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Sisterhood in the Dance

Article adapted from a letter to the editor, printed in the belly dance magazine Crescent Moon, in 1996

by Anthea Kawakib Poole

Your publication and its unusual focus on accepting our sisters in the dance is very refreshing. What seems lacking so often in today's belly dance scene is a respect for alternate experiences and visions of the dance  It's especially disheartening when leaders in the dance community express a lack of tolerance or understanding for those who aren't "in step" with the popular outlook. It's troubling to see the deep suspicion and prejudice of dancers toward a new unknown dancer. This isn't sisterhood, but sibling rivalry.

Sisterhood doesn't judge with the inquiry, "Who did you study with?" nor should it be contingent on whether one kowtows to the belly dance "sacred cows" of the moment, be they authenticity, style, context, or even moral beliefs. Wouldn't it be great if we could accept others and what they may have to offer, even if it doesn't fit with the prevailing fashion? Intolerance is only a mask for inner doubts, and any time you try to exclude people, for whatever reasons, you're skating on thin philosophical ice.

I once taught at a workshop that was going to be kept secret so certain people wouldn't come. People, don't ever put a teacher in that position! Not only was the lack of publicity and attendance a "negative" in terms of my material career, but it felt to me like being a doctor who is not allowed to treat certain patients. Imagine excluding someone from a chance to learn! I myself once attended classes with a teacher who eventually suggested privately to me that I "might not want to come anymore" as I was more advanced than the rest of the class. What her reasons were for doing so, I can only guess - but I know it hurt very much to be excluded from something I loved so much; and the nearest teacher aside from her was an hour and a half away. When I told my new teacher (Bedia) she was shocked. As she put it, "A teacher should never tell a student not to come to class!"

I empathize with those dancers living in out-of-the-way places because I still drive an hour or hour and a half to reach troupe and/or my dancing and teaching jobs - five nights a week! My unwillingness to live in the high-tech, fast-paced, more accessible urban environment puzzles many.  But I cherish the memory of learning to shimmy while walking to the spring for water, or spinning in the fields in giddy enjoyment of the peaceful beauty surrounding me. Raising my three girls at home gave me many hours to contemplate the dance and explore its metaphysical realities. In relative isolation (and no TV!) you can develop a deep inner tranquility that makes fertile ground for seeds of truth. The "truth" of belly dance is its basic harmony with our bodies and spirits; that's why it still resonates so strongly with us even after all these eons. It's too bad it doesn't translate well on a resume, but I feel I learned many valuable lessons about movement and patterns by living so simply and closely with nature. Since it didn't give me a string of letters behind my name, my abilities will have to speak for themselves.

As it turns out, I feel positive about the select influences in my early dance life. Not until last year did I finally purchase a VCR - I felt that to see a plethora of dancers would "muddy the waters", and I wanted time to develop my understanding and approach to the dance with as little confusion as possible. And who hasn't experienced getting conflicting information from different teachers? In my situation I felt better being clear with a little than confused with a lot.

I think the emergence and acceptance of new voices and visions in belly dance is the most exciting and vital thing that can happen in the art.  Preserving what's good about the past is fine, but there must be evolutionary progress as well. There's room for American Tribal and Urban Egyptian; for authenticity and fantasy. Let's ease up on the competitiveness - NOBODY is "the best" - we all have something good to share and to learn.

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