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Oriental Dance in France

By Irida

The recent development of Oriental dance in France is not a passing trend. We are witnessing the birth of French oriental dance as a popular movement. It is one of the effects of the cultural evolution of French society under the influence of oriental culture.

Unfortunately, statistics about the development of Oriental dance do not exist, because there is not yet a federation or trade association which would bring dancers and teachers together. Moreover, Oriental dance is one of the rare activities that is not supervised by the French State, omnipresent everywhere else. However, we can recognize select facts which show a recent growth and a spectacular future craze for Oriental dance.

Oriental dance courses grow in numbers and teachers see more students flocking to them each year. There are also more Oriental dancers who offer their services in restaurants and parties. Today, an oriental restaurant would not take the liberty of not offering a dance show to its customers.

The stores that sell oriental dance supplies are improving. Let us take for example the two stores in Marseille that offer these kinds of products. A few years ago, they mainly sold oriental wedding and ceremony dresses and supplies. Oriental dance represented a small proportion of their sales. Progressively, this proportion grew and today it makes up the majority of their income.

As the owner of a site devoted to oriental dance, which is almost always in the first result page of Google, I notice a permanent and steady increase of visits and a more active use of my forum, which attracts more and more women who want to share information about the dance. There are already more than ten French forums of this kind.

Similarly, I run an advertisement on Google for my online belly dance shop. The sum that I need to spend in order to have my ads displayed for all oriental dance searches was multiplied by four in the last six months, when the cost by click remained almost stable. This means that there are four times more searches in France on the Internet about oriental dance.

Why oriental dance is a long-standing cultural phenomenon and not a fashion in France.
France has five million people of foreign extraction, that is about 9% of the entire population. This does not include the children of immigrants who were born in France. Most of these immigrants came from North Africa, so they are of Arabic heritage. This immigration started after the decolonization of the Maghreb by France that ended with the independence of Algeria in 1962. In the large towns of today, there are areas entirely populated by Arabs, and foreign tourists are surprised to discover a real Arabic souk in the center of Marseilles, one the bigger towns and one of the most cosmopolitan cities of the country. If you are in Marseilles, be sure and visit "le Marche du Soleil".

A portion of the French population was always embarrassed by this migratory phenomenon, but another portion, whose size is growing, accepts it, some of them with resignation, others benevolently, or even with a certain pleasure. Thus, the population has accepted some elements from oriental culture. For example, in the nineties, in the field of popular song, the music from North Africa had ever-increasing success, mainly with "Ra?", a success which then crossed frontiers and does not flag today. One remembers, only a few years ago, the international success of Sting's song "Desert Rose" made with Cheb Mami, one of the most popular Ra? singers of France. There are countless Arabic restaurants in the large towns, which attract more and more Western customers. In my opinion, those elements are indicators of a deeper phenomenon.

The birth and the development of oriental dance in France fit into the scheme of progressive "orientalization" of the French culture. It is the reason why oriental dance is certainly a lasting phenomenon which will increase in the near future. Thus, one can say that oriental dance is still in its early stages as a cultural phenomenon, even if of course a few French women practiced it before. But this practice was marginal.

Because oriental dance is a beginning popular movement, its practice is not structured yet in France. The State supervises the teaching of all dances with diplomas, but not oriental dance yet. The only other dance which is not subject to any control is "hip-hop". May I also add that there are not any important organizations which would be able to group together all the dancers and teachers.

Oriental dance in France does not have real stars yet, apart from Egyptian stars, and above all American stars like Jillina and the Bellydance Supertars. Admittedly, we are witnessing the emergence of companies (there are about 30 companies), but none of them has become a great sensation, not at the level of the Bellydance Supertars in any case.

The future French stars are certainly among the thousands of anonymous women and girls who learn oriental dance or take part in oriental dance today. These stars will be born when the general craze for oriental dance becomes more extensive, which I predict will happen within a few years.

I think that audiences will learn to distinguish between a real oriental dancer who translates the music and a girl who wiggles to Arabic music (some of them even dare teach oriental dance!). For the moment though, only a minority of the audience of French extraction is able to tell the difference, and I notice that frequently. But, I think this faculty of discernment will become widespread, as the general craze for oriental dance increases, it will lead the audience to attend more shows and to compare the dancers. That will also be fulfilled by the aficionados of Arabic extraction who are real connoisseurs.

Who performs oriental dance in France.
One of the more interesting characteristics is that the students and the dancers who perform are for the most part of French extraction, that shows the interest of French people in Arabic culture. But, in my opinion there are two main reasons which also explain this phenomenon. First, oriental dance has a poor reputation among Arabic people. Thus, in an oriental wedding one prefers inviting non Muslim dancers who do not offend the most religious persons because they are not in the Submission (name given in the Koran to the Muslim community: Islam in Arabic).

Then, the girls of North-African extraction think that oriental dance is natural for them, innate. This is false of course. To be born in an Arabic background is not enough to be able to dance well. To be a good dancer, one needs to acquire technique, practice often and to learn to choreography. Thus, one can say that the dancers of French extraction will probably supplant the ones of Arabic extraction and that the stars of tomorrow will be among them, with of course a few exceptions.

The students of oriental dance courses are members of all age groups and of all social groups. There are teenagers, even children, as well as middle aged women, and also older women. But young women make up the majority of students. The courses, which are generally very reasonably priced, are accessible to the women from middle classes. Some establishments devoted to popular culture and financed by the state and local authorities allow disadvantaged girls and women to learn oriental dance too.

I notice also that oriental dance is not limited to large cities. Even if there is not statistics about the geographical distribution, I can say that 30% of the customers of my online store are from small provincial towns. This demonstrates that oriental dance, far from being the prerogative of big towns, is a phenomenon that concerns the whole territory, including what we call here "la France profonde".

With regards to shows, we are witnessing an increase in the number of small scale public shows in the whole of France, even if some companies, like "Mille et une nuits", reach a higher level, without managing to compete with the Bellydance Superstars. The number of private shows are also increasing. Thus, one invites an oriental dancer, not only for an oriental party, but also on various other occasions, like weddings, birthdays, banquets, stag or hen parties, diploma ceremonies, corporate parties, casinos, etc. We notice that people like to see oriental dancers on all occasions which have nothing to do with the Middle-East and even without organizers being of Arabic heritage. However, the most common place where dancers perform are restaurants, either an oriental restaurant, or a classic restaurant which organizes an oriental party.

I think that this heralds a development of large scale oriental dance shows which will have a wide audience in large auditoriums. It is obvious that the emergence of French stars will strengthen this trend.

I would like also to mention another side of the interest in oriental dance in France. French people have a high standard of education and because of this many of them are interested in the cultural dimension of the phenomena. Thus, the interest in oriental dance itself is often coupled with an interest in its cultural aspects and in Arabic cultures. Often, a woman who is interested in oriental dance, by taking classes for example, tries to know more than is needed in order to dance. That led already, notably, to the recent creation in France of a magazine devoted only to oriental dance, "Passion orientale", when there was already a well known Quebec magazine in French about this theme, Papyrus.

The dancers who over the years got real recognition of their talent are also sometimes real specialists of the cultural dimension of oriental dance and of the cultures of the countries where it was born. Near here, in Marseilles, we can cite Marila Erevane, who is not only a talented dancer and choreographer, as well as a recognized teacher, but a specialist of oriental dance and culture. Perhaps, the future stars of oriental dance in France will be not only great dancers but "intellectuals".

It is highly probable that the development of oriental dance reinforces the interest of the French people in the culture of North-Africa and the Middle-East, making the penetration of oriental culture into France easier. We can conclude that in France oriental culture in general and oriental dance reinforce each other and this dance is thus destined to play a major part in the future evolution of the French society.

Irida is a professional French oriental dancer, and also a business woman who manages her own company and her non-profit organization. She owns three web sites in French, devoted to oriental dance: Irida, Baladi and La Porte d'Ishtar. This article was written with the cooperation of her husband who holds a Doctorate in human sciences.