Book Review: Midnight at the Crossroads: Has belly dance sold its soul?
Very rarely are we allowed to enjoy our dance, just for the sake of having fun with it. If we ignore the culture or change our interpretations we are accused of cultural appropriation; if we are not willing to learn, we are labelled as uncaring or shallow; if we take one form of our dance and match it to another, we are even called stupid. So what is to be done? Start crying and realise you will never be good enough? Give up belly dancing? Or become educated?
“Why shall we give up our dance when it gives us so much joy and health?”
Each option has its problems, and a book like this might have you believe there is no solution. Why shall we give up our dance when it gives us so much joy and health? Why chastise ourselves for getting it wrong when we are truly trying? Why try and know it all when thousands of years of history and knowledge can never ever be fully understood by someone outside of the local culture? And then there are those inside the culture who will call a dancer Rakkasa, be offended if a friend tells them they should dance professionally, or have to stop when they get married.
Midnight at the Crossroads is an informative non-fiction written by American dancer and researcher, Alia Thabit. She claims to have put 45 years of research into this book.
The premise is that belly dancing is not what it used to be, and implied in this, not what it should be. Thabit suggests that with many foreign dancers adopting the dance style, we have come to put ‘Western’ values on the dance which defeat its original beauty and benefits. Such ‘Eastern’ priorities include: improvisation, feeling the music, relaxing into your own unique interpretation of the music, working together with a live band, and doing the same song differently every time.
Okay, so let’s ignore the problematic terms of East and West (it is all just North from my standpoint anyway). It is true, there is much beauty in all these things. I love to improvise. If you listen, I mean really listen, to old Egyptian songs, there is no denying that such pieces are sublime, and totally different to the four by four counting of classical European music. I believe it important for any dance teacher to bring out these aspects in a class. Yet they are different, and well, difficult. Everyone comes to dance class for a different reason. Some of my students complain they have to learn technique. In the end, my view is, the more people who take up and enjoy belly dancing, the better.
“the more people who take up and enjoy belly dancing, the better”
There is much beauty in the dance as it was originally performed (and still is by many women in the Middle East today), but Thabit fails to recognise the importance of foreign dancers keeping this tradition alive. Yes, we take it into our own style, but if it were not for foreign dancers, public performances of raqs baladi would be all but non-existent. At the same time, there is much beauty, expression and creativity in choreography and perfecting technique. I agree that students miss out on a huge component of the art if they ignore its traditional values and styles, like improvising. But there is still may benefits of other approaches to dance.
It also ignores innovation. This dance form has been around for millennium. But since then society has changed. It cannot avoid adapting, and who better to adapt it than people who love it (even if they are foreigners). Is Egypt trying to hold onto its heyday from the pharaohs where it was the most prestigious power? It would be much better to develop and catch up with the times.
Whilst it is somewhat disheartening, this book is packed with interesting and useful information. I recommend that anyone interested in the historic and cultural side of our dance should read it. As such, I am giving a copy away to one lucky newsletter reader.
Enter to win
To go into the running to win a copy of Midnight at the Crossroads, please:
- Tell me what is the most interesting thing that you have learnt about our dance.
- State whether you would prefer ebook, audiobook or paperback.
- Include your name and postal address.
- Email your response to email@example.com, with the subject: Midnight Competition, by 26 August 2018.
The winner will be chosen by me based on the most creative answer. My decision is final and will be announced in next month’s newsletter.
If you would like to order a copy of the book for yourself, please visit: aliathabit.com/bellydancesoul
Let me know what you think. I would love to read your comments below.