By Alexandra King
Fusion is the synthesis of two or more things brought together to create something new. In dance and music this is often the marriage of two or more genres from different cultures combined to create a hybrid genre. For example, flamenco – mix of Spanish, Arab and Indian dances. It can also be the blending of elements within a culture, such as belly dance – a mix of Shabia, (the dances of North Africa and Egypt), blended into belly dance. Or Bollywood, a fusion of various classical Indian styles into one. With the advent of world culture, fusion has become a popular and controversial subject. Traditionalists often abhor the idea of fusion, whereas, it is the order of the day for the New Age artist. In fact, it has been a creative process for all artists from the beginning of time.
The Ancient Art of Fusion
Let’s take a look at a genre close to home for the belly dancer; flamenco. Flamenco grew out of the music and dance of three factions of Spanish society: the Moors (Arab Berbers), Spanish Jews and the Gypsies (East Indian immigrants). These groups were outcasts of Spanish society and, like all marginalized groups, they were thrown together in barrios (poor neighborhoods), prisons or (during the Inquisitions) caves where the proximity of life caused an exchange of culture. The intensity of such conditions gave rise to expressing their angst; first through song, then guitar and then dance. Over the centuries this developed into the complex and sublime art known as flamenco.
Another tradition all Americans are familiar with is jazz and it’s sub-genre, blues – the music and dance of the African American slave. Like flamenco, jazz and blues were born from travesty and misery and represent the anguish of a people torn from their families and homes, much like the gypsies. Channeling their pain and sorrow through their music and dance, the African slaves blended the music and dance of Africa with European music and dance. From this they created two of the great traditions of North American musical and dance.
The Greek tradition of Rembetika, the jazz (or flamenco) of Greece, so to speak, was also born of two cultures – Greek and Turkish. Also from social outcasts - political prisoners, and forced immigrants, displaced from the population exchange of the period after what became known as the “Massacre of Smyrna”. In the hashish clubs of Istanbul and Athens, they sang mournful songs and danced their pain away. These songs, known as the Amane songs, and their accompanying dances, such as Chiftitelli and Zembekiko, have become the popular modern day music and dance of Greece, and have also contributed to the heritage of early Turkish and American belly dance, (more later).
Iran has it’s own “world dance and music” form – Bandar-e. The southern port town of Bandar-e is a world center for travelers from many other countries in Africa, the Middle East and the East Indian sub-continent. The dance and music that has grown up in Bandar-e reflects these cross-cultural exchanges in its wild African-style jumping and fast-paced music. Female dancers wear Punjabi-style pantsuits, and the men wear short skirts and face masks, reminiscent of the Kechek dancers of Bali.
Ballet began adopting ethnic stylization into its choreography at the turn of the nineteenth century. Ballets created in Russia by the choreographer Petipa contained Italian Tarantellas, Hungarian Czardas and Spanish Cachuchas. From this fusion we got the fabulous ballets, Don Quixote, La Bayadere and The Nutcracker.
One wonders, if so much tradition is born from the process of fusion, what can possibly be wrong with it? One answer is change. Traditionalists resist change because, with change, very often a former creation is lost. A perfect example of this is the Hawaiian Hula. Prior to the invasion by Western “civilization”, the ancient art of the Hula, was sacred dance and chants. There were no ukalale’s and dancers performed in the nude, which was not stigmatized in that culture. Today, Western instrumentation, dress and movement have seriously modified Hawaiian dance and music. Yet despite this, the modern Hula is considered “traditional”, and a legitimate part of Hawaiian heritage. And, lastly, and perhaps more cogent than all the above examples of art born of and lost to fusion, is the five part American cabaret - the First Fusion Style of Belly Dance.
The homogenized five part American cabaret was the child of multiculturalism in America society during the early nineteenth century when immigrants from various Middle Eastern countries came together in urban areas and merged their styles of music into a cohesive style fondly known as “Ameraba”, or American-Arab music. The belly dance style, which developed from this synthesis of music, became the five-part cabaret, a dance done in a number of sections rather than the traditional Egyptian cabaret performed as a whole, singular composition interpreting the Arab wasla suite.
Ameraba was a blend of Arab, Turkish, Greek, Lebanese and Spanish music, whose compositions were stylized to please Western tastes in music. This stylization is often known as “Oriental” in the Hollywood music score sense. This gave birth to a style of belly dance which strung together a number of dances into a whole composition. The dancers of this early period drew on a variety of dance traditions from the Middle East. Additionally, this period gave birth to the development of the veil as a dance; the use zills as a dominent feature in the dance and the ubiquitous use of floorwork. Although veils were used in Turkey and the Arab world as adornments in the dance, it was the American belly dancer who gave the veil a solo spot in the dance. And, while zills were occasionally used by Middle Eastern belly dancers, it was the American belly dancer who made them into a predominant element of the cabaret – effectively making dancers musicians as well as athletes. And, it was Americans who contributed the athleticism of floorwork as a prominent and spectacular part of the dance.
In addition to these changes, American Cabaret dancers introduced candle dances (an Indian tradition); the Sword dance (a Mans’ dance in the Middle East), Snake dances (not an “authentic” part of Turkish or Egyptian belly dance), basket dances, pot dances, the cane dance and the Karsilama into the composite that made up the five-part cabaret. American cabaret dancers were essentially “Borgs” who assimilated anything and everything they wanted to, partially because they didn’t know any better and partially because that is the nature of the American artist. Globalism brought an entirely new form of belly dance to the world through the American cabaret belly dancer.
For over forty years the American cabaret dominated the dance world until in the eighties when Modern Egyptian cabaret eclipsed the American cabaret. Later tribal styles became the fad of the day effectively wiping out the American Cabaret tradition almost completely. Happily, some interest is returning for this superb style of dance as it not only rose the bar of quality of belly dance by infusing athleticism, music skills and elegance to the dance it is a superb achievement of American artistry and reflects our identity as dancers.
Therefore, there is a clear and obvious argument for the need to preserve the traditions of a culture, for these continue to be, not only the foundation of a culture, but a starting point for future art. And yet, while fusion has always had a place in the evolution of art not all art develops from fusion.
The music and dance of ancient, indiginous people is created mostly in isolated, insular communities, such as the Haggala of Marsah Matruh. Haggala, is a man’s wedding dance, not done anywhere else in Egypt, and as far as we know, is a form of dance that developed on it’s own within it’s own (Bedouin) community. Ancient Polynesian dance and music was peculiar to itself and, until the modern world changed them forever. The value of ancient and pure forms of art is not only that it is a source of pride to its people, but, it contributes to the variety of distinct art and culture which exists on the planet. Imagine of world of Borgs where all art is assimilated into a singular form! And so, clearly, there needs to be respect for the pure, original forms of art and venues within which these traditional arts can be preserved and nurtured and so survive the metamorphisis of fusion with modern art. One of these venues is the academic world, and the most accessible forum of academia is the world of ones dance school and teacher.Teachers Honor Tradition and Nurture Evolution.
Knowing the culture, music, technique and history of a dance form is essential to being able to capably become creative in that art. You can’t “fuse” one art with another until you know the art. You can’t be creative in an art until you have the tools – the technical foundation – to be creative with. Therefore, in addition to having mastered the art itself, a teacher has the obligation of knowing the genus of their art and it’s historical timeline. The teacher must both preserve and teach the pure traditions while at the same time promoting creativity in students.
Creativity within the borders of the pure and original is limited to what has come before. Traditionalists create by-the-book, remaining true to the art they represent, without changing it. This does not mean they are not being creative, but they staying inside the box of established art while limiting or elimating the process of fusion. Cutting edge of art is completely new. It is art which has shed its original skin and is an entirely new creature. It is creating a new art vs. creating art within the old.
This is a tough road to follow, because, it is difficult to be good at these two (fused) arts without having had training in both and so, we often we see fused art which is banal at best and vulgar at worst. Gypsy belly dance is an example. Flamenco and Belly dance have many similar stylizations as well as similar technique. However, there are some larger-than-life differences and these include using the feet (which are rarely used in belly dance); maintaining an extremely arched posture (different than the straight or leaning backbend belly dance) as well and complex hand and arm patterns, all f which take years of training to learn.
Therefore, the avant garde artist, creating or, adopting new/fused art, is charged with the obligation of having a thorough working understanding of the elements of the arts he/she is drawing from in order to “fuse” new ideas and elements together to create a cohesive whole work which is truly inspiring and worthy of being called “art”. The question then becomes not “to fuse or not to fuse”, but rather, HOW to fuse! For the choreographer this is often accomplished by cross training and exposure to various styles of dance, often from a variety of cultures.
It is a fact that many prominent dancers and choreographers are cross-trained and have working knowledge in multiple styles of dance. Because of their exposure to various traditions, their vast knowledge base feeds their imagination and voila, a hybrid is created! Examples of this process are seen in the great Oriental artists of late nineteenth century, such as Dalia Carrella, with her Dunyavi Gypsy (world gypsy) belly dance, Carolina Nerricio’s Tribal Style belly dance and the never-ending blending of genre’s and avant garde work from the Salimpour family! Imagine belly dance without these extraordinary artists and their creative input using fusion. All of them had years of training in a variety of dance styles.
With the global movement and modern day fusion, we are seeing newer and even more polished, complex and exciting forms of dance – hip-hop blended with belly dance, gypsy belly dance, tribal belly dance, Arab infusion into flamenco as well as ethnic dance in ballet. Additionally, there are levels of skill never seen before in all styles of dance because of the recognition and adaptation of classical dance as a training ground for greater accomplishment in dance as art. Because of the global movement and fusion we are seeing the art of dance evolve into a level of art never dreamed of before! And art, after all, is the point!
Art could be defined as the process of creation which inspires and educates in order to improve the world. It brings humanity to humankind. This makes art and artists essential to the fabric of all societies because the dreams, visions and realities they bring to a society are what make the difference between a society which does not embrace life and one which does; one which is civilized and one which is not. This is a lofty mission, but one we all can and must embrace and support along with the artists who live this mission. It is essential to understand and respect the process of the artist and to support artists in their mission to bring this vision of improvement of life to all societies. That is everyone’s mission in relationship to the arts.