Cultural Appropriation & Enculturation in the Middle Eastern Dance Arts

Trio of dancers with Milayah Laff - photo courtesy Mahmoud Reda

There has recently been much controversy about 'cultural appropriation', both in our dance circles and in popular broadcast media. As bellydancers, we will be affected by this issue at some point in our dance-lives; both individually and collectively. Bellydance is largely an appropriated, and often homogenized art form, utilizing bits and pieces from various cultural dances, many of which cross over in terms of historical transfer, innate movement quality, cultural motif and design. So how and where do we need to create boundaries that distinguish ethical use of another culture’s traditions, verses non-ethical treatment of cultural arts, or even worse… how do we deal with total ignorance of the matter? How can we become more discerning as artists, performers and teachers, and establish common ethical ground to better handle the way we understand cultural transference, and are more discerning with the concept of appropriation?

Cultural appropriation is a social concept dealing with the adoption of certain elements of one culture by members of another, without the consent of the people who belong to that culture. The subject, by its innate nature and layering of cultural heritages, challenges us to make informed personal decisions during the developmental timeline of our own evolving dance practice. It has been a topic generating both debate and perplexity within the wider international Middle Eastern, or ‘bellydance motivated’ art and dance communities. Apart from site-specific cases, many of the arguments are either vague or disapproving in nature. It is a touchy subject between traditionalists and contemporary or fusion artists especially, and the concept of cultural appropriation has lately been confronted, defended, argued or rationalized… but more often than not, the issue has been selectively ignored.

The sliding scale at the point of cultural representation is vast in itself – even before considering the more indiscriminate or arbitrary use of cultural art forms. In the world of ‘authentic’ Middle Eastern cultural or heritage dance forms (and of course, to be geographically specific, this discussion is inclusive neighbouring dances hailing from the regions of North Africa, The Levant, Turkey, Greece, the Balkans and the Caucasus) we have seen a vast array of cultural appropriations as these dances find their way into the Western world, often instigated by people of the country of origin, then adopted by Western dancers. Due to the level of promotion these arts experience in the Western world, the increase in adaptation is exponential. Unless a researcher’s goal is anthropological study, the newer, progressive forms of the original dance will retain cultural elements whilst diversifying; which is a natural process in creative evolution. The purist aims for certainty, and is ethically bound to represent the original format, whilst the creative developer adapts the original forms to create a new collaborative: either cross-cultural or culturally inspired.

‘Enculturation’ is the process by which people learn the requirements of their surrounding culture and acquire values and behaviours appropriate or necessary in that culture. As part of this process, influencers include parents, other adults, and peers. If successful, enculturation results in competence in the language, values, and rituals of the culture. We see this in areas of traditional arts within Egypt, for example in various styles of ‘Baladi’ urban woman’s dance, daughters learn from their mothers, aunts, grandmothers and close female friends of the family. As the girls mature, they integrate current movement influences from MTV and television dance clips. The trajectory of their dance, and the follow through of in-house dance embodiment, is changed by the external influences – which essentially reflect Western and Middle Eastern entertainment industry fuelled cultural appropriation. We see this phenomenon occurring in the Middle East, particularly where traditional and indigenous dance forms are represented on stage. In representational folkloric styles, the stage is usually a different platform and environment for true folk arts, with a new set of dynamics and inter-relationship – or division - between performer and audience.  

In many Middle Eastern cultural traditions, the line between performer and audience is often blurred, as the social dance becomes an activity where one can be both participant and spectator. Most national 'ethnic' dance troupes advanced their own creativity and forged new directions through assimilating old (traditional) and new performance styles, with various degrees of cultural appropriation. The merging of cultural elements and new adaptations, usually arise from a blend of progressive in-house cultural growth, or incorporate Western stagecraft or theatre prerequisites. Often, the adjustment of local movement qualities is required to be appropriate for stage dynamics. Most national troupes (eg: In Egypt – the Reda, Khomeyya and Ismalia troupes) aim to retain the intrinsic qualities and integrity of the cultural styles they represent to the public, usually in a theatrical stage setting or within a cinema production, with modifications to complement the new visual environment. Their goal is to engage the public with elements they can relate to culturally – albeit through the lens of theatre – through appropriate cultural nuance and receptivity to the audience feedback cycle.

How can dancers in the Western world, enamoured and inspired by the arts of the East, maintain a clear and fair sense of cultural ethics, applicable to their own artistic development? The boundaries should be simple enough; time-honoured traditional arts should be preserved to reflect their most original state and cultural integrity, through direct communication with the cultural groups from which the artistic modalities originated. These discussions are essential to the development of representational cultural works, and ethically, before the project is entered into, there must be discussion that fosters a deeper sense of awareness. From an ethical point of view, a strategy that is mutually agreed on, should be formed at the onset. If a representative of that culture is not available, as is often the case in vanishing traditions, it is necessary to follow through with anyone who holds a legacy and has researched the art and culture.

When fusing various external cultural elements - it is essentially respectful and shows artistic principle to research, name and be discerning with how these cultural elements are integrated into new works. It is fundamentally an ethical issue as to whether dance exponents decide to educate themselves, communicating openly with those from whom they wish to 'borrow' cultural elements. If you endeavour to proceed with integrity, this is a conscious crossroad that will most likely be encountered at some stage in the Middle Eastern dancer or Bellydancer’s professional development. This approach entails an honest, upfront approach. It also means being prepared to be told 'no', or be given cultural guidelines by the originator, and respecting their decision. Farida Fahmy, for example is very firm with the way she believes the Milaya ‘Laff should be handled and represented on stage, as an accoutrement that represents a respectable urban Egyptian ‘baladi’ woman of a certain generation. Quite frankly, she is frustrated with its connection to the flirtatious sexualization of the fictional, street-savvy 'Banat Bahri'. To her, this is a form of cultural appropriation that has affected an integral part of not only an Egyptian theatrical artistic expression, but also Egyptian women's cultural identity. Farida writes about this in "Dancing with the Milayah Laff", and has written many articles which are freely available online for the dance community.

Where does one start with the decision making process about how cultural integration may apply to their own artistry, and gain clarity to avoid issues arising from negative cultural appropriation? Clarity and communication are essential for ethical integration and cross-cultural or culturally based project development. Sometimes, a written analysis will support the creative development of a dance project’s direction, or at least provide the impetus for a more thorough understanding of the cultural collaborative effort, to give it more meaning in an artistic and/or anthropological sense. Mahmoud Reda’s field research was the foundational backbone of the contemporary Reda choreographies and costume styles he, his brother, Ali Reda and sister-in-law Farida Fahmy developed from the late 50’s in Egypt. In his communications and visits with provincial artists and local performers, he clearly explained that he wished to view and participate in local traditional dances, to inspire contemporary choreographies that maintained an integral link to Egyptian culture and artistic values. He then adapted the dance moves for stage, with Western elements, and created a legacy that, to this day represents the national arts of Egypt, and is respected, and emulated within his country and abroad.

If anyone has not yet purchased Farida Fahmy's UCLA Thesis - the 'Creative Development of Mahmoud Reda', it would be worth reading, to clarify this process. This document will deconstruct the process of cultural appropriation in an elegant, real-life cultural model of ethics and clarity of intention, when creating a new art-form, inspired by traditional cultural arts. Farida illustrates how the Reda Troupe maintained clear, respectful boundaries within the creative developmental process, and how they managed to integrate the intrinsic qualities of indigenous, social and area-specific artistic expressions, and present them in a fresh new way, in theatrical format.

Cultural appropriation does not only exist in the realm outside the culture in question, but also within it. This phenomenon often occurs in house, within traditional niches as well. Within the cultural niche model, ecological enculturation creates cultural patterns, which are amplified to create the formation of new pattern networks - a form of cultural pattern appropriation. Outside of the culture, when people uptake a cultural pattern that is not of their native culture, and tinker with the inclusion of personal pattern, it becomes known as ‘chance amplification’. In the positive, this process involves a feedback circuit with the original culture. In the negative, the cultural impetus is disregarded or ignored – almost like using a photo or text without getting permission from, or giving credit to the photographer or author. Therefore, the transfer of cultural elements retains its integrity when there is communication between the originators of the specific cultural art, and the artist adapting elements for their own use – whether a direct representation, creative adaptation or fusion work that includes elements of cultural nuance, that requires a knowledge of historical or anthropological heritage. 

Inquiry into cultural aesthetics and their perceived value can guide dancers in the decision making process of cultural representation. For example, are you portraying colloquial gesture, representing traditional artforms, or integrating 'sacred' or ceremonial elements? In Australian Aboriginal culture, an Aboriginal woman elder must grant an artist the permission to portray elements of their cultural dance and movement patterns. This is because these sacred dance and movement arts are known as  ‘woman’s business’ and embody Aboriginal spirituality.  In other cultures such as the newer Indian Bollywood style, creativity is key – yet a dialogue or direct learning from a true source emanating from the culture, would be a respectful way to learn more about the art and gain familiarity with nuances. However, Bollywood dancing may become confused with sacred Classical Indian temple arts, for those who are simply amalgamating 'movements' for the sake of a fusion dance.

Gesture and cultural aesthetic is also something to be mindful of, as these may be subtle to the untrained eye, or unless being viewed within its own cultural setting. 
Stories of Egyptian teachers showing vulgar colloquial gesture as part of ‘shaabi’ street-style choreographies have been told, years after these very gestures have emulated by hundreds. If these gestures were used in performances for Egyptian audiences in the East or West--and many certainly were--often in front of more traditionally-minded or elderly people, the unknowing dance performer would have ruined an otherwise ‘likeable’ performance with an unsavoury aesthetic. Unbeknown to the dancer, those few gestures would have painted them as a vulgar, street-wise performer. When European ballet appeared on Egyptian theatre stages in the 60’s, the male dancer lifting the female by holding the crotch area shocked Egyptian audiences, because it was counter-intuitive to their cultural sense of aesthetic and beauty. It was seen as vulgar, transgressing the moral standards of the Egyptian, and consequently censored.

In conclusion, there are many nuances and complexities involved in integrating cultural influences into the Middle Eastern inspired dance arts, particularly the newer, creative and progressive streams such as fusion and contemporary stage-work.

As artists, we would be wise to follow simple ethical guiding principles. Seek direct dialogue with the people representing their cultural traditions (online or in real life) or at least take time to follow through the heritage, history and aim to understand the enculturation of the cultural patterns you will be incorporating before integrating into new work. Not only is it ethically respectful of artistic traditions developed over time, enriched by the spirit and artistry of people of the culture, but you may learn that the deeper you go, the more awareness you gain, and this process will in turn, give your art more meaning and cultural richness.

Keti Sharif

* For further reading of Farida Fahmy's Articles, visit


  1. What a timely blog this is. Last week I had a question asked of me about cultural appropriation. I knew exactly where she was coming from. She is of Maori heritage as I am, Maori art forms including words have been appropriated by others especially in the corporate world, used in ways that has been seen to be demeaning to Maori. My reply was not very adequate and I felt I did not explain how I felt about this issue, it caught me unawares so I stumbled my way through. Your article is a welcome read and it has made me think alot more about this.

    1. Just adding to my comment above, "she" I refer to is a beginner dance student

    2. Thanks Rauhina, yes its something that we all need to be aware of when the arts from another culture are being represented, particularly when its so close to the original. The packaging of the Maori dance for the 'Corporate world' concept is interesting... doesn't feel right. You would know, its your culture xx

  2. This is a subject which I touch upon with my collegiate class, "Middle Eastern Dance Through History to Today"...many of the students are white, suburban Americans (Chicago area). My challenge is to raise awareness of cultural appropriation and engage them in conversation helping them sort through the pieces that reinforce this among people not of color/not of the culture. It is something of a challenge to not get the 'guilt' to overshadow the need to learn to be open, respectful. Your comments here, Keti, are very helpful.
    On another level: I participated in a 'hafla' today - one of the dancers used First Nation chants mixed with a kind of rock background. We were told that the song was about 'thanks' - and she used that as her basis for 'giving thanks.'...not to be hyper critical, but I wondered if she'd done her homework on the song. It was a kind of 'seasonal' themed convenient tag. I think this is done in the Chicagoland dance community because it's assumed that 1. No one is knowledgeable enough to challenge it; 2. no one is interested in researching backstories on music/meaning/sources; 3. To keep the peace, no one would challenge her, even if he/she knew better - seems more value placed on politeness and acceptance in and of the 'community' and being nice so folks are asked back to perform than on honest constructive feedback to raise the level of understanding, respect appreciation.
    I don't give up hope - but I feel like there's a lot of ground to be covered yet, both in the classroom and the dance community.

  3. Thanks for your feedback Felicia, it sounds like you're doing great work in your teaching. Yes, its really about educating ourselves and opening the lines of communication. The core issues come back to basic respect and ethics towards using or adapting arts, ceremony or dance which have cultural meaning for others... something for all of us in the dance community to navigate.


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