Assignment Cover Sheet
Belly Dance Culture Visit: Greek Spotlight
As one of the Mediterranean countries, Greece was influenced by its surrounding regions of Europe and the Middle East. Middle Eastern countries such as Turkey and Egypt brought their tradition and culture in the form of arts such as music and folk dances (Erol 2014). Although there is not many studies about folk dances in the region, Egypt is widely known as the place where belly dance originated, while Turkey adopted and reformed the belly dance in terms of lighter movements, music and rhythms.
Belly dance (referred to otherwise as "the dance" throughout this written piece) is believed to have been practiced long before the imperial power of the Ottoman. During the Ottoman era, the dance was commonly performed by female slaves who entertained the Sultan and vizier. This contributes to negative perception because the dance sometime leads to concubine practices (Harem). The Empire’s territory included Greece up until 1821 when the Greeks declared their independence. In Greece, the dance is called "tsifteteli" and was renamed "belly dance" when it reached the USA. The name was taken from a literal translation of French word "danse du ventre".
The dance movements and costumes correlate with some myths about how the dance is related to female exploitation. Additionally, it is known that the dance is only performed by female dancers because the dance symbolizes a hope of fertility within a woman's body, specifically the hips, belly and upper belly. Therefore, there is also a myth that the dance was not appropriate to be performed by men. However, in recent developments, belly dance is simply an expression of art and celebration, which lead to the commercialisation of arts that is predominantly free from restrictions.
Along with the historical background of the dance as part of the Greek culture, our group had an interest to discuss the idea of men performing the dance as part of our goal to conduct the culture visit. This paper presents an experience of visiting the Greek culture and its relation to belly dance. We believe that by learning the meaning behind the dance we will gain insight about the cultural values and belly dance evolution in modern life.
The information gathering of the Greek culture and the dance was conducted in various approaches where all members of the group were fully involved. Hellenic Museum was a starting point for the group to get insight about the Greek culture and community. Following that, we conducted two sessions of interviews. The first interview was with Heidi, a dancer and teacher who has decades of experience performing the dance. The second interview was with Jimmy, a Greek male dancer and choreographer. Furthermore, to embrace the culture and understand the movements of the dance, we decided to have a first-hand experience and attended a belly dance class, taught by Heidi.
The interview questions were centred around the following aspects: the history of the dance, the influence of Greek culture upon the dance, modern Belly dance, the meaning of dance movements, costumes and traditions, as well as people’s perspectives about the dance especially in Melbourne.
Initially, I considered the dance as an erotic one as it was performed by female dancers with sexy costumes to attract the male audiences. As a man, I was shocked when I watched a live performance of the dance. A female dancer, with limited clothes covering her body, was dancing appealingly in front of the audiences who were mostly men. I never knew the history of the dance, where it came from, and how it became widely popular in the world. However, it was not the case in my home country, Indonesia. As far as I know, the dance is not popular because it is only performed in private clubs and mostly recognized as adult entertainment.
I had no idea that the dance has its own history and cultural philosophy. By having a first-hand experience to do the dance and to connect with performers, teachers, and the Greek community, I have a dramatic change in my perspective about the dance and Greek culture. I was utterly surprised when I knew that the dance was not just a dance because it contained the history and picturing the journey of mankind life. The dance is a product of social and cultural interactions, from different places throughout the age of time. There is hidden values that underlies the dance so that the Greek community has been willing to embrace their heritage.
At first I was a bit skeptical about learning the Greek culture, especially when it comes in the form of a dance. I am probably one of many people who think the dance is a little silly when it is performed by men. On top of that, as far as my knowledge goes, the dance has sensual expression because it is usually performed by women to entertain men. As a man with a strong Islamic background, I had a negative connotation towards the dance because it contradicted with my faith. However, I try to embrace any kind of culture and keep an open mind.
I had done several traditional dances when I was in elementary and junior high school. Dancing also related to music which I always appreciate and enjoy. After doing the dance session with Heidi, I realized that all of the sensual movements were not really true. I also learned that as a male dancer, the movements were different compared to female dancer’s. Men tend to involve strong muscle and powerful movements, which create a sense of masculinity in the dance, while women perform swaying movements with no problem at all. My perception about male dancer has also changed. I fully accept to see a male dancer as long as the dancer can stay masculine while doing the dance.
Compared to my teammates, Greek culture is something that I familiar with. This is mainly because I have a Greek friend and I had been to a Greek pub before. I also had seen several belly dance performances in the pub, but I never realized that it was part of the culture itself. The experience of seeing female belly dancers who dance sensually with minimum clothing on, and in a pub, had left a negative impression in my mind. Therefore, I could not help to become a little skeptical to do the culture visit. During the visit, I felt a shocking revelation when the group and I managed to interview a professional male dancer from Greek.
I had no idea that a male belly dancer even existed. Jimmy as the guest speaker proudly and enthusiastically shared his knowledge about the dance’s core value with the Greek cultural background. From the interview, I could see that there was a strong conscious effort for Greek people to maintain the tradition, such as the dance that existed from some hundred years ago, as part of the cultural celebration practices. Feeling encouraged and self-justified by the male belly dancer existence, I managed to source online more information about the dance. Thus, when I started to understand the logic behind the dance movements, I could see the dance in a new light.
I made the suggestion to pursue the dance culture after we visited the Hellenic Museum because I often pass through the belly dance centre in my neighbourhood. Before conducting the visit and practicing the dance, I always thought that the dance originally came from the Middle East region excluding the Greece. However, I was wrong because the influence of the region upon Turkey and Greece can be seen in many social aspects such as religion and the arts, which the dance is just an example of them.
As a Muslim woman who wears hijab1, I have to admit that I was very prejudiced about the dance costume that exploited a certain part of the female body. It amazed me when both dancers confirmed that the ancient purpose of the dance was to be seen only by female audiences. It also symbolizes celebration of family, which explains the logic behind the movement’s focused on the belly. It makes sense to me because the explanation can be visualized directly when seeing the female dancer. However, I was surprised one more time when I found out that there is a male belly dancer. Later on, the male dancer told us that the western pop culture in the mid 50's has contributed to the commercialization of the dance. Therefore, it increases the chance for a male dancer to have a career in belly dancing.
All group members are Indonesian. In Indonesia there are positive and negative connotations about the dance. The positive ones include Indonesian women have practiced the dance as sport activity like aerobics. An example of negative connotation is the perception of the dance as a sensual dance that is mostly performed in nightclubs for male audiences and might lead to prostitutions. Furthermore, the Indonesian culture values masculinity, so that men in society are supposed to take the role of worker, provider and to maintain their masculine pride (The Hofstede Centre 2014b). So the idea about a male performing the dance is not common in our society because there is a preconception that dancing is not an appropriate occupation for men.
The discussion confirms that our group’s national culture has influenced our assumptions and biases about the working environment, individuals and society (Steers, Sanchez-Runde & Nardon 2013). Since culture can change over time, the change of the group’s perspectives to adopt positive views about the male dancer might be related to the fact that all of us are exposed by Australia's open minded culture. This is aligned with a study by Jowitt (2010) about male dancers, where Jowitt explains that men who perform dance have expanded from time to time so that they no longer need to be concerned about their images as men first and dancers second. With globalization and liberalization, men are free to be become performers and choreographers.
According to Bannerman (2014), every dance is structured like a language which could be used to communicate the culture. Belly dance in Greek culture has the implicit meaning of every movement, body gesture, and facial expression. Simply stated, belly dance is more than wiggling of hips and swaying of arms, but it also involves emotion to deliver a message. It means that the dance also contains a form of communication as one of the key elements that helps shape the culture (Beamer & Varner 2001).
Based on the interview, there are many implicit values behind the dance which fits with the Greek preference to have a high context communication with indirect message and implicit meaning (Hall 1976). Fundamentally, there are several imbued meanings within the dance movements, such as, the upper body movements to give a flirty impression and the costume is filled with imitate gold coins that reflects the ancient wallet of the dancer as a place for audience members to leave put money/tips. Furthermore, the dance movements would be open for interpretation without a strong face expression. The face expression gives the audiences message, whether the dancer is trying to be playful, flirty, or pompous in spite of the vigorous movements. Therefore, belly dance could reflect the Greek culture that values a high-context kind of communication.
Based on the interview, the Greeks seem likely to have unhealthy competition with their fellow citizens. Moreover, the Greek dancer explained that it was difficult to find a job in Greece due to the highly competitive environment. We have come to realize that Greece is the highest country that values uncertainty avoidance culture (The Hofstede Centre 2014a). Countries with high uncertainty avoidance culture tend to feel uncomfortable and insecure about competitiveness, which creates a suspicious feeling toward each other.
People in high uncertainty avoidance cultures are likely to have high levels of stress so that the Greek need to have a way to relax and enjoy their life (The Hofstede Centre 2014a). So it makes perfect sense if dancing is considered by the Greeks as one solution to channel their stress in passionate and demonstrative ways. Furthermore, the Greeks also express their emotions through their body language, which heavily associates with dance movements and facial expressions.
Trompenaars defined that the cultural dimension of relation to time is part of the cultural characteristic of a particular nation or society (Francesco & Gold 1998). Shortly, in a past-oriented community, tradition and history are highly valued. Based on the interviews, the existence of the dance cannot be separated from the Greek culture. Nowadays, the dance is not only performed in bars, restaurants and public stages, but is also performed at family events, such as wedding celebrations, birthdays, childbirths and so forth.
In Greek community, the dance is not only a happy expression and celebration, but also used to illustrate some traditional values. For example, a wedding celebration could be a precious moment for the married couple and their family. The main focus is not only to celebrate the occasion, but also on the value and purpose of a marriage per se to generate a new family that honours their heritage. This means the past-oriented societies, such as Greek community, view the future as a repetition of past events and experiences, and they talk the history and origin of the family in the context of tradition (Gutterman 2011).
Before studying about the dance and Greek culture, we shared almost common positive and negative perceptions. After experiencing the visit and the dance ourselves, we realized that there are true and false perceptions about the dance. The truth about the dance includes some sensual movements and the role of the music, rhythms and lyrics in driving the dancer to interact with the audiences. Meanwhile, some examples of false perceptions include: the dance only belongs to Middle Eastern communities excluding the Greece, the purpose of the dance is to promote eroticism, and the male dancer is not capable to perform movement without losing his his sense of masculinity in the dance.
Subconsciously we may judge other cultures based on our own personal values and cultural framework, which ended up with a false prejudice. After the visit and writing this report, we have learned more about the dance and Greek culture. Moreover, by experiencing the dance ourselves, we have understood the logic behind the dance and embraced the understanding about the cultural differences. We also learned that it is important to avoid early judgement, especially when we are dealing with people from different cultural backgrounds. It is necessary to obtain relevant information with regards to cultural differences, as we believe that lack of information can contribute to poor judgement. In addition, active reflection plays a great role to build empathy and understand the reasons which underly on cultural behaviour. Therefore, being open-minded is essential for any successful cross-cultural interactions.
Based on our experience, we found that the dance consists of multiple meaningful gestures, which are used to deliver message across directly to the viewer. Those gestures, facial expressions, body languages, and movements can be identified as forms of non-verbal communication. In the essence of non-verbal communication, Pease (1981) claimed that at least 65% of communication is done non-verbally. We believe that the percentage might go higher when dealing with high-context culture.
By experiencing the dance ourselves, we learnt that the dance contains many gesture movements to communicate with audiences, such as a blink of the eye to make the environment cheerful or a stern look to put a distance to the audience if some irresponsible audiences try to offend the dancer. We have seen that gestures can be an effective way to deliver a message, especially when we have to deal with cultural differences. Moreover, we have also learned that gesture plays important role in interpersonal communication. We need to be aware with any available visual cues in order to reduce the risk of miscommunication. Thus, it is important to have an increased sensitivity to the non-verbal communication because it helps us deal with a cross-cultural environment.
The belly dance industry is dominated by female performers. However, during the interview with the male dancer, we realized that male belly dancers have become an emerging trend and are starting to gain their popularity in Melbourne. The lesson learned is not only about men who are doing a job that is commonly done by women, but also about skill and competency mastery. In a global environment, skills and competencies are considered as fair basis to judge individuals’ performance to achieve group’s or organization’s goal. Of course, we still acknowledge that some jobs demand specific skills to be performed as (Steers et al. 2013) argued that some cultures perceive that skills and competencies are related to preferred gender. We have learned from first-hand experience that the physical factor makes male dancers have their limitations to do some movements.
In the professional context where physiology is not a differentiate factor, we believe that males and females should have fair opportunities based on their skills and competencies. Although in some cultures, gender differentiations have significant influence to promote unequal treatment towards female and male workers (Steer et al. 2013), the lesson we have from the visit is that people can be successful if they have the required skills and competencies regardless of their gender. As future global managers, we have acknowledged that the performance-oriented culture that we value makes us more open about the existence of male belly dancers because what really matters in the end is ones’ skills and competencies.
The Greek community overseas, such as in Melbourne, often call for belly dance performers to entertain private parties and family events. It shows that the community holds the dance for the celebration purposes. At this point, the dance has role to illustrate the value and tradition in the society. The dance helps the community to acknowledge to values of building a family, maintain the relationship, and the hope of happiness through marriage and children. All of these moments reflect the way of the community to keep traditional values and disseminate those values of the present and future generation. This emphasizes the willingness of the Greek community overseas to reconnect with their heritage, which is represent by the dance.
We have learned that to manage cultural differences, first we need to understand that people to some extent still hold on to their traditions because people’s attitudes and behavior are affected by the cultures in which they are exposed to (Steer et al. 2013). Therefore, it is important to consider about heritage conservation when we have to face multicultural settings, whether it is in the society or in the organizational environment.
This essay was written in the context of the subject Cross Cultural Management and Teamwork as a part of Master of Information System course.
It is also written in association with Azura Oasis and Jimmy Hellas as the sources of the study.