Reclaiming Belly Dancing for Middle Eastern Women
Orientalism should not define belly dancing for Middle Eastern women.
By Alana Bannourah (University of Nevada)
For many in the West, belly dancing is viewed as an exotic dance performed by foreign women in public events or spaces such as restaurants or parties. Belly dancers are seen as sexual objects that seduce you with exciting hip movements and sensual torsos. These women are usually professional dancers who dress in elaborate, colorful, and especially stereotypical costumes. Since these dancers live and perform in the West, they tend to not be of Middle Eastern descent. It’s rare in the post 9/11 age that Middle Eastern and Arab women are given the role of the “belly dancer” in the media. Unfortunately, the trope that is far more common on television screens is usually the “veiled and oppressed” Middle Eastern woman. These tropes put Middle Eastern Arab women like me in tightly fit boxes, with no character, depth, or emotion. It’s from these stereotypes that we are forbidden to break out of. It’s unfortunate, but that’s Orientalism.
What’s Orientalism you ask? The definition that I find that most accurately describes Orientalism is “the representation of Asia, especially the Middle East, in a stereotyped way that is regarded as embodying a colonialist attitude.” Colonialism in the Middle East is something my family knows all too well. British colonialism is specifically what I am discussing when I mention “Western” colonialism. These “colonialist attitudes” have descended on to the United States, Britain’s offspring and ally. It is also a country that took a heavy part in Orientalism in popular culture and media during the 20th century.
Think Elvis Presley’s song, “Little Egypt” featured in his 1964 movie Roustabout, for example. While I understand that Elvis Presley is a legend, the song and the movie show a perception of Egypt and the Middle East that typically reflects Orientalist tropes of belly dancers. The movie exposes American perceptions of the Middle East. What do they see? Well, palaces with scantily clad “harem” girls prancing around in very little clothing. Once you throw in desert scenes and Bedouins on camels, and you get the Oriental Middle East. Middle Eastern and Arab women who belly dance were therefore fetishized and sexually objectified through the lens of Orientalism.
This is in stark contrast to how popular culture portrays Middle Eastern women today. Popular culture produced after 2001 is more likely to portray Middle Eastern women as oppressed women, shrouded in anonymity, both literally and figuratively. Today, you are not going to find many professional belly dancers that are Middle Eastern. And, Middle Eastern girls are not eagerly taking belly dancing classes from white women either.
Cultural appropriation of “raqs al sharqi” or eastern dance, is a feminist issue that is rarely addressed, but the lines of appropriation versus appreciation are blurred when it comes to cultural dance. One has to ask themselves, “Am I being respectful of the culture’s traditions?” “Do I understand the significance of the dance that I am partaking in?”
My personal approach to participating in another culture’s dance is much simpler. As long as you are being respectful and not wearing traditional costumes unless you have permission to do so by members of that culture (hopefully the ones teaching the dance), then you should be fine. The interesting thing is that according to some, raqs al sharqi probably did not even originate in Egypt. Belly dancing, some claim, is originally part of the Roma culture. While research into the origins of belly dancing proves divisive, as far as the modern tradition, it is mostly an Egyptian, Arab, Middle Eastern dance. I do not mind non-Middle Eastern woman partaking in and even teaching belly dance. I took a belly dance class from a white woman once. The non-Middle Eastern dancers I have encountered have all been respectful of my culture and not only understand raqs al sharqi, but indulge in the practice wholeheartedly.
The acceptance and public praise of our culture is something to be welcomed, but it still is not the raqs al sharqi that I’m used to. It’s not the same dance and culture that I partake in, truly. It’s not the “arabi” (Arabic) dancing that I know and love. For me to truly practice raqs al sharqi, there cannot be an audience of strangers. I’m usually alone when I dance, or more commonly, I’ll be among family and friends. Belly dancing’s purpose is not to flirt with a cute boy. Believe me, there have been a few awkward occasions when I have told non-Middle Eastern guys that I belly dance (along with other types of dances) because it is a part of my culture. Even still it’s perceived as being similar to exotic dancing.
Raqs al sharqi is not a sexual dance, because it’s not meant to be. Arabi dancing is an enjoyable form of dance that I have been doing since I could walk. As I write this, I think back to an old home video of me shaking my hips to an Arabic song as my mom giggled behind the camera. There is also the time when I was five years old and got a mini lesson from a professional belly dancer in a Mediterranean restaurant. I was dancing at every party later in my childhood and by the time I was twelve, I felt like a professional performing for female relatives and friends at Thanksgiving. In my early teens, I revolutionized the “hip circle” with my sister, where we got in a circle and competed to see who could gyrate their hips the best. It became a ritual at every party we went to, especially in the Middle East.
When I traveled to Jordan in the summer of 2007, a cousin and I choreographed a belly dance to “Beautiful Liar” by Beyoncé and my idol at the time, Shakira. Shakira is still my inspiration, especially since I found out that she is half-Lebanese from her father’s side. I love that Shakira mixes her Hispanic culture by singing in Spanish and her Middle Eastern culture by belly dancing. It’s hard not to be amazed by Shakira’s belly dancing. We often forget that she’s a woman of Middle Eastern descent. It is part of who she is, after all.
Belly dancing is an integral and important part of my identity and culture and I really do think it comes instinctively to me for that reason. It flows in my blood. The summer of 2012 is full of fond memories in the Middle East, dancing at my cousin’s wedding and other parties while onlookers watched with awe. Growing up, I was always the first one on the dance floor. I was comfortable with the dance floor; the dance floor was my domain. I always had to nudge my little sister and god-sister to dance with me, but eventually they gave into the infectious energy of belly dancing and ended up joining. I became so proud of my culture that I decided I wanted to showcase it at my high school’s spring dance show in front of my dance team, peers, and their parents during my senior year. I enlisted my sister to create an epic duet, and it was the perfect end to my high school dance career. The cheers at my signature move, when I bend my back all the way while shaking my hips, stay there for a few moments, and slowly go back up, still resonate with me. They represented acceptance, and even celebration.
Arabi dancing, raqs al sharqi, belly dancing — whatever you want to call it — is my passion. It is a celebration of my culture when I groove to the melodies of various Arabic songs. It is how I bond with my female relatives and friends at weddings and parties. I feel empowered when I shake my hips to the beat. Moving my body to the rhythm is an indescribable feeling. I feel beautiful when I do it, it’s just for me. No one can take it from me. That is exactly how it should be, my raqs al sharqi. Orientalism should not define belly dancing or arabi dancing, for me and my Middle Eastern sisters.
Alana Bannourah is a third year double major in International Affairs and Political Science at the University of Nevada, Reno. Born and raised in Las Vegas, Nevada, Alana Bannourah is Palestinian whose family is from the city of Beit Sahour in the West Bank, which is half an hour away from the town of Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus Christ. On campus, Alana is involved with the Dance Co-Op, VOX (Voices for Planned Parenthood), Model Arab League, and Sinai Club (Middle Eastern club). She is also a writer for the Odyssey Online. She hopes to have a career in diplomacy in the near future focusing on peace activism in Israel and Palestine.
Originally published at progressmemag.com on March 15, 2016.