Raks Sharqi (Belly Dance) as a Community of Practice

“This is the time that you as a dancer pull the audience into you… It’s as if you could put them inside of your chest, and it’s a very difficult thing to do”, Ava explains to group of 20 or so young women, intently listening to her every word [Ott 2013]. Find yourself within the music, use the music to find yourself. It’s a journey all the women in the Raks Sharqi class must take to become a member of the very tight-knit and loving community. I am typing away in the corner, taking note of every moment and movement in this community that I am also part of and trying to understand how and why this community came into being.

Raks Sharqi is commonly called “Belly Dance” in the West. Raks Sharqi is a transliteration of the dance’s name in Arabic, which is literally translated as “dance of the East”. This class at Arizona State University is composed of 20 dancers in their early to late 20s, who have been in the class for at least one semester previously. The class is taught by the world-renowned Ava Fleming, who offers her dancers much more than a class about fitness or dance technique. If you join this class it slowly creeps into your life and right down into your soul. It will make you question your purpose in life, your femininity, history, your identity, and it will make you a new person. The focus of this class according to the University may be to learn Raks Sharqi dance technique and history, but its greater goal is to help each student find themselves and create an image in dance. This focus is easily identified by members within the community.

I had no trouble getting members of the class to agree to interviews. Many of the girls are very outspoken in their passion for the dance, and many of them are among my closet friends. I’m learning to be impartial and to ask questions without framing them in a way to get the answer I want. I did this in my interviews. I wanted to know if they thought the same things about this class that I did, and if they cherished it for the same reasons. Adriana is a second semester belly dance student. Shelly has been in the class for five semesters, also took lessons before coming to Arizona State University, and her mother is a hobbyist belly dancer. When Adriana was asked what she admired most about Raks Sharqi she thought for a moment before she explained with a deep exhale, “I admire the interpretation of music and the ability to express yourself without fear….the woman’s body is seen as beautiful and feminine…we are made to be beautiful [Ramos 2013].” I asked Adriana when she thought that a student changed from being a student in a class to a member in the community and she smiled and said “When you finally decide to speak out and say something in class. When you are in the back being quiet no one is going to accept you because it is almost like you haven’t accepted yourself….[Ramos 2013]” I thought about how powerful this statement was. She was right, the girls in class that I considered family were those you made a point to be there and become something. They shared memories and experiences with each other. They weren’t afraid to ask Ava questions, or to mess up and try again.

Shelly claimed that she became a member when she decided that the class was not a class at all. She no longer felt obligated to come for a grade, she simply came because she wanted to be there. She says most of her great friends are people she met in this class or through the class [Philipp 2013]. I asked her what she felt the focus of our group was and she said, “Finding your own style. She has us do dances on our own in each class, which is good because if we were just watching her [Ava] the whole time we would learn to dance just like Ava [Philipp 2013].”

I thought back to my observation of the class. Ava does have the girls dance many times on their own to practice musical interpretation and style. She will turn on a song and the girls all dance to it, but each is in their own little world. As I watched many of the girls become very emotional. Many of them infused other movements from their dance backgrounds in modern, ballet, and Latin dance. The girls became more introspective as Ava reminded them “try to feel the emotion in the music to determine how to move, rather than just following the beats” [Ott 2013].

I feel the focus of this class stems entirely from the teaching style Ava uses. Her approach to teaching belly dance seems to come from a point of view that says this is the opportunity to be expressive regardless of your state of sexuality, and the state of historical misunderstanding that surrounds this dance from. She also embodies this freedom of expression that she desires to give her dancers in her own dance career, which I admire very much. Although she teaches critical foundational technique she often prompts her students to come up with their own combinations, to explore different styles of dance, and to use many kinds of music and find what speaks to them. Improvisation which is integral to great belly dance performance, is often used in the class.  As Shelly mentioned in my interview with her, “Improvisation is the true dance form, it is you [Philipp 2013].”

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Lenora Nawaar and Ava Fleming 2013. Lenora Nawaar personal archive.

Ava focuses on teaching each girl to make this connection to her inner self, by bringing together inner emotions and outside experiences into their dance. She told the class during my observation session, “You must work on movement every day in order to achieve proficiency. In this class is not enough [Ott 2013].” There is the expected commitment to outside practice if you choose to be a member of this class-community. She also told them, “You must learn to control the music and choose what part to represent. This [choice] will change throughout your life and your dance career as you grow and change as a dancer and person [Ott 2013]”, which further implies the connection each dancer must make to self in order to create authentic movement. She concludes this very personal moment with her dancers by saying, “different bodies and people are capable of different interpretations and this composes our journey as dancers [Ott 2013].” And I imagine it composes one’s journey to self-discovery and purpose as well.

Some of them do not even consider themselves dancers, just experimenters on this path of self-discovery. Adriana mentioned in her interview, “I consider myself a belly dancer, but I’m afraid to label myself as a dancer, because I feel it’s an earned title. I haven’t earned it yet. I still have so much more to learn from dance [Ramos 2013].” Besides the fact that this girl, who is an amazing dancer and can command an audience does not consider herself a dancer, I found it interesting that she said she needed to learn more from dance, not about dance, or dance technique. Dance is teaching the young women in this class something about themselves that they often cannot describe. Shelly echoed this sentiment perfectly when she told me her deepest goal in this practice. “I just want to be like what Ava said a couple weeks ago, ‘to dance like no one is watching is what separates a dancer from the rest’, shut yourself off and don’t think about the audience….I want to dance like I’m alone and I don’t care [what anyone else thinks] and I’m still learning to do that [Philipp 2013].”

In the end it is this focus on self-discovery inside of dance and in life that keeps dancers coming back to Raks Sharqi for 4 or 5 semesters until they graduate. I recall the memories each girl shares at the end of the year in the pow-wow circle we make on the last day to celebrate the accomplishments of a semester [Ott 2012]. Ava often asks the girls to say what they are taking from the class and what they are leaving behind. She doesn’t allow anyone to repeat an answer once it has been said. In my three semesters, now my fourth, in the class I have heard many answers to this question. “I’m taking away confidence, self-appreciation, the ability to be sensual, new friendships, a deeper understanding of myself, a different perspective of beauty….” The list goes on and on. The girls often leave behind things like self-doubt, judgmental attitudes, fear, shyness, and thinking inside the box [Ott 2012]. Each semester I try to also figure out what I am leaving behind and taking away. The longer I stay in this class the more I discover about myself and others, the more I realize the value in each individual dancer and in myself, and the more I learn to show people my true self through movement. This is all the members of this class desire to do, to create a little piece of Earth where they are always exactly who they want to be and other people can see it.

References:

Ramos, Adriana (Resource Person).

2013. Interview. (In-person, recorder by typing transcript): March 28. Tempe, Arizona. (Questions about being a member of a Raks Sharqi community in DCE 211 at Arizona State University).

Philipp, Shelly (Resource Person).

2013. Interview. (In-person, recorder by typing transcript): March 28. Tempe, Arizona. (Questions about being a member of a Raks Sharqi community in DCE 211 at Arizona State University).

Ott, Lenora (Field Notes)

2013. DCE 211 Raks Sharqi (typed observations) March 21. Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona.

Ott, Lenora (Memory).

2012. End of the year discussion in DCE 211 Raks Sharqi (facilitated by Ava Fleming) December. Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona.

(Class responses to the question “What will you take away from and what will you leave in this class?”).

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