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Laura Albert lingers behind a curtain, craning her neck and awaiting her cue. The sound system jolts to life and out blares a remixed hip-hop track. She strides into the bright red light. 

On stage, Albert exchanges glances with Naomi Gallagher and their movements synchronize. The audience cheers as the women stiffen then loosen their shoulders, thrust then roll their hips, clench then unclench their stomach muscles, and smile.

Their costumes are carnivalesque: striped pants, tattered cloth, dark red bras, heavy jewelry, feathered headdresses.

This may not be belly dance, as you know it.

Albert and Gallagher make up half of the sex-positive feminist dance troupe, Luciterra. Along with Gillian Cofsky and Amber Eastman, the quartet performs fusion style belly dance. Their choices of music, costume, and dance moves are an eclectic blend of styles from around the world -- a new script that draws both admiration and disapproval. 

The dancers, who have all explored other forms, were drawn to fusion style belly dance in a special way.

Luciterra is not the only act in town. Vancouver is home to a vibrant belly dance community and industry, one comprised by a range of styles and contested vocabularies.

Most performers, according to the dancers interviewed, largely identify with one of two scenes. Some are drawn to Middle Eastern, mainly Egyptian, forms of the dance -- also known as raqs sharqi -- while others prefer the fusion style adopted by Luciterra.

"The modern fusion style isn't something we invented," said Amber Eastman. "It is a whole movement that's happening in North America and around the world now, but I do feel we have our own take on it."

Their take has received mixed reviews, with critics worrying that the backstory, however complex, is completely lost on western audiences.

A complicated history

"Westerners use the umbrella term of 'belly dance' to refer to a broad range of styles united in the use of certain isolation movements," writes Marilee Nugent, former president of the Middle Eastern Dance Association, and dancer of 20 years.

Belly dance places special emphasis on hip movements, but the dance often isolates the head, shoulders, chest, and hands. Another feature is the serpentine movements of the torso, often paired with some degree of flirtation.

The movement vocabulary of belly dance, notes Nugent, is a mixture of styles from many regions, including Egypt, Lebanon, the Arabian Gulf, and Turkey. She points to cultural exchange and shifting national boundaries as factoring into the multiplicity of the form.

Simple questions -- like, how old is belly dance? -- are contentious points even among those who actively debate backstage. Many trace North American belly dance to Sol Bloom and the 1893 Chicago's World Fair, but even this is a heated entry point. The further back in history one goes, the harder it is to definitively speak of chronology and regional trademarks. 

"What is very well documented is what's been seen since the dawn of moving pictures," said Luciterra's Laura Albert, adding that the fusion of styles is itself an old phenomenon, and that movement-based forms don't archive easily.

What's appropriate, and what's appropriation?

To novices, all the different show bills may be confusing.

Belly dance studios can be found all across British Columbia, advertising everything from "Greek Taverna style" and "Egyptian Raqs Sharqi" to "World Fusion" and "Westernized nightclub."

Some dancers are cautious about making creative remixes the way of the future. 

"Even if we try and forge ahead and be contemporary, (performers) can't forget the lineage of belly dance," said Lisa Marie Allen, who's ethnic roots in Turkey brought her closer to the dance. 

Allen now dances and teaches Turkish Oriental style, a very old form of belly dance that she says is not popular in Vancouver. For her, embracing traditional dance styles is a way to honour her ancestors. 

Allen cares about the "tiny little details." She said she's seen dancers offend traditional audiences by using the wrong music, wearing inappropriate costumes, or making gestures they don't understand. 

Ashley Kirkham, who is part of the raqs sharqi group Harem Dancers, has observed similar trends. 

"Many dancers don't take the time to educate themselves on the culture and background of the dance," said Kirkham.  

Luciterra's members acknowledge that their dance form is North American, but they do not deny the beauty and influence of older Middle Eastern styles.

"I would be very respectful of the more authentic or traditional dancers who say what we do doesn't carry on the history of the dance," said Luciterra's Naomi Gallagher. "This is just a new fresh dance that is constantly changing." 

Luciterra tends to perform for general audiences, often doing gigs within the East Vancouver art scene. They're more likely to share the stage with contact jugglers and burlesque performers than with raqs sharqi dancers. Performance is play, and tradition is not venerated.

"The world's becoming a fusion style anyway," Luciterra's Amber Eastman argues, noting that different cultures are increasingly interconnected, and that "it's kind of natural that our tastes will draw on things from different areas."

Most dancers seem comfortable with some fluidity between dance styles.

"There's a lot of confusion, and that's okay," said Sarita Mileta, instructor and owner of Bellydance Vancouver studio. "I don't believe things have to be categorized to death." 

Is this what a feminist looks like?

Luciterra also draws from feminist theory, but critics continually bring up the same question: can women who dress and move like that, really be feminists? 

Laura Albert said yes, "we can have beauty and we can have sensuality and sexuality and that is very much on our own terms."

Dr. Catherine Evans, a professor of Women's Studies at Simon Fraser University, agreed. 

"The idea that you can have sex positive portrayals where women are in a position of power and voluntarily displaying and exalting in the aesthetics of their sexuality are all to the good," she said. 

"I am very in favour of these changing codes of public morality and sexual display."

Evans explained that at the heart of this debate are colliding ideas of feminism. Mileta, who has been dancing since the 1970s, notes that sexually conservative feminists used to picket outside of her gigs, causing her to lose work.

Like belly dance, the definition of feminism has been challenged and reinterpreted with each generation. But many feminists now ascribe to sex positive ideas -- ideas that their audiences might not share. 

Eastman recalls one show Luciterra did outside their regular circuit. Some men catcalled the dancers and coaxed them closer. The women kept smiling and ignored the advances but still remember it as one of their most uncomfortable performances. 

On stage, the dancers communicate through looks and gestures. They've agreed to cut their performance short if it is no longer on their terms. 

Regardless of what others think, Luciterra leaves it all on the stage. 

"Different women's stories need to be told in different ways, and for us this dance form is one way of telling our story," said Eastman.  [Tyee]

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