In this Chapter, I explore a contemporary venue for belly dance in America, the Arizona Renaissance Festival. I examine how belly dance functions at the festival and how the festival uses the past as an exotic entity. The Arizona Renaissance Festival creates a fantasy culture for entertainment and reinforces America’s ties to a European heritage. Contemporary representations of belly dance are examined, illustrating how this multifaceted dance simultaneously connects to and denies its Orientalist roots in America. I also examine how images of belly dance from the nineteenth century impact contemporary dance through costume inspiration. Due to the numerous styles of belly dance in America today, I focus on only two different forms of belly dance, American tribal style belly dance or as it referred to ATS and Egyptian cabaret.
Culture of the Renaissance Festival
Displaying a constructed view of predominately historical European culture, the Arizona Renaissance Festival loosely follows the format of nineteenth-century World’s fair’s midways. The festival is a fair that spreads over thirty acres with booths that sell goods, food and hold games of skill. The festival has eight stages which are the central focus for entertainment. The Arizona Renaissance Festival’s re-production of Europe’s culture and society of the past imparts nominal educational benefits. The festival’s central goal is entertainment and revenue. The participant is removed from the everyday and is placed in an alternate culture where knights, pirates, fairies and belly dancers exist together, generating a fantasy world. The Arizona Renaissance Festival does not have a specific area dedicated to Middle Eastern culture. The entire festival is a journey to the past, where history is othered and reconstructed and finally presented to the public.
A hierarchy within the festival somewhat mirrors the social structure of medieval and Renaissance Europe. Presiding over the festival are the King and Queen, with their court. Various characters freely roam the festival, lords, ladies, a sheriff and beggars, all interact with the visitors. The unusual presence of belly dancers at the Renaissance Festival is allowed by the fantasy structure of the festival as well as the historical precedent of belly dance being at previous World’s fairs. Belly dancers are situated on the fringe of conventional festival society, with only gypsies and beggars being lower in the fair’s hierarchy. Of the three local troupes that perform at the Arizona Renaissance Festival none of the dancers leaves the stage area, somewhat removing the dancers from the festival culture. The “character” of belly dancer is part of the festival, but only within the controlled environment of the performance, not as an interactive part of the festival. Belly dance functioned in two ways at the World’s fairs, as a cultural display to highlight the otherness of Middle Eastern culture and as a sexual display to...