Transmission of Oriental Dance

The Transmission of Oriental Dance in the United States

From “Raqs Sharqi” to “Belly Dance”

by Michelle Forner

The following is the concluding chapter to Michelle Forner’s masters degree thesis, which she completed at UCLA in 1993, and is now available in book form.

My purpose in this thesis has been to describe and analyze the recent development of Oriental dance through an examination of its proliferation in the United States. Particularly during the past twenty-five years, a complex, fluid subculture has evolved around a dance form whose roots lie in cultural expressions of people from northern Africa and western Asia. How has this occurred? By investigating the process of dissemination of Oriental dance within this country, I have been able to discern a number of factors that contribute to the shape of the dance activity network, reflect its borderland nature and locate the dance as a site of cultural production. As an agent of cultural production, Ibrahim Farrah has been integral to the dissemination of Oriental dance in the United States. The analysis of his multiple role activity, especially as teacher, performer and publisher, serves as an example of the transmission process, and brings into focus a number of issues involved in the formation of the subculture.

The transmission network

The transmission system itself is comprised of components I have called the participants, products, and vehicles that delineate what is transmitted to whom and by what means. People participate in dance and related activities by adopting any number of roles, such as dancer, teacher, vendor, or aficionado; I have identified more than thirty. Those involved in the subculture can also be described as “professionals,” “amateurs,” or “publics” who form functionally interdependent relationships. I have argued that participants’ dancing and related behaviors are governed by their personal orientation configurations. Ranging among “ethnic,” “fantasy,” “theatrical,” and “spiritual,” these orientations influence the way practitioners access, transfer and perform the dance. People with similar orientation propensities tend to form relationship networks and groups, which result in communities that are geographically- or affinity-based. The variety of roles, orientations and affiliations helps account for the plethora of dance activities people call “belly dance” or Oriental dance in this country, and why there is contention, disagreement, and factionalization within the subculture.

The accessibility and widespread existence of Oriental dance from Anchorage, Alaska to Miami, Florida can be explained by viewing the dance and related elements as products which are conveyed through carriers or vehicles that have developed in our society. Movement vocabulary, music, costuming and associated paraphernalia, as well as cultural information related to the dance and music are the fundamental features of the dance transferred among participants. The vehicles that transport these products include sites of interpersonal communication such as studio classes and performance venues, information technology such as mass or specialized media, and international travel to northern Africa and western Asia. The products and vehicles are created and maintained as a result of participants’ orientations, affinity group memberships, goals, and usage.

Looking at Oriental dance activity in this way reveals a structure of dissemination that defines the organization of the subculture. The people, products, and vehicles can be described as composing an interconnected network — a dynamic, multi-layered web that links them together and perpetuates the dance form and the dancing. These factors intersect, combine and reform to knit a complex context marked by changeability and variation within a framework of certain constants. This web can be viewed from individual, affinity group, or general levels.

On an individual level, each person involved in Oriental dance can be seen as creating or following certain paths (threads) in the network [Finnegan 1989]. Through their choices of dance styles, learning opportunities, performance venues, affiliations and the like, individuals negotiate their way through the Oriental dance subculture. Sometimes they innovate by opening new paths; at other times they join with others on well-worn ones. These routes overlap and intersect and may be characterized as fluid, unstable, and heterogeneous. In essence, the paths represent each individual’s experience of the dance, as a movement activity and a subculture. Although pockets of isolation exist, magazines and newsletters, festivals, workshops and videotapes link those outside the mainstream in some manner to aspects of the network.

Certain individuals, including Ibrahim Farrah and other members of the old guard, some nationally-known figures and local prominent practitioners, serve as nodes or centers of affinity groups and related activities. Within their multiple roles as workshop teachers, publishers, performers, event producers and so forth, they exert a degree of influence extending through the reach of their network, be it local, regional, national, or even international. Farrah, in particular, has been a path innovator. Through vehicles such as workshops and week-long seminars, issues of Arabesque magazine, personal performances and those of the Near East Dance Group, his multiple artistic roles have enabled him to spin a widespread network that encompasses events and individuals (some more closely tied than others) across the country. Acting as an influential node, he mediates such elements as cultural information, dance aesthetics and styles, as well as costuming and other paraphernalia choices. The affinity group networks of Farrah and others overlap, converge, intersect, and repel to weave the general fabric of the Oriental dance subculture in the United States. Vehicles such as trips to the Middle East, videotape, publications and festivals become threads that reach internationally, tying Oriental dance activity in this country with that occurring almost everywhere in the world.

Two related forces that impinge upon the Oriental dance network are individualism and commercialism. Individualism is apparent in the dance form itself as well as in the dancer’s independent actions; it represents an internal drive. The commercial nature of dissemination that has evolved especially since the late 1960’s provides an external structure. One can say that the dissemination of the dance form is economically driven by individual choice.

Oriental dance is known as a genre of self-expression. It is most commonly a solo form characterized by improvisation and personal interpretation that usually results in a unique style portrayed by each dancer. The lack of a codified movement vocabulary and dance structure, as well as the multitude of dance styles and music recordings, teaching techniques, performance contexts, and costuming options exemplifies this individual nature. In addition, the range of personal orientations and variety of affinity groups and dance communities further illustrates the freedom of choice that exists in terms of Oriental dance activity. Each person’s path is voluntary and essentially self-chosen within the constraints of opportunities and limits [Finnegan 1989:316- 317]:

The true path is the one that the person is most satisfied with themselves but…when they start performing, the feedback is going to tell them one way or the other how well they are doing…Everybody finds their little niche along the way [Wilson 1992].

These artistic choices can be viewed as a form of creative identity building [Slobin 1992:58]. Buck notes that festivals like Rakkasah provide some people with a means of exploring and creating new identities [1991:98]. The availability of numerous choices is reflected in the difficulty people find in naming, categorizing, describing, and organizing the dancers and their dancing, and contributes to the complexity of the network. Despite the divisiveness and political or artistic differences that permeate the subculture, a sense of celebration of the individual emerges, perhaps reflecting an American attitude that values this quality. One dancer commented that, contrary to the situation she sees in Egypt, “If you dream and believe, you can do whatever you want to…You can be respectable, have a job, [and also) dress up and [dance] on stage” [Sahra 1993).

The commercial nature of the dance form that drives its dissemination can be seen as both exploitation and opportunity. Since the appearance of foreign dancers at the World’s Fairs in the late 1800’s, Oriental dance in the United States has been associated with paid entertainment. From the earliest Hollywood films to the 1993 Academy Awards ceremony, an exotic, glamorous appeal adds to the dance form’s marketability. Farrah notes that when “belly dance” became popular in the 1970’s, some saw it as a way “to make a fast buck” by combining rudimentary knowledge and showmanship [Lahm 1980:20]. These people have been described by some as “money hungry opportunists” who taught classes without adequate training or knowledge of the art form and produced records, books and articles promising that the purchaser would be easily dancing in a short time [Aradoon 1979:31]. In many contexts, dancers are hired based on their physical appearance, revealing costuming and sensual movement repertoire rather than as trained dancers performing a craft, and are therefore seen and treated as sex objects rather than as artists. This form of commercial exploitation is a reality often faced by many Oriental dancers.

Yet the commercial character of Oriental dance has its benefits. Oriental dance practitioners have more performance outlets available to them, particularly as solo entertainers, than do dancers of many other forms [Farrah 1992]. As one dancer said, “Not only do I want to entertain people, but I want to make money from it” [Rivera 1992]. Rather than relying on elusive grants from community organizations or national agencies, most Oriental dance professionals are self-supporting. Through the multiple roles they may pursue, practitioners become entrepreneurs marketing their skills, knowledge and abilities as teachers, performers, lecturers, tour leaders, vendors, event producers, writers, publishers, and so forth. Individuals combine artistic and business sensibilities to advance successfully in “the industry.” In fact, some participants are seen as better self-promoters than dancers. A recent article in Habibi focusing on marketing skills for the dance performer represents one of many that indicate the importance of this perspective for a successful dance career [Wright 1993:13). Today the larger supply of dancers and teachers compared to a diminished demand often creates competitiveness, jealousies, and non-cooperation, again reflecting the individual paths and guarded financial opportunities pursued by participants.

My research into the transmission of Oriental dance in the United States reveals that the dance and its related elements are disseminated as commodities. The economic structure of the subculture, with some participants acting as producers and others as consumers, makes the dance in all its forms an article of trade, not only a means of expression fulfilled. The professional/amateur/public system that has developed indicates the spectrum of choice in participation, and the various levels of involvement that together create the Oriental dance industry. Put simply, some people enjoy attending dance events as observers only. Others may take studio classes, buy videotapes, make their own costumes, or subscribe to a newsletter, but never progress beyond a consumer role. Participants who develop, for example, their dance talent, teaching skills, and self-promotion abilities serve as conduits for the products, as well as earn money in the process. Each is necessary for the others; without their inter-existence, the Oriental dance subculture in this country would take a different shape.

Michelle Forner. Photo: jeffoto.

Oriental dance as a site of cultural production

My perspective in this thesis has been to view Oriental dance as occurring at a borderland of cultural phenomenon, a form that serves as a site of creative cultural production [Rosaldo 1989). Borderlands are seen as areas of intersection, improvisation, and change [Rosaldo 1989:207-208]. This characterization is appropriate to the Oriental dance subculture for several reasons. Due to a number of real and perceived characteristics, it is a dance that exists on the margin of accepted cultural expression, both in the east and west. In the United States, it does not share in the mainstream of dance activity with Western forms such as modern, ballet, or even ballroom dance. Among “ethnic” dance forms, Oriental dance is often considered lower class or somehow less legitimate. Since it is not formalized or codified, the dance is ripe for change and heterogeneity, open to interpretation and exploitation. In addition, it is a form marked by borrowing and lending across cultural boundaries and within them, as seen by the range of orientations which are manifested in its participants, vehicles and products. This results in a multitude of dancing activities promoted and perpetuated under the “Middle Eastern dance” umbrella, from a troupe of “belly dancers” in California who promotes their large sizes (350 pounds) by calling themselves the “Fatimas,” to the Near East Dance Group who performed at New York’s Carnegie Hall.

Oriental dance represents a “blurred zone between cultures” [Rosaldo 1989:209). Within the network of the subculture, factors such as age, gender, ethnicity, life experience and dance orientation intersect, collide, and produce the cultural expressions known as Oriental dance, “belly dance,” Middle Eastern dance, and so on. Oriental dance as manifested in all its products and features, in all its forms and variations, supported and promoted by all its groups and factions, conveyed through all possible channels is a form of creative cultural production on many levels, from individual dance performances to the total fabric of the subculture. As a site of cultural production, the dance is promulgated, as well as mediated, by factors such as its commercialism and individualism, the result being a complex network that makes the borderland visible.

This thesis has examined how this physical, cultural expression is both shaped by and shapes human conduct. In the Oriental dance subculture, individuals are the agents of cultural production. By negotiating their unique paths, each is an active creator, albeit on a range of scales: people situated at nodes or centers of affinity groups have a greater impact, with individuals such as Farrah serving significant roles, including that of cultural mediator. Yet most participants in their own ways contribute to the process of transmission and proliferation.

Some people see the United States as a place where this tradition, in various transformed states, will be maintained and perpetuated for the future. Farrah says that “we in America have provided native Eastern entertainers and their students with a market for their talents and secured international recognition for their dance” [1984:5]. It is ironic that while artists in the United States look to the Middle East as the homeland and “authentic” center of the dance form, and often create ties with its people and culture, it seems that Oriental dance in northern Africa and western Asia is on the decline due to political and economic forces, a shift in the “-scapes” and “paths.” Oriental dance is said to be repressed in part by Muslim fundamentalists. Nadia Hamdi is reported to have told a recent tour group to Cairo that she no longer performs in public due to pressure on her son in college [Helene 1993:21]. Nagwa Fouad, one of the leading Oriental dance stars in Egypt, when noting the decrease of dance activity in Egypt, commented that “Oriental dance has begun to carry American citizenship” [Farrah 1986:21-22). Some people contend that a sub-genre is developing termed “American belly dance,” a form, again, that is hard to isolate, define and own. Perhaps it is what one often sees at in-group venues for non-Arab audiences. This particular dance activity — in its range of forms and styles performed by dancers of varying skills and abilities at public festivals, private parties, nursing homes and so forth — has produced a novel cultural expression for new audiences and opened a path for beginning dancers.

Yet it is interesting to note that, similar to customs in northern Africa and western Asia, Oriental dancers in the United States are vital participants at certain Arab-American events, particularly weddings and parties, and at nightclubs and restaurants that cater to this public. The dancers hired for these occasions are primarily non-Arabs, due to cultural attitudes that frown on women dancing for pay in public. The events themselves are cultural intersections where “social, ethnic, musical, ritual, religious and ideological trajectories come together for a time of highly charged collective interaction” [Rasmussen 1990:18]. The active presence of non-Arab dancers contributes to this experience. This activity demonstrates another characteristic of this borderland phenomenon: American dancers who may also be lawyers, teachers, administrators or entrepreneurs continue a tradition for those who for the most part would not consider allowing their daughters or wives to do the same:

One may perform a very stereotyped role such as belly dancing, take on its cultural sexist orientation in terms of feminine sexuality, and yet refrain from internalizing its traditionally subordinate posture vis-a-vis male society [Alves-Masters 1979:82]

When theorizing about the shape and flow of cultural processes such as the transmission of a dance genre, one may become caught in the complexity of the web, with its weave of strands representing behaviors, relationships, objects, and activities. Yet it is vital to keep sight of dance as the center, the primary expressive action that drives the dancers and hence these processes.


Alves-Masters, Judy, 1979, Changing Self-esteem of Women Through Middle Eastern Dance (doctoral dissertation). Atlanta: Georgia University.

Aradoon, Zarifa, The Oldest Dance: Origins and Philosophy of Danse Orientale. Stanford, Dream Place Publications,1979.

Buck, Elizabeth Ann, 1991, Rakkasah dance festival: An American Middle Easter Dance Festival. University of California.

Buck, Elizabeth Ann, Recreating Self Through the Other (master’s thesis). Los Angeles Folklore and Mythology Program.

Farrah, Ibrahim, 1984, “Cairo on the Hudson; San Francisco on the Nile.” Arabesque, 10(1):4-5. New York: Ibrahim Farrah.

Farrah, Ibrahim, 1986, “Cairo on the Hudson; San Francisco on the Nile.” Arabesque 12(1):21-22. New York: Ibrahim Farrah.

Farrah, Ibrahim, 1992, Interview by Michelle Forner, in New York, New York; 6 September. Los Angeles: private collection of Michelle Forner (audiocassette).

Finnegan, Ruth, 1989, The Hidden Musicians: Music-Making in an English Town. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Forner, Michelle, 1993, The Transmission of Oriental Dance in the United States (master’s thesis). Los Angeles: University of California.

Helene, 1993, “Morocco’s Egypt tour.” Habibi, 12(3):21-22. Santa Barbara, California: Habibi Publications.

Lahm, Adam, 1980, “Oriental Dance: the Technique of Ibrahim Farrah.” Dance Teacher Now 2(4):18-22. Davis, Califomia: SMW Communications.

Rasmussen, Anne, 1990, Individual and social change in the music of Arab American Immigrants (doctoral dissertation). Los Angeles: University of California, Music Department.

Rivera, Denise (resource person), 1992, Interview taped by Michelle Forner, in New York, New York;12 July. Los Angeles: private collection of Michelle Forner (audiocassette).

Rosaldo, Renato, 1989, Culture and Truth: the Remaking of Social Analysis. Boston: Beacon Press.

Sahra [Carolee Kent] (resource person), 1993, Interview taped by Michelle Forner, in Los Angeles, California; 22 February. Los Angeles: private collection of Michelle Forner (audiocassette).

Slobin, Mark, 1992, “Micromusics of the West: a Comparative Approach.” Journal of the Society for Ethnomusicology 36(1):1-82. Champaign, Illinois: University of Illinois Press.

Wilson, Serena (resource person), 1992, Interview taped by Michelle Forner, in New York, New York;1 September. Los Angeles: private collection of Michelle Forner (audiocassette).

Wright, Corey, 1993, “A Belly Dancer’s Place in the Market.” Habibi 12(2):13. Santa Barbara, California: Habibi Publications.

Michelle Forner has been a professional Oriental dancer and teacher for a number of years, and won the Egyptian-style category in the 1994 Southern California International Belly Dance Competition. She received a master of arts degree in dance (ethnology) from UCLA in 1993. Currently Michelle is consulting at the Library of Congress, archiving world dance and music collections at the American Folklife Center. While in Washington, D.C. Michelle continues to perform, teach, write, and lecture about Middle Eastern dance.

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