In 1995, Mary McNab Dart distinguished between a community dance and a dance community. The community dance is characterized as an event in which the relationship of participants exists independently of the dance event itself. Members of a geographically associated community gather together to dance as use to be the case with square dancing, for instance. By contrast, in a dance community, “the dance is the community”; that is, dance itself is the primary point of reference through which people engage with one another. Dance and its activities serve to define the community boundaries. How do local bellydancers create a sense of community and what is its nature?
Although I am addressing the dancers who live and dance in Santa Cruz County, the community isn’t limited by those geopolitical borders. Nearly every bellydancer in Santa Cruz has teachers who live outside of this county, in particular in the San Francisco Bay Area. There are long and close ties between Santa Cruz and the SF, Berkeley, San Jose, and the Monterey bellydance communities.
Community-making activities revolve primarily around teachers, their classes and student performances, as well as public performances at restaurants, clubs, haflas, and festivals. Festivals and master workshops, in particular, provide participants with a sense of companionship beyond the local. It is in these contexts that dancers develop solidarity—a sensual solidarity—with other belly dancers from their region, from their state, from their chosen style of dancing, and even with the dancers from North Africa and the Middle East.
Locally, there is a kind of nesting of communities with perhaps the smallest level being the members of a dance company or a dance class. Attachments at this level of community are often formed around a teacher who is also frequently the director of the dance company. But students leave their teachers and their teacher’s companies to form their own companies as they become more confident and more proficient. This threatens the continuity of membership and means that community bonds must be continually reassessed, reinvented, and re-established. Community is never a thing achieved: it is a thing always becoming itself.
At the deepest level, the kinesthetic experiences of belly dancing—including learning how to dance, performing on stage or at parties, and watching dance as an audience member—create our sensual connections. Dancing together in groups diminishes our sense of individuality and increases our sense of intimate connectedness. These experiences may produce more-or-less permanent social associations or communities. This was the central theme of my doctoral dissertation, so let me quote myself here.
“Sensual intimacy…binds people through bodily relations which can “wipe[ ] away the discontinuities that separate individuals, and accomplishes a temporary fusion of selves” creating “a feeling of profound continuity.” …
Sensual solidarities may or may not, at least to my understanding, evolve into formal associations or communities as in the case of the aikido dojo. In today’s society, solidarities and associations are temporally unstable, which is not necessarily an undesirable condition. Flexibility in economic life, emotional drain, and everyday pressures on time all contribute to the untenability of permanent associations for most Americans. This does not diminish the import of the feelings of “profound continuity” created in sensual solidarities; indeed, I would argue that these momentary experiences of intersubjectivity and “intercorporeality” … are crucial to a society that places such high value on independence. They are the glue that keeps this society from dissolving into anarchy. When these sensual solidarities become sensual associations, they fill an important gap in American social life, even though “belonging” may take the form of serial commitments to a variety of communities over a lifetime.”
Inventing community requires continuous work. Communities reflect and serve the membership and as that shifts so does the permanency of the group. Our bellydance community has faced many challenges in this regard and has successfully adapted. But as the economy worsens, and our ability to pay for dance classes, festival entrance fees, and performances decreases, the very center, the heart of our sensual solidarity is threatened. It will take commitment and courage for us to survive this threat and we may have to rely on the personal connections we have made with one another through dancing, even if we can’t always dance together.