A few years ago, blogger Randa Jarrah caused a storm on the internet with her article “Why I can’t stand white belly dancers.” She claimed that white women who practice belly dancing are engaging in appropriation. The article dragged “belly dancing,” known also as Raqs Sharqi, which is identified mostly with Egypt – into the whole appropriation or mis-appropriation debate.
She wrote that “belly dancing, as it is known and practiced in the West, has its roots in, and a long history of, white appropriation of Eastern dance. As early as the 1890s in the U.S., white side-show sheikhs managed dance troupes of white women, who performed belly dance at the world’s fairs. Many white women, who presently practice belly dance, are continuing this century-old tradition of appropriation, whether they are willing to view their practice this way or not”.
Cultural appropriation has been defined as the adoption or theft of icons, rituals, aesthetic standards or behaviour from one culture or subculture, by another. It is regarded by many as a by-product of imperialism, capitalism, oppression and assimilation and is generally applied when the subject culture is a minority or somehow subordinate in social, political, economic or military status to the appropriating culture.
For me, viewing the subject in an African context, where the appropriation debate normally concerns artefacts, design, hair-styles and music etc., this issue throws up as many questions as it answers. Is the great African civilisation of Egypt in anyway subordinate to Western culture? How are things viewed in Egypt, where those that practice Raqs Sharqi from other countries are welcomed?
There is no doubt that for blogger Randa Jarrah the colour of the dancer’s skin was of significant importance – and it is this element that has driven this work. The series titled “Dancing in Pantone” features an Irish born dancer, who has embraced the history and etiquette of Raqs Sharqi having been trained in Egypt.
The photographs are embellished with colour discs representing Pantone colours of pink, brown and white (skin tone) The occasional blue circles represent blue-eyes, synonymous with white-skinned peoples.