The short answer is “Because I have to.”

The longer answer is “Because the music and the dance go together, and I cannot separate the dance from the music.”

Of course it is physically possible to do the actual steps of Middle Eastern dance to any kind of sound, just as with any other kind of dance. Choreographers have been setting classical dance to all kinds of music, not just classical, and they still call the dance piece “ballet.” Sometimes a choreographer will set a piece using a soundscape that many folks wouldn’t even call music at all, and yet it’s still called a ballet, the dancers are still called ballet dancers, and the company is a ballet company, and this is true for several styles of Western dance.

So what’s the problem with me doing belly dance to some kind of music not from the Middle East? To start with, it wouldn’t make any sense. Think about Flamenco for a moment… what kind of sound do hear? Chances are, you’ve got something in mind that is at least similar to the real thing. Do the same thing with Polynesian dance … you’re hearing Polynesian music as well. One wouldn’t expect to see either of these kinds of dances without the traditional music that goes with them, and so it goes with Belly Dance too.

In addition to the aesthetic consideration, I have a responsibility as a performing professional to represent the dance as accurately as I know how to; it’s my duty to present the art form in the manner it would be seen in its countries of origin. One of the major hallmarks of Oriental Dance is the close relationship of the music to the movement vocabulary. The movements a dancer chooses to do are always (or as often as possible) a reflection of what the music is doing. Ideally, the dancer is part of the musical ensemble, a musician whose expression manifests visually, not aurally. There are stylistically traditional ways of doing this that I must do my best to interpret; to do otherwise would be something besides Middle Eastern dance, and while I might choose to make a choreography mixing styles of dance and music, I would not be able to call that piece “Middle Eastern Dance.” I would have to make it clear to my audience that I was doing a fusion piece. To do otherwise would be disrespectful of the art form, its cultures of origin and their people, and to my audiences, who would be thinking they are seeing Belly Dance, when in fact it wouldn’t be. You wouldn’t want me to do that, would you?

If this sounds artistically stifling, it is not. Because Belly Dance relies so heavily on music, and because the musical choices that genre has to offer are so incredibly deep, it is unlikely that even the most jaded dancer, teacher, or choreographer would run out of inspiration.

But, like most other rules in life, there are certain exceptions, fine print, terms and conditions. There are pieces in the standard musical repertoire that Belly Dancers use that have been written in the West or by Westerners that are played in an appropriate style or that lend themselves to the genre well ( think Misirlou). There are a few (very, very few) pieces that an American audience would recognize that are “crossover” pieces, such as Hava Nagila. After all, in the days before convenient sound media, a belly dancer hired to perform at an event would have to dance to whatever band was there, Arabic or not; oh what to do! All of the dancers from that era had some songs that they knew any band could play, and they made do with what they had, like it or not. And then there are the extenuating circumstances or novelty situations in which other music would be okay, but these occasions are rare.

So the next time you see a Belly Dancer perform, remember that a good portion of the show is not just what you see … it’s what you hear.