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Dance emerges at the points of contact between cultures, bodies, and value systems. You can’t reject multiculturalism, immigration, or people who are different genders or sexualities than your preferred norm, and still have a vibrant dance community.

Photo of my dance troupe, Indy Tribal, taken by Raven's Aerie. We're diverse in terms of age, religious identity, and more!
Photo of my dance troupe, Indy Tribal, taken by Raven’s Aerie. We’re diverse in terms of age, religious identity, and more!

In the wake of the 2016 American election results, I’ve been dancing a lot. Dance is both an individual coping mechanism for me, and a way of community organizing. It’s a way of bringing beauty into a world that at times seems to have lost its mind.

More than that, though, dance is a reminder that many art forms are inherently multicultural and founded on diversity. This is especially true for me, since I belly dance… but it applies to many folk dance forms and many more types of visual and performing and musical arts. Like jazz music? Good luck being racist and not being a total hypocrite. And so on.

When you dance, how could you be prejudiced against people who are different than you? Those people are your fellow dancers, the co-creators of the art form. It’s just not possible, unless I suppose you’re really into fooling yourself.

Belly dance make an intriguing case study here, since it so clearly comes from other cultures. This is so much the case that accusations of cultural appropriation are routinely hurled about the community. I would like to think that all American belly dancers make an effort to learn a bit about the Middle Eastern cultures, languages, and music that inspires the dance form we share. I like to think that we’re not anti-Muslim or anti-immigrant. Because, how could you be? They’re the ones who played a primary role in evolving this dance!

In the belly dance community there’s also an astounding variety of bodies. There are skinny dancers and curvy dancers, young dancers and old dancers. I know people who dance through injuries, even extreme ones, or who might count as disabled. This video of an ATS performance from France also exemplifies my point. The women aren’t all white, blond, or skinny, but they’re all beautiful dancers, thus defying cultural beauty norms.

I’ve questioned whether belly dance is for cis het women, and again, most dancers I know are welcoming of those who don’t conform to mainstream gender/sexuality expression or identity. Because what really matters is whether you’ll put in the work, not who you might want to date or how you want to dress. Even if you yourself don’t understand or condone certain choices, you can at least accept that the dance studio is a space where we leave that behind and focus on being good to one another and being the best versions of ourselves.

The diversity in the North American belly dance community is really astounding. I’m not going to out anyone by naming names, but I’ve danced with people – both major movers-and-shakers and hobbyists – who:

  • are immigrants
  • have married immigrants
  • don’t speak English as their first language
  • are college professors, or single mothers, or earn minimum wage, or anywhere in between
  • are Christian, or pagan, or atheist, or Muslim, or Jewish, or more
  • are neuroatypical and/or differently-abled and/or have chronic illnesses
  • have dealt with substance use issues
  • are cisgender, or gender non-confoming, or trans
  • are straight, bisexual, gay, or other dots on the Kinsey spectrum of sexual orientation
  • are monogamous or ethically non-monogamous, married or unmarried, divorced, single, separated, remarried

Again, what matters is whether we put in the work to improve our dancing, and treat our fellow dancers with respect. All the identity categories above? They might make it challenging for you on various axes, such as affording dance classes or adapting certain movements to your body, but hopefully nobody is encountering stigma or marginalization from within the dance community. I know that some members of my dance troupe hold different political views than I do, or subscribe to different religious beliefs. And that’s fine, because I run my dance troupe in as respectful, transparent a fashion as I can. We make a pluralistic environment work, where our passion for the dance form brings us together, and we don’t let our differences divide us.

But in the post-election climate, I worry that some people – mostly outsiders – will look at my little group of dancers and think that we’re anti-American because we’re embracing something that, on the surface, looks like it comes from “over there.” Or that someone will see one of the non-normative identities in the community and assume we’re all freaks, or unethical, or unfit, or whatever. And that’s completely missing the point.

I just can’t fathom how you can embrace dance and not understand that it’s for everybody. It doesn’t matter if your fellow dancers or the folks onstage are similar to or dissimilar from you, so long as you don’t make it matter. All art bleeds in and out of various cultures, and is fueled by individuals occupying different places on the broad spectrum of human identity.

Dance and intolerance do not, cannot, go hand in hand. Anyone who tries to make it so is being willfully ignorant, of both history/context and how creative communities come together to support each other in pursuing the same art form. This is why, when everything around me seems to be falling apart, I cling to dance as a community bonded by respect and love.

FOXY FOLKORIST Studied folklore under Alan Dundes at the University of California, Berkeley, and went on to earn her PhD in folklore from Indiana University. She researches gender and sexuality in fairy...

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