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A Theoretical Introduction to Dancing on the Fringe:
Connections Forming An Evening of Experimental Middle Eastern Dance

By (Amara) Laura Osweiler

2005 Dance Under Construction,
UC Graduate Cultural Dance Studies Conference, UCLA

This paper will introduce my theory for “An Evening of Experimental Middle Eastern Dance (EEMED).” Since 1999, EEMED has been an annual concert where a number of Los Angeles choreographers from a diverse cultural and national background have been able to present their experimental Middle Eastern dance works.

In this essay, I propose that traditional Middle Eastern dance forms a “fringe” space for those who do not comply with its rules and structures. “Traditional” Middle Eastern dance refers to those dances that EEMED choreographers and those in the American-Middle Eastern dance community consider as such. These include various Middle Eastern cabaret, folk, and stage-folk dances, each of which have their own separate identity, descriptive name, history, and therefore legitimacy. It is in this “fringe” space where EEMED occurs and where EEMED choreographers in turn produce a new positive space for themselves. The fringe allows American-Middle Eastern dancers room to critique and expose traditional Middle Eastern dance’s inner workings. EEMED choreographers engage with tradition by bringing in instability and mutation into its “hidden” sedimentation processes. As a result, they produce new grounds and stances. Over time, EEMED also serves as an emerging tradition-on-the-fringe as its identity and structures are repeated.

In this theory, I view traditional and experimental Middle Eastern dance as helping construct each other and that the elements of one are found in the other. Differences in the styles occur in the degree to which tradition or experimentation are practiced and emphasized. The relationship between traditional and experimental Middle Eastern dance is not oppositional but deeply intertwined.

American-Middle Eastern dance styles historically have drawn from a number of inspirational sources and continue to grow through an always already hybrid process. Though one could trace “experimental” processes in all forms of Middle Eastern dance in the United States, the term “experimental” was not found in the American-Middle Eastern dance community’s vocabulary before EEMED. The term fusion, was, and still is, the more common name for dances that are not codified into a style. Experimental Middle Eastern dance refers not only to a process of experimentation but also to a specific emerging style, one in which EEMED is leading the way.

In order to investigate how traditional and experimental Middle Eastern dance work with each other, I need to question how “tradition” generally works to maintain itself. For my theoretical base, I look towards Judith Butler’s idea of gender formation. Over the course of two books, Gender Trouble (1990) and Bodies That Matter (1993), Butler shows how gender, sex, and “matter” are created through repetitious performative acts that are solidified over time into stable inner essences, naturalness, and identities. Performative acts materialize over time by citing and reiterating the practices that they name and become part of the “sedimentation process” in which gender conceals its construction. Participants maintain concepts about gender, sex, and matter, through teachings and practices, which then lead to their embodiment and performance. Participants may or may not be willing to continue specific gender performances or easily change her, or his gender. Nor does Butler think one chooses her or his gender as individual acts occur within social contexts. She notes that society often punishes those who do not agree to perform gender expectations. At the same time, Butler finds power in repetition and citation as they bring in room for deviation, mutation, and instability into the gender system and produce new spaces.

By applying Butler’s theory of gender to that of “tradition” in the case of Middle Eastern dance, I see that people claim traditional dances as sources of identification, with a tribe, nation, imagined community, class, gender, or some other collective. Middle Eastern dances, in particular, through practice, repetition, and teaching are over time “solidified” into coherent forms. In order to maintain a unique and separate identity, Middle Eastern dance tradition hides and at times denies its influenced interactions with other groups and resulting hybrid formations.

“Tradition” also works to maintain itself by putting those who do not participate into the margin or fringe of society in a manner similar to that described for gender constructs by Butler. Traditionalists often present “the fringe” as a negative space where they can lower the status of those who do not conform and, or transgress social boundaries. In order to resist the potential threat, traditional Middle Eastern dancers have tried to prevent those on the fringe, like EEMED choreographers, from influencing tradition. They do this by vocally denying EEMED choreographers’ legitimacy and association with Middle Eastern dance. For example, after the 2001 show, MECDA (Middle Eastern Culture and Dance Association) Board Members sent a letter to the producer questioning terminology, ownership, and tradition. They wrote, “Additionally because of the cultural implications of *Middle Eastern Dance* we respectfully suggest that the show simply be billed as “[a]n Evening of Experimental Dance.” This response implies that EEMED does not connect to Middle Eastern dance and therefore, the choreographers should not use it as a site of identification. MECDA and other individuals’ written criticisms are one of the few tactics they have employed to distance traditional Middle Eastern dance from experimental Middle Eastern dance. However, these reactions have not influenced EEMED’s mission. Despite the negative publicity, EEMED grows in participants and audience membership.

It is important to point out that though experimental Middle Eastern dancers can be read as being “forced” into the fringe by social constraints, or that they cannot move into American-Middle Eastern dance mainstream society, I will make the argument that it is these dancers’ decision to locate there. My theory is that despite the negative image that MECDA and other dancers previously discussed present, EEMED choreographers actively and intentionally situate themselves on the fringe of tradition. This choice comes not from a rejection of traditional American-Middle Eastern dance but from a frustration with it. EEMED choreographers often feel constricted and cannot express all that they would like within the frameworks, structures, and expectations of traditional styles of Middle Eastern dance.

EEMED choreographers produce new grounds and stances by dancing on the fringe. Part of the purpose of this new space is to critique and expose tradition as a construction. EEMED choreographers engage with tradition by bringing in instability and mutation into its “hidden” sedimentation process by questioning what traditional dance is and by highlighting connections to non-traditional elements. From this position, EEMED choreographers show that traditional Middle Eastern dance elements can be altered, and therefore expose the arbitrary choices of tradition to retain and solidify certain elements.

EEMED re-evaluates the fringe by invigorating it with agency and choice. It is no longer a place of banishment, passivity, opposition, or rejected attributes but a positive space of freedom. The fringe produces an agency that is not determined or regulated by all of tradition’s concepts and rules. This in turn allows EEMED choreographers space to stand up to those who want to use the fringe as site for lowering their social status. Though EEMED choreographers do feel some social pressures from tradition, they are not controlled by them. The fringe also allows them to connect to ideas and dances that are not a part of traditional Middle Eastern dance. This process produces a flexible and fluid style that is difficult to define and therefore regulate by the traditionalists.

Intertwined with dancing on the fringe is the concept of connecting which I draw from EEMED practice and Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s rhizome theory. In their “Introduction: Rhizome” (1987) Deleuze and Guattari are interested in how things and relations interact. They present the rhizome as a system of flows that can connect and disconnect in infinite and unpredictable ways. These flows are in a continuous process and can either maintain a course or change by interacting with other flows. Deleuze and Guattari write, “[a] rhizome may be broken, shattered at a given spot, but it will start up again on one of its old lines, or on new lines.” The rhizome is a theoretical means to break away from (but not discount) binary structures and hierarchies that are so pervasive in American and European cultures. They write, “[t]hese lines always tie back to one another. That is why one can never posit a dualism or a dichotomyº” Their theory participants in the production of, what Edward Soja would call, Thirdspace. This Thirdspace is not just a synthesis of two spaces (thesis and antithesis) but is separate while also encompasses the other two. It is a space for difference and otherness; a space of “politics of location.”

Deleuze and Guattari’s theory allows for an exploration of how traditional and experimental Middle Eastern dance do and do not interact and connect with each other. Whereas traditional Middle Eastern dance wants to construct a binary between itself and experimental Middle Eastern dance, experimental Middle Eastern dance constructs lines back into traditional Middle Eastern dance and disrupts the binary process. I propose that whereas traditional Middle Eastern choreographers keep repeating certain connections, EEMED choreographers keep focusing on making new ones.

However, EEMED’s rhizome differs from that of Deleuze and Guattari’s theory. EEMED is not only a product of flows radically and unpredictably changing but also of them repeating and becoming a solid and a tradition. Both of these flows occur in EEMED’s movement practice. For example, within a phrase, certain points are traditionally used to connect and transition to a new movement (a hip circle moves into a figure eight through their common hip slide connector). Moves can also be disjunctive and unconnected without points of transition. These connections and disconnections are not only in the movement and in the pieces themselves but are also in their make up of EEMED as a larger structure.

Dancing on the fringe allows EEMED choreographers the freedom and the ability to experiment with various connectors. They are able to alter traditional Middle Eastern dance’s repertoire of costuming, movement, musical, and structural elements. Experimental Middle Eastern dance is a hybrid form as it maintains some connections with traditional Middle Eastern dance but makes new ones with other dances. EEMED choreographers disconnect from traditional Middle Eastern dance and connect further with ballet and American modern dance in other areas, such as a proscenium stage, a quiet and attentive audience, and most importantly, lighting design. EEMED choreographers also connect to other dance forms, such as Bharatha Natyam, Butoh, Hula, Jazz, and American Modern Improvisation as well as to American non-dance culture. Each choreographer takes her own approach and makes decisions about which element she wants to employ. Thus, each piece is unique in how and where it produces connections.

Even though experimental Middle Eastern dance makes various connections, its basis is in Middle Eastern dance. EEMED requires choreographers to maintain some traditional elements of Middle Eastern dance, although, exactly which ones are up to the choreographers.

EEMED choreographers are not only influenced by traditional Middle Eastern dance, but influence tradition as well. I can see this process in the introduction of experimental Middle Eastern dance elements into mainstream belly dance. Over the past two years, a number of EEMED choreographers have been asked to participate in mainstream concerts that promote traditional Middle Eastern dance. They are asked to do something different but within a conservative frame; something unusual but not extreme or controversial. From a traditionalist’s viewpoint, this is a process to restrict and to control the fringe by letting back in selected elements. From an experimentalist’s viewpoint, these performances are a way to begin adjusting a traditional audience to an emerging form and to demonstrate that tradition is itself changing.

As EEMED choreographers produce the fringe, EEMED itself becomes a tradition. And, just as traditional Middle Eastern dance should acknowledge its experimental processes, so experiential Middle Eastern dance should acknowledge its traditional aspects. EEMED is becoming a tradition-on-the-fringe as the annual show begins to give this type of experimental Middle Eastern dance a set space, structure, and framework in which to grow. Rules that help structure and organize the show allow it to run smoothly. There are also high expectations about the kind of quality and ability of the dancers and choreographies.

The traditional and the experimental can be violent towards each other. Tradition covers up hybridization while experimentalism breaks apart the continuation of tradition. However, I see that they work and interact with each other. EEMED choreographers do not see traditional dance as a threat but as a source of inspiration and heritage. They all have extensive training and performing experience in traditional Middle Eastern dances because in order to experiment, they have to know its structures and rules. EEMED choreographers examine, employ, and change tradition in order to express their own sense of identity.

Neither dance’s philosophy is necessarily an oppositional binary structure with the other. Instead, they are styles, which can be seen to contain both traditional and experimental elements but choose to emphasize one over the other. As a result, EEMED’s fringe dancing constructs a distinctive traditional/experimental connection. From the EEMED choreographers’ perspective, their dance is not one in which they are in opposition to or are enemies with tradition. Nor are they in unison.

EEMED is the result of numerous connections in a specific time and place. EEMED is able to improvise with numerous elements and areas by connecting them into its swinging fringe. As a result, EEMED, a unique production that its practitioners and supporters infuse with their agency, is able to question and change the society around it.

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