Cross Training in MENAHT dances
Updated: Mar 5
Why we should explore all of the other bellydance styles and regional folk dances, and why you do not need to study European dances to be a good bellydancer.
(quick note: MENAHT stands for Middle Eastern, North African, Hellenic, and Turkish. I also mix the use of raqs/raks sharki, dans oryantal, Oriental dance, and bellydance in this article).
About Cross Training Cross training can mean a few different things, it could mean adding pilates or swimming to your fitness and movement practice to strengthen and balance you body. It can also be training in other dance forms in order to improve our raqs sharki/dans oryantal technique. This post is about the later meaning. A lot of people advocate for having a background, or adding classes, in ballet or other classical European dance styles. There are two places this is coming from, one is an innocent misattribution of where some dancers' ease of learning came from, and the other is, frankly, rooted in a colonizer hierarchy.
First, it's important that we remember this dance is whole on its own. We don't need to add other things to it in order to make it good. You certainly CAN, I really enjoy good fusion, but you don't HAVE TO. This goes for performing and it goes for practicing. Bellydance does not have the same pedagogical structure that more formal, codified European dances have, which makes it very important to find a good teacher/guidance on where to focus your energies, but that is part of the beauty of our dance. There isn't a formula made for your performance style, and there isn't a prescribed curriculum handed to us as teachers either. (You can read more about my thoughts on that in this other blog post.)
Let's Look at that First Reason
for suggesting European dance training. I think a lot of folks took ballet class as youngsters, so they have that background and feel like it helps them. The thing is, any movement practice is going to inform how you understand learning another movement practice. I took karate and horseback lessons as a kid. I think of the contact on the reins from riding as being really helpful for understanding the way we use our abs in an elastic way to hold neutral pelvis. From karate's sparring class and learning to watch the opponents' chest to anticipate how they would attack, I am waaaaaay ahead of some classmates when it comes to follow-along lessons (I just watch the small of the teacher's back). Folks get locked into thinking ballet is something everyone needs and can make everything better because of that historical power structure, but also because a lot of people got used to learning that way, so it is familiar to them, and familiar seems easier. They attribute using their previous ballet training to help them with bellydance to something fundamental about ballet pedagogy, but if you hadn't learned ballet as a youngster, would you still feel that way? Likewise, with any prior movement practice, there will be some habits you need to unlearn and reprogram. The most obvious in this dichotomy is loosening the torso and lowering the center of gravity, there is also the question of: do you dance from the floor up, or from your pelvis out? But there are also a plethora of artistic values and musicality norms that dancers may not be aware of needing to adjust during that transition.
In Some Cases,
I think students are looking for a sort of shortcut. Let's assume that the goal is to improve our raks sharki by practicing ballet arms. You'd spend hours in ballet class, no doubt getting many benefits, but a comparatively small amount of that time would specifically be spent on arms. Then you'll need to integrate what you learn there into your raks sharki practice, as well as practicing the other things you will need to be able to to in order to keep up with the class. If you goal is to enjoy trying out a ballet class and maybe improve your arms while you're at it, then this is a GREAT idea. If you are JUST looking to improve your bellydancing.... it might not be the most efficient use of your time. Maybe it's the New Yorker in me, but I prefer the direct route. So, if you're trying to improve your undulations you don't need to enroll in a swimming class and stick around until they teach the butterfly stroke, just practice your undulations for a few minutes each and every day.
It reminds me of those life-hacks: sometimes they are brilliant, sometimes they... seem unnecessarily
The other snag with cross training solely for the benefit of improving raqs is that: I like to do raks sharki! With a limited budget (in time and money), personally, I would much rather spend it ACTUALLY bellydancing than doing something in hopes that it will have the side-effect of improving my raks sharki.
Ultimately, that is what this section of the post is about: don't go “off label” and prescribe a course of action for its side effects. I think we do this because we somehow think it will make it easier, we are looking for a hack, a short cut. But you know what they say about shortcuts. Now, if those classes outside of raqs sound fun, by all means take them! They might improve your dans oryantal as a side effect, but the main effect will be that you'll enjoy them. That's why I take Tahitian classes from time to time, it's just fun! But when I want to improve my raks sharki hip work, I do it to MENAHT music in an Egyptian (or, occasionally, Turkish or Lebanese) way.
The Other Motivator
for that push to have training in European dance forms, unfortunately, comes from assumptions about the value of different dances, assumptions rooted in a colonial hierarchy of cultures, arts, and skin tone. So I'll say again, MENAHT dances don’t need westernization to “fix” or “save” or “elevate” them! A jazz dancer is told they need to cross train in ballet, because ballet is the foundation for a lot of European theatrical dances. That makes sense, But do you think a ballet dancer would ever be told they need to cross train in Romani style? A lot of this hierarchy is internalized, and often we aren't aware that is has been taught to us, so try not to get defensive of something you probably never meant to get indoctrinated with.
Here's a thought experiment, imagine those European travel journals, but with the perspective reversed. Imagine a Ghawazee dancer, if she had that imperialist attitude the colonizers showed up in Egypt with, describing a Western dance (maybe the waltz) to her friends back home, and all the ways it “failed” to live up to the artistic goals of her native dance.
We should recognize that raks sharki is just one of a myriad of dances from the MENAHT region. Many of the other dances are referenced in oriental dance songs and shows. So, just like a tap dancer takes ballet as a foundation for their education, we should cross train in MENAHT dances to ensure we have a complete education.
There have been centuries of trade and changing political lines, empires rising and falling, all across the lands that bellydance comes from. So it makes sense to study the dances that are related to, influence, and are influenced by, raqs sharki/dans oryantal.
Sometimes, we do get stuck, and need to see things from a different angle in order for them to click. People often have the impulse, for example, to seek European dance classes to "fix" whatever they are struggling with in their raks/dans journey, but try asking yourself if there is a MENAHT context you could access that from. Trying to be more earthy? How about cross training with some authentic Kawleyya style? Want to make your arms more graceful? Why not skip the ballet class and delve into an Am-Cab veil class or take a workshop in Persian court dances? You'll still need to bring these back to your sharki, but the relationship is more direct. You'll be spending time expanding your view of the dances that have influenced raqs sharki from within, instead of trying to "fix" it by adding a European dance on top of it.
if you want to engage with dance as a window, as a bridge to a culture, you can’t disembody the dance from that culture and situate it in a Euro-American mindset and a Euro-American artistic value paradigm. If you do, it will inevitably wind up in a place of appropriation. To really engage in cultural appreciation, you have to engage with the dance within its cultural context.
Imagine you are learning a new language, you have to try to think in that language. Trying to learn Oriental dance in a Western type pedagogy and context is like trying to learn Japanese while still thinking in English. Your sentence structure is going to be all mixed up AND you're going to miss all those words that don't have a direct translation. And those things that don't translate are the most important ones for, not just speaking the language, but for expanding your understanding of the world and how others see and relate to it.
There is nothing wrong with cross training outside of MENAHT dances, or with borrowing a good practice idea, but don't become so focused on the means that your it takes away from your ends. Don't make things more complicated than they need to be, and don't forget that MENAHT dance is whole and wonderful as it comes. Lastly, remember: there are no shortcuts.
I want to thank Soumaya Marose, Alia Thabit, and many of my teachers for inspiring the thoughts in this piece. And Ionah, Danita, Rosa, and other friends for sharing information that helped me learn how to articulate this. As Soumaya says, "Fuck colonialism."