on Mon, 28 Aug, 2023
Do you remember the sensationalism of the Virgin Mary made of Elephant Dung?
In case you don’t, I will remind you. I was in high school. The world was in an uproar over how disrespectful it was that a New York artist had an exhibit showing a piece depicting the Virgin Mary made of elephant dung. Even my former Catholic parents, an atheist father and a mother who had been excommunicated thought it was disrespectful. As a rebellious teenage artist I thought it was gutsy, but I didn’t actually care enough to look into it.
When I was in college, I was an art student—and I had the power of the Internet. Chris Ofili, the artist painted a black Madonna, used elephant dung because this is symbolically sacred in many cultures in Africa. The critics who lambasted him were too ignorant to learn about other cultures or be openminded think about racial and cultural implications
I am using this as an analogy to talk about belly dance. A lot of the criticism of the arts comes out of ignorance of the cultures where it comes from. It is the same with belly dance.
As someone who comes from the art world, I understand there has long been an argument about what art is intended to be by those creating it verses how it is perceived by the audience long before I started performing belly dance. My training as an art major has informed my execution of belly dance in style, costuming, and history, criticism, aesthetics, and choreography even though I didn’t go to school for dance—though I actually have studied belly dance longer than I have formally studied art.
I have been dancing over twenty-five years, most of that devoted to belly dance. I have heard a lot of this in my life: “Belly dance is a bunch of overweight, middle-aged white women shaking their T and A, and that is gross!” Added onto that criticism is now the additional comment, “And it is cultural appropriation!”
Let me deconstruct this into four false assumptions and beliefs that people have that cause them to look down on belly dance:
1. Belly dance is exotic dancing.
2. Only young, attractive, or beautiful women should be allowed to perform.
3. Belly dance is Middle Eastern.
4. It is cultural appropriation if it is performed by Caucasian Americans or by women who don’t look Middle Eastern.
1. Belly dance is exotic dancing.
When I first started belly dance, the argument against it used to be that it was too sexy and risqué, therefore it was looked down upon because it was too close to close to burlesque. That originated in Victorian culture, and as a result, Americans and Europeans did exotify Middle Eastern cultural dances. Over 150 years ago, Americans transformed belly dance into the ‘exotic” dancing, the hoochie coochie, stripping, and combined it with burlesque. Some belly dancers still perform belly burlesque in nightclubs.
Please see this article to understand the history of modern belly dance. Belly dance both is and isn’t “exotic” dancing.
Belly dance doesn’t just have roots as a cabaret or stage dance in America, but the Middle East as well. Colonialization and the male gaze created the idea that belly dance has to be sexy. One of the best articles on how patriarchy has stereotyped and sexualized this artform:
Because of this, many dancers starting in the 1960s wanted to focus on folkloric inspired moves and costuming to take the connotation out of belly dance being associated with stripping and seen as multicultural and classy. Carolena Nericcio is famous for this with Fat Chance Belly Dance and coined the term “Tribal” and American Tribal Belly Dances or ATS, which she now just calls Fat Chance Belly Dance Style. (I’m not going to get into the politics of the reasons for her name change here because it would take too long and that is a separate article.)
Separating folkloric-inspired belly dance from the nightclub style definitely seems like a great idea. But for those uneducated in the history of the dance form from the beginning, it caused teachers to make claims that ATS was “authentic” and “real” folkloric when it was really a mishmash of belly dance, folkloric dances, and American modern dance. In an attempt to make belly dance less about sex and more about culture, there has been some cultural appropriation and some belly dancers and studios need to work to rectify that.
That is another article.
2. Only young, attractive, or beautiful women should be allowed to practice, dance, and perform.
What? Really? Are only women who are height/weight proportionate allowed to go to the gym? And if that is the case, are overweight men going to be held to the same standards? Will old men and ugly men be allowed to dance in other cultural dances? Will we say overweight, old men won’t be allowed to tango? (This would be a problem in the Eugene tango community since I have frequented milongas and know the majority of the men who attend are elderly! That would be a horrible thing to tell skilled dancers who are getting a great form of exercise!) Are ugly men not allowed to perform Flamenco, Hula, or any dance? It is such a horrible double standard in our culture.
And unfortunately it is perpetuated by women as well.
Who gets to decide who is attractive and beautiful enough to be an artist? Limiting any woman, is limiting all women. Are we going to allow misogynists to tell women they can’t express themselves?
Unfortunately for many women, we have been told that our entire lives.
When I hear negative comments about women’s beauty, age, or bodies in belly dance or other art forms, I know it is coming from a double standard in a patriarchal dominant culture. Although I find the belly dance community very open to male dancers and people who identify as non-binary, the sentiment against “unattractive” dancers is targeted at women, and thus, primarily a women’s issue. Our value as dancers should be identified by skill: musicality, artistic expression, technique, and stage presence. Many women feel sexy and beautiful when they belly dance, but that shouldn’t be the standard or only quality people see. The prerequisite for sexiness goes back to the colonialism of men stereotyping women as sex objects.
This is an art form meant for dancers who want to express themselves and bring joy to themselves and others. Some men will objectify dancers with their misogynist fantasies. That doesn’t mean we need to buy into these patriarchal views of body shaming women. If this is the reason we do not allow belly dancers not to have shows, we are allowing misogynists to win.
3. Belly dance is NOT Middle Eastern. (Except when it is. This is complicated! Bear with me.)
Try to understand that belly dance is a generic term invented by Americans to describe a dance where the belly and hip movements are emphasized. We often think of belly dance as “Middle Eastern” for the same reasons we have used the term “exotic dancing” in the past.
I am going to use a generic example that I hope will make sense for people who are learning belly dance. We don’t make the assumption that all ballroom is South American even though tango comes from Argentina, Samba comes from Brazil, and Rumba originated from African slaves in Cuba. Ballroom dance also includes Viennese waltz of German and Austrian origin and waltz with a French origin. Ballroom is a general term that encompasses many styles and cultures.
Many moves that are staples of belly dance can be seen in other cultures: hip circles are used in African dance, hip hop, Hawaiian and Polynesian dance, and dances from India; wrist circles are used in in Flamenco, Andalusian, Romany, and Polynesian dances. I have seen the equivalent of shimmies in Indian and Hawaiian dances. Undulations are seen in Middle Eastern, African dance, hip hop, jazz, street jazz, and so many forms of modern dance. Shiva lines are not from Middle Eastern culture. They are common in Chinese dances and a staple of the Chinese circus. You will also see it in dances from India, which is why it is called a “Shiva” line. If anything, modern troupes of Middle Eastern dancers and Americans performing Middle Eastern-inspired belly dance are using this formation from other Eastern cultures.
There is no patent on dance moves. Dance has traveled and migrated across continents in the same way language, art, and mythology has. The foundations of these moves are ancient and no culture OWNs belly dance. Please be mindful, many of the moves originated in the Middle East and migrated from there because the Ottoman empire’s expanse was so widespread they occupied many European, Northern African, Middle Eastern, and Asian countries. But there are also moves dancers in the Middle East have adopted from Americans and Europeans. Americans who haven’t studied the evolution of dance and belly dance just don’t know this.
When modern Egyptians are performing the Egyptian night club style off belly dance, Raqs Sharqi, it is a Middle Eastern style influenced by the music and folkloric traditions of that culture. If a dancer is performing the actual folkloric form of dance belly dance is derived from, that doesn’t automatically make it belly dance—but it can be. When dancers in Greece combine their culture’s folkloric dance moves with belly dance and perform to Greek music, that is Greek belly dance. If a dancer is influenced by Turkish Romany style it will be Turkish Romany belly dance. Belly dance from Lebanon is Lebanese belly dance. (I actually have cousins who are Lebanese who love to have a belly dancer at a wedding!)
That means belly dance combined with American culture is called . . . American belly dance. It could be American Oriental style, American Cabaret, Fusion Style, or we might call it something else. If a belly is exposed and we see some hips shaking, most likely people are going to call it belly dance and people will assume it is Middle Eastern. Even if someone performs all folkloric dance moves from Eastern Europe, without any moves from the Middle East, but their midriff and hips are exposed, Americans will assume it is belly dancing, and they will probably assume it is Middle Eastern. It is difficult for us to separate.
Many Americans have felt a kinship and connection with folkloric dances from Europe and dance to music that they have affectionately called “Gypsy” in the past. I use this term educationally for those uninformed, but largely the belly dance community has moved away from using this term because it is considered culturally insensitive and a racial slur. Those who embrace this romanticized term mean say it with the utmost love and respect, though it hasn’t been received that way.
It also has been used inaccurately to lump many cultures together rather than using the actual cultures’ names, which is considered a form of cultural appropriation. Roma, Rom, Romany, or Tzigani-style dance when combined with belly dance is a specific style. Many American belly dancers who were calling themselves “Gypsy style belly dancers” back in the 1990s were drawing inspiration from Balkan, Spanish Andalusian, Flamenco, and Eastern European folkloric dances. Many dancers still draw from their European roots, but have a hard time pinpointing origins of moves that have evolved so much over time. I understand it is far less romantic and flowery to call this Indo-European Belly Dance, but that would be much more accurate than “Gypsy” or Roma.
When I first met Diana Smith, I noticed her olive complexion and accent and falsely assumed she was probably Hispanic, but I didn’t insure. It was quite some time before I found out she was Bulgarian. When I interviewed Diana Smith for my article in the Chronicle related to belly dance, it was interesting to hear Diana’s experiences with dance in her own country of Bulgaria. Most Americans do not realize how widespread the reach of the Ottoman Empire was in Europe. They left many cultural traditions in their wake after their occupation of the countries they left.
Unfortunately, it is difficult to convince people there is such a thing as Ottoman influenced Eastern European belly dance without educating someone on five hundred years of history. Some people really care about cultural appropriation and educating themselves—and actually proved it by finishing this article—but most people are just giving lip service to it by being woke.
When I used to perform solos, I was primarily dancing fusion to Electro-swing, tango, or Eastern European music—depending on the costume and style I wanted to evoke as a theme. I studied many forms of breakdance in Japan for two years to become a better fusion dancer and incorporated this into my solos.
Fusion Fascination performs a style in between fusion (an eclectic mix of modern and contemporary dance) and sometimes a folkloric inspired style termed ATS. This abbreviation, ATS used to be called American Tribal Style or tribal, used to be called “tribal,” but that term is both confusing and inaccurate. I have coined the term American Transcontinental Style in the hope people might use it to separate it from fusion, which is a distinctly modern style developed by Rachel Brice that incorporates the popping and locking of breakdance with contemporary dance and an alternative, punk aesthetic.
Fusion Fascination and Bellissimo currently has members who have immigrated from Ukraine/Russia and Bulgaria/Hungary, and members who have Turkish ancestry, who bring their cultures and experiences to their dance. Members dance in a style that evokes Indo-European roots.
So to clarify, we are not performing Middle Eastern dance, except in the concept that all belly dance has some influence and origin in Mesopotamia. The moves and costumes tend to match the music we are dancing to, which might be European folkloric, contemporary American, or it might be from other cultures not part of the Middle East.
4. It is cultural appropriation if it is performed by Caucasian Americans or women who don’t look Middle Eastern.
For all the reasons stated above, belly dance isn’t strictly Middle Eastern. But even if is an Egyptian style, there is more to this argument. That means we need to understand what cultural appropriation is, which requires a blog post in itself.