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The first time I saw a belly dancer on TV I was mesmerized. Most of the dance forms that I saw require the dancer to move from place to place and also the extensive use of arms and legs. But a belly dancer can dance almost in place, not having to move side-to-side or backward and forward but the effect is still amazing.
This art form is intriguing because the body part that seems to do all the work is not the arms or legs but the belly. It is this feature of this dance form that makes it really interesting and appealing. But on the other hand it is revolting and disgusting to those with more conservative tastes. This is because the belly is exposed and because of that there is negative interpretation of what it means. It has to be made known that belly dancing is an ancient and beautiful dance form and it should not be compared to stripping.
Stripping vs. Belly Dancing
It is easy to understand strip-dancing. This is a dance form devoid of any art because the dancer is not mindful of any tradition or technique that was honed through the ages, the only purpose and objective is to excite the audience, specifically the men. The strip-dancer is scantily dressed and sometimes none at all. Strip dancing as a dance form cannot be used in festivals, dance competition, and celebrations. There is a certain level of taboo about it and it is not simply respectable.
If strip-dancing is acceptable by the general public then there is no reason why dancers and audience needed to be in a secluded place. If strip-dancing is an art form then there is no need to feel shame while watching half-naked women dance in a very erotic manner.
It is also difficult to find competition or dance sports wherein people can watch and enjoy strip-dancers compete with each other. Honestly how can the judges decide which one is the best strip-dancer? There is simply no art to its method and therefore there should be no mistaking a strip-dancer from a belly dancer. However, there are many who could not differentiate the two because their focus is fixed on the belly and the belly button.
Belly dancing enthusiasts are frustrated by the way their dance form is judge by the general public especially in the Western world. The avid supporters of belly dancing are complaining that the moment they reveal that they are belly dancers the common reply is this: “Belly dancing – isn’t that something like stripping?” (Shira, 2001, p.1). This negative view regarding belly dancing is something that they would love to change.
The negative connotation that belly dancing brings is not only their main problem. They can stand the ridicule but what they are really frustrated about is the fact that they are “denied opportunities to perform in community festivals, arts events, and other occasions because respectable venues don’t want that kind of thing” (Shira, 2001, p.1).
It is therefore time for the Western world, specifically North Americans to understand the deeper meaning of belly dancing and in so doing they will come to know that belly dancing is an art form and not for strippers.
Origin of Belly Dancing
Anthropologists believed that this form of dance was used for ritual celebration during the Upper Paleolithic age 30 000 B.C. (Sharif, 2005, p.6). Paintings of dancers in religious shrines strengthen the idea that belly dancing is linked to the spiritual aspect of life as well as fertility of the earth and the female body. This is because ancient civilizations worshiped female deities.
The fertility dance of many cultures can be used to understand the deeper meaning of belly dancing. More than that dancing has always been a part of religious festivals and the offering of worship to the gods.
It is easy to understand why there are people who dislike belly dancing. Surprisingly the criticism even comes from the Middle East. This is because Christianity and Islam became a major force of influence in this region and it was just easy to judge this art form as a remnant of the ancient past – specifically the harems. There is no need to elaborate what a harem means and immediately when this term is mentioned there is one idea that comes up – illicit sex.
Aside from its connection to the polygamous rulers and influential men of ancient times the negative view of belly dancing also comes from the way it was adopted by other cultures and transform it for their own purposes. The Arabs blame the gypsies and the Westerners who tampered with their precious dance form and turn it into something lewd (Sharif, 2005, p.7).
As a result there are many Arab Americans that find belly dancing “a cultural embarrassment; they look upon the visual icon of the belly dancer as a negative representative of the Arab American community and Arab culture, perpetuating the stereotype of the oversexed harem girl” (Shay, 2006, p.136). But this is just the tip of the iceberg for this dance form.
The strict tenets of Islam regarding the way people should view women adds to the taboo surrounding belly dancing. In addition when this dance form came to the West, it was brought via Turkish dancers who were brought to the San Francisco Fair of 1889 and the French terms used to describe them danse du ventre – literally means the dance of the belly – was adopted by the Americans (Sharif, 2005, p.8). In other words the original name for this dance form is not even belly dancing.
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But there is a correct way to view belly dancing. Aside from its link to religion and worship belly dancing was a form of entertainment and way to relieve stress. The most important application is the use of belly dancing during times of giving birth. The woman’s pain during childbirth is lessened by the beautiful movement and music that comes from belly dancing. In other words as the woman is in labor there is a belly dancer in front of her who tries to distract her mind from the pain.
According to one historian, “It was an early custom to perform the dance around a woman in labor … This custom is still practiced today by many women in North Africa and in parts of the Middle East and Saudi Arabian women cry out sympathetic laments with woman in labor” (Dils & Albright, 2001, p.128). This is an amazing explanation as to the origins and proper use of belly dancing.
In recent times more and more people began to realize that there is no need to destroy this dance form. As a result many are enjoying the lively spirit of that this dance form brings to weddings, births, festivals and other types of celebrations (Sharif, 2005, p.7). These negative perceptions are beginning to change.
There are those who recognize that belly dancing is a feature of Arab life “particularly in countries like Egypt, and it would be unthinkable to celebrate a wedding without a belly dancing either by a professional dancer or the guests performing a domestic version, or both” (Shay, 2006, p136). It is high time for Westerners to change the way they perceive belly dancing.
It has been made clear that belly dancing should never be equated with strip-dancing. But at the same time it is difficult to distance belly dancing from its past. It is true that its origins are spiritual and the dance was used as way to entertain guests and more honorably as a way to distract a woman from childbirth pains. However, it is also linked to the harems and the idea of women forced to dance in front of powerful clan leaders is difficult to push away.
Aside from that the Western mindset especially those who went to the Middle East and observe belly dancing first hand brought back memories of highly erotic dance moves. Thus, belly dancing may be a highly spiritual dance form and very artistic and yet at the same time it was used also for seduction. In order for the stigma attached to belly dancing to be removed forever then there must be a way to educate people on its real origins and purpose.
Belly dancing must also be performed without the exposure of too much flesh. There may be a good reason why the dancers had to expose their belly but at the same time it has to be researched if this way of using the dance form is a Western adaptation and that in the original form the women can do this dance even when no part of their body is exposed.
There is also a need for an enthusiast to carefully explain the meaning of the dance moves. There is a need to simplify the terms and the significance of the attire, the movements and what is it supposed to communicate. If this is possible then a great number of people will change their negative perception of this dance form and begin to appreciate it for what it truly is.
A first glance at belly dancing, especially when performed in the United States with a lady wearing a two-piece costume to expose the belly and the belly button will immediately give the idea that this dance form is similar to strip-dancing.
But there is a deeper meaning to belly dancing and there is more than meets the eye. It comes from Arab culture and it must be celebrated in the same way that other cultural dances are celebrated. There is a need to change the negative perception of this dance form so that more people are going to know about it and enjoy it.
Dils, Ann & Ann Albright. Moving History, Dancing Cultures: A Dance History Reader. North Carolina: Wesleyan University Press, 2001.
Shay, Anthony. Choreographing Identities: Folk Dance, Ethnicity and Festival in the United States and Canada. North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2006.
Sherif, Keti. Belly Dance: A Guide to Middle Eastern Dance. Australia: Allen & Unwin, 2005.
Shira. Isn’t That Like Stripping? Belly Dancing Website. 2001. Web.