Part of Your World: Cultural Appropriation vs. the Need to Connect

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As a non-native belly dancer, particularly a white, non-native dancer, the question of appropriation comes up a lot. Those of us of the pasty persuasion walk a thin line between respectfully participating in another culture and taking cultural features for our own ends without respect to the originators of that culture. There are even some who claim that white people have no place in belly dance regardless of the dancer’s intent, education, or respect for the culture.

I disagree with this premise, of course, not only as a white woman, but as a lover of anthropology and culture and a desire to learn about cultures not my own. I can understand some of the resentment from cultures who have been victim to Western Imperialism and systemic oppression by Imperialist powers currently or in the past, but cultural sharing has been occurring for as long as humans have been interacting with one another.

We come together, we share with each other our customs and traditions, our arts, our music, our dance. Watching a dance find its way onto the world stage where all races and ethnicities want to participate is a beautiful thing. Ballet, Latin dance, hip hop, contemporary, Raqs Sharqi. It’s wonderful to see different people come together to enjoy the art of a specific culture.

Perhaps I’m naive, but I beg you to hear me out regardless of what shade of paper my skin is.

Based on recent discussions I’ve been a part of, cultural appropriation seems to be a largely American talking point currently. Dancers from Europe claim that it is not really an issue talked about much in their countries. I would say there is a reason for that.

America is a young nation in the grand scheme of things. It is large and the culture of each state can differ wildly from the next or even within itself. We are known as “the Melting Pot” due to the sheer number of cultures that have congregated here over the past four to six hundred years. We spend a lot of time not cultivating our own culture, but instead romanticizing and linking ourselves, however tenuously, to the cultures of our ancestral lands.

The popularity of DNA testing in the last few years demonstrates that. We have a deep desire to know where we come from, to be able to connect to an older culture, perhaps because we lack a deeply rooted cultural identity of our own. Walk up to any American whose family has existed here for a few generations and ask them what they are. They’ll rattle off “Oh, I’m Irish, Spanish, German, Dutch, and Ukrainian.” American is not typically a response you get even though they have never set foot in these countries they mention.

We celebrate holidays like St. Patrick’s Day, Cinco de Mayo, or Mardis Gras which originally had nothing to do with America because we are desperately seeking to be part of something that isn’t just BBQ, Cowboys, and Old Glory.

I can say for myself that I have never formed any sort of national identity. I have never formed a deep-seated patriotism or attachment to my geographical location. I’ve always been baffled by people who are so passionately supportive of sports teams simply because they live in a place.

I live in my home town. I live in my state, but it wouldn’t really affect me much if I left it. This is the place I was born and raised, but I did not choose this place. I have no real sense of loyalty to it. It’s just a fact that this is where I exist at this point in my life.

Perhaps there are others who feel the same way, who feel drawn to other countries and peoples, to feel a part of a rich culture that fascinates them.

I have always been drawn to other cultures. American history has often left me cold. I never enjoyed those classes. I was always wanting to read about far off places, ancient histories, or crafting my own cultures so foreign to what I knew.

Perhaps I simply wished to escape the puritanical hostility that is so deeply rooted in American history. I want color and vibrancy, passion and music. I want to embrace the beauty of a passionate people, to find some sort of connection beyond existing on a piece of a map by pure coincidence.

Egyptian dance has been my gateway out of the dark hermitage of my room, where I hide away from the world, from the prudish hypocrisy that one often finds here, from the narrowly defined beauty ideals forced upon us from infancy, from the jaded cynical nature that has permeated our modern society.

It has been a long time since I have experienced such passion for a subject. Any subject really. The inclusive nature of this dance and the dance community as a whole has been very helpful to me, both for my mental health and my self image. I find myself fascinated by not only the dance, but the music, the art, the culture, the language, the people that birthed this magnificent expression into the world.

I beg natives of MENAHT cultures to understand that most of us aren’t wanting to rob you of your culture. We want to immerse ourselves in it. We want to bathe in its light, to breathe in that spark of the ancient we cannot always find within ourselves.

I never want to offend a native of the culture I desire to share in. Share your wisdom with me. I want to know. I am starved for that knowledge. I want to hear about your customs, your traditions, your expressions, your joys, your sorrows. I only want to honor it as well as I can, because there is something there that speaks to me. I would share that spark with those around me, particularly in this time when those cultures I seek to honor are often demonized by western media and government.

If you find me uneducated, teach me. I am a blank book ready to be filled.

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