The Trouble with Cabaret Belly Dance

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Where is the world of Cabaret Belly Dance headed? Why do traditional dance classes seem to be getting smaller and Tribal and Fusion classes grow in popularity? Why are there fewer young people learning the dance? –something to think about.

I was at a haflah a couple of years ago and struck up a conversation with another dancer. We got along well and laughed. At that point neither of us was in costume and we didn’t discuss the style of dance the other did. Later I overheard her speaking to her troupe mates, a very talented AT troupe. She was blasting Cabaret dance, saying that it was degrading to women; pitting them against each other, intolerant of plus size dancers and fueled by patriarchal dogma. Unlike the tribal dancers who where communal and embraced womanly curves.

Wow, I thought. I knew that there was a bit of a rift between Cabaret and Tribal dancers but, I didn’t know it was that intense. So one could say, “Can’t we all just get along?” and chalk it up to cattiness. But, I think there might be some bits of truth in what she said.

It easy to see how Tribal would be appealing for a young woman starting out. Tribal is earthy with poised movements and ethnic costume. In AT dancers mainly perform as a group. They must constantly communicate with each other since the leader gives cues and instructions throughout the dance. The energy is strong and feminine and all sizes and shapes are welcomed. It’s an American invention so there are no ethnic or political questions. A simple costume consisting of a choli, 25 yard skirts, tassels, turban and tons of jewelry is affordable for most dancers and looks good on all body types.

Cabaret is elegant and graceful. Its origins are buried in pre-history from foreign lands. Soloists are the norm. To do this well the dancer needs to draw the audience in –all eyes on the dancer. As one learns the dance it’s expected that you’ll begin with the student troupe then eventually graduate to become a soloist. Dancers are expected to be young, thin and “commercially attractive”. The standard costume consisting of a sparkly bra/belt and skirt can be stunning yet expensive.

Being an Egyptian Cabaret dancer can be challenging. As a 5’1”, size 10 dancer, finding a flattering costume is nearly impossible. Plus size dancers and those looking for modest costumes, also have a really hard time. Strangely enough, even though I am of African descent (the continent that originated this form of dance) I’m questioned about being a dancer all the time.

Don’t get me wrong I love Cabaret style. It’s my foundation in technique, I love its history and that has served me well. But, I do think that there are some issues that need to be addressed. So let’s think about –talk about it. What do we need as dancers to thrive and are we getting it? What can we do to change that? The more we talk and are willing to grow, the happier our dance world becomes.


7 thoughts on “The Trouble with Cabaret Belly Dance

  1. Katrina says:

    Awesome points made the more I grow in this dance and the more educated I become I find myself asking more questions too. I have a specific style that I love and growing into my own artistry but as in any beaurocracy there are ceilings one must push through. In reference to that tribal dance I’m
    unsure if that’s the norm b/c many tribal dancers begin cabaret. Your dance transforms where your spirit takes you or where you are more attracted to. I don’t think it has to be a this versus that either although I prefer my style. There is something to appreciate in all styles and all styles have something that someone else does not prefer, K

  2. audieos says:

    Thanks for your comment. I agree It’s not one style versus the other. They all have thier merits. I’m sure the Tribal community has it’s own issues. And following your muse is the best way to become a whole dancer.
    The process I was talking about was within each dance community. When one begins in AT dance you learn how to dance as a group and your AT dance life is mostly dancing in groups. It doesn’t matter if you’ve done other styles of dance before.
    With Cabaret it seems that the goal is to graduate from the group and be “good enough” to become a soloist.
    My question is does that make Cabaret dancers less open to community involvement and connection to other dancers?

  3. Katrina says:

    I think it depends on the dancer I was in the group for 2 years when I went solo I felt like I had a bunch of friends that supported me and knew me for a long time. The reason why I still dance w/ groups from time to time to keep community involvement but even if you don’t dance with the group you can stay connected by supporting others. Just my opinion, K

  4. audieos says:

    What a great experience! True, every dancer’s experience is different and every dance community is different.

  5. Katrina says:

    And of course from time to time its not all bread and roses but I try to ignore all that, K

  6. Audie, thank you for your thoughtful analysis of where our dance has been and where it is going. I personally don’t like to use the word “cabaret” in describing Oriental-style dance. When I first learned this dance, it was “bellydance” or Middle Eastern dance; I suspect that “cabaret’ was coined when the ATS movement took off, to differentiate between this new American dance form and traditional Middle Eastern or bellydance.

    But I think the cabaret tag only narrowly defines what traditional bellydance is all about and is, in my opinion, quite limiting. Many of us started out as members of dance troupes; some became soloists in professional dance troupes or found restaurant work. But that is not the entire scope or story of oriental dance in America. As you say, Audie, this dance is buried in History, and if you begin to delve deep into the roots of middle eastern dance, it’s a never-ending treasure trove of different styles to absorb – certainly not limited to dancing at weddings or restaurant gigs.

    Sadly, narrow Western perceptions of beauty (and thinness) have influenced this dance form; it’s understandable why dancers who don’t fit the strict body type have looked elsewhere for inspiration, in ATS or fusion style dance. But we can also look to the more traditional styles of middle eastern dance for inspiration; Egyptian folklore such as Raks Al Asaya (cane dance); Nubian dance, Turkish-style dance, North African dance, Lebanese dance, where Western-type of constraints are not the norm. We can study with those who have spent years researching the traditional forms of this dance: Morocco, Sahra Saeeda, Amel Tafsout, Habiba, Artemis, and so many others. I have looked to these folks for new inspiration and it has enriched my own dancing so very much. Dance troupes across the country which seek to preserve traditional middle eastern dance styes also continue to inspire me. My own dance troupe which is also learning some traditional dances, energizes me greatly. And as much as I love American-style bellydance, the search for its roots is what made me stay with Middle Eastern dance all these years.

    I think American bellydancers need to look beyond the unfortunate stereotypes that permeate our society, restrict our artistic efforts, and divide our dance communities. We need to embrace and support all dance forms in America, where we enjoy this precious freedom of expression. And we need to look to the roots of this dance to discover new avenues of expression and the richness within.

    • audieos says:

      Thank you so much for your resonse. You’ve actually touched on the subject of my next blog post “Can Folkloric ever be as popular as Belly Dance”. I agree “Cabaret” is such a small window into this world of dance. There are so many other wonderful styles that we should embrace.

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