Just about every human emotion has been translated into dance. This ubiquitous art form can tell every story — from the myths of creation, through the journey of life, to death.
And it doesn’t necessarily stop there.
Although dance’s “body language” is easily understood as entertainment in the context of a performance, it can also play an important role in preserving traditional identities.
According to Victoria Ginn, author of The Spirited Earth — a photographic essay on traditional dance from South Asia to the South Pacific — intentional body movement holds the power to “instill moral and spiritual values, preserve traditional identity, give form and expression to the subtle truths and insights of the heart, pass on local myths, establish models of perfection, commune with deities, initiate the young into knowledge of life’s mysteries, maintain an equilibrium between the forces of light and shadow, assist spirits of the dead to return to their places of rebirth, and through all this … unite the performer and spectator with the divine in nature.”
But in many countries around the world, the modern age — with its emphasis on technology and increased disregard for whatever doesn’t follow its own relentless pace — has caused unique and long-standing regional customs, including indigenous dances, to disappear.
Ironically, a new school of dance has emerged in the heart of the very culture whose constant emphasis on the future threatens these ancient practices in their native lands. Many Americans are experiencing a growing interest in learning the traditional dances of foreign cultures. Even in our relatively small city, a myriad of ethnic dance styles are seriously studied by local residents. Often, the dancers aren’t native to the culture whose dances they practice — yet something calls them to learn these ancient movements.
The traditions of West Africa hold special interest for a large community of Ashevilleans, as embodied in the popular percussion-and-dance ensemble Common Ground. And classical Chinese dance — as both art and exercise — is taught by Mark Small at his Mountain Dragon Taiji/Gung Fu School. Meanwhile, the emergence of two new bellydancing groups shows that the lure of Middle Eastern rhythms is also strong here. Tribe Om sways toward the belly-dancing traditions of North Africa, while Rhythm of Isis finds inspiration in ancient schools of dance from Egypt, Turkey and Morocco.
For Rhythm of Isis member Leanna Fugate, dance is “the best way to learn about another culture.” She practices a form of belly dance that has its roots in Egyptian and Turkish cabaret. (As a whole — and perhaps inevitably — the group practices what has come to be known as “American-fusion” style.)
Fugate knows that, in America, belly dancing is considered “very risque … people get this in their heads when they hear ‘Middle Eastern dance.'”
But she stresses that it’s not solely an erotic art form.
“[Belly dancing is] the natural way the body moves,” she insists. “Americans are very prudish and not free [with their bodies] — so belly dancing is not taken seriously. It is one of the most difficult forms of dance that there is. There is something sensual about it — [but] all dance is sensual.”
Put another way, Fugate sees dancing as the visual answer to the question, “How would this music express itself?”
She was inspired to her chosen mode of expression at its source, having lived in Saudi Arabia for two years. “I’ve always been interested in the Middle East. … This form of dance allows you to express yourself in ways that are taboo in American culture.”
Monica Buckley, a former member of Tribe Om, reflects on her experience.
“We always danced to live music. There is really no separation between the two — music doesn’t have a purpose without movement, and dance does not exist without music.”
Buckley notes that “an interesting aspect of performing ethnic dance in America is the fact that we are not from these places, and so we do not necessarily know [the dances’] ritual purposes. It’s important to try to tap into the meaning of the dances.”
She reasons that Americans feel drawn to dances of other cultures because “we don’t have our own cultural dances yet that serve a ritual purpose, so we look to other cultures. The only thing is … we don’t really know enough about these other cultures to truly represent the dances as they were originally meant.”
But Brooke Boulton, who studies West African culture, views dance as a universal language: “First I got involved with the drums; I found that the African style was the closest thing to my heart. The music expresses a lot of hardship. … So while you are dancing, you can let it all out.”