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Genderings of Dance

2009 March 4
by Ruth Goodlaxson

In the panel today, I’ll be talking about male belly dancers. Hpwever, this category in and of itself is extremely problematic. The term “belly dance” is a Western invention designed to titilate Western audiences in the 1890s, and circumscribes forms of folk dance which originated throughout the Middle East, Northern Africa and parts of the Mediterranean.

I was interested in exploring the ways in which men participated in this dance form, simply referred to as “dance” (raqs) or “homegrown dance” in Egypt. In its originally context, the dance form was not gendered. Sources disagree about how heavily tied it was to prostitution, but it was and is central to ceremonies like those surrounding marriage and circumcision. Male dancers were as common as female dancers in both urban and rural settings, but other than that, there does not appear to be much documentation of the dance before the Western influence. The Western gaze which arrived colonially changed the perception and the construction of the dance dramatically in several ways. But first, this is Tito Seif, one of the more famous male dancers: (sorry the video isn’t great quality, it was the best I could find!)

Many Western viewers thought the dance was “lascivious” and overtly sexual. To them, it was gendered purely female. Mohammed Ali, Egypt’s pasha in the 1830s, issued an edict banning “dancing girls” from the streets of Cairo, as part of a more general attempt to “acquire the technologies of the West” (from Stavros Stavrou Karayanni’s book Dancing Fear and Desire.) Here, we can see colonialist values begin to influence those of the colonized. The effect, however, was simply a rise in kocek, the Turkish word for dancing boys.

At some point, even many Middle Easterners began to consider dance as a purely female ritual. In Egypt, male dancing began to be associated with homosexuality, which is still outlawed today. Many Western scholars, too, consider male dancing to be a parody of female movements. One scholar captioned a picture as a man immitating female dance, even though the subject of the image was wearing male clothing and a mustache. Other male dancers fight this stereotype, like the famous dancer Tito Seif, who always dances covered. Today, there is a resurgence of male dancing in Egypt, though dancers must be careful not to be perceived as seducing male patrons. In the US and Canada, too, more men have begun participating in the artform, though some critics would argue that this, like most of the belly dance community in the US, still relies on Orientalist, otherizing portrayals of Eastern culture. (You can check out Sharif’s website and Zorba’s to get an idea¬† of what’s out there.)

The history of so-called belly dance is inextricable with the male experience of it. Perceptions have been altered by the colonialist male gaze, perhaps irrevocably. On the one hand, we are presented with the technology of a system of movement, onto which gender was imposed. On the other, we also have the technological construction of the Western ideal of belly dance, which is innately genered and otherizing. The colonialist gaze, in turn, altered the perceptions of the original culture of the dance, which has been changing ever since due to changing religious standards. The history is long and complex and there’s a lot more to say… but I’ve been going on a lot!

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