Friday, 25 September 2015

Reflecting in the aftermath of Tribalgate

Those who are part of the global Tribal Fusion community, will be well aware of the enormous controversy and upheaval that has been happening in the last week, since the release of this statement, and subsequent responses.

I have been hanging back for a few days, digesting the information and giving those directly affected an opportunity to speak and be heard on the subject. I've never been a part of Tribal Fest (although I would have loved to attend at some point) and I think it is important to hold space and support those at the centre of the turmoil as things were coming to light. The noise to signal ratio in situations like this can become unworkable, especially in this age of social media where everyone has an opinion and a right to publish it.

That said, the whole situation has brought into the spotlight some really important issues and that is what I would like to write about today.

Our safe space.

The bellydance community is an amazing place for women. At its best it is a place where we are free from the pressures of the modern/media ideas of beauty, femininity, fashion or social mores.

It is no coincidence that the first session of my Red Goddess course focusses on Inanna and the shedding of societal expectations and masks in order to dance as our true selves. That's not something I can take credit for conceiving, it is a part of being an artist in the bellydance community.

Within our community, at haflas, festivals etc, we have the freedom to dress as we will, to express ourselves as we will, to be "unladylike" without judgement, to be in our own skin with confidence, to be sensual without inviting sexual objectification, to be primal without inviting disgust. There is so much power and importance in this.

As a teacher I count myself among the guardians of this safe space. Safeguarding the dancers who bestow me with their trust means so much more than keeping their personal details safe and the studio floor clear.

First and foremost it is about having respect for the individuals and their journey. The understanding that dance, for every committed participant, is life altering on some level and scale. It is my responsibility to keep the environment uplifting and positive and to exclude damaging elements. The safety of the bellydance bubble is part of its appeal and one of our community's greatest strengths. Because of this I stand by the teachers who have chosen to remove themselves from Tribal Fest, for the safety of their students and fans.

The male gaze in bellydance

Unless you are completely unfamiliar with bellydance, you will be aware that, contrary to popular myth, it is not a dance of titillation for men. Sure there are times when it is sexy, but as Ava Fleming put it, it is sexy "by accident".

Tribal fusion takes a step further back again, consciously distancing itself from the male gaze and focusing on an almost completely female centred model.

When I perform in public, I usually ignore the men and keep my focus and eye contact for the women and children in the audience, it's about sharing the joy of the dance. But when a performer chooses to dance in public, they understand that they are exposing themselves to the opinions and misunderstandings of that audience, it's something we are aware of and have ways to deal with.

When a dancer performs at a hafla or festival, for an audience of fellow dancers and dance community members, they shouldn't have those elements to worry about. It allows us to be free in our artistry, it also allows beginners to feel safe when they dance with their midriff uncovered for the first time, or tentatively demonstrate months of hard work to an audience for the first time.

There are men in our community, but, for the most part, they are respectful and understanding of the hard work we do and the privilege they have of bearing witness to our heart and soul on stage.

The male allies in our community

While the bellydance world is dominated and managed by women, there are men among us who are important to us and loved by us. Male dancers, teachers, photographers, musicians, DJs, webmasters, event organisers, husbands and boyfriends all have their part to play in our ecosystem.

As the Tribal Fest scandal has unfolded attention has, quite rightly, been focused on the female victims and maintaining the community as a safe space for women. I hesitate to bring this up, because very few feminist discussions are improved by a bout of "what about the men?", but I'm going to say this:

I've seen some amazing responses by male allies in our community over the last few days. Men with integrity and respect for the women they work alongside, coming forward horrified at the breach of trust that has been uncovered, reaffirming their support for the women affected and their commitment to the safety of the community. I am grateful for them.

I am sad that we will now find ourselves second guessing the motives of the men around us, and I am sad that these decent people will be subject to that, as a result of the disgusting behaviour or a couple of individuals.

Strength and conviction

I am so proud by the overwhelming show of strength from the dancers at the centre of this. Many bellydancers have strong convictions about their individual lifestyle and political issues. I might not always agree with every one, but it is good to be surrounded by strong women of substance.

When teachers and traders came out in support of the public statement, they were putting themselves on the line. They will lose income, they could have lost reputation and professional currency coming out against the biggest festival in the Tribal world, but they did what they felt was right.

It sends such an important message to step forward and state "we will not tolerate this".

Solidarity as dancers

In response to this message, for the most part a closing of ranks was witnessed. So many dancers came out in support of those affected.

Sometimes dancers refer to each other as "sisters", I'm not entirely into that for reasons that I might cover another time, but if you wanted to call it sisterhood, I would agree with the sentiment for now because I am finding it almost impossible to put together words that convey the immense power and solidarity I have seen in the past few days.

I have no doubt that our community will bounce back from this blow. We are strong, resourceful, united, and I am inclined to say unbreakable.

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