Before moving to Bloomington, Indiana for my Ph.D. in folklore, I met with my mentor, Professor Alan Dundes, in his office at UC Berkeley. He had also done his Ph.D. in Bloomington, and he was giving me advice about relocating to the Midwest and adjusting to grad school. Among other gems of wisdom that he dispensed, he told me:
“Well, don’t tell them you’re a belly dancer. It’s a little too risque.”
I nodded politely, and the conversation moved on.
Of course, one of the first things I did upon moving to Bloomington was look up the local belly dance community, and start performing and teaching classes. I was not, as it turns out, the only belly dancer affiliated with the university. One dancer teaches a belly dance class every semester through the university. Another dancer is a lecturer in a department where her technology and teaching skills are highly valued. Other dancers are undergrads and grad students like myself. And that says nothing of the townies who are also belly dancers.
I’ve discussed belly dance’s sex appeal in the past, so what I’d like to talk about now is the stigma that accompanies the perceived sexiness of belly dance–one of the big reasons, I think, that I was cautioned about being “out” as a dancer.
First, there is the perception that belly dancers are scantily clad women who do nothing but wriggle seductively. And in the puritanical-tinged imaginations of many contemporary Americans, anything associated with sex or sexiness can be automatically suspect. This assumption tends to irk belly dancers, who’ll be among the first to tell you that the dance isn’t meant to be sexy in a seductive or lascivious way. Rather, the dance celebrates the female body (and sometimes the male body–there are male belly dancers too!). Additionally, there’s a rich cultural heritage surrounding the dance, ranging through many countries and centuries, to include not only ancient women’s dance traditions from the Middle East and North Africa but also modern internet communities that bond over the dance. The dizzying array of belly dance styles and sub-styles includes dances from particular countries and time periods (Egyptian and Turkish belly dance are two well-known subsets), dances set to specific kinds of music (gothic belly dance is an example of a music-driven style of belly dance), dances with props (such as canes, swords, veils, or candles), dances meant to evoke a certain experience either for the dancer or the audience (as in narrative or theatrical belly dance, or sacred and spiritual belly dance), and dances that are deliberate fusions, drawing on ethnic dance traditions such as flamenco or Indian classical dance or Polynesian dance or hip hop in order to broaden the expressive range of belly dance.
The “scantily-clad” stereotype is another misunderstanding. Many belly dance costumes are composed of multiple layers, as in the picture of me at the top of this article. I was performing at an art fair in June of this year, and I was sweating under all those layers! Despite baring my belly, I had two layers on top (a top decorated with coins, and a velvet vest), and many more layers on bottom: silk pants, a cotton skirt, at least two shawls around my hips, and a coin belt. I wore a scarf on my head, earrings, two necklaces, multiple bracelets, and many layers of makeup including false eyelashes and bindis (adhesive jewels that decorate one’s face). I was wearing more clothing than most normal people who were simply enjoying a warm summer day while attending the art fair. And yet this counts as a scandalously sexual, exposed, and revealing costume?
The misconception that belly dance is just wiggling and jiggling is also problematic–and totally untrue. Take a belly dance class or try one of the many quality instructional DVDs available on Amazon if you don’t believe me. While belly dance can be learned by practically anyone in any stage of fitness, it can also include very strenuous movements such as backbends and floorwork. There is a wide movement vocabulary available to learn and perform, and many of the movements require continuous practice to master. Belly dance is at once very accessible–anyone can learn it, and become competent at a handful of basic movements–and also very demanding as an art form. When this fine balance of skills and technique eludes viewers who are caught up in the sex appeal of the regions involved (hips and bellies), it can lead to misunderstandings about the purpose of the dance.
My opinion, as both a dancer and a scholar of dance, is that belly dance has the potential to make people uncomfortable because it showcases female performers who are comfortable with their bodies and with their sexuality. In contemporary American culture, which polices women’s bodies and sends the message that only certain body types are acceptable (skinny, pliant, sexually available but not slutty), celebrating a multitude of female bodies can seem threatening. I agree with Andrea Deagon in her work on feminism and belly dance, when she affirms that belly dance can be subversive because “It allows women to seem to conform to patriarchal expectations while at the same time challenging them through powerful self-expression.“
I also believe that diverse expressions of women’s sexuality can be confusing to people who only have a mainstream media-informed perspective. If someone has only been exposed to the hypersexual, Hollywood-driven images of women as sex objects, then one might almost legitimately mistake belly dancing for stripping. And yes, the “Belly dancing – isn’t that like stripping?” question is one we frequently get. To someone saturated in narrow images of women’s sexuality, it might be difficult to imagine a woman who is dancing in a sensual manner solely to please herself or express herself artistically.
I know I can’t speak for all belly dancers as we’re a pretty varied bunch, but for the reasons discussed above, I view belly dancing as activism, and that’s why I’m “out” as a dancer even though I want to be a professor when I grow up. There’s nothing inherently shameful or stigmatizing about belly dancing, so I feel no need to be secretive about it. Performing has also given me the confidence to become a better public speaker, so in this and other ways (time management, staying fit, serving as a creative outlet), belly dance has actually enhanced my academic career.
Needless to say, I’m glad I didn’t take my professor’s advice in this regard. My professors and peers have all been very supportive since, which makes me feel good about the activism entwined with my dancing.