Jem asked me to write a piece for “Quite Irregular” abut the Harlem Shake ages ago, shortly after I penned this little nugget about the Harlem Shake’s role in continuing protests against totalitarianism in the Arab world.
Jem drew my attention to some points about the Harlem Shake and globalization that add layers of complexity to my previous thoughts. I have always approached globalization as neither a force for good or bad on its own, but rather a series of activities and products that can have good or bad effects. The Harlem Shake as a globalized product that facilitates protest against totalitarianism is positive–unless it causes the protests not to be taken seriously. But, much like belly dance when performed in an atmosphere lacking in self-reflection, the Harlem Shake has layers of meaning that often go underacknowledged: this blog on Slate queries whether the Harlem Shake is yet another in a long line of examples of “mainstream co-opting styles from black culture…without proper attribution for the originators…” As Jem pointed out to me, there is an increasing body of critical literature that interrogates the layers of racial meaning in the Harlem Shake. (Though I must raise the question of whether the protests across the Arab world against totalitarianism can be considered ‘mainstream’ and therefore what kinds of interesting new power dynamics arise from that part of the equation.)
This is a problem also faced by belly dancers: how do we interact with a cultural product that we enjoy, how do we take it and celebrate it and make it ours, without getting trapped in the Orientalist, colonialist trap of over-writing its history (and making a whole bunch of people angry)? There is a LOT of literature on this and on postcolonial attitudes towards globalization of artistic products generally. I recommend taking a spin through that literature, but instead of writing you a whole book on the topic (since I kind of already have done), I’m going to refocus back on the idea of dance as a space for protest.
Part of my research focuses on the function that dance serves as a place outside ordinary life to express parts of the self that are not permitted to be expressed otherwise, because of social convention, political repression, or a range of cultural pressures. For instance, professional dancers in Egypt are governed by a series of both legal and very strong cultural restrictions that determine how they must dress, how they behave towards customers, and who is allowed to dance: for a brief time, foreigners were banned from belly dancing, though this restriction was lifted in 2004. Performers are monitored by the morality police to ensure they don’t violate these rules and upset the delicate moral sensibilities of the Egyptian public. However, they have it easier than dance aficionados in Iran, where from the formation of the Islamic Republic until 1999 dance was technically illegal for everyone, not just professionals. Fortunately in 1999 the Iranian Minister of Culture put forth the opinion that “dance is neither futile nor frivolous,” opening the door to a shifting discourse on dance. (For deeper insight on Iran, see Anthony Shay’s “Dance and Jurisprudence in the Islamic Middle East”, a chapter in the excellent anthology Belly Dance: Orientalism, Transnationalism and Harem Fantasy. For more on dance in Egypt, you might check out my book Global Moves, especially the second and third chapters.)
But just because something is illegal doesn’t mean people won’t do it: indeed, the act of dancing in such a situation then becomes an act of defiance against state oppression, a meaning we may not normally associate with dance. Even when not illegal, dance can function as a challenge to social mores that attempt to control the body and allow it to move only in certain ways, or it can serve as a vehicle for reproducing and enforcing those norms by acting as a shibboleth to help define and display what is and is not appropriate and circumstances under which certain things are or are not acceptable.
Recently, one of my research participants in the study that led to the publication of Global Moves posted a blog where she describes some of the changes for professional dancers in Egypt since the Arab Spring brought in sweeping governmental changes. Naturally, with Egypt in a continued state of destabilisation since 2011, tourism has declined sharply in the country meaning less demand for all tourism-related activities including belly dance shows. The Muslim Brotherhood were elected to power last summer, but as yet have made no formal restrictions on dancers. However, Lorna says she has seen an increase in the number of shows that have been cancelled in recent months, not just because of the economic changes since the revolution but also because of an increasingly conservative attitude. She says that in the past, if people who object morally to belly dance were in the audience they would often get up and leave during her portion of the show, while in the last few weeks what is happening is one or two people who object have asked that her portion of the show be cancelled entirely (even if the entire audience might not be of the same opinion.) It is a very interesting shift: instead of modulating their own behaviour by avoiding the show, the expectation of conservatives is now that the whole show and indeed the rest of the audience will bend to their expectations.
Lorna also says that in this time of shifting public discourses of morally acceptable and unacceptable acts, there is a deep polarization: those who like dancing, drinking, and other freedoms that might disappear if an increasingly conservative political and public atmosphere begins to gain traction are fighting to keep those freedoms by enacting them even more. But, as she says, “…it always feels like there is an element of desperation in the air too.”
It is impossible to say at the moment what will happen to dance in Egypt as a result of legal restrictions or the unofficial sanctions of public opinion and thus popular demand. The only thing I can say is how sad I would be to see it disappear from public view, for all its fraught layers of complexity and its challenging identity politics.
However much all of the above is true and deeply meaningful both personally and on a critical-theory level, I just wasn’t feeling inspired to write about the Harlem Shake. Until, that is, the very, very end of the wedding reception of my friends Amy and Stu, when we happy few who comprised the last just-about-standing elements shambled onto the dance floor to perform our own special wedding rendition of the Harlem Shake. Theory is all very well, but participant-observation wins every time.