Pride and prejudice: On shamrocks, shimmies, and being a green dancer

by Morgana Mirage

Almost from my earliest childhood days, I remember two pieces of artwork that were up on our wall at home. One was drawing of the Irish harp, and the Gaelic words, "Cead Mille Failte" (a hundred thousand welcomes), by an artist friend of our family.

The other was a copper plate from Egypt, with a profile of Cleopatra, given to my father by an Egyptian friend at the hospital where they both worked. I studied the intricacy, beauty, and mystery of both pieces. One represented a magical land with a mysterious language of my ancestors. The other was from a different land - but one to which I felt deeply and unapologetically drawn.

My mother came to Boston from Ireland after nursing school, and my father grew up in a predominantly Irish-American neighborhood in the Charlestown section of Boston. Perhaps, being between two cultures, they had an affinity for others negotiating similar or even greater challenges.

Some years later, I decided to fulfill a dream of studying Middle-Eastern dance. I worked very hard at it. I sought out teachers who not only could teach good technique, but whose respect for and understanding of Middle-Eastern cultures shone through.

I had no desire to be something I am not. But I did and still do have a great desire to understand, to the best of my ability, not only the dances of the Middle East, but their origins and cultural context. Simply or maybe not so simply, my desire is to be the best dancer I can be.

All along the way, I've been aware that this is a path fraught with controversy. There's a lot of concern about what motivates women not of Middle-Eastern ancestry to study Middle-Eastern dance.

That controversy recently erupted in the instantaneous online sphere with an essay, "Why I can't stand white belly dancers", by Palestinian-American writer and author Randa Jarrar, at salon.com.

I thought, dare I say it, here's someone telling me, gosh, I don't know, "No Irish need apply"?

I read this essay a couple of times, to make sure I wasn't missing some nuance or point that the dance community should perhaps stop and take stock of and reflect inwardly upon.

And this is saying a lot because like many people, I found my first objection right at the title.

Yes, the title is offensive and it is racist. And I'm not given to the reactive outrage or so-called "faux rage" that is de rigeur on the Internet.

The article is a broad and inarticulate swipe at an entire group of people, singling them out among all the practitioners of Middle-Eastern dance on the planet. It's not worthy of a writer praised for her articulation of history and contemporary issues.

So it's a little hard to get past it to other points the author is trying to make. Which near as I can tell, are that people outside the Middle Eastern cultures - and white women above all - don't get what the dance is about and are merely imposing their own needs and desires upon it and thus upon women of the cultures of origin.

In one sense, I can relate to the idea of a culture being misrepresented or even misappropriated. As I write this, St. Patrick's Day is not far away, and with it will come the annual debauchery of green beer, stupid hats, gross-looking green milk shakes, and a general excuse for drunkenness and hooliganism, and the somehow undying stereotype that Irishness itself equals drunkenness.

But it doesn't offend me that Irish music is embraced worldwide, or that people from around the world come to Ireland to discover its beauty and history. Even if they go to the pubs first, as tourists often do. Maybe along the way, they will lose some of those stereotypical ideas and learn the depth and breadth of Irish culture if they are embraced and educated, rather than shut out.

That there is amateurization and a need for greater cultural awareness in the dance community is a valid concern. When I see someone showing off floor work during Armenian line dance music - and, insanely in my view, in the path of the line dancers - this to me signals ignorance and no small touch of arrogance.

I've also heard complaints about people picking Arabic words for dance names that make no sense, such as the equivalent of "cash register", and using music or props that were inappropriate for the dance they were performing. However, they are issues of training, teaching, and of attitude. They are not matters of complexion, skin tone, or having a European surname.

And it's my experience that those who are drawn to the dance for superficial reasons, or just because of the makeup, costumes, and sense of glamor, generally don't stay once they realize they have to work hard and give something back as well as revel in the affirmation they seek.

I love costumes, makeup, and jewelry and make no apology as a woman for being drawn to them. But, for me, Middle-Eastern dance has always been much more than that - it has been passport to the cultures of the Middle East, to the opportunity to travel and learn, and make friends.

This experience not only became part of my education as a dancer - it made me a better journalist, and gave me a doorway of insight into covering local Arab and Islamic communities. I took courses in Arabic, read from the Koran, and traveled to Egypt and Turkey - all in the service of trying to further my understanding.

Through it all, the love, friendship and respect I have received, as a dancer, writer, and hopefully, a world citizen, were freely given and freely returned and not stolen or misappropriated.

In her essay, Ms. Jarrar writes that, "The most disturbing thing is when these women take up Arabic performance names — Suzy McCue becomes Samirah Layali." Putting aside the snide and disrespectful tone, respectfully, my dance name, Morgana, isn't a made-up name or arbitrary choice any more than I suppose are that of the Egyptian dancers Lucy, Nelly, and Ruby. My dance name reflects both Arab and Irish sentiments. So maybe we are not so far apart after all.

Not long ago, I found a plate just like the one that my parents had. It is now up in a room in my house, along with a rug I bought while in Egypt. These do not stir in me a pretense of identity. Instead, they invoke thoughts and memories of friends and experiences. To quote, well, a western band of Anglo-Irish origin - the Beatles: "In my life, I've loved them all."

And, from "Batwanes Beek", a song made popular by Arab singer Warda: "Whether near or far, I am happy with you" - you who have extended to me, across divides of language, culture, and continents, a hundred thousand welcomes.

Morgana Mirage is associate editor of Belly Dance New England.

Note: Belly Dance New England will be hosting a TweetChat on Wednesday, March 12 from 9 - 11 pm EST. The topic is "Belly Dance: Cultural Appreciation or Appropriation?" Open to everyone in the belly dance community. Use #bostonraqs to participate in the conversation. Our handle is BDNE.

Never participated in a TweetChat before? See http://janetfouts.com/how-to-participate-in-a-tweet-chat/

For those who can't attend, we'll capture and publish the conversation.