Image Credit: Randa Mirza
After living in Paris for six years, I made a decision to return to Lebanon in 2006 after the July war. At the time I had a choice to either continue living in exile in Europe where there is an abundance of cultural arts or return to my country of birth where it is very difficult to work or organize in the artistic field due to lack of interest, on the government level, in artistic and cultural affairs. I wanted to create an identity for myself and Lebanon’s cultural scene is ripe for developing pioneering work in oriental dance.
After the July 2006 war, I was asked to participate in a film and photo session in Hezbollah’s hometown of Bint Jbeil where I danced in all black. Normally, Hezbollah does not allow dance or music in their area but they never once prevented us from filming or performing.
The entire village of Bint Jbeil was destroyed and people started coming and sitting on the debris. At first, there was no one but when I finished the performance there were about sixty men, women and children watching.
Two women eventually approached me. One was veiled and the other was not and I asked them if they thought Baladi dance could be used to express to the world the kind of horror that took place here and they said, “of course.”
For me, as an artist at this particular time, I was engaging in a political act through dance. Experiences like this one have contributed to my development as an artist by showing me the essence of Baladi dance. Through the movements I’m able to challenge the stereotypical linkages of Baladi dance being solely associated with entertaining in cabarets by conveying its power as a form of political resistance and triumph.
As Lebanese artists it is necessary to continue the cultural revolution momentum because Lebanon really experienced a major brain drain due to the departure of many intellectuals. So it’s important that we continue to provide an atmosphere of resistance through art.
In Lebanon, anytime there are changes on the political scene it immediately has a direct impact on the cultural scene. For instance, as an events manager organizing can be frustrating because sponsors pull out at the last minute despite several months of preparation. There is always an air of uncertainty.
As an instructor, the past few years has been very difficult. Lebanon has experienced a lot of political instability with random explosions, assassinations of high political figures and ironically most of these events happened on a Wednesday, which was the day of my Baladi dance classes.
However, despite road-blocks and street clashes – which made it very difficult for many of my students to attend classes – we never stopped dancing and class was never cancelled because teaching became a form of resistance to the political scene through art and dance.
Dance is a Natural Healer
Movement has long been integrated into spiritual practices and expressions. The spiritual side of dance has always existed and I believe creativity itself is deeply spiritual. The need for a spiritual connection in Baladi dance is brought about by the individual’s search and desire for deeper meanings. It directly contrasts the superficial notions that the dance is only of a physical culture or that it is something women do to entice men. This dance nourishes the body and the soul.
As children of war, our generation has experienced a lot of trauma and pain and on a daily basis we struggle to heal the past through art therapy and self-expression. Dance is a natural healer as it not only connects the spirit with the essence of life but it also releases the anger, pain, hate and loss by evolving it into triumph, inner peace and political resistance.
What is Baladi dance?
Originally this style of Arab dance came from Egypt but I believe you can find its roots in India.
The term belly dancing a very vulgar and colonial nomination. In the 40’s, when Egypt started to open to the western world and tourism increased, this style of dance became known as belly dancing because foreigners had never seen this style of movement that focused on the belly and hips.
Through my exploration it is my aim to reject this portrayal. However, in the midst of this process I’ve also started rejecting the term oriental dance because this label was also created by western societies and technically the Orient is located in the Far East.
Dance is Genderless
I want to challenge the belief that this style of movement is only for women. In the beginning it was known as the dance of fertility but for me dance is genderless and should be enjoyed by males and females of all body types.
Historically, it’s not uncommon for men to perform this type of movement but little is known about this. Actually during the French orientalist period, which saw the rise of various authors who created several works about Arabs, Islam, and the Middle East were the basis for contributing to this discourse between East and Western societies. Such authors as Gerard de Nerval’s, ‘Voyage in the Orient,’ contributed to painting a negative image of Baladi dance. However, it was also Nerval who was the first to document the existence of men performing Baladi dance
Although I am challenging cultural and societal beliefs, I am also creating new spaces of reflection surrounding Baladi dance and to emphasize the technique of the movement rather than the gender.
Taste Culture leaves you with a lil taste of Alex from his performance, Mouhawala Oula.