The ‘Harlem Shake,’ cultural appropriation and (con)fusion

In a truly compelling clip from MSNBC, Melissa Harris-Perry argues why the recent viral video phenomenon of masked, jerking dancing set to Baauer’s “Harlem Shake” is just another example of the misappropriation of African-American culture, in this case, a Harlem-based dance move that originated in the 1980s.

So what does this have to do with belly dance? Besides the obvious belly dance versions of the new ‘Harlem Shake’, the notions of cultural appropriation and fusion have been hot topics in the BD world for several years.

What is belly dance, how do you define it, who has the “right” (if anyone) to perform it, and when does fusion turn into (con)fusion or, worse, something downright offensive?

As Harris-Perry and residents of Harlem observed, the chaotic new ‘Harlem Shake’ craze has nothing to do with the intricate, on-beat dance steps of the original Shake. While the idea of absolute authenticity is a shaky one (after all, everything changes at some point), as is the idea that dance must be exclusive to one people or another, there’s something to be said about moving so far away from the original as to erase any hint of it. In the case of the new ‘Harlem Shake,’ the original name is used while the original dance steps and heritage are ignored; it’s false advertising at best, and total ignorance at its worst.

So what about ‘Belly Dance’ and all its recent fusions? Is there a line crossed when the movements, music and costuming are so far away from the original that they are no longer belly dance, but something else? Should fusionistas seek new names for their art, or continue to use the name ‘belly dance?’

While the dance community might be aware of the many debates, and history of the many dances under the umbrella of ‘belly dance,’ most of the general public isn’t, and will consider what they see advertised as ‘belly dance’ as just that…BELLY DANCE, just like the many ‘Harlem Shakers’ unaware of that dance’s long history believe that donning a mask and flailing is doing the shake.

Where do you stand on the new ‘Harlem Shake,’ or on fusion in belly dance?

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Sneak peak! “Dancing the Other: Belly Dance in 1920s Paris” talk at the Theatrical Belly Dance Conference

Princess Ben Madhia, c. 1920s in a Parisian jazz magazine

Princess Ben Madhia, c. 1920s in a Parisian jazz magazine

Here’s a sneak peak of my talk on the wild world of belly dance in 1920s Paris, from the world’s fairs to the ballets to the bawdy music halls. This Saturday 7/9 at the Theatrical Bellydance Conference, 1:30-2:30 pm, Room 16T, Ripley-Grier Studios (520 Eighth Avenue 16th Floor, NYC). Free for conference-goers, $5 for general public.

Paris in the 1920s was a city electrified by dance, a city that moved to the sights and sounds of the latest trends at a seemingly unstoppable pace, where belly dancers tantalized audiences at the music halls and Oriental ballets played to packed houses in the city’s opera houses. The dance scene was colored by visions of otherness, stereotypes and simplifications of movement and culture that were shaped by the French colonial mindset and the wildly successful universal expositions whose presentations of “authentic” foreign dances served as one of the primary influences on the Oriental dances that came into vogue during the height of the colonial period…This talk seeks to analyze and interpret the presentations of Middle Eastern dance at expositions, music halls and concert halls in 1920s Paris and the preceding decades as both a historical study and as a lens through which we can view our present day conflicts and considerations in Middle Eastern dance, many of which center around the intersection of authenticity, fusion and theatricality.