Queer Belly Dance

Or…how to be more welcoming and inclusive to dancers of all body types.

A lot of attention has been on the trans community recently. There was my own coming out to the belly dance community, the reveal of Caitlyn Jenner, the death of Holly Woodlawn, etc. For some, this sudden-seeming change can be confusing. I have gotten some questions about inclusiveness, and I have seen others starting to come out of the woodwork asking about inclusion for queer people in the belly dance world.

First, what, exactly, do I mean by queer and trans? It is out of the scope of this blog and this post to give you an entire run down on these terms, but I will sum up.  These words are umbrella terms, and so have many meanings to many people. Queer is a term that is often used to describe the entire LGBTQ+ movement, but does still have some negative connotations to some people. Not all LGBTQ+ people will want to be called queer (though the “Q” in the alphabet soup does stand for “queer”), and that’s fine. It can refer to either a person’s sexual orientation (who they are attracted to sexually or romantically) or to their gender identity or expression (which are not always the same). Personally, I am genderqueer, which means that my gender is neither male nor female. Trans (sometimes written as trans*, though this is falling out of favor) is actually a chemical term meaning across (cis is the corresponding term for something that is on the same side, so cis gender people are those whose gender identity/expression corresponds to the body they were born into). In general, a trans person is someone whose anatomy doesn’t always match with the gender they are. Sex and gender are two different things. There are more than two sexes (look up intersex). Not all trans people are “trapped in the wrong body” and not all trans people will “transition.” Gender identity and expression are HIGHLY INDIVIDUAL, which is what makes this all so confusing for many people.

For the purposes of this article, I will mostly be talking about trans and genderqueer people.

So what does that mean for you, reader? It depends. If you are a student, it may mean that you will share studio space with a queer or trans dancer. If you are a professional performer, it may mean that you will share dressing room space, take classes with, and possibly tour with a queer or trans dancer. If you are a teacher, it may mean that you will be teaching a queer dancer. The needs of the queer dancer will depend on your relationship to them and how open (or out) they are about their identity.

How do we go about creating a more accommodating space for queer and trans dancers? I’ve outlined some tips below, though this will not be exhaustive. Again, every queer and trans person is different. Just as though you have to accommodate for dancers with bodies of different sizes and shapes, so you will have to accommodate us in your spaces. Some people won’t like it, and that’s unfortunate. But the tide is changing, and you can decide to stand against it or go with it.

Bathrooms

This is the big one. Recently, Houston lost its Equal Rights Ordinance due to hate groups spreading misinformation (and downright lies) that the ordinance allows men to go into women’s bathrooms in order to assault women and girls. Of course, no one wants that (and assault in bathrooms was, still is, and always will be illegal). But trans women are not men, just as trans men are not women. It is not your job to police the bathrooms. Let me repeat that. It is not your job to police the bathrooms. If you find someone who “appears” to not belong in the bathroom, it’s not your business. They are merely using the bathroom that they feel most comfortable in. Believe me, they are there to pee and that’s it.

For studio owners, you will probably have to check your city or state’s laws regarding bathrooms. Some states or cities allow for “one-holers” (bathrooms that do not have stalls, but are self-contained bathrooms like the one you have at home) to be labeled as unisex. Obviously, this is probably the best option, since it alleviates the discomfort of gender non-conformists in forcing them to choose a bathroom (and risk being called out for using the “wrong” one). If you do have bathrooms with stalls, they usually must be labeled “Men” and “Women.” If that is the case, please be aware that the people who are in that bathroom might have different plumbing than you, but that doesn’t mean they don’t belong there or that they are there to stare at you (or assault you). They are there for the same reason you are.

Or you can defy state law like Etsy has

Dressing Rooms

I’m going to get a little judgmental here, and I’m only a little sorry about that. If you are a professional dancer (or are aiming to become one) you really should get used to having dressing rooms that are unisex. That’s show biz: small changing rooms, fast changes, no time to look at other peoples’ junk. Dancers are not there to ogle other people’s bodies. They are there to get changed and maybe warm up. I find it a little disturbing and outrageously unfair that so many of our male dance friends are forced into broom closets or bathrooms (which a female dancer would rightly pitch a fit over) to get changed because the women are not comfortable getting changed in front of them. I understand that to some degree…but if you are a professional, you should act like one. Changing rooms are rarely designated by sex, and it’s been that way since the beginning of theater. Get used to it. That said, most queer and trans dancers would probably feel more welcomed if we didn’t think we were going to be judged on our bodies or relegated to a bathroom stall to get changed.  So some people might be more comfortable with a changing space where they can be alone. If you have space to offer a choice, that is probably ideal.

Of course, not all trans or queer people will want to be forced to change alone, but be allowed to change with everyone else. We should be willing to accommodate that. It is cruel to force someone to change alone, away from the camaraderie of the dressing room. How would you feel if you were asked to change somewhere else because of the way your body looked? We, as a dance family, should get used to the idea that people have different equipment. We claim to be a body positive movement, and we should act like it. People have different bodies. There is nothing wrong with that.

In Class

There are a few things that can be done to make queer and trans people more comfortable in class. First of all, use the name they give you, even if it’s different than the one on their credit card or ID. Dancers have no problem referring to each other by stage names, so it really shouldn’t be a stretch to refer to someone by the name they give you, even if it is not their birth name. Don’t give out their birth name (or their sex assigned at birth!) if you know it. That is horribly invasive and rude.

Generally speaking, it is best to refer to them by the pronouns that match their gender presentation. However, with some queer people it may be difficult to determine just by anatomy (and, to be honest, that’s a creepy way to determine someone’s gender anyway). Some trans people do not medically transition (take hormones or have surgery) and our dance wear usually leaves little to the imagination. If you are not sure if someone is a “he” or “she” (or a “they”), either politely give them your own pronouns and see if they are willing to give you theirs or discreetly ask. Most queer and trans people are okay with this, but there will be some people who will get offended that you have to ask. Be prepared and be polite.

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Try to avoid “gendered language.” Instead of addressing a class as “Ladies!” try “Dancers!” instead. Not only is this more welcoming to our male students, but also to genderqueer and other gender non-conforming dancers who may feel left out or offended at being called a lady.

Also avoid saying things like “Women’s bodies are built this way.” Actually, this is an untrue statement even completely ignoring the erasure of male and gender nonconforming dancers. Not all AFAB (assigned female at birth) women’s bodies are built the same. I have fallen afoul of this way of speaking myself, and it just isn’t true. So don’t erase your AMAB (assigned male at birth) female dancers by saying something like this.

These all seem like small changes, but you would be surprised at the push back I have seen for being more accommodating of queer and trans dancers. I have heard dancers flatly state that men do not belong in belly dance, and that trans women are men and don’t belong. This is horribly near-sighted and offensive. If we want belly dance to be the body positive community we claim it to be, then we really need to walk the walk. If we want belly dance to succeed as a dance form, to be accepted by the mainstream as an art form, we should be looking forward not clinging to “traditional” forms of thinking. These days, many young people are throwing off out-dated ideas of gender and are choosing not to identify as male or female. I have seen many belly dancers lament that no young people are coming to their classes, that belly dance is aging and dying out. If you want to attract young people, you are going to have to be willing to move with the times, and that means being accepting of queer and trans people.

If you have any thoughts or questions, or suggestions, please comment below. But know that I have a comment policy. If you disagree and want a discussion, that’s fine. But if you hurl obscenities and insults your comment will be deleted and not acknowledged.

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About Kamrah

Kamrah is a belly dancer in Chicago, IL. They started belly dance as an exercise routine but it turned into a passion for dance that has not lessened, even after more than a decade. They have a powerful presence on the stage, and is particularly known for their amazing shimmies. Kamrah is also known as a very versatile belly dancer, and audiences have come to expect the unexpected from them. Performances can be anything from traditional Egyptian, to tribal fusion, to fantasy cosplay (costume play) pieces.

8 responses to “Queer Belly Dance”

  1. G. B. Marian says :

    Reblogged this on In The Desert Of Seth and commented:
    I totally agree with everything in this post, especially the part about theatre dressing rooms. Having worked in theatre for a few years myself, I can attest that one doesn’t have time to ogle anyone when you’re changing costumes and putting on makeup! Also, I applaud Etsy for creating gender-neutral restrooms; that’s pretty dang neat.

  2. Sam Brenneman says :

    I am happy that you are doing this good work, and doing it with courage, heart and integrity. Many of us will be catching up to you as best we can, as fast as we can, because we started behind the understanding curve… and your kindness about this is inspiring. I am glad to know you.

  3. Demia says :

    I agree with most of what you’ve said, and I’m glad you’ve written it. However, your comments about theater dressing rooms is an oversimplified. If a performance space has more than one changing space there are generally seperate spaces for male and female performers. Whether it’s a production house that has those spaces permanently assigned, or road houses that leave the assignments up to the touring company it segregated dressing rooms are incrediably common. Though, if there isn’t space, or a quick change area needs to be set up, changing areas are probably unisex and few people make a big deal of it, because they’re professionals.

    • Kamrah says :

      I have been in plenty of performance spaces – large theatres, speakeasies, dive bars, large performance venues – and many of them had more than one dressing room. In none of them have they been segregated. Usually doors have been removed so that the place is one gigantic changing area with multiple rooms. In some cases, people will tend to segregate themselves, which is fine and is usually dependent on how many men and women are in the show. There has only been one theatre I have ever performed in that did segregate dressing rooms, but again, it wasn’t really formal and wasn’t really enforced (the rooms were not labeled permanently, only with paper signs for that one performance). The only reason there was a “men’s” and a “women’s” was that there happened to be an unusual number of men in the performance (this was a belly dance event) and one of them was a headliner.

      I am sure that everyone has different experiences with unisex and segregated changing rooms, so I am not saying you are wrong. It probably was an oversimplification to say that segregated ones are rare as I am sure there are performance houses that have separate rooms. However, in my experience (and in the experience of my husband, who was a theatre minor and performed in plays as well as belly dance and drag events), I have yet to find a theatre with strictly segregated and enforced, sex-designated dressing rooms. The only time I have seen strictly segregated dressing areas is in belly dance events, where men are forced to change in a closet or a bathroom, not in their own room. Even when there is an ENORMOUS changing area, I have seen men be asked to change in the bathroom. That is not right or fair.

      My main point was not that performance spaces will have separate rooms, but that many of us will encounter places that DO NOT have official separate spaces. If that is the case, belly dancers should learn to be professionals, just like any other performer. I think this is a symptom of some belly dancers not being trained as artists (I have a post about critique in my blog where I discuss this issue as well) and not knowing that professional dancers will often be asked to change in the same room as everyone else.

  4. Laine DeLaney says :

    I appreciate the work you’ve done here. I considered attending a belly dance class at a studio in a local town, and while the owner of the studio said that she would welcome transgender folks, subsequent language and caveats that she laid out afterwards were extremely troubling. I practice at home off of Youtube videos as a result of not being able to find safer public spaces to work in, but I hope that some day that will change.

    • Kamrah says :

      I do hope you find someone! I have encountered severe transphobia in the belly dance community and that makes me sad and angry. We claim to be a body positive movement, but (perhaps unsurprisingly) it usually means those whose bodies still fit within the “normal” definition of beauty and womanhood only are welcome. That really needs to change.

  5. Laine DeLaney says :

    Reblogged this on Pagan Church Lady and commented:
    This is a good article; I’m glad to see these recommendations going being laid out and hope that some studio owners and instructors see fit to follow suit.

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