Book Review: The Dangerous Lives of Public Performers
“Belly dance is for women only.”
I see this all over Facebook, all over the Internet, and it’s unfortunate because it’s not at all true.
Anthony Shay is an associate professor of theatre and dance at Pomona College, and has written many works on Middle Eastern dance, including belly dance. This particular book is about the lives of dancers throughout the Muslim world (the full title is The Dangerous Lives of Public Performers: Dancing, Sex, and Entertainment in the Middle East), including some information about Greek and Roman performers and how their attitudes towards dancers and performers persisted through the years.
This book was recommended to me by Abigail Keyes, after voicing my frustrations with dancers who only believe that women have ever performed belly dance. Shay disproves it as most of the book is focused on the male performers during these times. Women, depending on what era is being discussed, primarily only danced for other women (or performed as prostitutes), leaving men to perform both as men and as cross-dressed women, or potentially even trans women, in public. In some cases, the men did not try to “pass” as women, merely wore more feminine (or ambiguous) clothing or acted feminine. But in other cases, they did try to emulate women, as with the hijras and khusras. I am sure that modern belly dancers would be scandalized to read this book, to discover how closely tied prostitution, stripping (yes, stripping*), and Middle Eastern dance (the precursors to modern belly dance) actually are.
Shay takes us on a trip through history, starting with the Greek and Roman dancers (frowned upon), into the Byzantine Empire, medieval Islam, the Ottoman Empire, and into modern times. In each era, he describes the “contours of masculinity” (how masculinity was defined during that time) and how dancers and other public entertainers were perceived by the government and the general public. He also includes descriptions of the dances and costumes from those eras, many of which would be totally familiar to the modern belly dancer. In one such passage, Shay is quoting from dance historian Metin And: “Generally in the dancing both the boys and girls marked time with finger snapping or with some instrument such as a short tiny stick, clappers…or small metal finger cymbals. Their dancing consisted of leisurely walks…short mincing steps, half falling back and then recovering themselves…a good deal of stomach play, twisting of the body, falling upon the knees with the trunk held back until the head nearly touched the floor…” (from And’s Istanbul in the 16th Century: The City, The Palace, Daily Life, 1994) Does any of this sound familiar? To me, clearly this is a belly dance performance very similar to what we could see today. “Stomach play” is clearly meant as the “belly” part of belly dance. As for the rest, we clearly have the use of finger cymbals, a backbend on the floor (maybe even a Turkish drop?), and twisting movements. Sounds like the basics of a belly dance performance to me (keep in mind, this is from the 16th century, and included both girls and boys in the description).
I believe that this book should be required reading for all dancers. While it is short and (strangely) expensive, the information inside is invaluable. One of the biggest controversies around and criticisms of modern belly dance is cultural appropriation. We must learn the history of the dances we perform and claiming that belly dance is for women only is false and appropriative. I would go so far as to say that it is Orientalist (the portrayal of women dancing in harems, the exoticization of coupled with the de-sexualization of belly dancers, the erasure of men and male homosexuality in dance, etc.). It was fascinating to learn about how men and masculinity (and homosexuality) were perceived in different eras, and how male dancers were both celebrated and reviled. What is most interesting to me, and is probably a very sensitive subject that I do not want to get into here (and is way beyond the scope of a blog post) is the erasure of male homosexuality in modern times in order to appease the West and our sensibilities and to appear “modern.”
I’m linking to a YouTube video of one of performances that he referenced in the book below. Shay discusses young men dancing for other men (the audience in this video as far as we can tell is all male) in the book.
I would love to know your thoughts on the book. Have you read it?
*I cannot find much about it online, but this was the “Bee” dance, in which a performer would act as though a bee had gotten into their clothing and would strip the layers off in a kind of silly tease. It is literally referenced in the index as “Egyptian striptease dance.”
I’m a Trans Masculine Queer Belly Dancer
I heaved my luggage – full of dance gear – into the train car. Luckily, the car wasn’t very full and I was able to find a seat. I collapsed into it, removing my gloves and shoving them into my pockets. I was cold, having stood on the train platform for longer than usual. I adjusted my scarf to protect my face – covered in stage makeup – from smudges.
“What’s up, fag?” whispered the man behind me, right in my ear.
I stiffened, not knowing what to do. But out of the corner of my eye, I could see his family – his mother and another woman I assumed was a sister – laughing hysterically into their hands, eyeing me disdainfully. I decided to ignore them.
I didn’t hear their later mutters and giggles, as I shoved earphones in and started listening to the music I was learning for an important show: The Artists Against Hate Inauguration Protest show.
There is a silver lining to this story. I’m trans masculine, which means I was assigned female at birth (AFAB), but I identify as being masculine, not a woman. In May 2016, I had top surgery to remove my breasts. I’ve been on testosterone since April 2015. Unfortunately for me, the testosterone has taken its sweet time and I’m only just now getting facial hair and the masculine musculature I’ve been waiting my whole life for.
But the fact that this guy mistook me for a gay man – a fag – was a first for me. It was a landmark night, one I will never forget, for good or ill. He was partially right. I don’t lay claim to the label of “man” yet (it’s loaded with a lot of baggage I haven’t completely worked through and might never), but I definitely am queer and masculine. He recognized that, and it frightened him enough to harass me for it. To him, I was a threat – a man in makeup.
My Inauguration Protest show piece was for people like him, that random bigot on the train.
Three weeks before the show (and about a week before the train incident), I was looking up songs to perform to. I needed new inspiration, not only for this show, but also for upcoming shows. I wanted something different, something no one had heard before. I dove into my Spotify “Might Be Cool to Dance to” playlist and found a song by an artist called Garek. I had initially thought I would use it for drag, but as I listened to more of his work I realized I could dance to it too.
I realized that here was an openly gay man singing about being gay, about being bullied and called names for being queer, and that was exactly what I was looking for. One song had a lyric that stood out to me: “Would I be a better son with a gun in my hand?”
I chose that one to be my protest song, because it hit on many issues that we are all struggling with right now: toxic masculinity, guns, and being bullied for being LGBTQ+. It spoke to me personally because I have been struggling with calling myself a man and what it means to be (queer and) masculine in a world filled with examples of how masculinity can be damaging to the world and to both men and women. Garek frankly sings about being gay and how disappointing that can be to parents wanting manly behavior out of their sons. And how damaging that is.
I made a vow then and there that I would put queer artists before all others this year. I will still dance to songs by other people, of course, but my priority will be to dance to those musicians who are openly queer.
And so when that random bigot whispered a slur in my ear, I put on the music I was learning for the Inauguration Protest show. And my thoughts just before going on stage for the protest show itself turned to that man and others like him: people who are afraid of queer men, who are threatened by a different kind of masculinity. I feel sorry for them, trapped in narrow definitions of manhood that hurt not only others (who are victims of their pain) but themselves as well.
But once I stepped out onto that stage, my thoughts were for others like me: queer men and masculine-of-center people (however they identify) who have been called names, been bullied, have sat with a gun or a knife in hand and wondered if death would be the release we had been waiting for, or questioned their value or position in life just because of who they love or what their bodies look like. You’re not alone. That dance was for us.
I didn’t worry about dancing like a man. I didn’t worry about whether I looked too feminine in all that makeup, or whether people would hate me or accept me. I danced to heal myself, and to protest and highlight the increase in bullying me and other LGBTQ+ people have received at the hands of bigots emboldened by the rhetoric of our new President. We must stand up for ourselves, we must fight back, we must show the world that it is not okay to bully, to call people slurs, to make them afraid.
I am not afraid. I will stand with you. I will make art and dance to show the world this queer male body and just how strong it is.