Academic journal article Western Folklore

Bellydance in the Town Square: Leaking Peace through Tribal Style Identity

Academic journal article Western Folklore

Bellydance in the Town Square: Leaking Peace through Tribal Style Identity

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION: COOLER THAN BARBIE

Tiny girls sit in a make-shift front row, unblinking as dancers whirl and twist by them. The music, vaguely Middle Eastern with a hip-hop backbeat, seems incongruous in the setting: a public park in southwest Missouri, more commonly occupied by grizzled-looking men in vintage denim jackets and skate punk wanna-bes. The dancers are almost indistinguishable from one another, with hair bound in elaborate turbans of richly colored fabrics and facial tattoos that interrupt recognition. Their partially-revealed torsos belie the tanned, taut flesh we've been taught to expect from dancing female bodies in contemporary United States culture. Rather, these barefoot women possess a weighty presence: their full arms and rounded bellies hint at a representation of alternative femininity absent in most public presentation of the American female body. The spellbound litde girls clap and whirl when the music stops, imitating the dancers. Djeneba1 winks at me and confides, "Our best fans are our little girl groupies. They think we're as cool as Barbie."

Djeneba's wink conveys a subversive triumph over iconic blonde role models available to girl children in the contemporary United States, and her conspiratorial tone suggests resistance to normative standards of feminine embodiment. Through creative appropriation of dress, dancers imagine a new and different gendered identity in relation to a more egalitarian world as they present themselves for a performance. Dancers refer to performances as a way of "uncovering the goddess": creating a public opportunity for alternative, idealized identities to emerge (or "to leak," according to one respondent) into the normative spaces of the daily lived world. Empowered by the symbolic power of the clothing they create and appropriate for the dance, tribal style bellydancers enact an alternative presence based on sisterhood of the "tribe" that seeks to transform values of feminine beauty and community space.

Recent cultural studies of place reflect two distinct trajectories: discussions of lived, immediate, rooted quality of the "local," which details through sensory modalities (Feld and Basso 1996) counterpoised to diasporic experiences of transience, nomadism, and displacement (Weiner 2002). The contributions of feminist geographers soothe this bifurcation: they focus on the social relationships that manifest themselves within space, and the meanings of power and difference represented in each space (Massey 1994). However, these relationships between people, things, practices and persons cut continually across place, as processes are always at work through space to exceed any concept of the "local" (Jones et al. xxvii). So, feminist geographers imagine globalization processes by focusing on how the production of space is not only relational, but also constructed upon social, political, and economic interactions that remain inherently gendered (Oza 2001; Mains 2004; Nelson and Seager 2005). As notions of a place becomes more and more densely constructed in the wake of transnational familiarity and consumption, ethnographers struggle with new ways to conceive of locality and maintain cultural cohesion in order to represent the intricacies of global exchange and social organization (Ossman 2004). This research on tribal style bellydancers in the American Midwest suggests that place may be experienced as simultaneously local and global in the contemporary moment, and that agents within the culture may strategically enact identities to challenge bounded notions of place, especially via the self-consciously constructed female dancing body.

Perhaps catching up with the dancers on the midwestern town square that opens this paper epitomizes the odd capacity of public places to encapsulate mainstream and alternative constructions of gender. Public landscapes in urban settings embody discourses of power: "public parks commemorating 'notable' moments employ strategies observed by Foucault by selecting and depicting specific historic and geographic narratives as representative of general popular sentiment-as natural or 'a given'" (Mains 2004:182). …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.