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Dancing Fear and Desire

Interview with Stavros Stavrou Karayanni

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In the minds of the general public, belly dancing might be an unlikely art form for intellectual treatment. Yet you seem confident that belly dance merits an academic approach and you insist on bringing it to the forefront of certain academic debates. Why?

Unlike many other dances, belly dance has not been recuperated in ways that will encourage its growth as an artistic form and allow it to escape from popular stereotypes. It has been made into a teasing spectacle, and a way for women to discover some spiritual essence that many people believe exists in womanhood, but such reconstructions do not open up the dance’s possibilities, nor do they afford the dance as existence outside of such constricting agendas. It may be the case, of course, that few dances exist outside ideology but if you enjoy a certain status and acceptance, then experimentation and creative, or often radical reappropriations, can occur much more easily than when the dance is locked in these compartments of sexual tease and spiritual inspiration. What many people don’t realize is that although belly dance is recognizable through certain established familiar moves and costumes, it is also an idiom that concerns a huge geographical area and it is manifested in a large variety of forms and expressions. It may not always be called belly dance, but its forms are important to consider, especially in this age of globalization when so much similarity (and often sameness) implies mass markets and international corporations. In the case of this dance, similarity implies shared means of expression and the crossing of musical paths. This dance is a cultural zone in itself - a site, if you like, where several traditions meet. As such, it intimates a pre-colonial mood. For that alone it deserves consideration as an art form that can teach s about our life, what we can share, where we have come from, and where we are headed - it teaches us history in other words.

Memory and theory also figure significantly in this project. In fact, these two often seem to determine the performance of the book. How do you combine the two - memory with theoretical discourse?

Memory amounts to a political act. What you remember is very important and never, to my mind, accidental. Also, when you remember you are, in a sense, reconstructing past events in your imagination and in your personal world and through this process you create your own history. It is a historiographic process. I first became quite conscious of this value of memory in a graduate course I took at the University of Calgary where we studied the work of the black author Margaret Walker. Her novel Jubilee is the result of a long research journey inspired by her grandmother’s life narratives and motivated by a will to authenticate those narratives through painstaking research. The result is a meritorious record, almost an archive, of the cultural traditions and beliefs of enslaved black Americans. Therefore, storytelling became for the older African American woman a means of maintaining the connection with her own enslaved foremothers and building her personal history by recovering a past that affected and directed her subjectivity.

When I visited the Greek TV archives in Athens to watch certain films that I discuss in the book, I requested, relying solely on memory, specific titles of films I had watched when I was eleven and twelve years old and had not watched since then. The scenes I was interested in were almost exactly the way I remembered them. It was a moving moment when I saw Mariza Koch and Roza Eskenazy appear again on the canvas in black and white, a “real” projection of scenes that my imagination had projected endlessly on the canvas of memory for more than two decades. This precision is important because remembering these films was directly connected to my personal understanding of my self and identity. These clips became points of reference that have remained vivid in my imagination ever since.

Memories of filmed performance, investigation of writings about performance, travellers’ accounts of performance - your book seems to move across a variety of media and attempts different methods of enquiry. How does the book manage all this movement without losing its flow?

Your question seems to imply that a work that attempts a variety of approaches may run some risk of being incoherent. Well, we are used to reading structured arguments that are tidy, so to speak, and that conclude neatly. What holds this book together - and I don’t mean to sound “new-agey” or sappy - is love. Love for the dance, a love that is intense, powerful, and nourishing: it sustains my interest and confidence as both reader and author. On a practical level, the difficulty with the material is that there is no clear or even comfortable terminology to use. The dance I am discussing has a variety of forms and expressions and a variety of venues where it is performed. Moreover, its past history seems to lie in public dancing that was a cultural custom all over the East. My focus is largely on Greece, Egypt, and Turkey. Nonetheless, it has been difficult to contain the dance and delineate its boundaries because it means so much to many different places (Lebanon, for example, also comes into the discussion) and many different cultures. Because these problems are quite critical, I devote an entire section to them in the introductory chapter. The difficulties of naming and deciding on lineage of this dance have been much more difficult to manage than the range of sources and methodologies, as your question implies.

How long have you been working on this book and what was the most difficult part to write?

This book took me by surprise! Even though I have nurtured a love and a fascination for belly dance, these feelings had been deeply closeted and remained obscure even for me. They manifested only in coded ways in memory. Therefore, when the opportunity arose to engage in this project I invested myself with the eagerness that is fueled by years of denial. Surprisingly, the hardest parts to produce have been the autobiographical parts - those in which I discuss my childhood and the conditions of my own body’s history. The words on the page rarely seemed a satisfactory expression of what I wanted to say. While in one moment I felt I was telling the story well, the next moment it wasn’t accurate or what I even wanted to say... the colours and texture of memory would not transcribe... It seems to me that such dissatisfaction with the language stems partly from a lack of instruction in constructing my own narrative. I have not been taught that telling my own story is OK. Collective, national memory, as I say in the book, is directed by ideology, so it was a major challenge to try and step outside this ideology in order to critique it, and defy it by writing “my own” story.