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Has Mata Hari Left the Building Yet?

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Orientalism is defined in Wikipedia as the imitation or depiction of aspects of Eastern cultures in the West by writers, designers and artists. Many scholars phrase it more strongly, and more negatively, as a representation of the Orient which is not necessarily based in reality. Relying on inaccurate or imaginary accounts of other people causes problems if you are trying to establish diplomatic or economic relations with them, or invading them, or presenting an ethnic dance or evening of music, or interacting with them at work.

Drid Williams, in her paper In the Shadow of Hollywood Orientalism: Authentic East-Indian Dancing, describes several types of relationships with the arts of another culture via concrete examples.

American fraternal and sororal organizations engaged in Native American re-enactments: "As much as the Smoki rhetoric emphasized the authenticity and seriousness of their performances, they did not show respect for Hopi beliefs or cosmology and the performances were, in fact, comic turns; as respectable members of the business elite, the Smokis played at being inferior savages.
Jack Cole was trained in "an atmosphere of Hollywood Orientalism. He had neither the intention nor the will to understand Indian performances in terms of their originator's language and culture... What he wanted was to open up a new vocabulary of movement that would replace ballet and, most importantly, sell... Cole never wanted the type of dancing he created to be called jazz, Oriental dance, or any such label. Instead, he wanted it to be called Broadway Commercial or something akin to that. The N. Y. Times dance critic, Anna Kisselgoff, called Jack Cole's work American Show Dancing. It is unfortunate that these new categories are not widely used and accepted...
"Hollywood Orientalism has had many consequences in the wider American dance world since its inception with Denishawn in the early twentieth century. Its vast network of publicity, its global visibility and economic advantages tend to obscure the efforts of American dance artists who spend their lifetimes becoming authentic representatives of indigenous non-Western dance forms."
Gina Lalli (American performer of Bharatanatyam and Kathak): The Indians themselves did not reject or ridicule her performances. Lalli (like Nala Najan, Ragini Devi, Gina Blau and Janaki Patrik), didn't wannabe an Indian. She did want to be an Indian dancer of surpassing excellence who, through her dancing, exhibited respect for Hindu beliefs and cosmology.

Mata Hari has NOT left the building

Discussions about Orientalism and belly dance are misleading when the discussions focus on male artists and audience. Here in the 21st century it is the FEMALES who are responsible for the continued popularity of the Orientalist pictures and dance themes in the West. We take it a step further than the males do, with their taste for the sexual 'Mysterious Other'; we observe ourselves becoming the Mysterious Other observed by others. Why DO these pictures still draw the imagination of Western females so strongly?

The obvious first answer is: any archetype associated with youth and beauty, whether Oriental or not, is powerful. Beauty IS power, and seems to provide choices. So it is in all times and places. The Mata Hari in the picture on the right seems to rule her own destiny; she draws attention and love, rather than bestowing it.

The obvious second answer is: women are still struggling with the same interior issues as the women of a century ago. Western history for the last several thousand years has included careful selective breeding of docile, accommodating, passive-agressive females. More than a century will be needed to correct course. A clamorous self-identification with the pictures of a hundred years ago may be discouraging, but it can be seen as a first step... if the ladies do not get stuck there.

Alexandra Kolb suggested that one of the reasons Mati Hari was brought forward by respectable patrons was her incorporation of the tradition of the 'tableau vivant' so popular in respectable European households in the 19th century. "The tableau vivant's main function was to recreate paintings using real life, costumed participants -- primarily women-- to imitate well known works of art in static poses which were held for a certain period of time, as if in freeze-frames. This genre thus married the visual with the performing arts...the salon milieus had allowed amateur female performers to experiment with unconventional and often eroticised identities in the safe havens of private homes and artistic exoticism... Tableaux vivants were thus part of a project of self-fashioning and, like later modern dance works, allowed women to bring to light certain facets of their repressed, hidden selves, including their sensual desires." Mata Hari just did it better, one very slow move at a time.

In truth, the tableau vivant is still very much with us. One of the aspects of Goth and tribal-fusion which dilutes the experience for me is the tendency of dancers to slip from one mini-tableau to another (mini-tableau = a second or two of pose) without the benefit of the extraordinary line sought by ballet performers, or an emotional and artistic connection between the poses, or any cultural context other than pop culture.

This incorporation of mini-tableau into belly dance is not surprising, considering the number of Mata Hari pictures that get shared and posted. Mata Hari has NOT left the building, evidently. An extraordinary dancer with great theatrical skills and the technical ability to move emotionally between tableaus can pull it off. Everyone else: what exactly are you trying to communicate? Are you inviting us to observe you attempting to become the 'Mysterious Other' that was observed by the Occidental imaginations of earlier decades? If so, why?

Occidental Fun House Mirror

If an image or a concept connects us with an inner self that we cherish, but have not acted on; when it makes us feel a part of a unique group; when it seems to connect us with a higher or more creative or more sexual or more powerful self -- well, we buy it.
"Why is it bad when we [copy them] but not when they do it? It's largely about power. Taking elements from Western-originating dances like ballet and ballroom, as in Egyptian dance, is, in part, a result of having been colonised. Colonised cultures tend to adopt whatever the colonisers present as good. Adding elements from ballet, the most revered dance form in Western culture, in the early days of Raqs Sharqi was a way of making dances more commercially appealing to both the colonisers and locals with money, who sought a more cosmopolitan way of life." — Brigid Kelly, ‘Orientalism, Zumarrad's completely Non-scholarly Quick and Dirty Guide’ in The Belly Dance Reader, Volume One.

Since scholars inform us that cultural appropriation is reserved for the fantasies and activities of the more powerful party in the interaction, I call it "Occidentalism" when it is the East borrowing the tail feathers of the West. My favorite all-time bi-directional ‘ism’ is embedded in a 1996 interview by Nuria Tahan in Habibi magazine with a then-famous Iraqi-Lebanese dancer. If the following description amuses you, reverse-engineer it; you'll then have good insight into how ridiculous Western dancers can make themselves with generic harem fantasies.

"[Samara] has been putting out a new cassette every year with her own special music. Her most recent cassette, Morjana, has fascinating original rhythms, inspired by American New Age music. She didn't know the names of the American songs, but she said that her musicians in Beirut changed them to make them Oriental in flavor... She made a music video to accompany Morjana, featuring the title song. It is a New Age instrumental piece which has Samara running through a forest pursued by eager Bedouins. She teases and flirts with them, then runs away... This year, she is planning a tableau inspired by American Indians! The music is from America, but 'like Oriental.' She described her costume as being 'like American Indians.' I asked if it was made of leather and feathers, and she said, 'a little bit.' I have no idea how she is going to make an Oriental show out of this, but I can't wait to find out."

The Authentically Inauthentic

To add to the confusion: you can count on professional entertainers of any culture to be interested in new ideas that might please an audience. Laurel Gray, writing in Fantasia magazine in 1985: "Even among natives, it is important to maintain a critical attitude and to analyze data with care. In this day of trans-world communication, it is difficult to find a land where modern cross-cultural influence has not been felt... A humorous example of such ethnic borrowing comes from Romania. An ardent folk dance student enthusiastically notated a Romanian gypsy dance in the hinterlands of Romania, only to discover later that the gypsies had merely copied the gypsy dance done by Rita Hayworth in an American movie they had recently seen in Bucharest."

So, Now What?

Well, that is up to you. This article is not the product of a scholarly research in the Near, Middle and Far East; it is an opinion-piece by a concerned citizen. Channeling an Odalisk, Mati Hari, an untamed Bedouin, Cleopatra, a sacred snake or Salome may seem like a good way to get something exotic on stage that will capture the audience's attention, but, honestly, unless you are actually Mati Hari or Cleopatra (et aliae) it is a very tricky business. Ditto for the ghul which stalk the earth in the guise of the sexy, cute, coy, dark, depressed, haughty or manic impulses. Don't do it. Manufactured feelings via posturing and interminable repetitions of the same dance combinations are a dusty meal for the audience. Someone once said that the difference between art and entertainment is the difference between learning something new and being amused by what is already known. Step out of your comfort zone. Commit to providing artistic nourishment.

Thank you.

Mata Hari in her heyday.  Photographer unknown.

The Online Orientalist's Library: the SciFi alternative

When curled up by the fireside on a chilly night, my hand is as likely to reach for books by Orientalists as soon as ones by Sci-Fi writers. I like them. I don't take them as Bible truth, but the writings of travelers in the pre-airplane age seem to come from another planet. And they also help me understand what may have gone before in the relationships between East and West.

A number of these are in the public domain. I have incorporated links to my favorite ones in the TIMELINE pages next to the year of publishing to help establish context for the books.


Jonathan Curiel, A is for Arab, Aramco World 2016, online and print. In 1974, Jack and Bernice Shaheen started a collection of Western movies featuring 'Arab' characters when they realized that their children never saw 'a humane Arab in a children's cartoon.' The collection is now housed at NYU. Brief interviews with other scholars about the importance of the collection are included.

Alexandra Kolb: Mata Hari's Dance in the Context of Femininity and Exoticism., a compilation of Songs about the Middle East.

Clayton Lord's New Beans arts journal blog.

Drid Williams: In the Shadow of Hollywood Orientalism: Authentic East-Indian Dancing.

The Belly Dance Reader, 2012, by GildedSerpent.

WIKIPEDIA has a fine collection of prominent examples of Moorish Revival architecture, inspired, in part, by Washington Irving's travelogues in the early 1800s. "Little distinction was made in European and American practice between motifs drawn from Ottoman Turkey or from Andalusia [Arabic Spain]."

Rebecca came back from Mecca
Words and music by Kalmar and Ruby, published in 1921 by Waterson, Berlin & Synder, NYC.

Since Rebecca came back from Mecca,
All day long she keeps on smoking Turkish tobecca;
With her veil upon her face,
She keeps dancing 'round the place,
And yesterday her father found her
With a Turkish towel around her,
Oh! Oh! Ev'ryone's worried so;
They think she's crazy in the dome;
She's as bold as Theda Bara,
Theda's bare but Becky's barer.
Since Rebecca came back home.

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