Cross training can mean a few different things, it could mean adding pilates or swimming to your fitness and movement practice to strengthen and balance you body. It can also be training in other dance forms in order to improve our raqs sharki/oryntal dansi technique. This post is about the later meaning.
A lot of people advocate for having a background, or adding classes, in ballet or other classical Western dance styles. There are two places this is coming from, one is an innocent misattribution of where some dancers' ease of learning came from, and the other is, frankly, rooted in a colonizer hierarchy.
First, it's important that we remember this dance is whole on its own. We don't need to add other things to it in order to make it good. You certainly CAN, I really enjoy good fusion, but you don't HAVE TO. This goes for performing and it goes for practicing. Bellydance does not have the same pedagogical structure that more formal Western dances have, which makes it very important to find a good teacher/guidance on where to focus your energies, but that is part of the beauty of our dance. There isn't a formula made for your performance style, and there isn't a prescribed curriculum handed to us as teachers either. (You can read more about my thoughts on that in this other blog post.)
Folks get locked into thinking ballet is something everyone needs and can make everything better because of that historical power structure, but also because a lot of people got used to learning that way, so it is familiar to them, and familiar seems easier. They attribute using their previous ballet training to help them with bellydance to something fundamental about ballet pedagogy, but if you hadn't learned ballet as a youngster, would you still feel that way?
Likewise, with any prior movement practice, there will be some habits you need to unlearn and reprogram. The most obvious in this dichotomy is loosening the torso and lowering the center of gravity, there is also the question of: do you dance from the floor up, or from your pelvis out? But there are also a plethora of artistic values and musicality norms that dancers may not be aware of needing to adjust during that transition.
Ultimately, that is what this section of the post is about: don't go “off label” and prescribe a course of action for its side effects. I think we do this because we somehow think it will make it easier, we are looking for a hack, a short cut, but you know what they say about shortcuts. Now, if those classes outside of raqs sound fun, by all means take them! They might improve your Oriental dance as a side effect, but the main effect will be that you'll enjoy them. That's why I take Tahitian classes from time to time, it's just fun! But when I want to improve my raqs sharki hip work, I do it to MENAHT music in an Egyptian (or, occasionally, Turkish or Lebanese) way.
Here's a thought experiment, imagine those European travel journals, but with the perspective reversed. Imagine a Ghawazee dancer, if she had that imperialist attitude the colonizers showed up in Egypt with, describing a Western dance (maybe ballet, or waltz) to her friends back home, and all the ways it “failed” to live up to the artistic goals of her native dance.
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We should recognize that raks sharki/oriental tansi is just one of a myriad of dances from the Middle Eastern, North African, Hellenic, and Turkish region. Many of the other dances are referenced in Oriental dance songs and shows. So, just like a tap dancer takes ballet as a foundation for their Western performance education, or a ballet dancer cross trains in modern dance to expand themselves, we should be cross training in MENAHT dances to ensure we have a complete education.
Sometimes, we do get stuck, and need to see things from a different angle in order for them to click. People often have the impulse, for example, to seek ballet as a way to improving their arms, but try asking youself if there is a MENAHT context you could access that from? Trying to be more earthy? How about cross training with some authentic Kawleyya style? Want to make your arms more graceful? Why not skip the ballet class and delve into an Am-Cab veil class or take a workshop in Persian court dances? You'll still need to bring these back to your sharki, but the relationship is more direct. You'll be spending time expanding your view of the dances that have influenced raqs sharki from within, instead of trying to "fix" it by adding a Western dance on top of it.
Imagine you are learning a new language, you have to try to think in that language. Trying to learn Oriental dance in a Western type pedagogy and context is like trying to learn Japanese while still thinking in English. Your sentence structure is going to be all mixed up AND you're going to miss all those words that don't have a direct translation. And those things that don't translate are the most important ones for, not just speaking the language, but for expanding your understanding of the world and how others see and relate to it.
There is nothing wrong with cross training, or with borrowing a good practice idea but: don't become so focused on the means that your it takes away from your ends, don't make things more complicated than they need to be, and don't forget that MENAT dance is whole and wonderful as it comes. Lastly, remember: