example, this perspective may pose the argument

that raqs sharqi is a hybrid of belly dance mixed with elements from ballet, such as arm

positions and turns, and therefore, raqs sharqi is just as much “fusion belly dance” as

Fat Chance style. However, this neglects to take into account Egyptian agency, which

Heather D. Ward explains in this passage from her 2018 book Egyptian Belly Dance in

Transition: “The phenomena of mimicry and hybridity, when seen as important aspects

of cultural identity production, resolve the seeming contradiction posed by raqs sharqi: a

dance form that incorporates both ‘Eastern’ and ‘Western’ elements, yet that has been

embraced by Egyptians as an authentically Egyptian cultural expression. Within this

framework, the hybrid nature of raqs sharqi can be viewed as the product of Egyptian

agency, rather than a distortion of ‘pure’ indigenous dance imposed by Westerners”

(Ward 2018, 14). In other words, Ward argues that the hybridization of raqs sharqi was

a consensual choice made by these dancers as an authentic artistic expression as

opposed to forced assimilation.

By contrast, in many iterations of fusion belly dance, elements from other dance styles

and cultures are incorporated without “permission.” Moreover, there exists a different

power dynamic in these two situations: One involves a native practitioner of raqs sharqi,

a dance that is generally regarded as dubious or disreputable by its cultures of origin,

taking elements from a commercially dominant and privileged Western concert dance.

In the case of fusion belly dance, this is often a result of a dancer who doesn’t hold

cultural membership with the dances and elements they are fusing, and instead takes

them out of context for the purpose of their own artistic satisfaction, and the result does

not benefit those dances, citizens, and cultures it borrows from. All of that to say, there

are ways of hybridizing that have a net positive or a net negative impact on the dances

and cultures that are utilized, and we believe that there are ways of creating fusion belly

dance with integrity.

Yet we also share deep love, respect, and admiration for traditional practices and have

loved our own deep dives of intercultural learning. In 1967 Octoavio Paz wisely

reminded us:

“What sets worlds in motion is the interplay of differences, their attractions and

repulsions. Life is plurality, death is uniformity. By suppressing differences and

peculiarities, by eliminating different civilizations and cultures, progress weakens

life and favors death. The idea of a single civilization for everyone, implicit in the

culture of progress and technique, impoverishes and mutilates us. Every view of

the world that becomes extinct, every culture that disappears, diminishes a

possibility of life...”

For this reason we equally extoll the importance of preserving heritage, narratives, and

sovereignty of human culture. To admit that our worlds are complex, polycultural,

intermingled, and in perpetual exchange does not devalue or negate preservation

efforts. What is important, is to interrogate the hegemonic structures that forcefully

impose, disrupt, and erode treasured traditions. The interdialog of cultural exchange

cannot be vilified as problematic in that process. Truthfully, increasing the number of

peace-minded citizens who value inclusivity would make our globe a sweeter place.

Tradition and innovation matter dearly and crucially. As co-authors we refuse to argue

the value of one over the other. Instead, we intend meaningful dialog between these

things, knowing how much they equally permeate and infuse the world of dance and the

long histories of all dance genres.

Dance, like music and cuisine, frequently serves as a first ambassador for the

encountering of new cultures and identities. Dance, unlike music, visual arts, and

cuisine, suffers more accusations of cultural appropriation than fusion experiments in

music and cuisine, and visual arts—where it is vigorously celebrated and financially

rewarded. We believe this is the case for two reasons.

● The sustained subjugation of world populations, and their very bodies, through

caste systems, gender discrimination, and hegemonic colonialism.

● The human body being the “last frontier” of sovereignty, since land, property,

nature, and resources have dominantly fallen under commercial or government

control.

The experience of having one’s own embodied, intimate, personal narrative overwritten,

without consent, for exploitive purposes is a violating wound so deep that it can mangle

lives. We identify our bodies as the most sacred landscape or vessel (depending on

one’s ontology and worldview) for our consciousness. We have a birthright to our

narrative without interference. It makes complete sense that dance is an embodiment of

memories, values, and experiences we hope to celebrate or preserve.

Importantly, we must consider how the pressure to restrict each other’s cross-cultural

learning has led to a kind of discrimination that extends the pain of colonialist harm into

new generations. Breakthrough practitioners of just about any craft have become

celebrated after defying barriers placed on their identity: first African American Prima

ballerina, the first female conductor, the first indigenous golfer, the first openly queer

rapper… fill-in-the-blank. Ethical practices should be a living organism of rectifying

colonialist practices, creating fairness between all parties in the process of cultural

exchange, and continuing to dialog with restorative practices that adapt to new cultural

participants and lived experiences.

We propose expanding the definition of ethics away from a fixed point; to be, instead,

emergent ethical practices we evaluate and update on a perpetual basis. Global

citizenship implies acknowledgement of interconnectivity, intersectionality,

interdependence, stewardship of the ecospheres we co-inhabit, and very importantly,

affirmation that cultural tradition/preservation and cultural innovation/remixing can

coexist meaningfully and peacefully. We must then seek ethical practices for equality

between the parties of any cultural interchange; we must acknowledge exploitative and

violent histories, and aim to not seed further harm. Cultural collisions may be inevitable,

because culture is a dynamic, living organism always in flux, and open to broad

interpretation through each body it is introduced to. When we are willing to embrace a

longtermism perspective of how our choices and practices will reverberate beyond our

circumstances, lives, and individual timeline, we conduct ourselves in ways that

welcome accountability. We wish to offer some specific starting points for ethical

considerations and practices as our global citizenship proceeds and progresses.

FOUNDATIONAL TOOLS IN FAIR TRADE CULTURAL EXCHANGE

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was created by the United Nations in 1948

of what all humans should be able to experience in their life towards flourishing and

well-being. If ethical approaches to cultural practices and interchange are to reflect

these mutually created global values, there is some initial restorative or corrective work

to begin with regarding MENAHT citizens and cultures. Have MENAHT cultural

practices experienced an evolution and communal expression free of external

impositions such as tourism, commodification, colonization, warfare, environmental

catastrophe, religious reformation, geographic displacement, or political upheaval? No.

It is therefore imperative students and learners of all ethnicities study MENAHT cultural

practices while also learning the historic or contemporary variables that introduced

distortions, impositions, or transformations within citizens’ cultural practices (war,

religious reformation, celebrated performers, tourism, racism, economic compromise,

etc.). The context for shifts in dance traditions matters, because dance is an

archive—an experiential, embodied narrative of people’s lives and selves that should

not be dismissed or overwritten carelessly. To take great care to not supplant

someone’s lived narrative, we voluntarily examine our assumptions and power

differentials when awarding ourselves creative agency in a dance.

There is an additional perspective to consider: We must also remember that many

traditional cultural practices may validly warrant challenge. Culture is a living laboratory

for workshopping norms, and that includes cultural practices as a form of subversion

and defiance when facing hegemonically oppressive practices. If we are not clear about

how a movement experiment may impact members of a source culture, then more

research and engagement in relational learning is key.

In the world, the complexities of diplomacy and polycultural exchange require that we

begin from a place of intellectual and cultural humility; learning histories, context, and

personal narratives of the dance through active listening without trying to be extractive

of things that will personally benefit us. What might this look like in practice?

1. Welcome examinations of our positionality: the ways in which our identities

situate us, uniquely, to the dance. Both co-authors are North American, and hail

from marginalized identities in the U.S.A., yet we also have enjoyed uplifting

advantages such as scholarships for our educational explorations, and have

financially benefited as touring instructors and performers in the fusion dances of

the raqs sharqi tradition and genre. For a full disclosure of our positionalities, we

invite you to our respective websites listed at the end of this article.

2. Embrace new approaches to understanding cultural appropriation. No singular

person speaks for an entire ethnicity or culture. Acknowledging that

intergenerational complexity, if we study traditions from which we are not

endogenous, then “permission” to practice or embrace ambassadorial duties in

performance is a gradual process of accumulated consultations through sincere

relationships, friendship, alliances, and upliftment of source citizens—yielding as

many reflections and perspectives as possible. This may mean pausing on

commercial aspirations to allow our learning to season and ripen through

alliance, relationship, and mentorship. Remaining open to ongoing feedback is

vital to our lifelong intellectual and cultural humility.

3. Enjoy learning new perspectives and practices, for it brings a beautiful expansion

and dimensionalization of the self. Equally, enjoy the liberation of un-learning

colonialist practices and values that advantage dominator cultures and

perpetuate pain and dehumanization.

4. Accept that mistakes may happen, and they are an opportunity to practice

curating cultures of repair, and can impart significant learning. We want to live in

a world in which learning is not vilified or weaponized. We would rather foster

exchange and understanding over pensive withdrawal and avoidance. We may

not always find receptivity for our questions and confusions, but sometimes we

will—and learning rushes in with a vitality that rings deep and true for us. The

best part is we have the opportunity to expand our family of artistic collaborators

and meaningful friendships.

5. Embrace the “Fumble forward” framework (Mejia, 2019); avoiding new

knowledge creates a myopic perspective/worldview, and leaning away from

curiosity is a missed opportunity. Fumble Forward is a preemptive

communication offering before a question is put forth. It is a request to suspend

judgment for the next 5 minutes to allow for confusion, curiosity, and learning.

We preface our question by saying something like “I invite you to decline this

question if you prefer, but there is something I’m learning for the first time here

and I wonder if you might allow me to ask you a question. I may fumble with my

words a little, and I invite you to correct me on any misstatements or

assumptions in my question.” We must humble ourselves to the lived

experiences of those who are indigenous and endogenous to the source cultures

that inspire us. Rather than performing expertise, we can better invest energy in

locating more questions in the spirit of investigative learning. We can embrace

research versus react mode to expand any moment of inquiry and curiosity. We

can listen and observe more than talk and evaluate. We can seek to be

trustworthy so our questions will be received generously.

6. Approach polyculturalism through the “Tourist v traveler” paradigm (“Semiotics of

Tourism” Jonathan Culler, 1990). A tourist demands convenience, ease, and

immediacy without any feeling of discomfort, and craves to project fantasies

centralizing their importance onto the experience. Travelers understand they may

not have mastered the language, may experience confusion and disorientation,

may get lost, and need to ask for help; but they will be transformed by a journey

that makes it worth every weirdness.


7. And lastly, holistically invigorate one’s movement practice by actively seeking out

history, music, and socio-political education. We live in a time with

unprecedented access to information through a variety of means, and we are not

blank slates extracted from sociocultural, socioeconomic, and sociopolitical

landscapes. It is the opinion of the authors that studying these facets of dance

concurrently with a movement practice is imperative to the ethical

conceptualization of fusion.

CONCLUSION

Fusion belly dance holds the capacity for both great harm and great learning. The

practice of hybridity cannot be removed from its history of cultural collision,

appropriation, and colonialism, and the choice to endeavor in fusion necessitates an

ongoing reconciliation with one’s relationship with this history. As previously stated, this

article is not intended to be a prescriptive code of conduct for fusion dancers. Instead, it

is an invitation to join the ongoing conversation about how to navigate the complex

questions, confusions, and tensions in fusion belly dance in light of our emerging global

citizenship. Moreover, our aim is that these proposed practices will help to foster a

culture of recursive education, curiosity, and self-examination so that dancers feel

empowered to create fusion with integrity. Engaging in further research and fostering

connections across cultures isn't an exercise in confronting our shortcomings or getting

an edge on the competition in the commercial aspects of the fusion dances of the raqs

sharqi tradition. Instead, it offers us an opportunity to find deeper inspiration through

solidarity, embracing the richness of our diverse perspectives and beautiful differences.

AUTHORS

Drake von Trapp: www.DrakevonTrapp.dance Initiative Website: https://gatheratthedelta.com/

WORKS CITED

Culler, Jonathan. 1981. “The Semiotics of Tourism.” American Journal of

Semiotics 1 (1/2): 127–40.

Jarrar, Randa. 2014. “Why I Can’t Stand White Belly Dancers.” Salon, March 4,

2014.

Paz, Octavio. “The Between Mexico And Its Diverse Culture” (1967 essay

reprint). A history of Mexican literature / edited by Ignacio M. Sánchez Prado

(Washington University in Saint Louis), Anna M. Nogar (University of New

Mexico), José Ramón Ruisánchez Serra (University of Houston). New York, NY,

USA : Cambridge University Press. 2016.

8

Raqs Sharqi/MENAHT Dance Discussions, “So sick of that; just put the square peg in

the square hole and call it belly dance. Belly dance is dance to music from the

countries of origin, and plugging it into, or more accurately, laying it on top of

other music, is, to me, like putting ketchup on ice cream. There's a reason that

the dance and music developed together. Yes, it's hard to get the feeling of the

ethnic dances - but if one really wants to do it one can with study and immersion

- why just give up?” Facebook, September 1, 2018,

?comment_id=1040723626097574&reply_comment_id=1040729739430296.

Ward, Heather D. 2018. Egyptian Belly Dance in Transition: The Raqs Sharqi

Revolution, 1890-1930. Illustrated edition. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland

& Company.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, United Nations, 1948

2020.

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