Caitlin McDonald is a dancer, writer and academic. Her book Global Moves is the result of several years travelling and studying dance communities across the world, and provides a fascinating glimpse into the ways people use dance to assert and explore identities. The work addresses dance as “an expression of joy”, “a site for defining appropriate gendered behaviour”, “a space for competition” and “a tool of resistance” within changing cultural norms.
First of all, I should probably provide official disclosure: I’m a friend of Dr McDonald. I first heard about the work detailed in this book over a series of pints in various Exeter pubs, when Caitlin and I discovered we shared an interest in the way cultural forms are interpreted differently across time and contexts. For me, it was Jacobean revenge tragedy and how people imagined the Early Modern theatre, for her it was belly dance and how people imagined Egypt. Unlike me, however, she had actually been to Egypt and could talk about how people there felt about the way the global belly dance community uses it as an “authenticating” place. As a participant-observer, her work takes her into dance communities to better understand them.
Global Moves documents her trips to Egypt, and her investigation of the wider belly dance world. Caitlin discusses both the dance scene in Cairo, and how dancers in other countries legitimise and anchor their own practices via references to Egypt – “how Egypt gets romanticized and fantasized in global narratives about belly dance”. Dance and its cultural associations are read via an intriguing array of evidence: legal restrictions where it can and can’t take place (and what passport you need to perform certain dances); the business card of a drummer; the historical expulsion of dancers from Egypt; the arguments over what styles should be called; the statements by belly dance groups in Second Life about eternal sacred womanhood; interviews with ex-pat dancers. Here she argues that the ban on dancers in Egypt was a displaced panic over economic and social disasters which needed a scapegoat, and a pathology over “cleanliness” in the presence of communicable diseases – there she dissects the way images of “the Orient” are played with and subverted by dancers from the Middle East. There’s a continual shuttling back and forth in her writing between activity and image, between the present use of a form and its past history, and how those interweave to constitute in its cultural baggage, which can then be questioned or undermined.
The book is divided into thematic chapters, which tackle specific aspects of her research: “Development of Normative Dance Paradigms in Egypt” examines what expectations exist around dance and its social place; “Sanctions: Penalize, Authorize, Globalize” explores the legal controls on dancers and their relation to the expectations which the international dance community constructs for themselves; “Dance and Theory” investigates issues of terminology and conceptualization; “Transmission and Learning” asks how dancers learn about styles and exchange information; and “Gender Choreology” brings the lens of gender performance to bear on belly dance. These are all fairly academic topics in themselves, but McDonald is always eager to apply the theory and to use concepts to illuminate actual dance styles, or meetings, or stories. For a non-specialist there is inevitably a certain amount of theory to be taken onboard – as a specialist in a not-totally-unrelated-but-fairly-distant field I found some critical ideas laboured at times because they seemed obviously reasonably, and some too quickly applied, but that’s just my own disciplinary boundaries showing. If I had a criticism, it would be that the book sometimes shows its roots in a thesis: there is scrupulous methodological transparency where I would have been willing to take Dr. McDonald’s approach on trust and wait to see what it had illuminated. But being too intellectually honest is not much of a vice, particularly from an academic.
Equally inevitably, the sections on gender choreology caught my eye most. In Cairo she shows us female dancers who adopt a particular (and socially recognized) identity when dealing with promoters and band members in the business side of dancing – smoking and talking “straightforwardly”, amongst other traits which would be considered “male” in that context. In the US she traces the involvement of belly dance with second-wave feminism, and examines how some dancers and teachers associate it with the rituals of an imagined ancient goddess cult. We also discover the answer to the question “what about teh bellymenz?!”, as McDonald describes how male belly dancers are framed and interpreted with regard to their gender and sexuality. There’s a nice balance in this section between McDonald’s critical analysis (taking on Judith Butler and going beyond her) and the specific way people talk – and gossip! – about gender and dance.
There’s a lot to enjoy in Global Moves, and since it’s put out by LeanPub, the work can be purchased as an ebook, priced three dollars upwards. I can’t say I was a particularly unbiased reader – since I already knew I was interested in Caitlin’s work and couldn’t wait to see it in print – but I would heartily recommend spending the price of a cup of coffee on a copy. It’s an invigorating work which, instead of explaining what this art form is and how it works, plunges us into an ongoing conversation about dance, gender, national identity and sexuality, drawing out and playing with our preconceptions. If anyone has read Caitlin’s work, I’d love to hear your opinions on it in the comments.