An Evening of Experimental Middle Eastern Dance

A review of Dancing in the Fringe: Connections Forming An Evening of Experimental Middle Eastern Dance, by Laura Osweiler.

Dancing in the Fringe: Connections Forming An Evening of Experimental Middle Eastern Dance is an exploration of the development of experimental Middle Eastern dance in the United States within the context of “An Evening of Experimental Middle Eastern Dance” (hereinafter EEMED), an annual theatrical dance concert produced in a black-box style theater in Los Angeles, California. The author, Laura Osweiler, is the creator and producer of the annual event, which was established in the year 2000. Osweiler’s point-of-entry for her study is to examine the relationship between traditional and experimental Middle Eastern dance by analyzing the interpretations of terminology and genres used within the Middle Eastern dance community as well as the greater field of dance studies. Even for someone who has been active in the Middle Eastern dance community for many years, these terms and genres can be confusing — and oftentimes contentious — as meanings are infused with regional applications or understandings and are constantly shifting. Inconsistent application or interpretation within the community adds to the chaos. However, because we identify ourselves, recognize others, and make sense of everything around us through names and genres, they provide context and reference for the Middle Eastern dance community. While the various terms and genres within the umbrella of Middle Eastern dance imply boundaries and rules, the creative practices of the core choreographers for EEMED are constantly challenging and expanding these boundaries.

To gather data on the creative practices of the core choreographers for EEMED and unpack the relationships between traditional and experimental Middle Eastern dance, the author conducted interviews with six of the core choreographers who have long-term participation in EEMED and supported the initial development of the project. These voices are situated with two other groups: (1) various scholars in the field of dance studies (“the dance scholars”), and (2) American Middle Eastern dance writers who not only publish mainstream articles of interest to the Middle Eastern dance community but are also dance practitioners themselves. Osweiler raises an important point that both dance scholars and the American Middle Eastern dance writers have traditionally not included the voices of the participants unless they were reflecting on their own experience. In the case of this study, Osweiler brings the participants’ voices to the forefront and occasionally interjects her own views as a participant in EEMED. By exploring the EEMED choreographers’ understandings of various genres as well as the interpretations of those genres by the dance scholars and the American Middle Eastern dance writers, Osweiler is able to identify the similarities and differences in perspectives amongst the three groups and further understand the complex relationship between traditional and experimental Middle Eastern dance.

The first chapter introduces the six core EEMED choreographers and overview of their backgrounds including dance study, major influences, association with performance groups, and training in dance forms outside the Middle Eastern dance umbrella. Family heritage, education, economic class, and religious/spiritual practices are also discussed. Interestingly, all core choreographers are women (which does not reflect the norm in Western concert dance), identify strongly with being “American,” are predominantly of European descent, and all reside in the Los Angeles area (p. 5). In this Introduction, the reader is also introduced to the annual production, An Evening of Middle Eastern Dance, a collection of independent dance works performed in a black-box theater. The production utilizes lighting design and technical rehearsals which are different from traditional Middle Eastern dance venues such as night clubs, restaurants, dance studios, and dance festivals that are often held in hotel ballrooms with makeshift stages. The intimate black-box theater allows for choice-making regarding the amount of audience interaction. Dancers can engage with the audience, following the “gala-gala” tradition of belly dancers performing in a night club, or dancers can choose to metaphorically build the “fourth wall” utilized in most modern dance choreography and other theatrical performances. Unlike most traditional Middle Eastern performance events, participants must go through an audition/adjudication process. These are significant differences which allow not only the concert to be aesthetically composed by the producers through their choices of participants, but also allow the participants more creative input through their use of the performance space and lighting design.

The introductory chapter also situates experimental Middle Eastern dance as a “fringe” dance practice that skirts the boundaries of Middle Eastern dance, with traditional forms at the center. Like Isadora Duncan’s rebellion against ballet, these choreographers began creating work “as a reaction to and out of frustration with traditional Middle Eastern dance” (p. 15). The choreographers take “lines of flight” from various traditions to form something new, creating a new “space” for their artistic work that exists on the margin of traditional Middle Eastern dance, with this new space becoming their “center.” Osweiler introduces Judith Butler’s ideas of gender formation to illustrate how, through repetition, citation, and reiteration, new spaces are built that also include deviation, mutation, and instability. Rather than changing the dance genre, the core EEMED choreographers have created a new one, a “third space” that is in-between the previous center and the periphery.

The remaining dissertation is divided into three sections. Section One (Chapters 2 and 3) explores genres that fall under the broad “Middle Eastern dance” umbrella. Chapter 2 is divided into two parts. Part One focuses on the exploration of terminology associated with traditional Middle Eastern dance genres: ethnic dance, tribal dance, folk dance, and religious movement practices — which may or may not be considered as “dance” by the practitioners.  The three groups (the dance scholars, the American Middle Eastern dance writers, and the core EEMED choreographers) utilize these terms to identify dance forms that seemingly change little over time. The names assigned to these genres continue to strengthen and solidify with constant usage and repetition. These genres are associated more directly with the Middle East, are often viewed in historical contexts, and are considered “authentic,” so much in that stereotypes have formed in relation to these dances and the American dancers who perform them — for example, the Saidi girl performing a cane dance or the Hagala dancer from Egypt. However, since the core EEMED choreographers are not concerned with the reconstruction of these “authentic” dances, these dance genres serve as inspiration for experimentation and change. Part Two of Chapter 2 focuses on the genres of staged-folk dance, classical dance, and belly dance. These genres were not always viewed as traditional, but as “constructed” dances with traditional elements. While staged-folk dance was predominantly viewed as originating from traditional Middle Eastern dance, because of the adaptation, and in some cases “Westernization” of the dances (adding ballet movements, floor patterns, and choreographic elements), they were not strong traditional dances. While at one time these dances may have been considered innovative due to their incorporation of influences from outside the Middle East, these dances are now viewed as stable, defined genres.

Chapter 3 investigates dance genres associated with experimental Middle Eastern dance. Part One examines the positions of the three groups regarding the terms modern dance and post-modern dance. While the genre of modern dance obviously references the American modern dance tradition beginning with Martha Graham, it is a tradition that is constantly changing. Here Osweiler references Mark Franko’s view that modern dance is “a continual return to subjectivity” (p. 132). Each generation of choreographers makes choices on what stylistic elements — which have become tradition — of their predecessor they will keep or reject; this creates a constant oscillation between tradition and experimentation. Rather than identifying a particular genre, in the Middle Eastern dance community “modern” is used to describe the contemporary, or current, stylization of an already established genre, such as “modern belly dance.”  While the American Middle Eastern dance writers and the core EEMED choreographers do not situate modern and post-modern dance within Middle Eastern dance, the core EEMED choreographers see themselves as moving away from the predecessors’ training or style to create new dances; however, unlike the genres explored in Chapter 2, they do not necessarily look towards modern or post-modern dance as inspiration for their own creative work. Part Two of Chapter 3  considers genres most often associated with experimental Middle Eastern dance — interpretive dance, theatrical dance, fusion dance, and alternative dance. While the American Middle Eastern dance writers and the core EEMED choreographers use these terms frequently to describe experimental Middle Eastern dance, the dance scholars do not use these terms in the context of experimental dance. For the core EEMED choreographers, these genres often overlap within the same dance work, but illustrate their perspective that their dances are unique and break away from the traditional genres explored in Chapter 2. This chapter illustrates the difficulty both the core EEMED choreographers and the American Middle Eastern dance writers experience in categorizing new dance, and highlights the fact that experimental Middle Eastern dance is constantly changing and evolving and therefore cannot be labeled.

Since interviews with the core EEMED choreographers revealed a tendency to utilize the terms traditional and experimental Middle Eastern dance as broad, umbrella terms, Section Two (Chapters 4 and 5) of the dissertation analyzes these terms and situates the views of the core choreographers within dance scholarship and the American Middle Eastern dance writings. Chapter 3 explores the term “traditional” and how tradition is formed and maintained. While traditional dance is bound by rules and parameters that create a recognizable identity and distinguish it from other dance forms, these rules are bendable and may shift depending on the time, place, and other factors of a given performance event. Even with inconsistencies, tradition is established and maintained through repetition over time. Some core choreographers recognized that innovation can occur in traditional dance, but the core aesthetic characteristics remain stable. However, all core EEMED choreographers expressed that their feeling of constraint by these traditional parameters prompted them to experiment within traditional Middle Eastern dance. Interestingly, the core choreographers express a desire to keep experimental Middle Eastern dance unstable — meaning, there is a fear that what is now experimental will become a new tradition through the repetitive use of images, movements, costuming, and other aesthetic characteristics.

Section Two, Chapter 5 focuses on the characteristics and ideas that define experimental Middle Eastern dance. This is really the heart of the dissertation as the core EEMED choreographers begin to express what it is they think they do. As tradition often delivers what is “expected,” the core choreographers strive to surprise the audience, keeping them off balance, and according to one choreographer, getting the audience “to experience a sense of wonder” (p. 232). Choreographers mentioned that experimental Middle Eastern dance transcends traditional forms by expressing a range of emotions, introducing a controversial subject, and compelling the audience to ask questions though creativity, originality, and transgressing the rules of tradition. The performance space of EEMED is itself a break as the black-box theatre space affords opportunities for production innovation that would not normally be possible in traditional Middle Eastern dance performance venues, allowing choreographers to push their work beyond the parameters of traditional Middle Eastern dance. Because experimental Middle Eastern dance involves a variety of inspirations, musical choices, costumes, movement styles, and venues, it is difficult to define. In fact, many core choreographers expressed resistance to formulating a definition at all. However, as history and culture reveal, certain stylistic elements become associated with a particular time period and area; thus, the Middle Eastern dance community — including dancers, choreographers, and writers — may define experimental dance based on particular features that will undoubtedly stabilize over time and become identifiable.

Chapter 6 examines the relationship between traditional and experimental Middle Eastern dance genres. Since the core EEMED choreographers all entered into the established traditional Middle Eastern dance community first, it is this tradition that creates the scaffold upon which innovation occurs. An understanding, and even a definition, of what is traditional is important, while recognizing that there can be change in tradition and that a dance genre can progress over time. But in order to break the rules one must first know the rules. Some rules can be broken and seen by the greater Middle Eastern dance community as innovative and artistic, while other rules cannot be broken without criticism and fallout, as in the case of nudity. Experimental Middle Eastern dance may be identifiable as including Middle Eastern movement and other characteristics, but there is no longer the strong connection to actual Middle Eastern culture.   While traditional Middle Eastern dance offers safety, experimental Middle Eastern dance offers freedom. The core EEMED choreographers are able to oscillate between the two — their goal is not to destroy tradition but merely to expand. However, as they continue to develop their own artistic practices, they move away from the center space of traditional Middle Eastern dance. Although they continue to dance “on the fringe” of traditional Middle Eastern dance, their space on that fringe is growing larger.

Section Three, Chapter 7 is the conclusion of the dissertation — the analysis of experimental Middle Eastern dance as a genre and exploring genre theory. Theorists Devitt and Frow emphasize the reciprocal relationship between texts and genres — texts can participate in genres without belonging to them (p. 279). The core EEMED choreographers continue to resist defining experimental Middle Eastern dance, and the constantly changing nature of their work is the heart of this resistance to genrification. While there might be fleeting, identifiable moments of solidification, this dissolves as a choreographer moves on to create her next dance. Devitt leaves space for some genres to value variation and fluidity; however, the core EEMED choreographers continue to resist discursive practices to label their creative work within a particular genre. Rather than describing their work for what it is, they describe it by what it is not — traditional Middle Eastern dance. However, the core choreographers are hesitant to separate themselves from Middle Eastern dance as a genre and as a community. Their experimental works expand the genre and create a new discourse of Middle Eastern dance, which has developed into what Edward Soja describes as a “Thirdspace.”  This space is, by nature, a space of instability as it allows difference, newness, and even contention. While on the fringe, this space for artistic creation is malleable and changeable, constantly shifting with the potential for possibilities.

Middle Eastern dance has been dissected within the context of Orientalism, historical analysis, gender theory, a symbol of both feminine power and objectification, and as an appropriated commodity. Rarely have the experiences and perspectives of the practitioners themselves been considered. Laura Osweiler’s work brings their voices to the forefront and allows the practitioners the agency to define, or not define, what it is they do. Her work is important as it demonstrates the spaciousness and realm of possibilities within the Middle Eastern dance community. This is a significant contribution to the scholarship on Middle Eastern dance, in particular the American Middle Eastern dance community.

Candace Bordelon
Department of Performing Arts
North Central Texas College
cbordelon@nctc.edu

Sources

Interviews conducted by author/oral histories
Participant observation

Dissertation Information

University of California, Riverside. 2011. 347 pp. Primary Advisors: Sally A. Ness and Linda J. Tomko.

 

Image: Photograph by Laura Osweiler.

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