The Life of a Ladybug

live with intention. walk to the edge. listen hard. practice wellness. play with abandon. laugh. choose with no regret. continue to learn. appreciate your friends. do what you love. live as if this is all there is. -mary anne radmacher

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Black Like Me

On the Bellydancers of Color tribe on, a fellow African American bellydancer shared her experience of dancing at a Black hair show. The audience and other performers were blatantly hostile and her feelings were hurt. It actually brought her to the point that she's thinking that she no longer wants to dance at Black-oriented events. Her thread and the subsequent comments made by quite a few other Black female bellydancers who've also experienced this negativity got me thinking. I haven't yet received outright "hatred" when I've told other Black folks that I'm a bellydancer. But I usually get a look or a comment that lets me know that the person thinks I am somehow "other." And, you know, that's not necessarily a bad thing. I am "other." I prefer to not go with the status quo. I like being unique. But this is not a positive reaction that I'm getting. Far too often, I've been asked why I would want to bellydance. Far too often, I've been told that this is a "White girls' thing." And I wonder where these people got that impression. It is definitely true that more White women are bellydancers in America than Black women, but we have to ask ourselves why that is. Maybe they have had more disposable income and time to devote to the art form. I think that's part of it. But I also think part of it is for the very reason alluded to above. Quite often, Black folk cannot allow for "differentness" among us. It is as if there is a proscribed way of being Black and if you go outside of that small, defined box, you are shunned from the rest of the tribe. I am so sick of this attitude. You know, I thought that we've already been through generations of Black people fighting for freedom. Our ancestors have died so that our human rights to self-determination were realized in this country. And to see that we did so much and fought so long and hard to be loosed from the shackles, only to rechain ourselves, hurts my heart and makes my stomach queasy. See, this is one of the reasons why I celebrate Kwanzaa. Because Kwanzaa is a holiday wherein we are invited and encouraged to celebrate our natural Black selves, in all our incarnations and in all our beauty. Self-determination and creativity are two of the principles that we are to live by all year long. We are called upon to name and claim ourselves and to do something to add beauty to our community and our world. As a Black bellydancer, is this not what I'm doing? I revel in my ability to decide for myself what gives me the most joy and pursue those things. I am happy that others have purchased with their blood, our right to sport whatever hair style we like; rock whatever clothes we like; listen to whatever music we like; and be whoever the freak we like without having to answer to others. I mean, really ... what are you - "The Black Police???" I don't need anyone to tell me what Black looks like. I know what it looks like. It looks like me, my parents, my grandparents, my aunts, uncles, cousins, friends ... and we all look different. And my GOD what a boring people we would be if we all did the same thing. Often, we refer to ourselves as a "nation" of people. Do we all expect an entire nation to be so monolithic? I am saddened by our inability to delight in one another's differences. I am saddened by our youngsters only being exposed to hip-hop and raised to believe that, should they, for instance, prefer hard rock, they are somehow less Black. I am saddened that, in some people's eyes, if one chooses to relax her hair, she is trying to be White. I am saddened that, should I dance out on stage in front of an audience of my peers, they may greet me with silence and only feel free to compliment me in whispers, away from the crowd. You should be sad, too.


At March 29, 2006 3:43 PM, Anonymous Mel said...

Toya, I love you and your otherliness! Then again, I often find myself in the 'other' category, so maybe I'm biased. While I understand the urge to avoid Black-oriented events when you continually face rejection, I'd hate for you or the other young lady to do that. The ignorant need to be educated. The longer we let them bask in their stupidity, the dumber they get! So, dance on, my sistas, dance on!!

At March 29, 2006 4:52 PM, Anonymous rachel said...

Fantastic post, Toya.

At March 30, 2006 12:39 PM, Blogger Amy said...

You need to submit this to Gilded Serpent or Hip Circle or another BD magazine - it's a valuable discussion! I think we are very lucky with the Baltimore BD scene - it's very diverse in multiple aspects.

How is it for you, being involved with tribal dance? It does seem a lot Whiter (in the dancer demographic) than other styles of BD, at least in this area.

At March 30, 2006 12:51 PM, Blogger Toya said...

You know what, Amy? I'm gonna really think about it. I, too, think it's a valuable discussion and one that we need to be having.

Tribal dance is "Whiter" in demographics than cabaret dancing, at least in this area. I also think it has to do with "differentness". I mean, being a bellydancer is different enough, but tribal is way out there. Truthfully, I think some Black folk would react to it as a bunch of White people trying to appropriate tribal cultural expression. Also, the offshoots like urban tribal and gothic bellydance would really be too much.

At April 01, 2006 12:10 AM, Blogger Amy said...

Got for it! I think,especially considering your points during the Rakkasah uproar, it would be a very timely piece.

I have read how the term "tribal" can have a lot of different meaning to people. It's interesting, because people all over the world have had tribes, and in a way it's natural to extend that term to any tight knit group. Something I'm curious about is what exactly is (from your point above) tribal cultural expression (as it is used in this context)?

I guess what I'm thinking is, there is nothing wrong with drawing from the culture of worldwide tribes. But within the scope of bellydance, it is more appropriate to draw from a tribal culture of the area of the dance (North Africa to India) as opposed to the native tribes of many dancers backgrounds or geographic areas (i.e. North American Native tribes, or my personal background as someone of French/Irish descent ). With history and economic development, etc., some people are closer to the tribal origins (or are still living within a tribal system) of their area or personal backgrounds. For many current dancers, it would not be accurate to draw from their personal tribal histories because these are not tied to the geographically located tribes of ME/bellydance - i.e putting Irish pre-Christian Irish elements into costuming, using Native Australian music or incorporating the posture of West African dances). This does happen, though, when people decide (as is our tendency) to expand our areas of fushion and mix cross cultural tribal elements (thinking of the jingle skirt panel that one dancer made recently). For me, drawing from the tribal cultures that make up the originating areas of ME/bellydance is natural; I hope that this interest can also be of help to the people within these areas without decimating their cultures (thinking of the Afghan Women's Project here).

I am in total agreement that we must be careful of appropriation and representation of the tribes that we do draw from. In ties into that whole fusion debate - what is appropriate, when does fusion take us out of the realm of ME/bellydance and into something else? And we must be careful to stay away from orientalism and exoticism, which both cheapen the dance.

I think what we (ME/bellydancers overall) all come up against is that people want to make up their minds without ever trying to get more information. Their judgement disempowers us, and puts ugly baggage on a artform that is very beautiful.

At April 01, 2006 12:01 PM, Anonymous rachel said...

Toya, I was thinking you should consider sending this to Essence or something like that to open dialogue in more of a black context-- beyond the bellydance community. Because really you are asking your community to open up in an important way. I think your honest writing could be a great way to bring the topic into conversation.

At April 01, 2006 12:06 PM, Anonymous rachel said...

Toya, I really think you should submit this to Essence or something like that. This conversation needs to be brought to the wider community beyond bellydance, you know? Please consider and let us know what you decide. You rock!

At April 02, 2006 8:28 AM, Anonymous rachel said...

Ok, I didn't think my comments were posting yesterday. :) Anyway, guess you got the message by now.

At April 04, 2006 9:46 AM, Blogger Tonyette said...

I'm reading this a little late (almost a week) but I just wanted to comment, too, on the sadness of our race. It's SO hard to be "different" or "other" as a Black person. And because I feel myself about to step onto my soapbox, I'll just do what I usually do and post a blog entry about it. But, I will say, Toya (and the other young lady) please continue to dance at Black-oriented events b/c like Mel said, the ignorance (and that's what it is, because people just don't know any better!) needs to be ended! And yes, this kind of thing DOES make does make me sad!

At April 05, 2006 4:53 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Such thoughtfullness. Glad I scanned back. As if "a white girl's thing" means anything anyway in this melting pot. How many dancers out there are fakin'bakin' and dying their hair, drawing on kohl & bindi & wearing wigs/styling aids of all types whether to look more exotic, stage-performery, punk/glam, YOUNGER. Hell, the dancer at the hair show probly would've had a ton of success if she went all Hi-I'm-Tribal-Style-cause-I've-got-Funky-Color-Yarn-Dreads and its' a HAIR SHOW AND ABOUT HOW WE LOOK, but a white girl probably would've had the poor gal's original frosty reception for copping a locked/braided style just for the sake of exoticizing as well. The hair straightening/retexturizing and nose bobbing and eyelid opening & booby-pushing up - all shorthand for control of women's bodies on display and what they do with them goes on and on (and back and forth, lately, back) across all cultures. - N'Lo


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