A guest blog by Aymee Sirenia!
According to Noha Roushdy, belly dance “consists of an improvised pattern of bodily movements that heavily rely on the controlled movement of isolated body parts, particularly through the shaking and vibrating of the upper body and the sides and on slow and rapid whirls.” (1)
I presume that when most people think about belly dance, they conjure up the image of a feminine figure with a sensuous womanly presence. However, while the Western mind has set up many expectations for this Middle Eastern dance, Roushdy's description is not gendered, or even distinctly feminine.
As a dancer whose gender lies outside of the binary, my gender presentation and expectations are constantly challenged. So, when I was tasked with a belly dance history project, for a lecture intensive taught by Amity Alize of Raq-On Studio, I put together topics I think about most: belly rolls and gender roles! Specifically, what is the history of gender in this dance? How does gender relate to belly dance? Where do I fit in the narrative?
Without getting too deep into gender theory, there are a few facts to clarify before exploring how gender intersects with belly dance. First, the concept of gender in the Western world is a socially constructed binary (men/masculine on one end, woman/feminine on the other). In reality, there are many options for gender, creating a spectrum or nebula that includes identities with combinations of masculine, feminine, both or neither. Also, the research I found is primarily about cisgender bodies. History has an unfortunate habit of erasing the stories of trans folks – I hope to continue researching and to find their voices before history completely ignores them. With that in mind, the terms men and male are referring to cismen, and women and female to ciswomen, unless otherwise specified.
Men and Boys in the History of Belly Dance
Let's start with the masculine end of the gender spectrum. Throughout Turkish and Egyptian history, men and boys performed dances that, while not what we consider 'belly dance' today, are the folk predecessors of the technique (2,3). In the Ottoman Empire, boys known as the Kochek (or Köçek), dressed in drag – presented as female – and performed street dances, particularly for a male audience. The Kochek, who entertained soldiers and wealthy men, were also associated with prostitution. When the empire decided to tidy up its image and outlaw this entertainment, it is thought that the Kochek may have traveled to Egypt, where the reconstruction and 'modernization' (a.k.a. Westernization) of the country brought a different group of soldiers and wealthy men to be entertained. Around the same time, female street dancers and entertainers called the Ghawazee were similarly banished from Cairo (2). To fill that void, the Kochek became the dancing boys of Egypt, or the Khawal*. The Khawal based much of their routines on the local Ghawazee style, and wore androgynous garb.
*Note about the word khawal: according to Oumnia Abaza in “‘Ana Gay’: Coming to Terms with Male Gayness in Egypt,” the word is now considered a derogatory term for a gay man in Egypt (3). Use it knowledgeably and appropriately. I have not yet delved into the etymology of khawal, and it would be fascinating to know how and when the common definition and usage came to be. Does the modern meaning of the word come from the dancing boys of Cairo??
Colonizing, Islam, and Modesty
As the West modernized/colonized the East, stories from colonizers who returned home glossed over the fact that the street dancers were boys dressed like girls. So, the foreign images these men brought home were of women, and to capitalize on foreign expectations, women were eventually expected to perform for men – specifically white tourist men. According to Öykü Potuoğlu-Cook in “Beyond the Glitter: Belly Dance and Neoliberal Gentrification in Istanbul,” belly dancing in Turkey is a story of female bodies, gentrification, and tourism (5). By the 1990s, restaurants commonly put dancers bodies on display in an effort to capitalize on tourists' desire for a tantalizing and unusual neo-Ottoman scene. Ironically, the dancers and the costumes played to what was expected – exotic glitter, sensual motion – as opposed to what traditional dance actually looked like (5).
While the public display of the dance was geared toward foreigners, it was still part of reality in the Middle East. Therefore, it makes sense that the common religion of the region will impact the life of the dance. Islam, like all religions, is practiced in many different ways, and its discourse has a myriad of interpretations. The ideas and interpretations effect governance and daily life of the genders, and how people present themselves to the world (5). For women in this region, modesty is a key consideration in their daily life, and is a societal boundary to be reckoned with when dancing (5, 6, 7, 8). In Egypt, for example, dancers' bodies have been governed in various ways. In the 1960s, all female dancers needed a license, a chaperone, and a belly cover. Dancers were also expected to submit to STI testing (though this could be avoided with a bribe or a particularly scary man friend) (1).
Costume example of the mandated belly cover, and example of impeccable dancing from Soheir Zaki.
As for the audience, “although religious ideology affects peoples' ideas about the entertainment profession, it usually does not affect their behaviour,” according to Karin van Nieuwkerk (6). In other words, people will watch dancers, even if they do not wish to associate with them. Permissibility of the dancer is determined by effort put into the skill, and the venue. For instance, being a professional is not respected, but casual dancing among female relatives at a family function is common. If you are a professional dancer, performing at a wedding or other respectable function is better regarded than performing in a nightclub serving alcohol (6). As Andrea Deagon puts it in “Feminism and Belly Dance,” “The dancer is in violation of society’s norms: a woman who takes on a public voice, who speaks through her body rather than hiding it, who brings sensuality and complexity into their homes and restaurants.” (7)
This paradox of aesthetic expectations and the culture of modesty eventually led to foreign women being welcomed to dance for locals. Being an outsider was, and sometimes still is, an asset to dancers. Now, that is a very intense and important story of romanticized Orientalism, Western influence, and privilege; a story that deserves a closer look and understanding. However, that is a whole 'other blog!
Male and Female Bodies
Now let's compare double standards of male versus female bodies in a patriarchal society! Sounds so fun, yeah?
In a society dominated by men, a man's body has multiple dimensions – it can be authoritative, creative, or productive, for example. It can also be sexual, but solely in the presence of a female body. Women, on the other hand, tend to be perceived as sexual beings above all else, and especially when in a male occupied space (6).
Therefore, if a man is dancing, his “dancing male body is performing a job, [but] a dancing female body is moving sexual instincts.”(6). However, this doesn't mean there are no consequences for male dancers. In Egypt, if a man is too feminine, breaking social codes can negatively impact relationships with family and friends, as well as spurn threats from the state (3). It is a fine line between being a man who is a dancer, and being a man who is too much like a woman.
In addition to the exposure of potentially scandalous body parts, this is a Middle Eastern/North African dance – and that is extra scary to white morality. A white woman dancing in this style is an actor taking the control of her body away from the man watching her; however, a woman of color dancing in this style is an object to be controlled by the man watching her (8). Sounds a little like … colonialism. Again, a very important issue to consider!
Moving Beyond The Femme
In the U.S., challenging gender and considering its variations are a little more culturally acceptable. However, male dancers, openly nonbinary, and gender queer dancers are still decidedly in the minority. While being on stage can be “a subjunctive space where alternate realities can be projected” and gender presentations and expectations can be thwarted or enhanced (9), to “show some degree of femininity, genderqueer identity, or even just stress traditionally feminine moves with no other intention, it’s still next to impossible to get over the historical baggage and assumptions about belly dancing that many of people have” (10). In other words, if your gender is not 'woman', but you dance like one, the audience may be confused, because only women belly dance (right?) (3,9,10).
Which begs the delicious question posed by Andrea Deagon: “Is it [belly dance] only feminine as the patriarchy defines it?” Our beliefs of what is masculine and what is feminine are not universal, and to say they are is to buy into an oppressor's message of what is acceptable. What moves are feminine? What moves are masculine? Who decides that? If we stick to the definitions of feminine and masculine as expressed by the binary, we would severely limit the creative and human capacities of all people. We would close off options of exploration, both of the world and of self. We would continue to allow the dancer to be exposed, but to let their story remain unheard (7). Adhering to the all-or-nothing binary diminishes the rights of dancers to own and maintain their identity while expanding the possibilities of improvement, adventure, and creation.
Kamrah is a transmasculine dancer based in the U.S. They perform fusion and traditional styles of belly dance, and are one of my biggest inspirations in dance.
What does this mean? According to Aymee
How do all these threads tie up into the hipscarf? Where do I, the long winded author of this post, fit into the history of belly dance when I am not a woman or a man? Does it matter where, or if I fit in? From what I have presented here, it appears that for a body to engage in belly dance is to subvert authority and expectations, whether it be religious or cultural, especially if that body is of a female/femme presentation. Ergo, to dance in a genderless or genderqueer body is to thwart expectations and norms on intersecting levels (whether or not that body will be safe, physically, mentally, or socially, is an entirely different, but essential, question, however). “Belly dance, [is] historically a morally and economically suspect profession,” according to Öykü Potuoğlu-Cook (5). To be a belly dancer, regardless of binary gender or lack thereof, is to take up space in a manner that threatens the status quo (the patriarchy), and that's why people get weird about it.
Disclaimer: Being American (however fraught an identity that is right now), I am aware of Western ideas of belly dance, and that of gender. I will not try to put any of these thoughts on the culture and lived lives of the Middle East – it is essential to recognize that the differences exist, and to acknowledge that I lack a deeper understanding of these topics in a foreign land.
Aymee Sirenia is based in the Upper Pioneer Valley of Western Massachusetts. A student of Sahina, they study traditional Turkish and Egyptian style, while also exploring the fusion world in an effort to create their own signature pizazz. They strive to create, and contribute to, spaces where all beings can feel safe, acknowledged, and valid, and allowed access to all the glitter they could ever want.
Also, I'm seriously out of practice when it comes to the proper way to cite my sources – if I erred, let me know! Also also, the cited works are not my entire bibliography, provided upon request.
1. Roushdy, Noha. “Baladi as Performance: Gender and Dance in Modern Egypt.” Surfacing: An Interdisciplinary Journal for Gender in the Global South, Edited by Azita Azargoshasb, vol. 3, no. 1, Aug. 2010, pp. 71–99.
2. Shira. “Cross-Dressing in Middle Eastern Dance.” All About Belly Dancing!, http://www.shira.net/cross-dress.htm. This article originally appeared on the Suite101 web site, in the Middle Eastern Dance category, on June 29, 2001.
3. Abaza, Oumnia. “‘Ana Gay’: Coming to Terms with Male Gayness in Egypt.” Surfacing: An Interdisciplinary Journal for Gender in the Global South, Edited by Azita Azargoshasb, vol. 3, no. 1, Aug. 2010, pp. 100–122.
4. Shira. “Scenes from Turkey: The ‘Real’ Turkish ‘Belly’ Dance.” All About Belly Dancing!, www.shira.net/culture/gobek-dansi.htm. Accessed December 2017
5. Potuoğlu-Cook, Öykü. “Beyond the Glitter: Belly Dance and Neoliberal Gentrification in Istanbul.” Cultural Anthropology, vol. 21, no. 4, Nov. 2006, pp. 633–660., www.jstor.org/stable/4124725. Accessed 30 December 2017
6. van Nieuwkerk, Karin. "An Hour for God and an Hour for the Heart": Islam, Gender and Female Entertainment in Egypt. University of Maryland, Baltimore County , 14 Oct. 1998, www.umbc.edu/MA/index/number3/nieuwkerk/karin_0.htm.
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