Reinterpreting the belly dance

Issue 

The politics of belly dancing: a choreopoem
Written by Paula Abood
Directed by Paula Abood and Jane Packham
The Performance Space
September 14-25 Wed-Sat 8pm, Sun 5pm, Thurs September 22 women only
The National Festival of Australian Theatre, Canberra, October 14-16
$10/14/18

The politics of belly dancing: a choreopoem, is an exciting new production that combines poetry, prose, music and Middle Eastern dance from the standpoint of Arab-Australian women who want to be heard on the issues of gender, cultural representation and colonialism. Green Left Weekly's JENNY LONG spoke to PAULA ABOOD about the production.

Why is it called a choreopoem?

I borrowed the word from an American woman writer, who used a text and movement to bring together stories about women. This was probably more appropriate than any other term because we dance, as well as tell stories about dance.

Within the dance we fuse traditional experimental movement pieces with voices from a range Arab women's poetry and prose. The text goes from dialogue to monologue; it crosses traditional forms and the result is very much a melding of different forms of dance as well as dance with text.

How was the idea for the play conceived and developed?

It's the voices of Arab-Australian women; these voices, and the notions in the text, represent a lot of discussions and conversations about culture, orientalism, the politics of the Middle East as well as how the West perceives and portrays Arab women as either very oppressed or exotic, veiled, alluring and elusive. We're putting Arab women's voices, which aren't often heard, in a political framework through performance.

One of the themes you take up is the role colonialism has had in stereotyping and oppressing women in the Middle East. Can you elaborate?

The choreopoem does two things: it critiques as well as reclaims certain notions and images. The critique takes up the colonisation of land, but also of Arab women and their bodies. There is also a critique of orientalism, the Western discipline which for centuries, has, in most literature and art, represented Arab men and women and Middle Eastern culture in a stereotyped, racist and very negative way. Orientalism and orientalists have shaped Western perceptions of Arabs and Arab culture. Politically, it has helped to justify intervention and colonialism in the Middle East.

A critique by women is important in order to reclaim our images. That's where we break down the stereotypes because, in the performance, we give a feminist critique on orientalism and the way Arab women are portrayed. We're also an alternative voice, an alternative image, that people can access. Distorted images abound, whether it's in magazines advertising Middle Eastern carpets, or on the television where someone, in a scarf in the desert, is selling perfume. We, as a group of active Arab-Australian women, are trying to break down those stereotypes.

How does the choreopoem portray Middle Eastern dance?

For most Westerners, the Middle Eastern dance is the belly dance. Bit it's also more than that; it's a woman in semi-dress, doing a sort of exotic strip show. There is little recognition that Middle Eastern dance is an art form which has a diversity that matches any other culture. In the West in particular, belly dancing has been pigeon-holed into a cabaret context where there's never an opportunity to explore the art form or creatively develop it.

It's not just about cultural appropriation, it's also about sexuality. Belly dancing has come to be represented as a very heterosexual dance. However, that's not the way it is for Arabs; at weddings, for instance, men will get up and dance with men, and women with women. In the West, belly dancing has been commodified and marketed as a sexy sort of thing to do, rather than an art form. Ultimately, this has an impact on Arab women who, if they want to dance, have to fit in with this context.

In terms of popularity, belly dancing is a growth industry. Western women find it exciting because it's about cross-dressing to a certain degree, and it's about being very sexual.

What are the origins of the performance group?

The group of women is called "SAFA", which is an Arabic woman's name meaning clarity. It's also an acronym for "Sydney Arab Feminists". Most of the women involved have worked in Arab-Australian theatre groups, such as TAQA, the Multicultural Theatre Alliance as well as political campaigns around racism, human rights and Palestinian self-determination.