Feminist Belly Dancing?

I belly dance.

I love it and it is a lot of fun.  I love the captivating drum beats, the intricate techniques, and moving rhythmically to the music.  I have been doing it for about seven years, and have done multiple performances in both my university and various venues – restaurants, festivals, etc.

However, what is belly dancing, exactly?

Belly dancing has been completely rebranded in American society.  Awhile ago, I wrote a blogpost discussing the fine line between being sexy and being sexually objectified.  Belly dancing has landed feet first on this line.

Belly dancing originally started as a dance done by women for other women.  It is a delicate dance with very intricate techniques, and a lot of these techniques were thought to physically prepare a woman for childbirth.

Today in American society, the audience for belly dance performances has obviously expanded to include, well, everybody.  I think this is great, and like the fact that anyone who wants to can enjoy and be entertained by belly dance.

However, just like almost everything else in American society, belly dancing has first and foremost become sexualized, and has become about objectifying the belly dancer.

It’s almost too perfect.  The belly dancer is now an exotic commodity.  She is a beauty embodying an exotic fantasy – and the audience can live through her while she is in the spotlight.

I have always considered belly dance to be like any other dance art form – along with ballet, hiphop, jazz, etc. – that just originated in the Middle East.  However, I notice that belly dancers nowadays are actually considered to be not too different from nightlife entertainers (ironically also referred to as “exotic dancers”) – strippers and pole dancers – whose sole purpose is to be sexy and titillate men.  I actually stopped telling people that I did belly dance after I realized it got some weird responses.

Before I go further, I want to clarify: this post isn’t about shaming the women who do decide to become strippers, and in the same vein, the women who belly dance in it’s sexualized form.  However, I do argue that these dancers function primarily as sexual objects to their viewers.  I also take issue with the fact that belly dancing has been rebranded only for this purpose.

One of the most obvious ways belly dancing has been rebranded is in its costume.  Almost every commercial professional belly dancer only wears a coined bra as a top.

Sadie – actually one of my favorite belly dancers 🙂

In general, the belly dancer dresses to look sexy.  On top of that, I notice that a lot of commercial belly dance performances are choreographed to be overly sensual, with the dancer mainly bringing attention to her chest and hips.  Her dance is made to be seductive.

However, not all belly dance performances have to be seductive.  They can just be rhythmic, fast paced, elegant, and structured.  The student group I performed with in college actually carried out a radical notion – that we could perform belly dance without showing more than four inches of our midriff.  Our costumes consisted of decorated tank tops, long skirts, and coin belts.  We carried out choreographed performances in all its complexity – intricate steps, shimmies, undulations, belly rolls, etc.  Every time, the audience stood up and cheered.  We put on a great performance, and our lack of cleavage didn’t take much away from it.

More modest belly dance costume = more my type

So belly dancing can be sexy and seductive, but it doesn’t always have to be.  I never perform in a bra-shaped top.  Ever.  This is because I don’t perform to be seductive or to titillate men.  I don’t want to bring attention to my cleavage when I do chest shimmies.  Because I know that is what they will be looking at.

Belly dancing can be separate from the sex appeal.  A lot of other belly dancers I’ve spoken to seem genuinely confused and shocked by the fact that I belly dance without donning a bra.  Plus, “you have the body to, so why don’t you?”  Come on, guys, that’s not what it’s about!  Belly dancing is about belly dancing, not being a bikini model.  Now sit back, relax, and enjoy the performance.

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One thought on “Feminist Belly Dancing?

  1. Pingback: The Freedom to Wear a Hijab | Women's Comedy

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