Pagan Studies

An author and editor looks at how we use language to communicate with other Pagans and those outside our community.

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Cultural Appropriation or Creative Expession?

I opened up my Facebook account today and was greeted by a long discussion focusing on cultural appropriation, vis-a-vis belly dancing. It appeared to be based on a Salon article titled "Why I can't stand white belly dancers."

The first thing that struck me was the confrontational nature of the headline: It wasn't belly dancing performed by white people that the author couldn't stand, it was the belly dancers themselves. If this doesn't put people on the defensive, I don't know what will. Then again, it's part of the inflammatory nature of online "journalism" these days, which uses hot-button language to increase the number of hits. (Full disclosure: I'm white, but I'm no belly dancer, and belly dancing isn't something I go out of my way to watch.)

The author of the article describes an instance in which "a white woman came out in Arab drag — because that’s what that is, when a person who’s not Arab wears genie pants and a bra and heavy eye makeup and Arabic jewelry, or jewelry that is meant to read as 'Arabic' because it’s metallic and shiny and has squiggles of some kind — and began to belly-dance."

Most of us are familiar with the offensive racial parodies used to demean African-Americans in the late 19th and early to mid-20th centuries: The use of blackface in the cinema (Al Jolson having provided an infamous example in "The Jazz Singer") is one, the pickaninny and "happily compliant" servant were others. Some offensive parodies are still with us today. The grinning Chief Wahoo mascot of the Cleveland Indians comes to mind.

But one key question, I think, is whether we're dealing with parody or something else. I don't think most belly dancers are intending to parody the dance that originated in the Middle East. I think, on the contrary, they find it appealing and want to practice it themselves. It is, after all, something that involves artistic expression, discipline and physical exertion. Most belly dancing I've seen  no matter who's doing it  seems to focus on these positive aspects of the activity, not on any sort of parody or intentional lack of sensitivity. 

Another blogger, however, points out that such a lack of sensitivity doesn't have to be intentional. "Maybe your costume revealed a taboo body part," she suggests. "You may have simply picked the wrong music for that audience because you don't know the difference between Egyptian and Turkish."

Such difficulties can be remedied by gathering information about the tradition in question. Saying, "Have you considered this information or tried this technique?" is a lot different from saying, "You can't do this because you don't have the proper ethnic background or you aren't of the proper race." That, to me, smacks of a purist approach that seeks to insulate a culture from "contaminating" outside influences, rather than one that values cultural exchange and education.

Three stark realities about the purist approach:

  • It doesn't work.
  • What you think of as "pure" probably isn't, at all, especially if you're involved in a practice that has been around for a while. Practices evolve as contexts, priorities and technologies change.
  • In fact, to go further, "purity" doesn't exist (the closest you'll probably come is Ivory soap's claim to be 99 44/100% pure).

Cultures are continually evolving and borrowing from one another. Christianity borrowed a host of traditions from various strains of Paganism: the dying-and-rising god, the divine mother, the Father in heaven ... the list is so long it might fill volumes. That doesn't mean I'm going to be offended at Christians conducting rituals based on older Pagan templates. I don't have to participate in them, and Christianity is far from the only example. All spiritual traditions have borrowed and evolved from others, whether it be linguistically, ceremonially or philosophically. Unless you live in an isolation chamber, you can't help but influence others and be influenced by them.

This, I think, is a very good thing, because it gives us an opportunity to learn from one another. I don't think those in Europe are particularly upset that elements soccer/futbol and rugby were used in the creation of U.S. and Australian Rules football. I personally would rather have the opportunity to play or observe three or four different sports than just one or two. That, to me, is what diversity is about and what makes our Earth so beautiful.

If we start saying, "Only Arabs can do this," or "Only Anglo-Saxons can do that," we not only limit ourselves, we create barriers to understanding and artistic expression. When it comes to an art form such as belly dancing, one must learn largely through experience. Imagine if Claude Monet were to walk up to a beginning art student and declare, "You can't possibly attempt impressionism, because only the French properly understand it." Or if Chuck Berry had told the Beatles, "You can't play 'Roll Over, Beethoven,' because you're not African-American don't understand the roots of rhythm and blues." Not only would artists be deprived of expressing themselves, but their potential audience would be deprived of enjoying their work.

In fact, the very nature of artistry is to experiment and create, not to be bound by any cultural status quo.

(This question is, I think, distinct from the issue of economic appropriation - aka stealing - that has taken place in numerous societies. This would include such travesties as the theft of land from Native Americans and the theft of royalties from African-American songwriters and performing artists. The problem in the latter case isn't that their culture was shared, but rather that the individual artists were denied appropriate control of and compensation for their work.)

Our goal should not be to deprive one another of artistic expression and experience, but to share it and, where appropriate, help one another gain the expertise and historical understanding needed to improve our craft  and our ability to connect effectively with our audience. That can't be done by throwing up walls and erecting metaphorical "No Trespassing" signs. It can only be done by taking the risk of allowing others to share your gift.


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Stifyn Emrys is an editor and author of eight books. He has worked as a columnist, blogger and educator. He has written both fiction and non-fiction works, including "Identity Break," "Feathercap," "Requiem for a Phantom God" and "The Gospel of the Phoenix."


  • Carol P. Christ
    Carol P. Christ Saturday, 08 March 2014

    I learned the belly dance in Lesbos in Northeastern Greece. We are near Turkey and were part of the Ottoman Empire until 1912. Here, the belly dance is part of festival dancing and Greek folk dancing on Saturday nights or at other times. Women and sometimes men do the dance together--not as a performance, wearing our "regular" clothes. The "siftateli" is not as widely danced in other parts of Greece as it is here. Too bad the US culture doesn't have places where the belly dance one of the folk dances, with the performance aspect of it less prominent. That said, the belly dance is a wonderful, body and life-affirming dance, and I am glad it is being learned by US women. I love to dance it. On "Clean Monday" last Monday I joined a Greek man and woman in the dance and later sat down at their table and made two new friends.

  • Carol P. Christ
    Carol P. Christ Saturday, 08 March 2014

    I just read the Salon article after posting the above. I think the author does raise some important issues about whether non-Arab women are now being preferred as belly-dance performers because they fit the stereotypes of a racist culture that prefers the young, slender, light-skinned, blonde. I can see why this is upsetting, as the women from whose culture this dance originated are not having their own beauty, color, and bodies affirmed by those who are now preferring to hire the "white" belly dancer. In belly-dance cultures, the slender or skinny woman is not preferred, but rather all female bodies are admired. I can see how the change to preference for women without "bellies" would also feel wrong.

  • Stifyn Emrys
    Stifyn Emrys Sunday, 09 March 2014

    Fortunately, I haven't seen much of this within the Pagan culture. When I've seen it performed at Pagan festivals and other events frequented by Pagans, performances have frequently involved dancers of diverse backgrounds and body types. I agree with you wholeheartedly in opposing the exclusion of anyone in deference to a stereotype.

  • Carol P. Christ
    Carol P. Christ Saturday, 08 March 2014

    One more thought. I think the title of the Salon article is unfortunate. What the author hates is a racist and sexist culture that prefers the young slim light skinned blonde--even when it comes to a dance originally performed by darker skinned women of many ages, shapes, and sizes. And this is something I (as a white non-professional belly dancer) hate too!

  • Greybeard
    Greybeard Monday, 10 March 2014

    In the 3rd sentence of the Salon article, the author says, "The term “belly dance” itself is a Western one. In Arabic, this kind of dance is called Raqs Sharqi, or Eastern dance." This statement recognizes that the dance is NOT native to her own culture but an "easter" import. So she is whining that someone else is copying her copy and (perhaps) doing it better. Boo Hoo. I'm crying in my pretzels.

    As for blond skinny women being being paid to dance, that's about being skinny, not about being blond. There are skinny and not so skinny women of every race. Marilyn Monroe wore size 12. Over several decades I've seen hundreds of women doing belly dances and I would be surprised if I've ever seen a woman getting paid to dance. At Goddess Fest in Boise, ID, last summer they had a stage devoted to such dancing all day and into the night. I don't think any of the dancing women got paid. They weren't all blond either.

    Borrowing from other cultures is one way of understanding and sharing. Some years ago there were Native American groups protesting when white New Age folks were doing sweat lodges and otherwise borrowing NA spiritual traditions. Other Native Americans were teaching their traditions and hoping that their white brothers would learn something from it. That learning goes both ways. We had a Lakota medicine woman as a Priestess in our coven for a while. We learned from her and she learned from us. If white Americans are learning from Arabs who shared their culture, and Arabs learned some American culture, that is better for everyone.

    I don't understand criticism mentioned about doing a Turkish dance step to Egyptian music. Perhaps both could learn something. It reminded me of how our Lakota Priestess always argued with a Diné friend about the "right" way to do a sweat lodge. If the Egyptian music has a good beat and it works with the Turkish dance, then the Turkish dance steps work with the music. Its an imported "eastern dance" in both countries as well as here.

  • Karen Paquin
    Karen Paquin Monday, 10 March 2014

    Congratulations, Stifyn! Well done.

  • aought
    aought Monday, 10 March 2014

    Randa Jarrar is also forgetting that "white" people were originally from Africa and migrated to the north, losing their skin pigmentation as they left the sunny climates. Who's to say our ancestors weren't dancing some form of Eastern Dance even then, and lost it along the way?

  • Ruth Pace
    Ruth Pace Monday, 10 March 2014

    lol - yeah, I too was wondering about that article and commented on it. I reminded the author that the dance (and the Arabic word for dance is raks) may have originated in that area of the world called the Middle East, but it started as a WOMAN'S dance, and a GODDESS dance. The abdominal movements strengthen and prepare the woman's body for childbearing. And since all women of the world have bodies meant for childbearing - any woman in the world can dance this particular dance.
    I also reminded the author that DANCE is an artform that is performed by the body. AND what we perceive has the "traditional, classic" belly dance cabaret costume was developed and designed by the white American dancer and choreographer Ruth St. Denis in the 1930s.
    AND I told her that Arab female dancers shouldn't be doing a cane dance, as that is appropriating the male shepherd's dance.

  • Literata
    Literata Tuesday, 11 March 2014

    I appreciate your points about the impossibility of achieving purity. Like Carol Christ, though, I can also see the author's perspective in terms of casting Arab women as an exotic "other." I'm glad you made the connection to minstrel performances, which most Americans understand much more viscerally as wrong.

    I think, though, that you weaken your point by implying that "parody" is the only thing that makes minstrel performances wrong; you also imply that "gathering information" can fix a seeming parody and remedy other problems. If, for example, the author wants to dissociate the image of "Arab woman" from "belly dancer," then no amount of increased information on the part of any performers will help.

  • Stifyn Emrys
    Stifyn Emrys Tuesday, 11 March 2014

    I was intentionally careful with my wording on the parody point: I wrote that it was "one" key question rather than "the" key question and followed that up with the point that a lack of sensitivity isn't always intentional. Conscious parody is usually (though not always) more blatantly offensive, and those who engage in it are most often far less willing to listen to or act upon criticism.

  • valkyr dragonborn
    valkyr dragonborn Tuesday, 11 March 2014

    as an amateur American "bellydancer" this article both astounds and disgusts me- noted professional Middle Eastern artists, musicians,dancers, etc. have all stated that yes they would love to see native dancers performing, however, no one is doing it and better Americans than no one at all! What happened to "imitation is the sincerest form of flattery?" As a part Native American I see the same thing with groups sueing universitites and schools who portray an indigenous mascot character-REALLY? you're angry because they think your ancestors were cool?

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