Book review by Walladah
for Alia Thabit’s “Midnight at the crossroads: Has bellydance sold its soul?” (2017), Lyndonville, VT – Dance Art Press.
For the PDF version of the review, please go to the link https://www.academia.edu/35436585/Book_review_for_Alia_Thabits_Midnight_at_the_Crossroads_
You understand that a book is dense and full of information once you start to keep detailed notes about its contents, page by page, and you need to write down a lot. And you understand how deep a book gets with its content when you need time to digest and come to terms with the new ideas, questions and encounters it proposes to you.
That exactly happened with Alia Thabit’s book “Midnight at the crossroads: Has bellydance sold its soul? published in 2017 by Dance Art Press (Lyndonville, VT).
Alia Thabit claims that this is not a research book, but I think it is. It is the summary of what one would call in the Western capitalist colonial world “a research programme” that does not only entail the entire academic life of one person to develop but the life of entire teams and schools of thought. It is also the summary or notes written of a Path to Knowledge as it is perceived in various non-capitalist non-European cultures for people who dedicate their lives to a quest of knowing and living.
That is the first point that emerges like a brilliant diamond out of Midnight at the Crossroads: that Oriental or Middle Eastern Dance is a path of knowledge but also a way of living, a path of action, a conciliation of mind and body.
The Western world has very recently realized the importance and integrity of linking research to action and vice versa. This is very far behind the Middle Eastern perception of alim/aleema or knowledgeable person, or warrior scholars which has been the ideal of a person in the “East” for so long.
Till this day Westernised ways of validating knowledge are prominent in academia, but also in the oriental dance word. It took 30 or more years of dehydration in the western bellydance and a Levantine scholar who has been brought up in the US as both an academic and a dancer to put into English words what all Middle Eastern dancers said again and again, i.e. that Western validation damages this dance art form. Because, Western validation cannot replace the lack of integration of body and mind that the western-anglosaxon capitalist colonial culture lacks from its very beginning.
Alia Thabit is straightforward about that: it is the Platonic Ideal that lurks at the very heart of all literary and artistic work in the West, at least in the elites’ art and in the art approved by the elites. This approval of the elites creates patterns of thought that make people who bear uncritically a western culture, understand everything through this prism and through this prism only.
As Alia Thabit explains, the Platonic Ideal makes things and humans lose mind and psyche – although it is this same ideal that says that mind and psyche are more important than bodies and that spirit is superior to matter.
The book depicts this deep contradiction and the problems this contradiction creates. The disdaining and violence against the bodies of the dancers sweeps away their minds and psyches too, sweeps away their personalities and even their connection to what they are doing. The Platonic Ideal, says Alia Thabit, makes us unhappy and untruthful to ourselves and to our dance.
I do not recall any other Western writing being so analytically and multi-level successful in describing the workings of Platonic Ideal in art in general and in dance in particular. I was never fond of Plato and his writings and his divide between the immaterial Idea of something and the inferior material real thing that embodies the idea is to me a typical patriarchal behavior. You know, patriarchy hates bodies and dance, but it also hates spirits and synthesizing-composing what you want to express. This is why patriarchal people like so much to dismiss ideas, theories, teachings and arguments of the subalterns (women, poor people, black people, non-European people, dissenting people): Ideas are not to be created by everyone, they are either eternal and not man-made (God-like) or they are creations of immaterial high spirits who for some weird coincidence happen to inhabit white male rich bodies, which in the last 500 years happen to be of European descent and very fond of colonialism.
What Alia Thabit teaches is that ideas can be created by everyone. If we are talking about dance, a dancer is not a dancer if she does not create ideas – and ideals, possibly. She/he does not need to write them down, she can dance them. She can dance an idea about geometry, about feelings, about life, about politics, about free bodies, about performativity, about grief and loss and about the Divine and metaphysics. She can dance an idea of infinity, of mechanics, of biology, of psychoanalysis or of math.
Wait a minute, isn’t this the curriculum of a philosopher? Yes, it is. of course, a dancer needs training to become such a wonderful multi-ideas person, but this comes of its own: you cannot be much if you don’t learn the appropriate things and keep pace to search for new stuff, lost stuff, marginalized stuff or needed stuff. Alia Thabit makes clear that technique has its place, but there are techniques and things that are not any more taught to dancers of Middle Eastern dances, at least not in the studio-workshop-choreography setting of the western dance education system.
Alia Thabit says that Platonic Ideal tends to the exclusion of idea creation for the few privileged (choreographers), while Oriental Ideal has a propensity to quite the opposite: it is the dancer’s privilege but also obligation to create dance in the unique way she only can dance and make other people see music becoming a unique live sculpture that no-one else can create but a specific dancer.
Exclusion though is a chain effect, according to the insightful author of Midnight at the Crossroads. Alia Thabit gives through bellydance an excellent analysis of patriarchal violence and exclusions:
In order that a person excludes others from her/his uniqueness, and the joy she can bring to others, she is first deprived herself. Patriarchal violence, from the stress of reading sexist quotes on internet to mere acts of rape, domestic violence and outright war, makes sure that people are deprived of what they would like to offer to others. And given that humans cannot easily be deprived from their bodies as means of dance creation, what patriarchy deprives the dancers from, is their own connection to the world and from the knowledge how to perform that connection. In case the dancers are bold enough to keep dancing despite patriarchy, patriarchy derails their dancing from self-expression and communal connection to drilling, mechanical movement and representation of the vision of another person about how a dancer should move. Patriarchy brings competition in, as well as the disdain towards oneself, as not good enough, not beautiful enough, not smart enough, not creative enough.
In a totalitarian regime such as patriarchy the only way to stop creation of beauty and freedom while you cannot deprive people from the means of production, which in the case of dance, are their own bodies and minds, is to disconnect those two (bodies and minds). If you arrive to create an hierarchy among them, an entitlement that mind can command the body, that would be even better. Patriarchy installs its suppression mechanisms within the very person to make sure that deprivation is there although the means of production and the means of emancipation, the body, is still there.
You need to bombard people all day and night, every single minute, that they lack the perfect bodies, perfect hair, perfect style, perfect dance attire, perfect steps, perfect movement that someone set up long ago as the measure of human dance expression to achieve this.
With generosity, Midnight at the Crossroads shows that if at any moment those little voices spoke we asked “says who?”, we would see that those speaking are voices of multilayered suppressions that exist in patriarchal societies. Those little voices want us, especially us women, not to move, not to laugh, not to claim anything, not to persevere, not to be happy, not to be unhappy for any other reason than whatever patriarchy needs from us. In other words, we are not allowed to have our own agenda, wishes, dreams or initiative.
Alia Thabit takes the analysis of patriarchy to another level, by explaining how this is happening in detail. Her analysis of trauma shows that on the one hand, trauma is a condition where the body answers to a no-options situation. In that sense, freezing in front of an audience while dancing shows how much we have embodied the no-options individual and collective situations patriarchy (and its colonial versions) has thrown us into. Remember: every time you freeze, you are expressing an entire era and culture in human history, which your body has the courage to discard by denying to negotiate with it. “No, lady, I am not going to put up with your mechanistic view of the world, I am your body, not a machine, and if you hold Platonic Ideal so dear, tell that Plato guy that bodies are not to disdain, because we can move and not move at our will”.
Midnight at the Crossroads celebrates this resistance. It celebrates full survival rather than the dissociation of body and mind as Plato was advising us to do. But this book offers something more: it makes the resistance effective. It takes huge courage to say NO and even more courage to implement that NO (Remember: freezing bodies say that what is more important than appearances is denying suppression and violence). The book, therefore, shows that having this huge courage means that one also has the courage to go beyond that NO and construct other worlds while one survives in a culture which is telling everyone that there is no alternative but only one possible perfect hip drop and only one possible world.
Alia Thabit does not only give us a path but all the tools to create many paths. At the end, she is making the East-West divide collapse: East has been constructed by colonial thought as the Other or alternative to the West. Its dark depicting by the West is necessary to make the West look better. Alia Thabit dares to give excellent examples which show that not only the West has its own serious problems too, but also that what we understand as “the East” is so much a like a projection of the West, Therefore, we should all be vigilant concerning all statements about Oriental cultures and mentalities.
Alia Thabit shows that if we position ourselves at the geographical point of emergence and constant cultivation of this dance, which is the Middle East, Northern Africa and Eastern Mediterranean in general, we can see our dance not as exotic (exotic: the thing that comes from the outside, from another world) but the Platonic Ideal as exotic to our dance. We can also see colonialism as exotic and patriarchy as exotic to our individual and community well-being, fairness and joy. You cannot have women dancing and believe that women are sluts, incapable of abstract thinking, inept to express their feelings and incapable of composing anything, not even a movement sequence to be done by their bodies. You cannot have bellydance and believe that women are incapable of perfecting their understanding of music, so you need to teach them what to dance at which moment in advance, to avoid their “mistake” of dancing in the moment. You cannot have bellydance and believe that women are just empty vessels of another person’s idea.
You see? That is patriarchy! Women as vessels of other people’s ideas, visions, management goals or sperm is what Platonic Ideal pictures in a refined way: The “Western way”, about which Alia explains so well why it does not work, says: “as long as you follow the choreo, it doesn’t matter who the dancer is. Any dancer will do. Her personality matters little because what matters most is the personality of the choreographer, of her teacher of even of the Ideal Dancer who does not exist, but we all have to be like her”.
Contrary to that, in the Eastern way, it is the dancer who matters, at an absolute degree. Because the Ideal is not Platonic and not patriarchal either. Alia Thabit shows that the vessel is the movement, not the person. The person of the dancer is the master-matter in its full integrity: flesh, mind, psyche, feelings, sexuality, social relationships, scars and badges of honour. She also shows that this dance, although it is well connected to Eastern traditions of becoming one with the universe, it requires full personalities to develop and be present in order that this dance is actualized.
In bellydance any movement will do as long as the dancer is allowed to be whole-body-heartedly present. The Platonic Ideal says that any dancer will do as long as the movement is present.
Yet, movements cannot be present, as Alia Thabit explains. Movements are human action and we have forgotten the human in the equation. Immobilisation due to trauma teaches us that non-movement doesn’t mean that the human doesn’t exist, but that the human is struggling! The fetish of “movement as life” in Western culture crumbles in bellydance. Have you seen dancers pausing with all music going wild around, have you heard your heart bumping for the dancer, what is she doing now?
Exactly. She is doing something extraordinary. She freezes on purpose to show that we can be immobile when music is so overwhelming and still we can be dancing. Why? Because the movement can be absent and the dancer can still be present. She is there and demands freedom, attention, love and admiration.
I could write more and more about Midnight at the Crossroads. Alia Thabit says that the Midnight at the Crossroads is a manifesto, and she is right. It is a manifesto, an emancipation tool and a breakthrough in dance philosophy in general. But it is also a breakthrough in dance practice – probably it is more practice than anything else. It is not only that the teacher Alia Thabit gives practical guidelines for a reader to explore the main concepts of the book. It is also an example (aka paradigm) of how education in art is itself an art and needs to integrate the values of the art itself.
Finally, the legend about blues musicians going Midnight at the Crossroads reminded me of a similar myth. In the island of Crete, Greece, a musician who wants to play extraordinary music needs to meet the women elves at the crossroads during midnight. The elf women are the best dancers and musicians in the world and men have to learn from them. In return, elves don’t want the musician’s soul but a part of his body, usually a tiny part of his little handfinger, leaving his soul intact. You see? Women always know that bodies are the most important for performance arts.
When I read the Midnight at the Crossroads for the first time, I smiled. The elf women claim back the crossroads, the bodies and the arts.