Once a week, my husband and I eat at a Mexican restaurant just down the street from the Tribal Belly Dance class I go to on Tuesdays. I load up on carbs, then go dance them off.
Last week, one of our favorite waitresses, let’s call her Willow, came in wearing a little gray tweed cap under which we noticed that she no longer had any hair. Since she’s studying to be a cosmetologist, I assumed this was some youthful fashion statement.
She strolled over to our table and handed us a leaflet. It announced a benefit she was organizing at the restaurant for a friend of hers who had been in a car accident and had sustained a head injury. Willow explained that she had shaved her head in solidarity.
My husband gave me a look that plainly said, yeah, that’ll do the injured friend a lot of good.
“I think it’s sweet,” I said when Willow had left, leaving a pile of leaflets behind her. “It’s kind of–tribal.”
“Nah,” he said. “It’s faux tribal.”
come on,” I said. “Maybe people in the ancient worlds shaved their
heads when their friends were injured in camel accidents.”
“She looks like a thumb,” he said.
photo of the injured girl stared up at us as we finished our tacos, and
then I went to class, where my spangled cohorts and I performed a
variety of exotic movements that are vaguely Middle Eastern but have no
In fact, the only thing known about belly
dance’s inception is that it is uncertain: it may stem from ancient
fertility or birthing rituals; or it may not. Its history in America is
clearer: the term “belly dance” comes from the 1893 Columbian
Exposition and is a literal translation of the French for “dance of the
stomach.” Tribal belly dance, the style I do, is a mash-up of a variety
of Middle-Eastern and Romani influences and attributes its origins,
perhaps correctly, to a vaguely feminist primal past.
days after my belly dance class, I visited the new Hall of Human
Origins at the National Museum of Natural History. When one is
contemplating the tribal, it is mind-boggling to consider where humans
have come from: we spent millions of years running away from
saber-toothed tigers and a mere 12,000 years cultivating crops. Music
is only 35,000 years old.
One of the most striking features of
the exhibit is a series of busts by “paleo-artist” John Gurche of some
of our early hominid relations. Somehow, Gurche has given these
sculptures beautiful, soulful, penetrating eyes that stare at
passersby, reminding us that in the history of the world, their
ill-fated moment was not very long ago.
If Willow’s shaven
head and Tribal-style belly dance are “faux-tribal,” this exhibit
points to the real thing, the millennia we spent dancing around
campfires, ululating in celebration, and living in a relationship with
our natural environment that was both terrifying and profoundly
harmonious. No wonder we have a hunger for our tribal roots.
was ruminating on this the other night while watching video footage of
the latest Tea-Party demonstrations in which a bunch of middle-aged
white people are railing against “the government,” accusing it of
tyranny, perhaps forgetting that President Obama and Congress were
democratically elected by a majority of voters. “We’re losing our
country,” one woman says plaintively.
tribal past, I wondered what she meant by “we” and “our.” It seemed
pretty clear to me that she was referring to her tribe, and she is
probably correct that they are losing “their” country: apparently,
though they occupy a huge percentage of recent news coverage, the
Tea-baggers constitute only 18% of Americans. As a group, or tribe, if
you will, they are primarily over 45, Republican, white, married, and
male. They’re old enough to remember a time in which white men were the
top dogs in America, and they’re pissed; their tribe, which once ruled
the land, has been reduced to a loud but powerless fringe.
explains their extreme xenophobia. According to them, President Obama
is not a real American–he was born in Kenya and resembles Hitler, or
Stalin, or Mussolini, i.e., foreigners. Because he is African American
with connections to Hawaii, Kenya, Indonesia, and worst of all,
Harvard, President Obama is clearly not a member of the Tea-bag Tribe.
easy to mock the people in these films–for example, when one corpulent
Terps fan says, “Three words: Not. Good. For. The. Country.” When asked
what parts of the health care bill he has problems with, the Terp
exclaims, “I don’t know! I don’t know!” A young white man in a black
t-shirt says, “I believe [the health care bill's] going to be the end
of life as we know it in America.” The interviewer asks what precisely
he thinks will cause this, and the guy responds, “Well–just the
socialist angle, I mean, the progressives have perverted….” His voice
trails off. But which issues, specifically? the interviewer inquires.
The guy says in a tone that is desperately interrogative, “Um–the
tyranny of the government?” An earnest elderly white woman with a
Wisconsin accent says, “Did you know that President Obama is
considering banning fishing in America?”
As hilarious as they
are at times, these videos are also painful to watch. These people are
hurting, and they don’t understand why. All they know is that it has to
be someone‘s fault, so they demonize Democrats, progressives, and the
government (now that it’s run by Democrats–they were very quiescent
under Bush), and President Obama, who is consistently depicted as a
stranger who has come to town and bewitched all the women, who are now
running wild in the woods eating raw animals–no, wait, sorry, that was
the Greek god Dionysus in Euripides’ The Bacchae.
Anyway, as I
watched these people yammer on in phrases that were both heartfelt and
impossibly vague, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for them; to
paraphrase Virginia Woolf, who once made this delightful remark about a
friend of hers, “How terrible to love so much and know so little.” They
have been outsmarted by another tribe–my tribe as it happens–and are
on the wrong side of America’s demographics, and they know it. Their
vapid eyes stare helplessly from the videos like those of homo
neanderthalensis, watching the world they knew become extinct.