Midnight at the Crossroads: Has belly dance sold its soul? by Alia Thabit
(purchase it on amazon here)
(purchase it on amazon here)
This intriguing work explores a wide range of ideas and issues about the history and current practice of ‘Belly Dance’, more correctly translated from Arabic as “Eastern Dance” ( Raqs Sharqi).
Author Alia Thabit is an educator, dancer, artist, and musician who shares her story as a thinking dance artist in the world of Eastern Dance. Her book, which includes more than 40 of her own charming illustrations, sometimes reads like a memoir, other times like a friendly conversation. Then it becomes call to arms for dancers to look again at what brought them into the unique artistic world of Eastern Dance, and to perhaps approach it differently.
An Arab-American from New York, Thabit watched professional dancers perform in the once thriving Arab nightclub scene in New York. She learned how the dancers interacted with both the live musicians playing behind them as well as the adoring patrons in the audience. The dancers were flirtatious, yes, but they also brought joy and happiness to the audience. Thabit studied with the leading lights of the dance world, and went on to perform and teach. As a flute and nay (Middle Eastern end-blown flute) player, she delved into the music of the Arab world that creates the drama and passion that fuels the dance.
Over the years, Thabit has thought deeply about the essence of the dances of the Arab world, and about belly dance in particular. Considering her art from many angles, she sought out new teachers, new aspects of what makes this art unique, and this book is a result of her years of work.
Like many other seasoned performers, Thabit has grown frustrated with the world of belly dance performance outside the Arab world. Most all of the clubs in the U.S. closed after 9/11. With few venues in which to perform, dancers and their students organized festivals and shows, typically using recorded music. Choreographies supplanted improvisation. Competitions became popular. Some performers veered away from the music of the Middle East and used more amorphously ‘eastern’ sounding fusion music.
Thabit decries the loss of live performances and the improvisational aspect of Eastern Dance. She asks the dance community to step back, think about the dance they are performing, and reach back to its roots to deepen their art. She explores how belly dance can help heal trauma. She advocates for the work and ideas of Dunya McPherson of Dancemeditation. She invites the reader to explore improvisation, ‘slow movement’, and the benefits of a regular practice. Most of all, she challenges practitioners to bring the dance not only back to its improvisational roots, but to focus on its celebratory and healing powers.
This book is rich and generous, and must be savored. Each chapter could be a book in itself and should be read with as much consideration as the author put into writing it. I can imagine Thabit teaching workshops on some of the chapters. I would love to discuss the book’s many assessments, assertions and ideas with my friends involved in the dance. The book has many links for the reader to follow up on these possible paths of exploration and deepening, and the author has added a page for additional resources on her own website aliathabit.com.
I recommend this book to anyone involved in Eastern Dance – as a student, performer and/or teacher. The dance form is at a crossroads now, and in Thabit’s view, dancers should revive its old soul and put it to use for the good of humanity.
- Kay Hardy Campbell