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Authenticity requires context

posted in: fusion, history, Music | 0

“I think that we get squeamish about using the term “American” because we are concerned with authenticity. I do believe that it’s important to study and respect the dances that came before us and label what we do appropriately. However, I think that when we stress too much about being “authentic”, we forget what authenticity really means.

I read an article in Saveur magazine a few years ago that changed the way I think of that term. It talked about how people were going to great lengths to recreate the earliest known recipes for ravioli. In their quest for authenticity, they were ordering game and organ meats from specialty vendors on the other side of the country. They got the details right, but lost the spirit of the dish: ravioli was a thrifty food, what you made with the scraps you had left over from other dishes. The point of the article was that authenticity is meaningless without context.”

jmdruadh on Bhuz

This quote really gave me some great food for thought about our definition of authenticity in the dance. When the dances we do today were first conceived, what was the context in which it was created? Why did they move the way they did, address the music the way they did…it’s really worth thinking about. Because it can better guide us in making decisions about our adaptations or fusions which really get at the heart of the original form we are building on.

In previous articles we have explored the idea of music as the driving force, informing your movement.  For dancers seeking any sense of “authenticity” in their work, really learning the rhythms and classic musical forms of Middle Eastern dance is the first step.  But to take it further, studying the culture of the dance–the history and peoples of the region–will take it a step further. You don’t have to become a dedicated scholar of all things Middle Eastern to get some of this context, but guaranteed it will assist you in developing a clearer image of the dance in the past and how it has evolved today.

Vintage Bellydance

I came to bellydance via historical costuming.  I love love love digging around for old images and stories which inform me about the aesthetics I am trying to achieve.  The great thing about living in the modern age is that we have materials and technologies available to us which our foremothers didn’t have at their disposal.  My brand of “authenticity” bridges the gap between what was and how it might have been had they had access to the resources we have in the modern age.

For instance, whalebone was the boning of choice throughout periods of history for creating corsets; but I don’t aspire to find whalebone or even necessarily the closest thing to it when I am making an “18th century styled” corset today. Instead, I look to modern materials which give me the shape and support I am hoping to achieve, but which are more comfortable, easy to work with, and readily available. I like to imagine that if women of the 18th century had access to modern materials, these are the resources and methods they would use. The result is aesthetically honoring the classic form, but with a modern twist that makes logical sense.

This is what I think makes for a really successful fusion or modern interpretation of bellydance. Start by looking at what resources these dancers had in their day, and how the dance grew as a result of what they were exposed to musically and culturally.  Then if you want to bring it into the modern age, look to the modern equivalents of these root forms and incorporate them thoughtfully.  As with the original story about cooking ravlioli, rather than trying to recreate the exact ingredients, think about what are the modern equivalents of these ingredients which would serve your vision.  Know what the origins are, then seek the modern version for guidance in how to reinterpret the past.  This kind of study and practice allows you to create a modern interpretation of “authentic” forms/skills/presentation which really gets at the spirit of the original.

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Shay Moore is the director and primary instructor at Deep Roots Dance in Seattle, WA. She loves writing, movies, costuming, knitting, cooking, and bellydance to the moon and back again; and loves her amazing husband and doggies even more than that.

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