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William Brand

Bellydancing as a period art form?

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Belly dancing as we see it performed today is a relatively modern interpretation of ancient cultural and performing arts. The dance forms that modern groups draw from are steeped in rich traditions. That said, why do we see bellydancing at every festival under the sun?



Now before anyone thinks I'm attacking bellydancing in any way, shape or form, remember this….



My wife is a dancer. She's performed in both the tribal and cabaret styles for many years and I'm a huge fan of the art for it's cultural and performance value, as well as it's inclusive nature to both genders and all body types. My wife has won numerous awards and I've been the master of ceremonies at several dance gatherings, but even I know that the art form enjoys a vastly wider audience today, then it ever did then. 'Then' being the ages of piracy that we draw upon most, such as the buccaneer and golden age timeframes.



So, why do we accept bellydancing so readily at pirate events? I know it's our nature to romanticize anything exotic, but one is more likely to see a belly dance number at any given pirate festival, than a minuet, contredanse or allemande. We have dozens of European dances at our fingertips, and music in droves, but we celebrate an art as uncommon to our hobby as Kabuki theater.



Belly dancing did not become popular in the West until the Victorian era when it was first introduced en masse by the Orientalist painters, who romanced the art along with other customs of Egypt, Persia and Turkey. While the ancient dances which predate belly dancing as we know it existed during the Golden Age, they were extremely isolated to un-European parts of the world, and even where they were practiced, they were limited.



Even the term 'belly-dancing' is a modern invention, stemming from a mistranslation from the French in the early 1800s, so again, not historic to our hobby.



So, romanticizing aside, why do we see no ground billiards to speak of, but bellydancing is everywhere? One is very likely to trip over a doumbek, while the fiddle is found almost nowhere at all.



Now, I have heard it argued before that sailors visiting the Middle East might have seen the dance performed, but what dance? Remember, bellydancing today and as it was first introduced in the 1800s, is a romanticized version of specific dances and styles (plural). Even if a sailor had visited the Middle East for the purpose of pirating in those waters, by what name would he reference what he'd seen? Having seen any similar style of dancing, would he know it by name? And how would a sailor's exposure to it there, explain it's purveyance into our hobby when portrayed in the Colonies a full century before it was known in the West?



It's one thing to say that a sailor as a pirate or prisoner of the barbary corsairs could have witnessed the art of 'bellydancing', whatever name it might gone by in the moment, but to explain our heavy handed use of one art form everywhere, when it was limited in it's own scope then, seems, well, greatly exaggerated.



I'll gladly hear arguments for bellydancing, but only with some extant materials from the Colonies, Caribbean or Madagascar. After all, these are our proverbial playgrounds of reenactment.


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Next you'll be asking why so many people accept mermaids, fire dancing and faeries at pirate events. (Answer: I think it's overlap from Ren Fairs.)

For reference, here are some near-period drawings of mermaids.

halloween_mermaid_derceto_from_athanasiu

Derceto, from Athanasius Kircher's Oedipus Aegyptiacus (1652)

halloween_monsters_triton_and_siren_work

A Triton and a Siren of Nilus from The Workes of That Famous Chirurgion Ambroise Parey, p. 664 (1649)

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I went to a semi-local Renn Faire , and one of the Rennie "Historians" was very quick to point out the Pirates "weren't period" (see footnote)(and this was during the Pyrate Invasion weekend at the Faire.)....guess Mr. "Historian" didn't read the schedule.....

Anyway.... I informed Mr. "Historian" that in fact I was Not a Pyrate, but an importer of Belly Dancers and Turkey Legs....

I find it kinda funny that at most Renn Faires, Golden Age Pyrates are closer to the Renaissance time period, than the 14th. Century Jousters that look so cool.... go figure......

I'm not going to say anything about the waist-cinches Renn Faire Women wear......that everyone thinks is period, because like most of the other manly guys...I like the boobies.... 8)

<Footnote>... Somewhere I have a photo of me at a Renn Faire in "period" Sailor/Pyrate garb...... NO ONE KNEW WHAT I WAS DRESSED AS.........

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There was a time I would have been much more cogent on this discussion, but that was about a decade ago. Suffice it to say that while a strong argument could be made for Ottoman empire characters, costumes and portrayal. There is probably little argument that could be made for public "belly dance" performances. As you mentioned what we know as belly dance is very, very modern. So you'd need to narrow it down to a dance from a region, probably from a specific town or community and you'd have to have chosen one where public performances were the norm. And suddenly you have too many parameters for your search function to return a hit.

As to why there are more doumbek's than fiddle, I'd wager it's easier and cheaper to competently hit something than it is to draw a bow. :P

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Next you'll be asking why so many people accept mermaids, fire dancing and faeries at pirate events. (Answer: I think it's overlap from Ren Fairs.)

Aye.

I get the overlap. I happens, but it is also allowed to happen, which I find bothersome. For example, the Utah Pirate Festival is a fun little fest and in no way a reenactment of any kind. Not at all. However, I was pleasantly surprised when they invited me out specifically in an effort to raise the historic bar, which they lowered the very next year by placing me right beside the deep fried twinkie vendor and the mermaid tank. This year, we were placed next to the gas powered generators and they introduced space pirates' into the mix. Too many events are turning into a parade.

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Somewhere I have a photo of me at a Renn Faire in "period" Sailor/Pyrate garb...... NO ONE KNEW WHAT I WAS DRESSED AS.........

That's what makes you a pirate's pirate. You're a working man's pirate, not a cardboard cut-out.

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As to why there are more doumbek's than fiddle, I'd wager it's easier and cheaper to competently hit something than it is to draw a bow.

Easier to learn, but that's where it fails. I can't begin to tell you how many drumming circles I've listened to that couldn't play anything but the same rhythm for hours. Ugh. I'll take a bad fiddler over a repetitious drum line any day of the week.

But going back to the subject at hand. Bellydancing. I've been to three different events where the event planners used a variation of this very phrase...

"And of course we'll have belly dancing."

I asked one of them, 'Why, of course?"

"Well...because it's period."

"I understand why you'd think that was true. Why don't you have a piano?"

"Why would we have a piano?"

"The piano was developed in the early 1700s. It's period. So is Newcomen's atmospheric steam engine. Do you have a steam engine?"

"Well, no."

"Edmond Halley invented the diving bell in 1717. That seems more directly related to treasure seeking than an obscure amalgamation of cultural dances from a small corner of the world."

"We have bellydancing."

"Okay."

I don't think this little thread will change the pop culture trends of festivals and attendees. I just wanted to get it out there.

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I think one of the problems with this argument about belly dancers, is almost the same as Pyrate events that Host a Captain Jack Sparrow Costume Contest....

"heck with authenticity, we want entertainment...."

I'm as much of a ham as the next guy, but is gets wearisome when people/the public don't care if you are authentic or not....(and period garb is kinda drab)....They love the feathered hats, the skulls, bucket boots and all that Hollywood stuff.....That's what they think of when you mention Pyrates....

Unfortunately, I don't think people go to a Pyrate event for education.....They want to be entertained.....

.

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I think one of the problems with this argument about belly dancers, is almost the same as Pyrate events that Host a Captain Jack Sparrow Costume Contest....

"heck with authenticity, we want entertainment...."

I'm as much of a ham as the next guy, but is gets wearisome when people/the public don't care if you are authentic or not....(and period garb is kinda drab)....They love the feathered hats, the skulls, bucket boots and all that Hollywood stuff.....That's what they think of when you mention Pyrates....

Unfortunately, I don't think people go to a Pyrate event for education.....They want to be entertained.....

.

This is EXACTLY the issue !! The public goes to festivals to be ENTERTAINED. If they wanted education, they would go to museums and historic sites. As you say, authentic period garb is kinda drab. Sort of like expecting a crew of modern day construction guys to be interesting to look at.

It must be kept in mind that for an event to continue to survive and prosper, it needs to provide what the customers want. The public is far more interested in pirate stereotypes that don't require them to think or ask questions than having to wonder "How come that guy is wearing that funny-looking thrum cap and sitting there hand sewing ?". I have been doing this stuff for a great many years, and have a pretty good feel for what makes an event successful. Often, if you offer a historic presentation without a bit of excitement, your audience will soon wander off bored to watch the belly dancers. Perhaps a bit unfortunate, but true !!

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This is EXACTLY the issue !! The public goes to festivals to be ENTERTAINED. If they wanted education, they would go to museums and historic sites. As you say, authentic period garb is kinda drab. Sort of like expecting a crew of modern day construction guys to be interesting to look at.

Another comparison...the myth:

Firefighter_by_davenestler.jpg

The reality:

December-Firefighters8.jpg

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I think one of the problems with this argument about belly dancers, is almost the same as Pyrate events that Host a Captain Jack Sparrow Costume Contest....

"heck with authenticity, we want entertainment...."

I'm as much of a ham as the next guy, but is gets wearisome when people/the public don't care if you are authentic or not....(and period garb is kinda drab)....They love the feathered hats, the skulls, bucket boots and all that Hollywood stuff.....That's what they think of when you mention Pyrates....

Unfortunately, I don't think people go to a Pyrate event for education.....They want to be entertained.....

.

This is EXACTLY the issue !! The public goes to festivals to be ENTERTAINED. If they wanted education, they would go to museums and historic sites. As you say, authentic period garb is kinda drab. Sort of like expecting a crew of modern day construction guys to be interesting to look at.

It must be kept in mind that for an event to continue to survive and prosper, it needs to provide what the customers want. The public is far more interested in pirate stereotypes that don't require them to think or ask questions than having to wonder "How come that guy is wearing that funny-looking thrum cap and sitting there hand sewing ?". I have been doing this stuff for a great many years, and have a pretty good feel for what makes an event successful. Often, if you offer a historic presentation without a bit of excitement, your audience will soon wander off bored to watch the belly dancers. Perhaps a bit unfortunate, but true !!

This is Captain Twill. We're discussing historical content, not attendance or event viability. I understand why events cross pollenate everything under the sun, but please stay on topic.

Dance as entertainment is fine, so since the public at large has been mentioned, why not teach Western dance to the public with accurate instruments, period steps and enthusiastic instructors? There are so many lively dances and tavern tunes that would draw just as well. Spoonfeeding the public stereotypes is counterintuitive. One should never assume what the public is thinking, when asking the public directly is always an option.

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Actually, I find interest in historical accuracy to be on the rise at the events I attend. Michael Bagley basically carved out a small PC niche in the party atmosphere of the Pirate Fest on Put-in-Bay there which over the last 4 years has all but overtaken the Ren Fest attitude that dominated the first year of the event. In fact, most of the fantasy clothing is now on the audience, not on those who are there participating in the performances at the event. Even Fort Taylor has seen a decided shift in interest to historical-based presentation from my perspective. It grows more acute each year. This is not to say that there aren't those who enjoy the fantasy aspects, but with all the historical programs on TV, people are better informed and more interested in the historical perspective than they were when I first started doing the surgeon display.

I suspect if you put together a period accurate public dance instructional at one of these events and publicized it well, you might find interest. I also find if you repeat things like that, interest grows from year to year as word of mouth spreads. People will always enjoy things they participate in and learn from over simple presented entertainment. (I learned that from doing skills trainings a decade ago.)

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Whenever the subject comes up among dancers, they'll openly, enthusiastically speak about the ancient origins of the dance, but only readily speak of it back to the Victorian age, when it had already begun to evolve into a Western interpretation. Even the most ardent fans like me, know that bellydance enjoys only a speculative history prior to the 1800s. I know about the attributed tribal origins such as the Ouled Naïl of Algiers, and even more about the Ghawazi of Egypt, but apart from the heavily photographed victorian age, we have nothing.



Playing my own devil's advocate and introducing it at events, It would be so refreshing if a dance troupe would try to adopt one style or another. Imagine a whole group focusing on the Almeh of Egypt, who were highly educated women in poetry, art, music, dance, humorous performances, and festival entertainment. This was their vocation and it was an openly declared class of women prior to the religious bans of the 1800s. With only the slightest effort, they could portray some of the most amazing performers of history, borrowing on amazing textiles and jewelry, instead of generalized and commercialized coin belts and scarves.


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Once Upon a Time, I was in the SCA....When I moved back to California from Tennessee, the local group were all new people who decided to go Middle Eastern (I suspect so they could do belly dancing).... anyway, I decided to portray a Barbary Coast Corsair...It was fun and colorful and semi-period (remember this was the SCA...)

It was an interesting time period, and would be 'ripe" for Pyrate reenacting.... The religious aspect of the period may cause some difficult feeling in this oh so.... PC time tho....

.

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