on controversy and discomfort in belly dance

After several private discussions it seems important that I take some time to address the recent piece by Barbara Grant discussing Sashi and to a lesser extent, pharmacy Kaya and Sadie, advice Suhaila and Judeo-Christian ethical standards as they apply to belly dance and as they are represented in the article. I’m going to try to head in the direction of making this a learning opportunity, but some of this may seem pretty personal. For that I apologize in advance.

Don’t be mean. We don’t have to be mean. -B.B.

This goes here and not on Gilded Serpent because there is just no way that the Gilded Serpent 500-word limit on letters is going to cover these thoughts, and neither is the 3-page limit on articles (I’m going to be lucky to come in at less than 5000 words). To even hope to keep this reasonable, I’m going to skip the whole second half of Ms. Grant’s article – perhaps I’ll come back to issues of burlesque and belly dance in the future. For now, focus is important, so I tackle only the first half.

I need to say, up front, that I did not see Sashi’s performance, nor have I seen any Ascend Tribal performance, nor have I seen Barbara Grant perform, ever. I’m not a religious scholar, nor Christian, nor a dancer, nor a cutter, nor female [and thus, have not endured any female genital mutilation or female mutilation of any sort], nor even pierced. I have no business discussing these things, except in as much as I am discussing an article and its audience, belly dancers. Use your own mind, that’s what I’m trying to do.

To echo Ms. Grant (and to help set the stage for something coming up…), “Those who abhor critical opinions may not wish to read further.”

LET’S TALK ABOUT “PLACE”

Contradiction is not a sign of falsity, nor the lack of contradiction a sign of truth. – Blaise Pascal

First, I’m going to take issue with self-contradictory statements. Before I do, I’m going to confess that I am as guilty as anyone, and that contradiction is not inherently bad. It has been said (notably by Oscar Wilde) that the wise contradict themselves. It’s also worth noting that as we learn and evolve, new perspective and new information can lead to honest changes of opinion, which, when juxtaposed across a great rift of time, may seem contradictory, but instead demonstrate the wonderful human capacity for growth and development. So, I begin with a contradiction that I think merits some exploration.

In a previous piece Ms. Grant published on the Gilded Serpent, she closes with the following:

The dance is broad enough to allow many varieties of expression and it holds a place for Christians too.

This is an apparent appeal to the broadest definition of “the dance” to include Christians, some of whom (Ms. Grant among them) approach this dance form without any inkling of “erotic” or “enticing” qualities. Ms. Grant’s personal efforts to entertain an audience without being enticing (or erotic) are entirely defensible within the broad culture of American belly dance. Having never seen her perform, I refrain from any judgment on her success in either avoiding eroticism and enticement or being entertaining. It is enough to say that here in America, where we routinely prune the roots of art forms and bend them to our own intentions in a broader culture of appropriation and extension, if someone wants to make belly dance unenticing, they are certainly welcome to do so. I personally encourage individual artistic drive in whatever direction anyone finds it.

We now come to the contradiction, which is that while Ms. Grant seeks (some might claim, demands) “a place” for Christian dancers within the big tent of Belly Dancing, she is quite willing to dismiss and assault others that find different expression in what our author calls “the dance.” From her most recent piece:

If the Tribal community cannot effectively perform quality control over its dancers, perhaps the larger Belly dance community should consider whether or not Tribal performances and festivals are worthy of consideration in a publication such as this one.

and

Extreme body mutilation has no place in Belly dance!

Leaving aside for the moment the problematic concepts of “quality control” and “extreme” (which I will return to in time), we can infer some specific boundaries on what sort of “a place” we are discussing in as far as this particular article is concerned and what is and is not Belly Dancing. With these boundaries firmly in mind, I move on to other issues raised.

KEEPING IT CIVIL

Civility costs nothing, and buys everything. – Mary Wortley Montagu

To dismiss artists, repeatedly, in the space of just sixteen paragraphs is, to me, fairly offensive. Dance is, fundamentally, a performance art (at least when people are talking about it). I suggest we focus on the performance (I can’t; didn’t see it), the art (I can only vaguely address this one), or the culture in which it is created and discussed (bingo).

I would encourage Ms. Grant to reconsider resorting to epithets in an attempt to make a point. Phrases like “or whatever it was that Sashi called it” seem, to me, to belong in the school playground, and not anywhere near a serious discussion about art or culture. If you don’t know what she called it, and you can’t be bothered to find out, that’s fine. Just don’t trouble us with demeaning commentary and drawing that much attention to your personal ignorance – whether it be by choice or otherwise.

I also discourage the liberal use of quotes in an apparent attempt to dismiss or discredit the works and beliefs of those she does not understand or appreciate. For my part, I promise to never refer to Jesus as Ms. Grant’s “savior” or “cult leader.” We may have our differences, but that doesn’t mean I have to disrespect someone else’s beliefs.

I’m also going to take issue with the use of the phrase “Those who abhor such standards may not wish to read further.” (foreshadowing comes into bloom). Perhaps our definitions of abhor differ, but I’m going with “to regard with extreme repugnance” [Merriam-Webster]. Whatever Ms. Grant had in mind when using the phrase “Judeo-Christian ethical standards,” I posit that you will find only a very small percentage of the human population that disagrees with fundamental tenants of Judeo-Christian ethical standards (especially when they are presented as general ethical standards, and not wrapped in a particular and exclusionary religion or history), and a much, much smaller slice of people that would go so far as to abhor such standards. Dismiss, question, bend, and break, perhaps, but abhor is particularly strong language and, I think, inapropriate in as much as it is used to offend and alienate readers that may, for whatever reason, disagree with the author. Nothing anyone can say about dance has such magnitude and import as to establish a personal repugnance for something as broadly definable (and in this specific context, entirely un-defined) as a Judeo-Christian ethical standard. It’s just dance.

But, while we’re here, send me a list of specific Judeo-Christian ethical standards, and we can open a discussion on which ones, if any, that I abhor. In this case, the phrase seems to be used simply as a means to divide and hurt, and that’s just not appropriate. Most particularly from someone who wants to find “a place” for Christians, including herself, among the audience she is addressing.

Also worth mentioning, but only because the original author made such a definitive statement on the subject of biblical Christian beliefs, I am going to go on the record questioning any sort of absolute authority either Jews or Christians have in as far as establishing ethical standards. History is rife with examples of atrocities conducted by the hands of Jews and Christians and in the name of their God, and not only against non-believers. Other ethical standards may apply.

RECOGNIZING THE DIFFERENCE

Despite opening with the confession that Sashi went to great lengths to explain her intent and the background and spiritual nature of her presentation, and the acknowledgement that piercing as a spiritual practice is “not unique” to this performance, this article detours quickly through two tangents that are apparently very personal issues for the author – female genital mutilation and cutting. Since all I have to work with is the article, I guess I get to follow the tangents.

What either of these issues has to do with dance, belly dance, artistic expression, piercing, Sashi’s performance or Judeo-Christian ethics escapes me, but since we’re here, let’s take this opportunity to explore a bit of both subjects.

I suppose there is some potential to connect female genital mutilation with belly dance, if only coincidentally, in as much as female genital mutilation is most-often practiced in North-Eastern and Eastern Africa (Egypt, Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan, Tanzania), and portions of the Middle-East (Iraq, Jordan, northern Saudi Arabia), which can also lay claim to some of the traditional dances that have been morphed into what we call belly dance today. Of course, the problem with that is that female genital mutilation is also practiced in other parts of the world and was also occasionally practiced in the United States until the late 1950’s (and presumably, still is today).

More importantly, female genital mutilation is generally regarded as a cultural or social practice, and not a religious or spiritual one, so I fail to see how this is relevant. You’re going to have to come up with some pretty strong evidence to convince me that forced genital surgery is a spiritual experience for anyone, much less a child or baby.

If you’d like to learn more about female genital mutilation, I suggest visiting the world health organization site on the subject, as well as one from Amnesty International and Warrior Marks.

Our next tangent brings us to the phenomenon of cutting. A subset of general practices described as self-injury or parasuicide. Without going into a great discussion on the subject, self-injury is not (that I’m aware of) currently recognized as a mental disorder, but it may be considered symptomatic of other recognized disorders, in which case, cutting would be also be an involuntary act.

In any case, some form of habitual self-injury, though not necessarily cutting, is estimated to occur in almost 1% of the population, so chances are there are a few cutters among the readership of Gilded Serpent, and they might have something to say (or think) about comparing their personal experiences with a public performance. Again, as with female genital mutilation, I fail to see how cutting is related to Sashi’s performance.

I’m going to go out on a limb here a bit and posit that dance, and in particular tribal forms of belly dance may constitute a form of interpersonal therapy (a recommended therapy for cutting), which is intended to help people develop and maintain relationships. If that is the case, belly dancing, and tribal dancing in particular, may help reduce the incidence and/or severity of cutting behaviors. I’m just guessing.

For more on cutting, there’s selfinjury.org and recoveryourlife.com. And, since the original article included a random quote from a random cutter, I’ll raise that to a whole book. Go Ask Ogre.

Whatever causes or reasons might bring someone to cutting, it seems quite obvious to me that the path that leads one to self-injure is probably not at all congruent with the path that leads a dancer to explore distant cultures and find personal expression on stage.

This may sound crazy, but I think that things done for spiritual enlightenment, regardless of the religious or cultural framework in which they are cast or the controversial nature of the acts themselves, pretty much have to be done on a voluntary basis with full awareness and intent of the participants. Otherwise, what sort of spiritual enlightenment is available? Can you trip over God and be saved? Christians seem to be quite fond of their rituals and rites that demand the affirmation and consent of their adherents.

There’s a fairly simple difference between female genital mutilation and cutting and suffering in the quest for spiritual enlightenment – Female genital mutilation [usually] and cutting [generally] is not done on a voluntary basis with the full awareness and intent of the participants.

REPREHENSIBLE!

Do not do unto others as you expect they should do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same. – George Bernard Shaw

What I left out of the previous discussion on cutting and how it’s not related to anything I understand about Sashi’s performance, was a particularly dramatic statement, “As an American who is concerned about our youth, I find ‘cutting’ particularly reprehensible!” This statement merits discussion on its own, but I think I will rely on the words of others in this matter. Having made the distinction between voluntary and involuntary behaviors in the previous section (I hope…), it’s time to reflect on that word reprehensible (thank you Merriam-Webster):

Main Entry: rep斟e搬en新i搓le
Pronunciation: “re-pri-‘hen(t)-s&-b&l
Function: adjective
: worthy of or deserving reprehension

Main Entry: rep斟e搬en新ion
Pronunciation: -‘hen(t)-sh&n
Function: noun
: the act of reprehending : CENSURE

Main Entry: rep斟e搬end
Pronunciation: “re-pri-‘hend
Function: transitive verb
: to voice disapproval of

Main Entry: cen新ure
Pronunciation: ‘sen(t)-sh&r
Function: noun
1 : a judgment involving condemnation
2 archaic : OPINION, JUDGMENT
3 : the act of blaming or condemning sternly
4 : an official reprimand

Main Entry: cen新ure
Function: transitive verb
Inflected Form(s): cen新ured; cen新ur搏ng /’sen(t)-sh(&-)ri[ng]/
1 obsolete : ESTIMATE, JUDGE
2 : to find fault with and criticize as blameworthy

Deferring to the wisdom of those that came before me (in various translations), I offer my spin on reprehensible through excerpts from sacred texts of great religions:

If you are Buddhist, please open the Dhammapada to chapter 18, verse 252:

The fault of others is easily perceived, but that of oneself is difficult to perceive; a man winnows his neighbor’s faults like chaff, but his own fault he hides, as a cheat hides the bad die from the gambler.

If you are Confucian, please open Analects (Lun Yu) to book 12, chapter 16:

The Master said, ‘The superior man seeks to perfect the admirable qualities of men, and does not seek to perfect their bad qualities. The mean man does the opposite of this.’

If you are Hindu, please open the Garuda Purana to chapter 113, verse 57:

The vicious and the mean observe other’s faults, be they so little as mustard seeds. They see, but pretend not to see, their own faults as big as bilva fruits.

If you are Jewish, please open the Pirqe Aboth to chapter 2, verse 5:

judge not thy friend until thou comest into his place

If you are Muslim, please open the Qu’ran to chapter 6, verse 114:

Shall I seek other than Allah for judge, when He it is Who hath revealed unto you Scripture, fully explained?

And now, finally, to connect this to the next section and make it relevant to the piece I’m discussing, I refer you to the Christian Bible (New Testament). Please turn to Matthew, chapter 7, verse 1:

Judge not, that ye be not judged.

(That makes at least one possibly Judeo-Christian ethical standard that isn’t quite as exclusive as some Judeo-Christians might suggest…)

KEEPING IT CHRISTIAN [AND EXTREME]

You must submit to supreme suffering in order to discover the completion of joy. – John Calvin

Now that we’re back into the Christian vein, let’s discuss some Christian history that might bear relevance to the concept of “mutilation of the body” in the quest for spiritual enlightenment, redemption and purity.

Suffering is Christian, is says so right in the Book:

1 Peter 4:1
“Forasmuch then as Christ hath suffered for us in the flesh, arm yourselves likewise with the same mind: for he that hath suffered in the flesh hath ceased from sin;”

… and most especially for women:

Genesis 3:16
Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.

Suffering, sure, but we’re talking about extreme bodily mutilation. Can we find an example of that? Let’s start with amputation as penance:

Matthew 18:8-9
“If your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.”

I’m sure most people would consider amputation a form of “mutilation of the body,” and here we have specific scripture apparently requiring exactly that. Then we can bring it a little closer to the original article. Let’s find some mandatory Biblical genital mutilation.

Joshua 5:2
At that time the LORD said unto Joshua, Make thee sharp knives, and circumcise again the children of Israel the second time.

Genesis 17:10
This is my covenant, which ye shall keep, between me and you and thy seed after thee; Every man child among you shall be circumcised.

There is so much more on circumcision throughout the Bible, but I have to move on. From yet another book, we find self-assault as a means to… religious credibility?

1 Corinthians 9:27 [World English Bible]
but I beat my body and bring it into submission, lest by any means, after I have preached to others, I myself should be rejected.

Ok, sure, you might say, these are not meant to be read literally. They have no bearing on a discussion of actual spiritual human bodily mutilation. Ah, but they do!

From the depths of the middle ages and in the shadow of great plagues (13th-14th centuries C.E.) in Europe, we find bands of flagellant monks parading from town to town beating themselves and bleeding for their faith. And so disturbing were these that by Papal decree, the Catholic versions of these flagellant orders were condemned by multiple Popes (Clement VI and Gregory XI) and declared heretical. So, for a a while there, flagellation was a tolerated, if not endorsed, spiritual practice among Christians in Europe.

Ok, sure, you might say, the Pope shut all this down and ended it back in the 1300’s, so it has no bearing on a discussion of actual human spiritual bodily mutilation today. Ah, but they do!

Right in the heart of Catholic turf (a beautiful three and a half hour drive south of Rome), we find the town of Guardia Sanframondi, wherein, every seven years, you can find parades that include people flaying their own backs and beating their chests with blocks of pins. It gets even better, but you’ll have to wait until the end for that bit. Patience is a virtue.

Flagellation can be pretty serious stuff, but there are other means of spiritual progress and/or redemption in the Christian faith that have to do with physical punishment, discomfort and suffering, perhaps most notably, the sackcloth or hairshirt. These items are described several times in the Bible, and were apparently a very popular method of mortifying the flesh and demonstrating penitence.

I should also draw your attention to that particular phrase – Mortifying the Flesh. That’s a major theme in Christianity.

If you’re interested in additional information regarding good Christians suffering for their spirituality, just look at the saints. I suggest the stories of St. Dominic Loricatus, St. Peter Damian, St. Therese of Lisieux, St. Ignatius Loyola and St. Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer.

As a special gift to you, popular favorite Pope John Paul II discussed suffering at great length.

Blood is a big theme in the Bible, and many others have addressed these things in a much more scholarly and comprehensive manner than permitted here. I offer Blood and Purity in Leviticus and Revelation as an interesting place to start.

While we’re on the subject of bloodshed and spirituality and Christendom, let us not forget the blood of innocent men, women and children spilled in the name of a God they did not know or did not worship [enough].

BLOOD AND PAIN IS UNIVERSALLY SPIRITUAL

To live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering. – Roberta Flack

As part of a spectrum of painful things done for spiritual enlightenment, it’s important to note that many religions endorse or even require fasting and/or pilgrimages. Both of these could be interpreted readily as painful experiences (hunger pain, foot pain, financial pain, etc.) in the quest for spiritual fulfillment. How is it that the pain of fasting can be a valid spiritual ritual, but more dramatic forms of pain somehow become invalid and reprehensible? Who gets to define that line, and by what ethical standard to they get to impose it on others? When does it become “extreme”?

The Christians have quite a history of penitents and other suffering rites, but lest someone think I’m picking on Christians [generally] or Catholics [in particular] in some unfair manner, I would also like to take a bit of space to discuss a few other spiritual quests. I prefer to let Sashi speak to the rituals she has studied, so here, I will skip the entire Hindu field.

Our Muslim brethren have a particularly dramatic and bloody event once a year, Ashura. This event, commemorating the massacre of Husayn bin Ali (among many others), is pretty much the basis for the schism between the Shi’ite and Sunni Muslims. Anyway, you don’t get to kill off a bunch of the hardcore faithful without centuries of repercussions, which today manifest in annual rituals of flagellation and bloodletting. On a positive note (and this is why I’m including this story in this piece), the inventors-of-the-suicide-bomber, Hizbollah, have made an effort in recent years to turn this bloody ritual into something positive and humane. Here you will find the following statement:

Hizbollah is quite vocal about condemning the flagellation. For the last two years, they have set up an alternative for those who want to demonstrate their faith in a different way. The Hizbollah ask Shiites to donate their blood to hospital blood banks, as Hussein donated his for the people.

The concept of ritual pain and suffering is embedded so deeply in human culture, you can even find pain rites in science fiction (just ask your friendly neighborhood Klingon) and in advertising (just watch [embedded quicktime] the Altoidia ad for Callard & Bowser Suchard by Leo Burnett Company.

To bring this bloody concept into the heart of the matter, in this case, blood in art, The Sacrificial Aesthetic: Blood Rituals from Art to Murder is one place to start. If you’ve got time to digest a book, “Sacred Pain: Hurting the Body for the Sake of the Soul” by Ariel Glucklich might be a good place to spend some time.

Blood and Pain are two universal conditions of the human experience (we all have both, to some degree or another). Some people, within our cultural, religious and personal contexts, make blood and/or pain into something spiritually meaningful. Sometimes that cultural, religious or personal context is not understood or not accepted by others, but that doesn’t make the individual experience any less spiritual or important.

I’LL TAKE PICTURES FOR A THOUSAND WORDS, ALEX

Much has already been said about the picture selections that accompany the article. I will add that of the photos, Jesus crucified, a baby with IVs, and the “Church Approved Piercing” iron maiden all echo the apparent lack of understanding regarding voluntary and involuntary body modification/mutilation. I personally find the inclusion of a baby very inappropriate.

DID SOMEONE SAY QUALITY CONTROL?

Now I have to address the assertion that the Tribal community cannot effectively perform quality control.

To this, I have a very simple response. If the Greater Belly Dance Community had any concept of Quality Control, this might be a useful suggestion. Unfortunately, since there is very little in the way of Quality Control for any flavor of Belly Dance, the assertion that one group/style/format/approach/school/legacy should have any sort of authority over another is simply absurd.

To back up this argument, I provide, for your viewing amusement, the following three video clips of Quality Controlled Non-Tribal Belly Dancers:

1. [metacafe embedded video]
2. [direct wmv link]
3. [direct wmv link]

AND FINALLY, THE ANSWER

Blut ist ein ganz besonderer Saft – Mephistopheles [Faust] (“Blood is a very special fluid”)

If you’ve made it this far, I finally address the big question that Ms. Grant raised with her controversial opinion piece. She asked:

if “gods” or “goddesses” may be worshiped, and “spiritual enlightenment” achieved, by what is in no uncertain terms mutilation of the body, then where does it stop?

As demonstrated again and again through history, the answer is that it stops when you run out of blood. Just like Jesus.

If you have any doubt, I encourage you to spend your next Easter season in San Pedro Cutud (San Fernando, Philippines), where you will find this enticing bit of pageantry and extreme body mutilation in the name of the Christian God.

Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. – Matthew 16:24

… and someone always does.

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