Middle Eastern Dance Reflections: A Bridge Across Time and Place
by Bonita Oteri, M.A. International Relations
As our world struggles to evolve into a truly international community, rewards as well as challenges present themselves along the road to peace. Committed governments and national leaders strive bravely to make this dream a reality, often at the risk of severe political censure in their own countries. If this dream is ever to manifest as reality, we all must play a role in pushing aside road blocks, burying prejudice and sharing the common, shining spirit of humanity that has the power to transcend cultural differences.
Middle Eastern Dance, born of ancient traditions, presents a bridge across generations and cultures. My personal experience is a case in point. How did an Italian girl from Boston becomes a professional Middle Eastern Dancer? What fabulous cultural islands do I visit during my ongoing Odyssey? What does Middle Eastern Dance bring to the diverse cultures I briefly visit on my journey with what gifts of wisdom do I sail away? The answers to these questions, woven like colorful threads bind the Middle Eastern Dancer and the audience into a rich tapestry. Middle Eastern Dance affords us a trans-cultural bridge between our two worlds. The key to how this mystery happens, lies somewhere in the rich beauty, grace and rhythms of Middle Eastern Dance that captured my heart from the first, and has the power to call equally to international audiences, regardless of cultural origins.
The true spirit of the dance is to be found in traditional family celebrations, villages and cities throughout the Middle East. In America, this spirit thrives at places from New Jersey wedding receptions to the family partys in California. The dancing at these family festivities, joined by everyone from toddlers to grandparents, expresses that spirit of pure joy that all races and cultures instinctively know. This expression is a soul deep knowledge that in spite of life?s problems and tragedies there is something wonderful and magical about the love, light and laughter God has gifted us with this on the Earth.
Embracing that joyful spirit, I try always to carry it to my audiences. While living in Europe I studied with teachers of many cultures, including Arabs and Europeans. Europe also affords the opportunity to perform for many cultures. The German audiences studied the dance with the deep seriousness of classroom students. Their respect for the dance was evident although I often felt like a university professor and almost expected them to take notes! Danish audiences, melted the bitter coldness of northern nights with their immediate acceptance and the warmth of their laughter. My fellow Italians, of course never need an excuse to be a loud, happy and enthusiastic audience. Spaniards, intensely passionate, related easily to the dance and music, perhaps due to the influence of Moorish-occupied Spain, and its echoes across the centuries still found in fiery, vibrant Flamenco music and dance.
I returned to America, fearful of American audiences and their preconceived notions of Middle Eastern Dance. I knew it would be challenging for a simple, ancient dance of happiness to capture the fleeting, complex attentions of stressed out business executives, soccer Moms and a generation raised on MacDonald's and MTV. However, even in this ultra-modern society, the trans-cultural bridge of Middle Eastern Dance served to cut across misconceptions.
In America, I have danced for elementary school students through senior citizens. The children saw a twirling cane dance as fun as their afternoon play in the snow. As I looked into their eyes, I saw that the senior citizens shared with the children the same light-hearted eternal youth that Middle Eastern Dance can bring out in all ages. The United States also presented opportunities to dance for Arab-American audiences for the first time. From Henna parties to New Year?s Eve celebrations, it is a delight for the dancer to fly on the enthusiasm of parents teaching their children to clap out the correct rhythm and enjoy the music. Like Middle Easterners, Indians have an ancient tradition of dance. These audiences were initially reserved and sometimes concerned that Grandma might not approve of Middle Eastern dancing. But again the dance bridged cultural communication gaps as a baby broke the ice by laughing uproariously when I played my zils under his nose. Cuter than the baby was little, Grandma, who having enjoyed the performance more than anyone, gave me a big hug at the end of the show. Conversely, Korean audiences had no such concerns of restraint. The men charged up to dance with me punctuating the rhythm with Tae Kwan Do chops and martial arts grunts. As I said Good Night the traditionally-dressed, embarrassed hostess confided, "These people are normally very shy, you know."
Finally, I must end the brief highlights of my continuing adventures with a special thanks to the Arab-Americans who brought this tremendous gift from the old world to the new. Whether Middle Eastern Dance is performed professionally or by the happy people I have seen at local family and church festivals, its inherent healing laughter and joy will long continue to be a bridge across time and place.
-- Bonita Oteri is a professional belly dancer and instructor in the Washington D.C. Metro area.