“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.”
How is your Spring going? It snowed yesterday here in ChiBeria. Not very Spring-like, is it?!
Let’s get onto the challenge for this last full week of March!
There’s been a lot going around lately about cultural appropriation, and whether or not is is okay for white (American/Western) women to belly dance. A lot has already been said, and there are others who have mirrored my opinions on it, so I am not going to go on about that here. Let’s just say that people do have the right to be angry over things that offend them. But I also believe that insulting people is the wrong way to handle that anger. There is no need to increase the wrong by being insulting, racist, or by thin-shaming. When you do this, you only alienate the object of your anger and completely invalidate your points (in their view). People will get defensive and then never listen to the completely valid points you do have. And I mean this about BOTH SIDES of the argument.
As belly dancers, and participants in a culture that is not our own, we are required to be respectful and knowledgeable about that culture. It is NOT up to others to educate you. It is up to you, and you alone.
It is unfortunate that my first teacher never taught me anything about any of the cultures she was borrowing from. When I “came out” onto the rest of the belly dance scene, I was way behind. I didn’t know any of the famous dancers of the Golden Age, didn’t know any of the “must know” songs or what they meant, and I certainly did not know the true roots of this dance. I was horrified at my lack of knowledge, and immediately began trying to find out everything I could.
This week, your challenge is to do the same. If you are unfamiliar with the history of belly dance, please use this week to educate yourself. Look up articles online. Talk to your teacher (maybe request a special class just on history?). If you don’t know anything about cultural appropriation, here is a good start (though it is not specifically about belly dance, and I find myself disagreeing with one point. Please see below for that point).
Use this week to go deeper into the meaning of your dance. Why do we wear bedlahs (what is a bedlah?!) or some dancers dance in heels and others don’t? Where did Tribal Fusion come from? Who, in your opinion, is the most important belly dancer of all time, or just of the modern age? What country (or countries) does your dance come from and why? What are the differences between the different styles of traditional belly dance?
All these questions are good starting points as a way to educate yourself about your dance. Even if you perform Tribal Fusion, you should know where the roots of your dance come from, and why you are using them.
If we join in the conversation about cultural appropriation and belly dance respectfully and knowledgeably, and help to politely and respectfully educate others, then maybe we can cut down on the number of hateful articles about belly dance, white belly dancers, and “this is not belly dance.”
Please keep in mind, too, that these challenges are only a week. A week is not enough time to fully educate yourself on any aspect of belly dance. The challenges are meant to be just that. A challenge. Can you do this in a week? Can you build a practice, one week at a time? They are meant to get you used to practicing (or researching) every day. So let’s do it! Every single day!
Taking the challenge? Let everyone else know! Tweet it!
Here’s my comment about the cultural appropriation article I linked. It is true that when cultural appropriation is pointed out that it is not meant to be personal. However, there have been too many times where I have seen that it has gotten personal. That is not okay. It is okay to say, “It’s wrong when [this dominant culture] appropriates [this other culture] by wearing [this object from the other culture].” That is a statement of fact. However, it is NOT okay to say, “These ugly, stupid, evil, insensitive [racial group], they have no idea what harm they are personally causing me because they are [wearing this object from my culture] or [doing this activity from my culture.]” Even if it is true (which it might be), insulting an entire racial or ethnic group is not helpful. When people do this, they come off as whiny victims who are petty and overly sensitive. I’m not saying that they are, but that is how they appear to others. It is okay to be angry. It is okay to point out when others are harming you or your culture. It is okay to ask people to stop. It is not okay to insult. You are shooting yourself in the foot if the first thing you do is insult an entire group of people (“sins of our enemies,” and all that, you know…)
I have, previously, been accused of derailing arguments by calling for rational discussion of controversial subjects. Fine. But unless and until we can all peaceably sit down and talk about things rationally, without insults, yelling, or the constant need to blame others or be victims, then nothing will change. Yes, anger is what makes things change by rattling cages and shocking people. But anger can be used without causing harm to others, and that is what I am calling for. When has insulting someone EVER changed their mind? Anyone? Examples?
[Edit:] changed a few words for clarity in my point that were not caught in the initial editing.
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