For example, one dancer who goes by the name Nadia writes
I am a feminist and a belly dancer. I am sure that, for some, that statement is an oxymoron and an impossibility. Some feminists are offended by belly dancing on the grounds that we expose ourselves and reinforce chauvinistic voyeurism. Many belly dancers find it empowering, therapeutic, spiritual. I agree with all of them....
...There is no denying either that belly dance has historically been involved in the objectification (and self-objectification!) of women. There are certainly those students that approach belly dance to allure men – women who maybe feel being sexy is the only way they can earn attention and love. In such a case, practicing belly dance would be a means to the wrong ends. However, most women approach belly dance for other reasons: for the physiological and psychological benefits, for the entertainment, for the women’s-community-ness, etc. In her research interviews, Maira found out that most women claimed that belly dancing offered them the feeling of belonging to a collective, and that sisterhood is a dominant motif in the belly dance subculture.
Nevertheless, no matter how feminist our intentions, when it comes to performing, we have little control over our audiences. We have to wonder, does the presence of an audience make the belly dance experience more or less empowering for women? Is there really a difference between claiming belly dance as empowering and stating the same for stripping? I personally believe there is little comparison between bare bellies and open legs. Furthermore, provocative actions such as touching one’s body suggestively have no place in belly dance performances.
But even with that distinction clear, belly dance performances are still controversial. Andrea Deagon phrases it well: “Belly dance exists at a point of conflict between women’s expressions of fundamental truths, and patriarchal interpretations of this expression. It is not an easy place to be." I truly believe that such uneasy points of conflict are the powerful ones, the ones from which we can alter realities, as well as make a point and a difference. They are tricky, though. So, feminist belly dancers, who are located at one such point, must be very careful not to contribute to processes we stand against, such as sexism and colonialism.
In order to be very careful, we must be acutely aware, we must question others and ourselves, we must use what Enloe refers to as “feminist curiosity” when analyzing our own discipline and personal practices.
Because belly dance stands at the above mentioned crossroads, deciding to take it up is a subversive act in a number of contexts....For example, in the rural South of the United States, I have often not been welcomed to teach or perform at certain settings because of the controversiality of belly dance....My own parents were once horrified at the thought of me belly dancing in a restaurant....
...In 19th century Europe and America, the dances of traditional Middle Eastern and North African women were “condemned as gratuitous sexual display, fetishised into a sign of the ‘Orient’s’ sensuality and abandon, deemed grotesque, and immoral, censored and altogether banned.”...The Chicago Tribune reported: “The style of movements practiced by these so-called Algerian and other women is something too objectionable for people of refined taste to countenance. It is a depraved and immoral exhibition. It may well be styled an outrage to allow such an exhibition and rate it under the head of dancing."
Perceptions of the dance changed considerably through the 20th Century. However, there is still a dual reaction of both admiration and rejection for the dance and those who practice it. Keft-Kennedy states: “In many accounts, the spectator constantly vacillates between responses of repulsion and desire. This ambivalence, I would argue, is the synthesis of ideological projections of the erotic…racial otherness, and the grotesque onto the body of the belly dancer” Once again, because of the power of this ambiguity, belly dance “can be seen as a potent weapon for feminist politics and a potentially transgressive practice for women. Most notably, belly dance is transgressive because it destabilizes social assumptions that women should not (publicly) shake, wobble, or draw attention to their breasts, hips, abdomens, and especially their pelvises.”....And, here is Nadia
Oh, my. Sorry if I don't perceive you as some sort of an asexual blob. Such is the curse of nubility among women. You certainly pass what Louise Pennington calls the "Patriarchal Fuckability Test." With flying colors, I might add.
As this young lady points out, starting at about 1:50,
"As soon as anyone participates in any visual media, for monetary exchange, they become a 'commodity', and are therefore 'objectified.' It doesn't matter what you're wearing or what you're doing. You're an object consumed by the audience, for entertainment or stimulation. And that's not a negative thing. It is just a market exchange."
And, as Peter Saint-Andre puts it:
A dance is a sensuous embodiment of a choreographer's thoughts and values about human emotions, human actions, and the human form, effected through rhythmic movements and other gestures that resemble or selectively re-create natural human movements, and created primarily for the purpose of objectifying and contemplatively experiencing the kind of human world the choreographer fundamentally values.Dance, at least if done well, is all about the objectification.
As for Feminists being offended because belly dancers are "exposing themselves and reinforcing chauvinistic voyeurism": Feminists seldom use the term "chauvinistic" any more. Nowadays, everything that offends Feminists about men is "patriarchal." In modern Fem-speak, that should have been "belly dancers expose themselves and reinforce patriarchal voyeurism." The definition of chauvinism is:
- exaggerated or aggressive patriotism;
- excessive or prejudiced loyalty or support for one's own cause, group or gender.
Nadia states that "Feminist belly dancers...must be very careful not to contribute to processes we stand against, such as sexism and colonialism." Colonialism? Are Feminist belly dancers really thinking about starting a colony somewhere? And sexism? Well, here is Rachid Alexander,
a Dutchman who was born in the Dutch colony Curaçao. How's that for sexism and colonialism? Which reminds me: Nadia rather conveniently neglected to mention "racism" and "cultural appropriation." So, to pick up the slack, here is Randa Jarrar:
Why I Can’t Stand White Belly Dancers
Whether they know it or not, white women who practice belly dance are engaging in appropriation
Google the term “belly dance” and the first images the search engine offers are of white women in flowing, diaphanous skirts, playing at brownness. How did this become acceptable?
The term “belly dance” itself is a Western one. In Arabic, this kind of dance is called Raqs Sharqi, or Eastern dance. Belly dance, as it is known and practiced in the West, has its roots in, and a long history of, white appropriation of Eastern dance. As early as the 1890s in the U.S., white “side-show sheikhs” managed dance troupes of white women, who performed belly dance at world’s fairs (fun trivia: Mark Twain made a short film of a belly dancer at the 1893 fair). Many white women who presently practice belly dance are continuing this century-old tradition of appropriation, whether they are willing to view their practice this way or not.
Growing up in the Middle East, I saw women in my community do Raqs Sharqi at weddings and parties. Women often danced with other women, in private spaces, so that this dance was for each other. When they danced at house parties with men in attendance, the dynamic shifted. When women danced for women alone, there was a different kind of eroticism, perhaps more powerful, definitely more playful, or maybe that’s how it felt to me, as a child and teenager, wary of men’s intentions. At weddings the dancing was celebratory and flirty and beautiful, something a professional dancer would come in to do, and something that everyone else would continue engaging in. If there was a drummer present, all the better. At my wedding, I was my own dancer. I hired a band that specialized in Arabic music and danced with my family and friends, not all of whom were Arab.
One of the most awkward occurrences for me when I go out to an Arabic restaurant is the portion of the evening when the white belly dancer comes out. This usually happens on weekends, and I’ve learned to avoid those spaces then, but sometimes I forget. The last time I forgot, a white woman came out in Arab drag--because that’s what that is, when a person who’s not Arab wears genie pants and a bra and heavy eye makeup and Arabic jewelry, or jewelry that is meant to read as “Arabic” because it’s metallic and shiny and has squiggles of some kind--and began to belly-dance. She was not a terrible belly dancer. But she was incredibly thin and didn’t remind me, in any way, of Tahia Karioca or Hind Rostom or my absolute favorite Raqs Sharqi dancer, Fifi Abdo. Abdo used to dance in the expected bra and skirt but later danced mostly in robes that were somewhat shapeless and more traditional — a kind of relaxed housewear- streetwear dress that folks in Egypt rock daily. There are videos of her in these robes dancing at weddings and smoking sheesha while she dances. When I am having a particularly lousy day, I watch this video of her and dance along.
At a movie theater in Cairo in 2007, I argued with a male friend about why the lead actress wore a strange, baggy dress underneath a bra-and-skirt dancing ensemble. He suggested that she was uncomfortable with her body; I suggested that the country was becoming more conservative and she was too much of a media darling to appear with her skin exposed. Years later, the revolution happened, or tried to happen, and when the Muslim Brotherhood took over, and Western news outlets began publishing stories that claimed belly dancing was a dying art. Tell that to the women on the streets and on rooftops and in bedrooms and living rooms and weddings dancing their hips off. (See this video,
for example, of actual working-class Egyptian women of all sizes and ages dancing in the streets.) The one interesting thing about these stories is that they reported that Western, or white women, were beginning to take over gigs in Egypt. These women moved there out of an obsession with belly dance and are now appropriating it from local dancers.
“It’s Arab face,” my friend Nadine once said, pointing at an invitation from a white acquaintance of hers. The invitation was printed on card stock and featured the woman and a dozen of her white friends dressed in Orientalist garb with eye makeup caked on for full kohl effect and glittery accessories. We wanted to call these women up and say, “How is this OK? Would you wear a dashiki and rock waspafarian dreads and take up African dance publicly? Wait,” we’d probably say, “don’t answer that.”
The most disturbing thing is when these women take up Arabic performance names --Suzy McCue becomes Samirah Layali. This name and others like it make no sense in Arabic. This, in my estimation, completes the brownface Orientalist façade. A name. A crowning. A final consecration of all the wrongs that lead up to the naming.
Women I have confronted about this have said, “But I have been dancing for 15 years! This is something I have built a huge community on.” These women are more interested in their investment in belly dancing than in questioning and examining how their appropriation of the art causes others harm. To them, I can only say, I’m sure there are people who have been unwittingly racist for 15 years. It’s not too late. Find another form of self-expression. Make sure you’re not appropriating someone else’s.
When I have argued, online and in person, with white women belly dancers, they have assured me that they learned to dance from Arab women and brown women. This is supposed to make the transaction OK. Instead, I point out that all this means is that it is perfectly all right with these teachers that their financial well-being is based on self-exploitation. As a follow-up, white belly dancers then focus on the sisterly and community aspect of belly dance.They claim that the true exploiter of belly dancing is Hollywood, and the Egyptian film industry, which helped take belly dancing out of women’s homes and placed it directly under the male gaze. Here, the argument white belly dancers try to make ignores the long history of white women’s appropriation of Eastern dancing and becomes that this, the learning and performance of belly dance, is not about race and appropriation, but about gender and resisting the patriarchy and how all of us belly dancing together is a giant middle finger to men and their male gaze-y ways.
But, here’s the thing. Arab women are not vessels for white women to pour themselves and lose themselves in; we are not bangles or eyeliner or tiny bells on hips. We are human beings. This dance form is originally ours, and does not exist so that white women can have a better sense of community; can gain a deeper sense of sisterhood with each other; can reclaim their bodies; can celebrate their sexualities; can perform for the female gaze. Just because a white woman doesn’t profit from her performance doesn’t mean she’s not appropriating a culture. And, ultimately, the question is this: Why does a white woman’s sisterhood, her self-reclamation, her celebration, have to happen on Arab women’s backs?Wow. As I previously mentioned, a catfight between Feminists can be quite entertaining. Now, an Arab-American woman, going after White belly-dancing Feminists. And, the White belly dancers aren't going to have a comeback. They're White, and they're committing "cultural appropriation." And, White Feminists often seem to express a considerable amount of contempt for Arab culture. But, they've "appropriated" belly dancing, and risk stimulating the patriarchal gaze. These White Feminist belly dancers might as well go and bury themselves somewhere.
But, what about Mr. Alexander, the Black man who was born in a Dutch colony, and who is a talented belly dancer? Oh, he can wiggle, jiggle, and culturally appropriate all he wants. No-one is going to dare accuse him of anything.
Mrs. Jarrar also inculpates the White belly dancers for being "incredibly thin." While there are fat Arab belly dancers who shake their bodies quite well,
White chicks typically like to avoid objectifying themselves in public unless they feel confident that they can pass the rather strenuous and demanding "Patriarchal Fuckability Test." A fat White chick just isn't going to do it.
On the one hand, I can see her point. What Makes the Red Man Red? probably wouldn't go over very well in a modern cartoon movie.
Indeed, subsequent movies based upon the Peter Pan story have omitted Princess Tigerlilly and her tribe all together. Still, I don't think that there is anything wrong with a bit of cultural appropriation. According to Nadia, White Feminist belly dancers consider their act to be more "empowering" than stripping, at least.
On the other hand, White Americans know next to nothing about Arab countries. That's where gasoline, terrorists, and Princess Jasmine come from. That's about the extent of our knowledge.
It may be worth noting that, during the Ottoman Empire, White slave girls were highly valued additions to one's harem. "Since time immemorial, it has always been a blonde who served as Sultana Favorita in the Serail. Thus, too, the highest priced of the human chattels have been and still are the Circassian girls." The harem members were often trained to dance and entertain, and, unlike the cruel American custom of partus sequitur ventrem, a slave girl who gave birth to her owner's son might rise in status to "wife." Roxelana was perhaps the most famous example. The intense dislike that some Arab women maintain towards White belly dancers may stem (to some extent) from the preference that men in the Ottoman Empire held for White girls. Syrian and Nubian girls sold for quite a bit less. And, today, there are quite a lot of Russian women married to Turks, Syrians, and other Middle Easterners. In response to the question "Why do Russian women Love Arab men so much?", the best answer was "It is not that they like Arab men so much. The Arab people are damned crazy for white women with fair complexion, a round oval face, a small up-turned nose and blonde hair. This is true." Hence, there may be some sour grapes involved in Mrs. Jarrar's contempt for White girls doing belly dancing.
Luna, an American belly dancer in Cairo:
...One of the things I hate the most about Egypt is the way the majority of Egyptians view belly dancing. Here, as in the rest of the Arab world, belly dancing is a synonym for prostitution. It is not an art. The belly dancer, or ra’assa, is a whore. Any woman who dares show her flesh and “titillate” men with her sexy jiggles and vibrations is looked down upon.
Admittedly, much of this thinking has to do with the fact that historically, most Egyptian belly dancers have engaged in prostitution. In fact, Muhammad Ali famously banished all the belly dancers (awalim) from Cairo in the 19th century for supposedly spreading gonorrhea amongst French and British soldiers who were stationed in Cairo.
The other factor responsible for this view is Islam, which has a strong hold on Egyptians’ imaginations. Islam demands female modesty, and says that a woman’s beauty must be reserved for her husband. Displaying hair and skin in the presence of men is considered sinful (not to mention dancing half-naked in front of them!)....
And, from an American dancer whose professional name is Salome:
Prostitution the Eastern Block and Belly Dance
It's a subject that continues to crop up in the American Belly dance community; Eastern European prostitutes advertising 'the goods' under the guise of belly dancer in the Near and Middle East....
Oriental Dance in Ukraine and Russia
Here is the quick and dirty version of what is happening there. The bellydance.ru and beledi.ru discussion forums have members numbering in the thousands. Most members say they were inspired to study Belly dance after seeing "The Clone". A soap opera that features Belly dance performance during the Moroccan themed scenes. (Oriental dancer, Galina Savyelyeva:)
Egyptian Oriental dance, or an interpretation thereof, is the foremost style pursued by enthusiasts here, and the favored folk dances are Raks al Assaya and Raks al Nash'ar. Students learn via video, visiting Arab teachers, and local dancers that sojourn to Cairo. All political and financial impossibilities 15 years ago when Soviet citizens weren't allowed out, information wasn't allowed in, and private business was illegal.
I lived primarily in Kharkov, a large city, about an hour away from the Russian border. The Belly dance community there is small but developing. You can find Egyptian costumes in the malls and coined hip scarves in the kiosks. Music is a bit harder to come by but it can be had. There are schools, clubs, competitions, recitals, theater and restaurant performance in most large cities, most notably Kiev and Moscow. Many dream of performing in Cairo and some of Russia's stars have reached that pinnacle, like Nour and Natalya Strelchenko.
To get a feeling for Oriental dance in this region visit Vasilisa Prekrasnaya's video clip gallery, a full twenty eight pages of video clips!
The international entertainment market is saturated with Ukrainian and Russian performers, the bulk of which are show ballets. A show ballet can be a soloist but is more often a group, usually numbering 3 to 5, of female performers in their twenties. The education of show ballet participants vary radically, some are extensively or barely trained in dance (sportdance, ballet, jazz, folk), or gymnastics or circus or have no training whatsoever.
How it works. There is a show ballet creator, usually a mature woman retired from performance. The creator makes a set of choreographies each with a specific theme - Entre (Showgirl), Oriental, "Gypsy", Latin, Russian Folk, Modern dance to rock and a Cowgirl dance! Show ballet soloists may perform one theme opposed to the combo platter and "Oriental" is commonly requested.
The creator may be trained in one western genre of dance or even none. She may be a retired show ballet dancer recycling the choreographies she was taught. In any case the Oriental and "Gypsy" dances tend to be inaccurate and I will leave it at that.
The creator selects a group and teaches them the choreographed show. She also designs and makes a distinct costume for each choreography. Costuming for the ethnic dances can range from inappropriate, to attractive but off the mark, or occasionally on the money.
The Dark Side
....One means of exploitation is called "consummation". A venue owner (typically independent nightclubs) hires dancers for his venue. They may perform once, not at all, or possibly several short routines throughout the night. What they will be expected to do is work the floor - sit with the clientele and encourage guests to buy them cocktails. For every cocktail a guest buys the girls earn a percentage of the sale. Often hustling drinks is a front for hustling period.
Interesting to note that in "A Trade Like Any Other, Female Singers and Dancers in Egypt". Karin Van Nieuwkerk says "in the nightclubs of the 1920's and 1930's the main task of the female entertainer was to sit and drink with the customers. Usually they sang first or danced on the stage. This system of sitting and drinking with the customers was called fath from the Arabic verb to open. The female entertainers received a percentage of the profits made from the drinks they and the customers consumed". Though she noted prostitution was uncommon.
Some venue owners are up front about consummation duties and the 'possibility' of prostitution when advertising or soliciting women. Among those, there is no pretense of dance performance. For example, in Japan, this type of venue advertises "hostess" positions with succinct job descriptions. In other regions, an owner will indicate something along the lines of - she only needs to know one dance and have one costume in case the police come to inspect my club.
But this frankness is rare. Typically a venue owner will seek out a show ballet and offer them a seemingly legitimate dance performance contract. Once the show ballet has arrived all bets are off and the nightmare is in full swing.
One girl said that after every guest bought her a cocktail, she'd drink it, then go to the bathroom and make herself vomit, so that she could get through the night of 'complimentary' drinks. I've heard girls say everything from "I was locked in my room until I agreed", "he threatened to cancel my air ticket home if I didn't" to "I chose to have sex for 100 bucks rather than drink and vomit all night for 5".
This exploitation is successful because this group has no financial recourse. An American citizen can go to an American Embassy and our government will buy you a return ticket to the United States. It's a loan. They put a lean on your passport barring international travel until you pay it back. But even if you have no friends, family or resources to help yourself you have that option. Not so for Ukrainians and Russians.
Why Dancers Risk It
There IS a thriving, albeit competitive, entertainment market in Africa and Asia. Cruise lines, 4 and 5 star hotels, extravagant private gala's... And a huge demand for show ballets, especially in Egypt and Turkey. In fact, Lucy (star of Cairo, Egypt) employed a Show ballet for her nightclub "The Parisiana". Shira wrote an article in which she describes the show ballet at "The Parisiana"along with pictures of the show.
The average salary in Ukraine and Russia is 50 dollars a month. 50 dollars is not enough for basic needs. People here are consumed with how they are going to make it day to day. At a minimum, show ballet dancers get food, housing and pocket money. On the high end they get living needs + a 1000 USD monthly salary. This is an enormous sum that is unattainable in their native country. Even if they are getting paid squat they have the security of a place to live and food to eat.
An article I read recently makes the following statement "many Eastern European and Russian dancers have infiltrated the Beirut Bellydance scene, but they are doing anything but Bellydance; they have not studied the dance, and even if few have it is a cover for something else: prostitution".
It is undeniable that Russian and Ukrainian women work in the sex trade, both in and outside of their countries. And there are some Eastern block sex workers in the Belly dance industry but anymore so than Arab? My Arab sources in the Middle East say no.
In a prostitution report covering Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Tunisia detailing where sex workers are accessible (both Russian and Arab) nothing specific to dance or entertainment was cited. What was reported is that Russian sex workers visit these countries "in chartered trips, under the cover oftourism for two weeks and leave immediately after". They and Arab women work in specific areas of cities where prostitution is prevalent. They gain clients through hotel staff that discreetly facilitate prostitution for guests. Through Hotel nightclubs and independent Nightclubs that they frequent as 'guests'. Through nightclub staff, maids, and taxi cab drivers that facilitate prostitution. And in Tunisia (prostitution is legal) and Lebanon, they work in brothels and massage parlors....
...While Belly dance is generally enjoyed by the people of the Near and Middle East it is not a respected profession. Dancers are looked upon as 'fallen' women. The sentiment springs out of ideals that women be chaste, and modest. Of which dancing in public for a mixed gender audience as a profession is neither. Even if prostitution linked with Belly dance were successfully stopped it still would not be a respected profession in that region.
Long before Ukrainian and Russian women 'infiltrated' the scene, many Turkish and Arab women, did and do, use Belly dance in conjunction with prostitution....So, there we have it. In the Fabled Land of Belly Dancing, the Patriarchs won't let their own women belly dance (at least in public venues), because it is not a respected profession. But the Patriarchs still want to be able to go out and gaze upon other women belly dancing. Many of them like gazing at White women (mainly from Russia and Ukraine), and some even pay for sex with them. And our Feminists think that we're oppressing them just by looking at them. Compared to Patriarchs in the Middle East, we're just a bunch of emasculated wusses.
So far, I don't think that I've heard of an Arab or Turkish man complain about the "cultural appropriation." Belly dancing seems to have really caught on in Russia and Ukraine. Here is the story of the celebrated Alla Kushnir:
Alla Kushnir is a famous and acclaimed Ukrainian belly dancer, Choreographer, Festival and Performance organizer. She is characterized as a very explosive and spectacular dancer who has been finalist of Ukraine TV-show “Ukraine gots Talent”, LBC Belly Dance World Championship “Hezzi Ya Nawaim” and many time in diverse world championships of belly dance.
Alla Kushnir has been engaged in dances since the childhood. She studied at specialized school of applied arts and crafts. At the beginning of dancing career Alla did not experience the predilection for any certain direction in dance, and therefore was engaged in ball and folk, and variety dances, and took active part in various competitions of amateur performance.
After leaving school she entered the Law Academy and decided not to link her life with dance. However, on the second year Alla casually saw the belly dance on TV. This programme changed all her life. She decided to be engaged in the east dances and as for that time in Nikolayev there were no teachers, Alla began to study belly dance by herself. She visited numerous seminars in different cities of Russia and Ukraine....
One television show, and Miss Kushnir was hooked. She gave up law school to become a belly dancer. Imagine if she had been born somewhere in the Fabled Land of Belly Dancing. Her family members would be having conniption fits. She is quite talented, though:
I suspect that most Patriarchs (whether Arab, Turkish or Western) will enjoy her performance, while most Feminists (and other women) will find some reason to dislike her ("she's committing cultural appropriation!", "she's too White!", "she's too skinny!", "she's a racist!", "she's objectifying herself sexually!", "she's getting all neocolonialist!", "Patriarchs are going to be gazing at her!", "she's exposing herself!", "she's reinforcing chauvinistic voyeurism!", etc. etc.).
Meanwhile, belly dancing seems to be catching on in Israel. Here is Nataly Hay:
And, perhaps not surprisingly, in Brazil:
Meanwhile, belly dancing seems to be catching on in Israel. Here is Nataly Hay:
And, perhaps not surprisingly, in Brazil:
And, what would Bollywood films be, without a bit of belly dancing?
And, Arabic dancing seems to have been an inspiration for some of the dancers on Argentina's Bailando por un Sueño
Oh, that Patriarchal gaze.