“Belly dance” is a colonial misnomer placed on dances from the Middle East, North Africa, Turkey and Greece. It stereotypes and pigeonholes a rich and complex art form and erases the people and cultures it comes from. Why are we still using the term? Let’s unpack a bit of the history and cultural baggage behind it.
Over the past few years and especially the past couple of months, I have been doing a lot of deep reflection on the art form I have dedicated the latter half of my life to, the dance most people where I'm from know as "belly dance."
I have been reflecting deeply on the terminology I use, how to define this dance and how to describe what I do to people who don't know me, to paint a more accurate picture of my life's work. I have also been reflecting on my role as a non-Arab woman, living in the US and teaching an Arab dance.
The truth is that average people in our culture don't actually know what belly dance is, and upon hearing this term the image they conjure up in their heads is, at worst, a wildly inaccurate representation of what I do, and at best it is a simplistic and incomplete view of an extremely rich, culturally diverse and socially complex art form that is both incredibly beautiful and powerfully transformative.
The picture of me, sexily shaking my bits in a sparkly 2-piece costume does not even begin to account for everything this dance is, everything it represents, and everything that is involved when someone decides to seriously learn belly dance. The costume and the movement are only a tiny fraction of what this dance actually is or could be.
Orientalist painting La danse de l’almée by Jean-Léon Gérôme
"Belly dance" is a broad umbrella term for Middle Eastern, North African, Hellenic & Turkic (MENAHT) dances that involve articulated movements of the hips and torso. But belly dance is also a misnomer given by colonialist men, to dances that were native to countries they were colonizing, dances that in many cases were primarily done by women. Do you see what’s wrong with this picture?
The term caught on, and these days it also encompasses the versions of these dances which have evolved in non-native countries all over the world, including fusion forms that bear less resemblance to the original dances that still live on and continue to evolve in MENAHT countries today.
Because it’s such a convenient, broad term that encompasses such a variety of dances, it has been difficult to come up with any term to replace it. It’s also the only term that the general public knows them by, so it’s how new people interested in learning these dances are able to find their teachers. But it is also simultaneously a term that pigeonholes us into stereotypes and limiting roles, and it can also discourage people from learning this dance altogether.
Why is that? First of all, “belly dance” is a term that zooms in on one specific body part. It leads some people to think that all it takes is to shake or undulate this body part, and thereby dismiss it as a silly activity that doesn’t warrant any serious study or dedication. At the same time, others might think they could never do it because their bodies just don’t move that way (spoiler alert: anyone’s body could move that way with enough practice and good teaching).
Additionally, I would estimate that there are millions of women in our country who would give this dance a try if its name didn’t immediately confront them with a part of their body that is tied with their self-esteem in a negative way. In our culture, we are taught that “fat = BAD” and that we must have a toned belly to be deemed beautiful and worthy. This is a lie that many women are finally beginning to unpack and unlearn, but still for most women the idea of putting so much focus on a physical part of ourselves that we dislike can be extremely intimidating and off-putting.
Yet the reality is that people of any body type can belly dance. It’s a dance that looks beautiful on any body, without weight, age, or gender restrictions. And it’s a dance that involves so much more than just belly, hips and chest movements. It also involves footwork, arm movements, feeling and expression, understanding various different genres of MENAHT music, instruments and rhythms, familiarity with classic Arabic songs, connecting with the lyrics in their original language/s, and knowing the basics of different folkloric dances from various regions of the Middle East.
When we use the misnomer “belly dance,” we are omitting these important aspects of the art form and contributing towards the erasure of the rich and diverse cultures and people that it comes from. MENAHT people and their cultures are not well represented in here in the United States. They are stereotyped and misunderstood at best, profiled and oppressed at worst. To practice, perform and teach a dance that comes from their countries without acknowledging their cultural context contributes to the stereotyping and oppression so many still suffer from.
So, what do we call it instead? Years into my personal reflections on this subject, I still have not arrived at a concrete answer. I am becoming comfortable with the idea that this is an evolving discussion and that my thoughts and approach towards this subject will continue to evolve and change over the years. I am comfortable with the fact that people’s opinions on this subject will differ and many disagree with my approach. I respect those differing opinions, and accept that everyone is arriving at their own answers in their own time. What’s most important is that we continue to learn and be open to having these conversations, and especially to hearing the opinions and experiences of dancers from source countries!
While I still continue to use “belly dance” as a broad term, for lack of a better broad term, for simplicity’s sake and to help new students and clients find me, more and more I refer to what I perform and teach as “raqs sharqi” among my existing students and even to people outside of the belly dance industry/community. Calling it “belly dance” encourages assumptions and stereotypes they already held. “Raqs sharqi” piques their curiosity and invites discussion (with that said, when I am dancing fusion, or dancing to non-Arabic music, I revert back to the broad term “belly dance”).
Raqs sharqi is Arabic for “Eastern dance” or “Oriental dance.” It’s what Egyptians call the stage version of the dance we know as “belly dance.” Since I primarily focus on learning from Egyptian style teachers, that can be a fitting term for me to use. But the term will depend on the language, so for a Turkish style dancer, perhaps “Oryantal dans” (the Turkish language equivalent of the term) could be more fitting. What’s important to note is that nowhere in MENAHT countries are any of the dances we call “belly dance” referred to by a body part like it is here, but since my studies focus on Egyptian style, I will be using Egyptian (Arabic) terminology on this post, and please be aware that my knowledge of the history of this dance is very much Egypt-centric.
Raqs sharqi is a stage adaptation of various dances mixed together, including raqs baladi ("country dance"), one of the social dances done in Egypt which uses hip and chest "isolations", shimmies and basic steps and is very casual and relaxed ("belly dance" in its most raw, unpolished, original form). This type of social dance is not exclusive to Egypt, it's done in most if not all Arab countries (alongside other social dances), it’s done by women and men in many cases, but in some regions it may be done primarily by women. It is simply the way people dance amongst each other when they get together for a party, wedding or other celebration.
The specific music used, the stylization of the movements and the name used to refer to this type of dancing will vary by country/region. There are non-Arab countries in the Middle East/Mediterranean that dance socially like that, in their own ways, like Israel, Turkey (where it's called çifteteli) and Greece (tsifteteli).
In Egypt, the stage adaptation we call "raqs sharqi" ("oriental dance") came about in the late 1800’s and incorporated elements of raqs baladi (“country dance”) with the performative styles that were done by the ghawazee and awalim who were professional dancers/entertainers who performed at weddings and other celebrations at the time.
It also incorporated some elements of non-MENAHT dances like ballet and ballroom and other forms that the earliest raqs sharqi dancers happened to have trained in (Latin dances, acrobatics, and more). The evolution of this dance is very interesting as all the most famous dancers had such a unique and different style and each became highly influential in shaping the development of the dance. Much of the evolution of raqs sharqi happened around the time of the Golden Era of Egyptian cinema, and people all over the Arabic-speaking world were watching Egyptian movies which often featured dancing scenes by famous raqs sharqi dancers, who were actresses too!
Lastly, raqs sharqi also incorporates bits of various different Arab folk dances when the music calls for it… it’s a lot to learn!
Here in the US, this very rich and complex dance was reduced to just a titillating dance for many reasons. Colonialism, orientalism, patriarchy to name a few. When “belly dance” was originally introduced to the “Western” world in the late 1800s, it was not raqs sharqi but social and folkloric dances from colonized countries (in North Africa and the Middle East), done by women who were brought over from those countries by colonizer men (French, British, Americans), taken completely out of their native context, and presented in a sensationalized way to make money for those men. This was happening during a time when Western women wore corsets and showing your ankles as a woman was considered scandalous. So even though those dancers brought over originally were fully covered when performing, the fact that they moved their hips freely was considered extremely vulgar and scandalous and it attracted viewers due to the shock factor. And so the infamous reputation of “belly dance” began and we have never been able to fully overcome those associations.
The real evolution and growth in popularity of “belly dance” in the United States didn’t really start until around the 1950’s, 60’s, and 70’s though, as immigrant dancers from different countries in the Middle East (Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, etc) began to set up classes here and taught Americans how to perform.
The style that evolved here was called “American cabaret,” it evolved differently in different regions of the US and was a mix of various Middle Eastern styles of belly dance, since this country is such a melting pot of different cultures. In the 70’s, Middle Eastern clubs were booming, featuring long belly dance shows with live music, and the bands here were made up of musicians from all over the Middle East, so American dancers at the time had to know how to dance to Arabic, Turkish, and Greek music. But without the social/cultural context, and with the revealing costumes worn, what Americans saw was still a scandalous dance. And in the eyes of the patriarchy, there is no reason a woman would want to move her body like that other than to please or seduce a man.
This, coupled with ignorant but prevalent Orientalist stereotypes of Arabs and Middle Easterners in general meant that the image of the “sultan’s harem” and the idea of “seducing the sultan” became intricately connected with the image of the “belly dancer” here in the US. Of course, since sex sells, this is something that many club owners and belly dancers themselves used to their advantage. This helped to cement the reputation of “belly dance” as something purely sexual and scandalous here in the US, which unfortunately led to it being reduced, dismissed, and ridiculed by the general public, something that continues to this day.
Here it’s important to add that performing belly dance/raqs sharqi in public is also very taboo in most MENAHT countries. In some countries it is forbidden, in others it is forbidden for natives but allowed for foreigners, and in others it is allowed but you are ostracized for being a belly dancer. In Egypt for example, belly dance (raqs baladi & raqs sharqi) is a huge part of their culture, it’s done socially at every gathering and at any major celebration a belly dancer is hired to perform and is often the main attraction. They love and appreciate the dance, and they generally dance the social form of it at parties and other gatherings (where it happens in gender-segregated settings for the more religiously conservative/modest, and in mix-gender settings for the less conservative), but a woman who is paid to dance is not seen as respectable.
So belly dance being considered “provocative” isn’t necessarily unique to our culture. It’s just that in the cultures of origin, there are layers of appreciation and admiration amid the layers of taboo and condemnation. In the countries of origin, it is done socially for fun and celebration and not just viewed as a dance of seduction and provocation.
To really do this dance justice we have to get comfortable with this dichotomy instead of pigeonholing ourselves into a single stereotype. To do so as non-MENAHT outsiders means opening up a door into cultures and customs we may not otherwise have been exposed to. We have to learn movements that are difficult for us because we haven’t been doing them socially with our family and friends our whole lives, but which are so beneficial and rewarding for countless reasons… but this dance is so much more than just movement.
Music, culture, and language are all intricately connected with the movements of this dance. It is a lifelong study, which far from just working your belly, will work your entire body, your brain, and your heart while deepening your connection to the rest of humanity.
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Yamê is a Brazilian-American
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