The study of how colors impact us in both conscious and unconscious ways is fascinating–at least to a psychology geek like myself. Did you know that studies have shown that people taking a “hot-colored” (e.g., red, orange) placebo pill felt more stimulated, and those taking a “cool-colored” one (e.g., blue, green), felt more sedate or depressed? Similarly, we may feel a certain way when looking at a painting made up of hot colors versus cool colors or of bright versus dull colors. These effects are mainly due to our expectations. In other words, we associate various colors with certain states and experiences. These expectations come from a mix of culture, biology, and individual differences.
In art, fashion, advertising, and architecture, color is often used symbolically to convey or stimulate feelings or moods. Different cultures have different associations with particular colors; also, this symbolism can change over time and varies in different contexts. For instance, in the 1800s and early 1900s, pink was considered a masculine color, and blue, feminine; however, this was not universally true, as the marketing of children’s clothes favored different colors in different parts of the United States in the early 20th Century. These days in American and European cultures, pink is generally considered a feminine hue. In many Western cultures, red is associated with passion or danger. In China, red is traditionally a color meaning good luck or happiness and is often used in weddings and other celebrations. Yellow is a color that many connect to happiness and sunshine in various cultures; however, it can also have the more negative connotation of cowardice in the United States (e.g., to be “yellow bellied,” a term that comes from cowboy culture and refers to birds with a yellow bellied, as birds may be seen as timid and easily startled).
The color black has a complex impact on many. In the late 1800s, if a young Western woman was wearing black clothing, people would assume that someone had died and that she was in mourning. Today, we see women wearing black all the time and typically don’t associate it with death or mourning. Despite the more universal use of black in fashion, there are still some longstanding associations we have with it. Black is the color of night and lack of sunlight. Many children and some adults are afraid of the dark. Evolutionarily, we have been more vulnerable to attack by enemies or predators in the dark, as it is harder to see them coming and we can’t rely as much on vision to allow us to fight back or escape. Thus, black can have associations with fear, death, or danger in some contexts.
Environmental Psychology and Color
Color is an important factor in advertising, architecture, and interior design. However, as the impact of color is not universal, the use of specific colors to generate specific feelings or reactions is not always that reliable. That said, colors can play a fairly substantial role in purchases and branding. For example, research has show that the vast majority of consumers make instant judgments about how they perceive a product in terms of things like the product’s “personality” (e.g., the ruggedness of a motorcycle or piece of hardware) based on color.
Color has an important place in human-made environments. Faber Birren, considered the father of applied color psychology, was the first to establish the profession of color consultant in 1936. The work of Birren and others led to the thoughtful use of color in architecture and interior design in various environments to stimulate certain feelings and behaviors and inhibit others. For example, a goal in many institutional environments (e.g., prisons, hospitals) is to promote calm or focus and discourage overstimulation and agitation: In these settings, a good designer would use calming or muted colors, monochromatic schemes, or “weak” color contrasts. Specific colors are chosen for their associations: The color green may be used to promote calm and balance (so may be appropriate in a nursing home or jail), whereas white may be used to express sterility and neutrality, cleanliness and purity or spaciousness (and thus may be more fitting in an operating room or art gallery). Conversely, bright or strong colors and multicolored schemes would be used in environments where stimulation is the aim, such as a bar or a kindergarten classroom.
With Halloween coming, many people’s minds are on monsters, witches, and scary movies. Just why do people love horror movies? Actually, only about 30 percent of people in the U.S. do. According to Dr. Glenn Sparks, a professor at Purdue University, a third of people seek out scary movies, about a third hate them, and another third could take them or leave them. Full disclosure: I am somewhere between “hate” and “meh” when it comes to horror movies. Definitely not my favorite genre. But, I am always interested in why people do what they do and like what they like.
Dr. Margee Kerr, a sociologist who studies, writes, and talks about fear, believes some love horror because fear stimulates the body’s “fight or flight” response. While the feeling of fear in a real-life dangerous scenario is unpleasant, in a controlled situation, like watching a scary movie, fight or flight causes the body to release dopamine, leading to good feelings.
Sparks states that it’s not the fear itself that makes film viewers feel good–it’s the relief after the scare is over. This fits with the “excitation transfer theory,” which states that arousal caused by one stimulus can intensify the excitation response to a different stimulus because the excitement from the first stimulus remains. In other words, the (usually unpleasant) jolt of fear a viewer feels when the bad guy axes a victim produces chemicals that arouse the body. This physical arousal continues after the shock is over, leading to heightened feelings of relief and pleasure: Just think about how people often laugh just after screaming during a horror film.
Horror film critic and co-producer of the movie Found Footage 3D, Scott Weinberg, has a different theory about the love of scary movies. He believes that it’s the illicit nature of horror flicks that explains their appeal. There is a thrill in doing something that you’re “not supposed to” do. The themes of horror movies are typically death, danger, paranoia, the dark side of human nature–things that are often considered taboo. Add to this the fact that many horror movies intertwine sex and sensuality with death and horror, adding to their seductive, and disturbing, nature. Just think of all the horror films in which the monster is alluring (like a vampire), or those in which the teens having sex are the most likely to be killed (e.g., Friday the Thirteenth). Many people have a desire to seek out what is forbidden, or they at least have a sense of curiosity about things that are outside the typical realm of everyday life.
Interestingly, freelance writer and actor Hugo postulates that in the United States, horror flicks are more popular and/or more likely to be produced during Republican presidencies. He states that two of the top three horror flicks according to IMDb (Internet Movie Database) came out during Republican administrations, as did three of the top five horror films according to Rotten Tomatoes. He states that this may be because “… [Republican presidents] presided over incredible moments and turbulent times in history. These times have been consequential and sometimes scary. These conditions expose society and bring about a sense of vulnerability.” If it’s true that Republican administrations see more turbulence, perhaps these are times in which people need the controlled thrills of horror as an escape from reality, or the themes of horror reflect the anxieties that are more prevalent during these eras.
I am not sure whether the years under Republican leadership have always been more turbulent than those under Democrats. I do know that most Republicans are conservatives, and conservativism, by nature, involves a resistance to social change. This resistance often comes with fears of others and of the unknown, as well as a sense of the world as dangerous. Perhaps the same social trends that prompt the American people to elect a conservative leader make them more likely to be attracted to horror movies, which tap into our fears of being killed and tortured by a dangerous “other.”
Regardless of whether Hugo’s theory is correct, movies often do depict, directly or indirectly, what is happening in society at the time. For instance, a lot of the “invasion” movies of the 1950s and 1960s reflected fears of communism and subversives, such as the horror film Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Filmed in 1956, it is the most popular of several similar movies (e.g., Invasion of the Saucer Men, The Brain Eaters, and Invaders from Mars) in which aliens take over the minds and bodies of the people of Earth, reflecting Cold War paranoia. Another good example of a film reflecting the political or social climate is Jordan Peele’s critically acclaimed 2017 Get Out, which used both horror and black comedy to expose the myth of a post-racial United States amidst renewed media attention to and activism around racism and violence against black people.
So, going back to the point made at the beginning of this post that about 30 percent of Americans like scary movies, one could assume that this 30 percent is made up of thrill-seekers, or one could theorize that the Trump era is a time in which fear and paranoia are on the rise, making us more likely to seek out horror.
Whatever the explanation, horror movie season is upon us. Whether you are a horror lover, a horror hater, or indifferent to scary movies, I hope that you get some thrills this Halloween season and/or find some ways to escape from any anxieties you may be feeling about the current social and political times in which we live.
This post references the following pieces:
“Republican Administrations Beget Better Horror Films” by Hugo in the online publication Medium, August 3, 2018.
“The Psychology of Scary Movies” by Jason Bailey in the online publication Flavorwire, October 27, 2016.
Today, I saw the movie Blaze, a biopic about the country musician Blaze Foley, born Michael David Fuller, who never achieved fame but had some influential on other “outlaw” country singers, such as Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson. I’m not a huge country music fan, but I have come to appreciate it more as I’ve gotten older and broader in my musical tastes, particularly classic country and a few country artists who cross over to Americana, folk, and bluegrass, such as Lucinda Williams, Dolly Parton, and Emmylou Harris. Blaze Foley’s music provided a soundtrack and emotional anchor to much of the movie Blaze. It was a touching and meandering film that was skillfully directed by actor and director Ethan Hawke. Hawke’s style of storytelling through multiple voices and songs, as well as atmospheric visuals, made the viewer feel as though they were swimming in a timeless world in which it was sometimes difficult to tell when the multiple storylines were taking place and difficult to feel the accurate passing of time.
The story of Blaze Foley felt more archetypal than specific: How many countless tales have been told of sensitive and tortured artists who can’t survive in the “real” daytime world of making ends meet and creating healthy relationships but instead exist in the nocturnal world of neon lights and spotlights, the haze of cigarettes, and the heightened emotion of music? Alternating between pithy koans and mumbled drunken gibberish, the characters drift through scenes of their past, present, and future in overlapping narratives that, between a few moments of sweetness and connection, mostly sink deeper into the hopelessness and aimlessness that brings us to an inevitable unhappy ending.
If it sounds like a depressing downer, that’s only part of the story: There’s no denying that the story is a tragedy and echoes the tragedies of so many other artists (and non-artists) who succumb to emotional and mental decline and substance abuse. But, there is beauty woven throughout. There is simple magic in the scenes of Blaze living with his girlfriend, then wife, Sybil, in a “treehouse” in rural Georgia. There is simple beauty in the music. And, the visuals reveal a decaying, ramshackle beauty in the rundown streets of 1970s Austin, the glow of red in a bar room, and the peaceful forests of Georgia.
I found the introduction of the character of Sybil to be fascinating, as she, an actress, is first shown practicing a monologue that expresses a sadly codependent version of love, leaving the viewer to wonder whether she will turn out to be subsumed by Blaze’s demons. Instead, Sybil turns out to be a sad but strong figure, who serves early on as Blaze’s muse and champion, encouraging him to move to Austin to try and make it as a singer. The scenes of their romance depict two equals well matched and living in a beautiful “paradise” in which their poverty and lack of modern comforts only makes their passionate love affair more romantic. Eventually, Sybil moves on when Blaze’s drinking, drugging, touring, and infidelity become too much for her. Rather than being destroyed by Blaze’s decline, she chooses to save herself and jump ship. It’s no surprise that Sybil (expertly played by Alia Shawkat) is a compelling and nuanced character, as Hawke cowrote the screenplay with Sybil Rosen, Blaze Foley’s ex-wife (and much of the film is based on Rosen’s 2008 memoir).
Like any good piece of art, Blaze took me on an emotional journey and left me wanting to know more about this talented man, who was too damaged to exist in this world. And, it left me thinking about love, heartbreak, and why some can overcome their traumas and others never rise from the ashes of their past. It also left me wanting to listen to more music by Foley and by artists he influenced. I didn’t know until today that the song “Drunken Angel” by Lucinda Williams, one of my favorites of hers, was written for Foley. Check out the film trailer below, as well as a video of Williams doing a live version of the song.
Today, I saw the film The Skate Kitchen. It was interesting in that it harkened back to the pseudo-documentary, naturalistic style of Kids but with less menace. The plot was slow and meandering. The acting was amateurish but believable. The story was unique in that it followed a teenage girl, Camille, who finds herself and her community through skateboarding. On reading more about the movie, I learned that the members of Camille’s crew in the film are part of a real-life skating collective that lends the movie its title. So, like Kids, The Skate Kitchen makes use of non-actors to lend some credibility to the characters. But unlike Kids, The Skate Kitchen imbues most of the teens (and adults) with good intentions, even when they screw up and hurt others. While not an overtly feminist movie, there was a strong message of “girl power” in that the female characters were defined more by their love of skating and their friendships than by their relationships to the male skaters. I was also struck by the ways in which the teens took care of each other in the absence of many strong, secure, reliable parents.
If you’re looking for thrills and fast-paced action, The Skate Kitchen may not deliver, although the skate scenes are entertaining and there is a somewhat titillating group make-out scene. Our heroine, Camille, is relatively chaste, and the film is more about loyalty, being true to oneself, and reparation than it is about thrills. It is not the most captivating movie I have seen this year, but I enjoyed it. Its slow pace and message of female friendship and identity was a refreshing change from a lot of “teen movies.”
If you haven’t seen the movie Blindspotting, written by and starring Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal, I highly recommend it. I was blown away by this film, which manages to be touching, complex, and also funny while highlighting the important and timely social issues of racism, police brutality, classism, gentrification, and gun violence. Set in Oakland, California, the movie is about two lifelong friends, Collin (Daveed Diggs) and Miles (Rafael Casal), and the three days that could make or break Collin’s getting off of a year’s probation for a chance at a new beginning. I learned that Diggs and Casal, like the characters they play, are longtime friends, and that this was the debut feature film by director Carlos López Estrada.
Having recently visited Oakland, a city in which I lived for 5 years, I was excited to see some familiar places and scenes. I love the diversity, culture, art, music, food, and laidback feel of Oakland and grew to really love living there. I am also aware that my living in Oakland and a lot of the things I love about it are the result of gentrification, which gave me pause in thinking about my part in some of the problems highlighted in the movie.
I won’t write much about the film so as not to spoil it for anyone who plans to see it (in fact, you may not even want to watch the trailer, as it gives a lot away), but I will say that I will be thinking about the multi-layered stories and themes, as well as some powerful dream sequence scenes, for a long time.
I love museums! When I first graduated from college, I applied for a PR job at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology (and didn’t get the job). Sometimes I wonder how my life would have been different if I had gotten that job instead of my first publishing job, which led to many years of copy editing, production editing, and writing before I went back to grad school to become a psychologist. In any case, I have long enjoyed visiting museums of many sorts–art, culture, crafts, natural history … One of the things I most enjoy about them is that it’s a chance to step outside the usual routine and get immersed in a different and carefully curated reality for a while.
I recently learned that some museums have become involved in physical and mental health. This was both surprising to me (as I hadn’t heard about museum-based wellness programs before) and also not surprising, as I have long been aware of the therapeutic benefits of the arts on health and well-being. A report by the American Alliance of Museums provides some interesting information about how museums can be partners in health. As a psychologist, I was particularly intrigued by some of the programs related to mental health issues. Some museums provide programming as a form of therapy. For example, in Wausau, Wisconsin, the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum’s Treasuring Memories program, in collaboration with Aspirus Comfort Care and Hospice Services, helps community members of all ages who are coping with the death of a loved one by encouraging them to create memorial art. The Tucson Museum of Art offers programs for critically ill children at the University of Arizona Medical Center to help them explore and express their difficult feelings and interact with others through art-making.
Other museums have curated exhibits or offered educational programs about mental health topics. One example is the Otter Tail County Museum in Fergus Falls, Minnesota, which held an exhibit on the history of the Fergus Falls State Hospital, a facility for patients with concerns such as mental illness, epilepsy, and addiction. The Harriet Beecher Stowe Center in Hartford, Connecticut, created the “Stigmas, Stereotypes, and Solutions” program to help the community explore the prevalence and treatment of mental health issues and provide support for those struggling with such concerns.
According to Elisabeth Ioannides, the Assistant Curator at the National Museum of Contemporary Art, Athens, who wrote her dissertation and a number of articles on the application of art therapy in museums, there are a variety of ways in which galleries and museums play a role in mental health, both formally through programming and exhibits and informally, as she notes that simply being in a museum or gallery can contribute to feeling positive and inspired. In an article she wrote for Museum International, she goes into detail about the ways that these institutions can benefit people’s mental health.
I don’t get the chance to partner with any art institutions in my current work as a psychologist, but I do get to fulfill my creative side by integrating the arts into my work when possible, reading about the arts and culture, and writing this blog. Perhaps one day I will get the chance to work in a museum, but for the time being, I will continue to enjoy being a museum patron and art and culture lover.
Why is it that some forms of art can make us get all verklempt and others are less likely to do so? According to art expert and author Philip Hook, paintings and sculptures are less likely to cause someone to weep than music, film, or books. Hook theorizes that this may be because these art forms are more dynamic than static visual arts and thus are more powerful in touching our emotions. That said, many paintings and other visual artworks do cause people to cry. According to Hook, “Spectators of works by Mark Rothko, the American Abstract Expressionist, are often moved to tears.” Apparently, there are on-staff counselors at the Rothko Chapel in Texas, which is exclusively decorated with large abstract Rothko paintings, to provide support to art lovers who become overwhelmed with emotion in the chapel. Why would Rothko’s work stimulate tears more often than the work of some other painters? Hook believes that “There is something about the large expanses of colour which [Rothko] deploys with such subtlety that puts the viewer in touch with the absolute.” Is it a sense of tapping into something unconscious, spiritual, profound, and sensory when viewing a Rothko that causes people to start crying?
Hook notes that Vincent van Gogh’s works are also among those most likely to make someone tear up. This may be for different reasons than with Rothko’s paintings: Most art lovers are aware of the poverty, emotional suffering, mental illness, and lack of success van Gogh experienced during his life (as well as his early death by suicide). Thus, people looking at van Gogh’s paintings may consciously or unconsciously project poignant and even tragic meanings onto them.
Many viewers cried when visiting Marina Abramović’s performance piece “The Artist Is Present,” in which Abramović silently stared at each stranger who sat in front of her. (In fact, I cried watching the short video about “The Artist Is Present” to which I have linked here.) Participants in this piece have said that the experience felt deeply intimate, even religious. Perhaps one reason that viewers reacted in this way is that in our day-to-day lives, we typically have very few opportunities to make sustained and sanctioned eye contact with another person, particularly a stranger. Many of the ways in which we interact with others–and with ourselves–are superficial and avoidant. Our connections are mediated by technology, and we often stay busy or distracted in ways that prevent us from sitting with ourselves. As an exercise during my psychology graduate program, we were paired with a fellow student and had to sit quietly while making unbroken eye contact for 15 minutes. It was very challenging not to look away and indeed felt extremely intimate and moving.
The reasons for art triggering tears are varied, as are the types of reactions people have. In some cases, people experience more extreme emotional and physical reactions to art than just crying. Stendhal syndrome, named for 19th-century French author Marie-Henri Beyle (better known by his pseudonym, Stendhal), is a psychosomatic disorder with the symptoms of rapid heartbeat, dizziness, confusion, fainting, and sometimes hallucinations that occurs when a person has an experience of great personal significance, particularly viewing art. In other words, people may become overcome and overwhelmed by an artwork. Stendhal had these reactions when visiting the beautiful Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence, where several iconic Renaissance artists and scientists, such as Michelangelo and Galileo, are buried and the walls are adorned by Giotto frescoes. Stendhal wrote:
I was in a sort of ecstasy, from the idea of being in Florence, close to the great men whose tombs I had seen. Absorbed in the contemplation of sublime beauty … I reached the point where one encounters celestial sensations … Everything spoke so vividly to my soul. Ah, if I could only forget. I had palpitations of the heart, what in Berlin they call “nerves.” Life was drained from me. I walked with the fear of falling.
Although Stendhal syndrome is not considered an actual psychiatric disorder, there is scientific evidence that the same cerebral areas involved in emotional reactions are activated during the exposure to artworks. I feel that those cerebral areas must be particularly sensitive for me, as I find myself crying pretty often when reading a moving novel, watching an emotional TV or movie scene, watching amazing dancers, and even at some commercials. That said, I have never fainted in front of a painting or had heart palpitations at the theater.
Last month, I saw the comic book-based Afrofuturist film Black Panther, which got me to thinking about how much representation matters: Seeing positive images of people who share your gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc. makes a difference in how you feel about yourself and see the world. Black Panther, a black superhero movie, got raves from viewers and critics alike for its exciting action, beautiful costumes and scenery, and fine acting, but more importantly, it broke new ground in Hollywood by featuring a black superhero. Black Panther tells the story of the first black superhero in mainstream American comics.
The emotional responses many black viewers had to the film show how powerful and necessary it is to put black heroes front and center. Since the 1960s, researchers of television and film have noted that what is shown–or not shown–in mainstream media shapes how we see the world and what we believe to be “normal.” The absence or underrepresentation of certain groups, such as African-Americans, Asian Americans, and Latinos results in what media scholars call “symbolic annihilation.” George Gerbner coined this term in the 1970s to explain how the underrepresentation of certain groups in mainstream media perpetuates social inequality and undermines the legitimacy of their identities. Misrepresentation, or stereotyping, is also a sadly frequent and prevalent phenomenon in the mainstream media. Lack of representation, underrepresentation, and misrepresentation skew viewers’ understanding of the world, perpetuate racism and other -isms, and can damage the self-esteem of those who are not depicted or depicted poorly.
Previous filmmakers, with few exceptions (such as Stephen Norrington, who directed Blade, with the tituar character played by Wesley Snipes), made the black superhero a secondary character alongside white ones (such as Storm in the X-Men movies and War Machine in the Iron Man series). In contrast, Black Panther‘s director, Ryan Coogler, brought to life the story of T’Challa, a modern black superhero who is respectable, imaginative, powerful. According to Coogler, “I think the question that I’m trying to ask and answer in Black Panther is, ‘What does it truly mean to be African?'” This is a question that has long gone unexplored in mainstream film.
I’m not even a fan of comic books, and I thoroughly enjoyed Black Panther, both because it was a really well-done movie, but also because I recognized the cultural power and importance of the film. Hearing the voices of black directors, writers, and actors and seeing them take a central role in Hollywood is long overdue, and I hope there will be more and more movies like Black Panther being made. I also hope to see growing (positive) representation of other groups whose voices have been absent, underrepresented, or misrepresented for too long.
Weapons have been on my mind lately. That may seem strange to people who know me, as I am not a weapons fanatic. I’ve never had any particular interest in guns, hunting, warfare, knives, swords, or other related subjects. I associate weapons with violence, and consider myself a pacifist; yet, as a psychologist, I am aware that violence (and thus, weaponry) is a part of human nature. I don’t pretend to believe that I don’t have some violent impulses–I just choose not to act on and cultivate them.
One of the triggers for my thoughts about violence and weaponry is the most recent school shooting on February 14, 2018 in Parkland, Florida (and, how horrible is it that I must define it as “the most recent” one!?). I have been pondering some questions: To what degree is violence an adaptive instinct? To what degree is it a dangerous aspect of human nature to be controlled and regulated? When is violence useful, and when is it destructive? There is not always a clear answer to these questions. And, thinking in particular about school shootings and other horrific acts of violence perpetrated against innocent victims, I have been pondering the role of weapons in our world. Although the main focus of this post is not political or ideological, I will clearly state that my view is that weapons, like any tool that human beings have created that may cause harm, need to be regulated. I believe that the rights of the individual must be balanced against the common good–it’s not an either/or but a both/and. All this thinking about violence and weaponry has also got me thinking more about the psychological aspects of weapons. What impact do weapons have on how we think, feel, and behave? What do weapons symbolize to us?
I was reading an interesting article today about the “weapons effect,” a phenomenon discovered in the late 1960s by researchers Leonard Berkowitz and Anthony LePage. They determined that the mere presence of a weapon stimulates more aggressive behavior. Additional studies on this phenomenon confirmed that it was true; for example, drivers who have a gun in their car are more likely to drive aggressively than those without one in the vehicle, and the sight of weapons increases aggression in both angry and non-angry individuals. This research obviously has some implications for individual and group behavior in the United States, where weapons, particularly guns, are plentiful.
Reading about this research also led to thoughts about what weapons symbolize. One thing that seems clear from all the recent media coverage around gun control and gun rights is that for many people, guns represent safety, individual autonomy, and control over the environment. According to Freudian psychology, guns symbolize the penis and male sexual drive. Carl Jung considered symbolism to be more contextual, rather than simply related to one’s individual psychology, and looked at collective or “universal” meanings, stating that all of humanity shares “a collective unconscious.” I don’t share this belief, as different cultures may attribute different meanings to symbols. Jung, although interested in many cultures, had a white, male, Euro-centric bias that is not universal. However, there is truth to the idea that a group of people who have grown up in a particular culture will be shaped by that culture’s values, beliefs, ideas, and imagery. Looking at guns (and weapons in general) from a Jungian perspective, one can say that they represent certain personality types, characters, or “archetypes,” such as the hero, the savior, the victor. The United States certainly embraces these archetypes as part of our collective identity.
Another reason that these ideas have been in my thoughts lately is that I have begun learning how to use a sword in belly dance. I have been dancing for a few years and recently started incorporating a sword into my dance repertoire. As I began dancing with a blade, I became curious to know more about the history of the use of swords in dance and also what unconscious meanings impact an audience watching dancers brandishing sabers. I found a fascinating history of “Oriental dance,” or belly dance, by a Mexican journalist, belly dancer, and dance teacher named Giselle Rodríguez Sánchez (the site is in Spanish with English translation available), which includes information about the use of swords. She states that while the widespread use of swords in belly dance is a relatively recent phenomenon, there are depictions of dancers using swords dating to the 1800s. For example, a work by the French Orientalist painter Jean-Léon Gérôme entitled “Sabre Dance in a Café,” depicts a female dancer holding one scimitar and balancing another on her head. Rodríguez Sánchez goes on to cite a passage in the book Looking for Little Egypt by Donna Carlton that describes an Israeli dancer named Rahlo Jammele, who performed with a sword at the Moorish Palace at the Chicago international exhibition of 1893. According to the book, Jammele was the inspiration for the painting by Gérôme. Another painting of a sword dancer from the Orientalist period is “Sword Dancer,” by Austrian artist Rudolf Ernst.
Orientalism is fascinating but also problematic, in that much of the imagery and writing on “the East” comes from a Western perspective that romanticizes and stereotypes various cultures in ways that support prejudices and cast people of these cultures as “other.” Sadly, this tendency to “other-ise” Eastern cultures, while not as overt and stereotypical as in the 19th century, continues today. This raises questions about whether Western cultures embracing, adopting, and adapting traditional dance forms and costuming from the Middle East, Africa, India, and other cultures is cultural appropriation. As a belly dancer myself (who is a white woman born in the United States), I struggle with these questions at times. I love belly dance, particularly American Tribal Style (ATS) dance, a style that was created in San Francisco in the 1980s as a fusion of many traditions from the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Spain, Africa, and India and strongly influenced by Sicilian-American dancer Jamila Salimpour, who was born in New York and lived in San Francisco. Salimpour, who was influenced by her father’s memories of living in Egypt, Syria, and Tunisia while he was in the Sicilian navy, was largely responsible for making belly dance popular in the United States in the 1970s and beyond. She also codified and named many traditional steps and movements, allowing belly dance to be taught as an art form. I often feel there is a fine line between appropriation and appreciation, and I hope that I appropriately demonstrate my respect for the cultures that influence my dance, but I recognize that there are widely varying perspectives on this.
All that being said, what images and feelings do the use of blades in belly dance evoke? One could argue that incorporating a sword, a symbol of masculinity (the penis, battle, aggression) presents either a merging of or a conflict between (depending on one’s perspective) masculine and feminine energies. One must also recognize that belly dance, with or without the use of swords, is often associated with sensuality (relating to or consisting of the gratification of the senses, often used in a sexual context but also referring to pleasure derived from various senses in a non-sexual context). I have sometimes wondered if subconsciously, the use of a saber by a belly dancer conjures up images of overt sexuality–a woman (as the majority of belly dancers are women) manipulating a phallus. Although the majority of the belly dancers I know, including myself, embrace sensuality (including both non-sexual and sexual elements) in dance, most of us don’t intend our performances to be overtly sexual. We are typically not aiming to simulate sexual acts or invite male audience members to see us as purely sexual objects. (These issues become further complicated by the acknowledgement that gender is non-binary, a concept that is just beginning to gain some acceptance in American culture, but that is a larger discussion for another time.)
Belly dancers using swords may also be seen as powerful and heroic women–female warriors who have strength and bravery. Another association may be danger: There is a long history of women, particularly sensual or seductive women, being seen as femme fatales, sirens, witches, and enchantresses who may destroy or seduce men. In fact, this association has tragically led to many laws and customs that support the demonization of and criminalization of women. For instance, in some cultures, women who have sex outside of marriage, even in cases of rape, are punished (sometimes by death), whereas the men involved in these acts may not be punished.
Belly dance is not the only form of dance to incorporate swords. There is a long tradition of the use of sabers in dance, typically by men as solo dancers or in groups in mock battle. These dances have been a part of the history of numerous cultures around the world. However, I will not get into detail on these other forms of dance in this post.
To sum up, I have had a lot of deep and complicated thoughts about violence, weapons, dance, and culture running through my mind lately. Dance (and recently, learning how to use a blade in my dance) has been a healing practice for me that helps me deal with the stresses of my job and the anxieties of living in an often violent and unfair world. I try to bring reverence and respect for the cultures that form the foundation of the dance forms I enjoy, as well as for my teachers and fellow dancers (including those who went before me and with whom I have not personally studied, such as Jamila Salimpour and many others). I try to examine my own prejudices and associations around dance and the cultures from which I am borrowing. I also strive to examine my views on violence and my own violent impulses. Mostly, I aim to continue to learn and grow as both a dancer and a person as I ponder these questions.