- Dancing Fear & Desire: Race, Sexuality, & Imperial Politics in Middle Eastern Dance
To reduce Karayanni's complex work to brief description does it no justice. He examines the cultural politics of Middle Eastern dance in the nineteenth, twentieth, and early twenty-first centuries using historic images and descriptions combined with a narrative of his personal experience of Middle Eastern dance as a colonized Cypriot male homosexual. Thus the reviewer is presented with the challenge of describing the web of issues and re-presented events that necessarily surrounds autobiographical, neo-colonial, gender- and race-inflected perspectives on non-verbal art that has rarely been subject to any sort of analysis. The simplest statement I can make (as an ethnomusicologist specializing in the Middle East) is that this is probably the most satisfying work on Middle Eastern dance I have ever read.
Karayanni does not untangle the web as much as he walks us through it, looking at one major issue at a time while not losing the threads of ones not under immediate examination. Four chapters focus on the nineteenth-century gaze of 'imperial masculinity,' the male belly dancer, re-presentations of dance in the character of Salomé (notably Oscar Wilde's use of the figure), and the use of dance in the construction of nationalism and surrounded by introductory and concluding chapters. The book ends with an epilogue that seems a bit more dramatic to the author than it did to me, given the author's presence as an individual throughout the book.
The introduction lays out the social theoretical framework for the author's thought. If it occasionally seems a long series of name- and theory-dropping, at least the reader becomes familiar with what the author has read and what ideas he finds valuable. To his credit, the author is indeed very widely read and has consulted, I think, every relevant resource in Western languages.
He then walks us through the well-known writings of nineteenth-century travellers featuring Flaubert and Nerval. This will be familiar territory to anyone acquainted with critiques of Orientalist literature, but Karayanni reminds us of essential points: the dancer (Kuchuk Hanem in Egypt, for most of the discussion) is allowed no agency. One derives no sense of what the dancer was trying to do, was used to doing; local aesthetics, virtuosity, and feeling are completely missing, and the perspective is solely heterosexual male imperialist. [End Page 261] European narratives effectively strip the art of any life-value in its native environment of local audiences.
Walking into the world of male dancers, we are reminded of their historic existence in Middle Eastern, Greek, and other Mediterranean cultures performing for mixed and all-male audiences. A wonderful description of men dancing in modern Greece yields a warm sense of enjoyment and bonding among amateurs dancing for fun at a casual social event. Karayanni's text depicts the disapprobation if not absolute horror with which Europeans viewed this quite rooted Middle Eastern practice. We are reminded that we have been taught a singularly limited notion of value for this tradition. This dance has been strait-jacketed into unacceptable sexual deviance with not a glance in the direction of local attitudes, values, or, once again, agency.
Freeze-framing selected local dance as immutable, eternal 'national' heritage is the next issue. The chapter provides a new (to most of us) example of the familiar process of co-opting or actual creation of 'traditions' that are then linked to nationalist political parties and governments. In the case of Hellenic dance ('I have seen this dance on old Greek vases,' to quote the chapter's subtitle), the effort also entailed separating Greek dance from that of its Mediterranean and Middle Eastern neighbours, attempting to sever long-standing cultural connections in favour of closer association with the 'sophistication' and history of the 'West.'
Among the strengths of the book is that the author declines to define the dance and its terms:
To begin with, belly dance, danse du ventre, Middle Eastern dance, Oriental dance, and...