Whenever you introduce new elements to an older art form, you’re bound to catch a little flak from purists. That point isn’t lost on dancer/choreographer Crystal Silmi, who often performs traditional belly dance to modern styles of music and merges traditional belly dance with urban street dance styles like jazz and hip-hop.
Crystal Silmi Belly Dancing
When confronted with objections to the idea of belly dance fusion, Silmi points out that the type of belly dancing that most people consider traditional is actually a variation on an even older modality. “Belly dance originally started with women dancing for women,” she notes. “It was a dance to develop the muscles for childbirth; it was a celebratory women’s dance for women. Later it moved into these cabarets where you wear a glittery costume, and you’re performing for all men.”
Silmi sees the blending of different styles of movement as a positive thing. “The beauty of most dance forms is really the fusion that evolves over time—the influence of this culture or that culture, or even modern culture,” she offers.
Crystal is a living example of this kind of cultural fusion. “I’m an Arab American, but it would be unauthentic for me to only express Arab music, because I’m American,” she explains. “Hip-hop inspires me; I grew up with heavy metal, punk rock… all of these modern genres of music.”
Crystal Silmi, Hip-Hop Belly Dance Fusion
That being said, Silmi will be sticking with classical belly dance when she performs at Don Quixote’s on June 30th. Her appearances at that venue with local dancer/instructor Helene have become a tradition in themselves: She has been making these events a part of her annual visits to the area since moving from Santa Cruz to Madrid in April 2011. While in the U.S., she will also hold a two-day intensive workshop in Santa Cruz on July 9th and 10th as well as a slew of other Bay Area shows.
The DQ’s show will be the second one in which Crystal will be backed by the band Helm, which plays what she describes as “folkloric Middle Eastern” music. “I’m hoping to bring out the real Arab sentiment,” she states. “There’s a lot of fusion happening in the belly dance community right now. Here in Spain, dubstep is the thing right now, and they’re still calling it belly dance. Most of the people who are doing that kind of fusion don’t even have any connection to the actual roots of belly dance and Middle Eastern music. So in this show, I’m really wanting to do some more classical belly dance stuff, as well as doing a drum solo, where you bring up the rhythm, and things get a little bit crazy.”
Crystal adds that her dance company Raks Arabi will also be performing solos at the Don Quixote’s show. She notes that the troupe’s two other members, Jill Baker and Amber Dratz, have managed to remain her loyal companions in spite of the distance between her and them.
Silmi, who lived in Santa Cruz for nearly 15 years, admits to feeling separation pangs when she revisits Santa Cruz. “I remember last year going to the gas station or waiting in line for an ATM and just chatting it up with people,” she offers. “That just doesn’t happen [in Spain] the way it does there. I know that in California in general, we have that aspect about us—we’re open, and we’re friendly—but that is always the first thing that I notice: the people [in Santa Cruz] are so loving and so friendly. And it’s genuine—not just, ‘Oh, I feel like I need to say something because you’re standing here.’”
Crystal Silmi at Tribal Fest 12
In a recent blog that she wrote in connection to Bhakti (Sanskrit for devotion), a show that she produced in Madrid, Crystal Silmi touched on the idea of dancing as a devotional practice:
Devotion does not have to be an offering to some arbitrary, “godlike” figure outside of oneself. Dancing as an act of devotion can simply mean to be conscious of one’s place in the humbling human experience and feel gratitude for that experience.
“Belly dance isn’t traditionally thought of as a dance of devotion, but for myself, it is absolutely that: It is absolutely an expression of your innermost self, your deepest self,” says Crystal, who holds a BA in cultural anthropology from UCSC. “On a personal level, I feel that dance is an expression of the love, joy, sadness and pain of life, and just being able to share that or release that is a way of giving to yourself, but also it inspires so many people. Getting inspiration from art is a beautiful thing. To me, art, in its essence, is a form of devotion. It’s a way of creating beauty; beautifying the world.”