Why Salit Stopped Saying “Oriental Dance” – 073

Salit of NYC on the sisterhood of belly dancers, the politics that divide our community of Arabic music lovers, and how focusing on our belly dance technique rather than our appearance brings us more happiness.

Salit (Sal-eet) started belly dancing in Israel when she was 21, and she did not expect it to become her profession and the foundation for her own bellydance school! I met Salit at Art of the Belly when I took a super fun cane dancing class from her. I love her sass when she dances, as well as her commitment to authenticity and the sisterhood she has created with other dancers. 


Salit on Youtube

Alicia: Let’s start with sisterhood. Please tell us about Sheba. 

Sheba stands for the Sisterhood of Eclectic Belly Dance Arts. Sheba is all about community as well as technique, history, culture, musicality, improvisation, and giving confidence to our sisters. We have classes together and take class trips. We perform for each other at our own events and perform at other events. It’s all about the fun.

Sheba on Facebook

Sheba on Instagram

Sheba on Youtube

Alicia: You describe belly dance as the epitome of femininity with movements that emphasize every curve in the body in a soft, yet powerful way. You have also said that you were more of a tom boy when you were younger. Identity is powerful! It can be hard for us to do something that we believe goes against our identity. Do you remember what attracted you to belly dance? 

I remember Arabic film Friday in Israel.

What stood out to me the most was the power of a dancer to just stand still and do nothing, and be so amazing. To express so much with so little movement.

To stand still but be so energetic. I have never seen that freedom in another art form.

Alicia: Are there any Israeli dancers that are famous in Egypt or through history that have been famous in Egypt?

Not Israeli, there are Jewish dancers, but Egyptian Jewish. It’s problematic as you can imagine to be accepted as an Israeli and Arab countries. So, no.

Alicia: On your website Shebadance.com in your bio, you wrote that when you were younger you took ballet, and wrote that you hated putting your hair up in a bun and wrapping it in a hair net. I feel the same way! I want my hair to do its own dance too. You also wrote that you felt like your movements were too heavy for ballet. But heavy sounds perfect for stomping a dabke! You love to lead dabke, and you do it beautifully and with passion. It was so much fun to be pulled into your dabke to a live band at Art of the Belly and snake through the room in a line of dancers, holding hands. What are some ways we can learn how to do dabke with energy similar to how they do it at gatherings in the Middle East? 

So definitely it’s great for that for dabke, actually. Yes, there’s a lot of stomping, but there’s a lot of very quick footwork and jumping, which you actually need to be very light on your feet for. So I was very bad at footwork before. So I had to work on that a lot and condition my body. It was hard, but definitely worth it because now I really feel like I’m flying.

So I have that heaviness, but when I step back I need some of the lightness.

Where is Dabke Originally From?

Dabke is originally from the military showing their pride in their victories. Mostly for men. So the main characteristic of dabke is pride. Hold the upper body really tall and open and strong, and keep that energy up very strong and held and proud. That’s the key.

Alicia: So it’s really big in Eastern Europe, right? In the Balkans they do line dance. Is there crossover? Did it come from one spot? Did all line dances come from the military? 

There are a lot of line dances in many different cultures. It is really interesting that dabke and Irish dancing are very similar, I’m not sure how that came about. It could be a coincidence, could be not. Specifically Levantine style line dance. So Egyptians don’t do this kind of line dance. They have saidi, which they’re proud of but it’s a different feel.

The Levant is Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, technically Israel is not included in that. But that area.

What do you usually hold when you do a Dabke?

You hold the whole hand of the person next to you. When you lead a dabke you hold a masbha. And it’s originally prayer beads. That’s what people hold. This one that I’m holding up I made this with the troupe leader that I’m in. It’s made of his old t-shirts , which he assured me were clean before we did this. So, I guess this is common to improvise. This masbha has red, green and white colors, which are Lebanon colors.

Alicia: Oh, it actually has a handle on it. And then it has a little weight on the end so that it spins well, is that what’s going on?

Yes, it’s just a lot of tape. It’s very improvised.

Alicia: Is that something people would put in their purse before they go to a party? Or do people carry those to a place where they’re going to line dance? 

I’m not sure, but I think Muslims generally just have prayer beads on them. That’s what they use. They use prayer beads for dabke. It’s part the culture. Part of the patriotism. Religion and the land usually go hand in hand.

Danceable Song: Ali Gara by Sayed Balaha

This is an instrumental version of “What Happened to Me” It’s different. It’s very classical and pleasant to dance to.

Alicia: Was there a key moment when you realized you want to focus on teaching Egyptian style belly dance? 

I don’t really see myself teaching a purely Egyptian Style. My base is very Egyptian, but I always have to add my own from what I have learned, observed and feel. Sometimes I’ll add a fan veil, or flamenco, or even elements of Halloween.

Where does the term Oriental Dance come from with Belly Dance?

Alicia: You have stopped using the term “Oriental” when you talk about belly dance. Can you tell us more about that?

Oriental has always bothered me, especially in America when it is used to describe Asian people. Why do some say “Oriental” instead of “belly dance”? But “belly dance” can be associated with prostitution. So we find other terms that sound more elegant, more sophisticated. So I understand that, but for my research, “Oriental” is a colonizing, derogatory, racist term that was created to separate us from them. So “Us” being the sophisticated superior civilized West, which is primarily Britain and France, and “Them” as often referred to the inferior, primitive, barbaric, uneducated East.

Let me read you a quick quote from Edward Said’s book “Orientalism”, a very important book.

“The Orient was almost a European invention, and had been since antiquity a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences.”

So to me, referring to this dance as Oriental is fetishizing and exotifying and dehumanizing.

In a way it’s like people over in the orient are not real people. It’s this fantasy land with fantasy people. And if they’re not real people, we don’t have to treat them with the same respect. And I am real. I am not a fairy, I’m not a mermaid. I’m not a fantasy. It’s great to be creative and to take on different characters and play around with.

But at the end of the day, it has to be a character. It can’t be the person. We’re still human beings. And I put a lot of emphasis on presenting how real I am personally. So it’s very important for me to present another perspective, something for people to think about.

I’m not telling anyone what to do. Or to completely change their minds. I want to just have them go and continue researching. and just question, why do we use this term? Why do we think that this colonizing term is better than that colonizing term? Maybe we should use another term.

At least the term “belly dance” is descriptive to me. And it is not just about a specific place. What we present in this dance now is very far from the origin. There’s a new dance style that deserves it’s own name. Even “Raqs Sharqi”, meaning dance East, is somewhat related to colonizing. Even just Raqs is in Arabic, and this dance is not only done by Arabic speakers.

When the Egyptians and the teachers use the word “Oriental,” I think they are using it to elevate the art. But if people of “the orient” see themselves as inferior to European culture and because of this add ballet steps to belly dance. Add more European elements to the costuming, then…

What Happens When Arab Audiences Find Out you are Israeli?

So I started belly dance when I was 21 and then maybe two years later, I moved here (to New York City). So I didn’t really work as a dancer in Israel.

I was still kind of a beginner so when I started working in New York, and I didn’t think it would be a problem to tell people I’m Israeli. I was never ashamed of it. I’m not ashamed of it. It’s just where I happened to be born. And that’s how I was raised. And it’s a part of who I am. And even though I knew there was some issue with a conflict, maybe Arabs will not accept it.

I still wasn’t afraid to say I was Israeli. And then little by little people started telling me “You can’t say that, or people will not work with you.” And then I noticed, for example, I danced to this Egyptian restaurant and as I mentioned, I love Egyptian style. So I was like, yes, I can really be myself, hardcore Egyptian music and dance, and they’re gonna love it.

And they appreciated the music choice, and they appreciated my dance. And they got up and danced with me and everybody was happy. This guy was dancing with me and then he started talking to me in Arabic afterwards, which was very flattering. He thought I was Egyptian, but then he said, “Where are you from?”

And I said, “From Israel.” And then I saw his face just drop. It was like, oh, thank you. And he walked away.

A second ago you were so happy, but then if I’m in Israeli, you’re not happy anymore. But you enjoyed my dance, so what does it matter?

And that’s the experience I get.

In certain situations, I am not allowed to say I’m Israeli. Otherwise I can destroy my own business. Somebody else’s business, it could cause a lot of problems.

And it doesn’t make sense to me. It makes me very sad. When I’m dancing in all kinds of Arabic weddings, but especially the Palestinians. They’re so happy. I bring them joy. This is why I’m there and they love it.

But if they knew, they would not be happy anymore. Palestinians especially.

It makes me sad that we’re forced to hate each other. Even when we’re not there. We’re all here. We all came to the us for a better life to get away from all of that over there, but still we must hold onto the hate.

And I understand it, but I don’t see why it has to continue. So that’s my experience.

Not all Arabs, and not all Palestinians, but in general, they don’t think we should be working together on any level. They can’t just look at the dance and the music and that moment of celebration. There’s always the history and the politics in everything. And it’s such a shame. Because if we put all that aside, we can all just celebrate together and just enjoy music and dance and art, and then it doesn’t matter where we’re from.

How to Do a Double Arabesque

It has different names. Some call it a double arabesque or a brush. It looks like a circle on one hip. However, there’s a twist in it. And essentially it is a figure eight forward.

So if you know how to do a horizontal figure eight forward, you twist one hip forward, and then you slide the way back and then you twist the other one forward and slide the hip back. And then you round it and you have a figure eight. So, this is essentially the move that we’re doing.

All that’s changing is now I’m with one foot forward with a heel up and I do the same move. I twist the hits forward, slide it back. And then I snake in an out. Your toe is sweeping the floor.

If I let go of the foot and just relax it, then I’m brushing.

It’s a great move and it has to be done from the correct place, because if people think of a brush, then they might do that from the foot. And it’s not from the foot. It’s all in the waist, in the obliques, just like a twist, and a figure eight.

And then the whole leg and the foot needs to relax. You need to feel your leg just kind of being pulled down. And relaxing and all the work is in the hip and the waist, and then you get that beautiful motion and it’s flowing and it’s fluid. And also it’s not a circle. So people need to understand first do the figure eight forward with both feet flat and then pick up one heel.