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.”