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Gender, Politics and Power in the Technology of Belly Dance

The term belly dance, taken for granted in the United States, was coined for the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. A man named Sol Bloom created is to circumscribe folk dances of North Africa, Central Asia, the Middle East and Eastern Europe, and also to titillate his audience (Shay and Sellers-Young 16). It is a term Western audiences have accepted completely, to the point that we lack another word for it—a semantic problem which reflects the general construction of the dance form in the West. I wanted to write a paper about the phenomenon of male belly dancers, in the US and elsewhere, but soon realized their story could not be told without an understanding of the complex history of the dance, and is inextricably entwined with the colonialist gaze, sexual fear, and ideological exchange. The body of the male dancer provides a crux for issues of colonization, class implications, and sexuality of both men and women, and also speaks to the inherently situated readings of technology.
For the purpose of this argument, I will mostly focus on folk dance from Egypt, in part because this is where the scholarship has occurred, and in part because it is referred to as the “central nervous system of the dance” (Brabant). Not much is known about belly dance, referred to just as “dance” or raqs, before Western influence. From images and historical accounts, it is clear that performers were both male and female, and performed in the street and for ceremonies like weddings and circumcisions (Shay and Sellers-Young 20-1). Sources disagree over how tied it was to prostitution, but it was generally considered entertainment rather than “high art,” as reflected by the lack of a classical tradition that exists for many Middle Eastern and North African music traditions. So, on the one hand, there is the technology of the dance itself, as it originated before colonialist influence.
Separate from this technology, there is the technology of the construction of “belly dance” by Western imperial influence. The Orientalist ideal of belly dance viewed it as lascivious, high sexual and exotic. In “The Dance of Extravagant Pleasures,” Karayanni quotes Lady Mary Wortley Montague who wrote about the dace in 1717, saying no one could watch the women “without thinking of something not to be spoken of” (73). It was through this otherizing gaze that the dance became gendered. Western viewers could not accept a male object of a sexual, penetrating gaze, and so men were excluded from the construction of belly dance created through European writings and, later, meida. Karayanni writes: “To acknowledge the male dancer as an emblem would also acknowledge him as a ‘designated repository of sexuality’ (Shay, “The Male Dancer” 20) in which the Western male tourist was investing his desire. To replace the [female dancers] with the [male dancers] would be re-presenting a masculinized West that penetrates a male Orient—nothing less than an act of sodomy” (97). Western influences caused an edict banning dancing girls from Cairo, which temporarily produced an influx of male dancers in the 1830s (Karayanni 67), but as colonialist ideals pervaded the dance became more and more associated with homosexuality, which was taboo and then illegal.
The cultural changes in the West are important in understanding the role of the Western male belly dancer. Throughout the beginning of the 20th century, film and media portrayed female belly dancers as dangerous seductresses. With the feminist movements of the 1960s and 70s, though, belly dance was re-appropriated as an instance of active female sexuality. It was considered empowering, as it allowed women to control their body and their own image. In “Belly Dance: Orientalism—Exoticism—Self-Exoticism,” Shay and Sellers-young write, “this once unacceptable portrayal of the female body became a powerful means of transcendence” (17). At this point, belly dance had more to do with the old, Western construction that had to be re-appropriated than with a portrayal of a different culture, and I think it becomes useful to think of it as a separate entity from Eastern dance.
Meanwhile, in Egypt, the dance is continuously changing in its role in society. Male dancers, as previous stated, were associated with gayness. In 2003, Egypt issued a ban on non-Egyptians performing the dance within the country, in a postcolonial effort to “purify” the dance form. In 2005 this ban was lifted, but it reflects a concern with a pure Egyptian culture. In 2008, the International Heral Tribune published an article about the resurgence of male belly dancers occurring in Egypt. Daniel Williams writes, “Male belly dancing, a centuries-old Egyptian tradition, is making a comeback – against the odds, considering its periodic suppression by government and religious officials.” Dancers still must be careful not to appear seductive, however. In this case, male dance is key in reclaiming culture which was overshadowed by the colonialist influence. The technology of male dance combats the Orientalist image of the region, because it simply does not jibe with the exotic and sexually available image of belly dance which the West constructed. Its power lies in its anti-colonial and traditional roots.
Male belly dance in the West, though, operates in a very different way. Because the dance has always been associated with the feminine, male dancers participate in challenging the technologies of gender we accept. In a sense, the practice is still otherizing in that it claims a foreign culture as its own; some dancers play more into the exotic archetype than others. But, since the dance has been used to assert female sexuality, their performance challenges the very gendering of sexuality, much like the move into Third Wave Femininism. By taking a gendered technology and subverting it, these male dancers are alloweing flexibility in other gendered technology as well. To have a men as the subject of the sexualized gaze, inherent to belly dance in the West, allows for either a female or a queer male gaze to actively penetrate. The larger point which can be drawn from all this is the inherent situatedness of ny technology used to construct an image of the self. In the West and East, the image of the male dance has very different implications. The interpretation of a technology changes based on its context, and the expectations of those watching.
Brabant, Michael. “Egyptian belly dance ‘in crisis.’” BBC News March 30, 2005.

Shay, Anthony and Barbara Sellers-Young. “Belly Dance: Orientalism—Exoticism—Self
Exoticism.” Dance Research Journal 35.1 (Summer 2003): 13-37.
Karayanni, Stavros Stavrou. Dancing fear & desire : race, sexuality and imperial politics in
Middle Eastern dance. Waterloo, Ont. : Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2004.
Williams, Daniel. “Making a comeback: Male belly dance in Egypt.” International Herald
Tribune Jan 2, 2008.

One Response
  1. Anne Dalke permalink*
    March 16, 2009


    Because this paper is about “dancing and interpreting the dance” from a variety of subject positions—both those of the dancers and of those watching them—it puts me in mind of your last one, on “reading and writing the text” that is the self. You may remember that I thought the real unanswered question in that earlier paper had to do with who had control over the method of reading (and, following from that, how we might intervene and alter it). I think, in this paper, you come closer to some answers to those questions. What you call the “inherent situatedness of any technology” affects how it is read; your careful historicizing and geographizing of the dance helps to untangle the various ways in which it is both performed and understood.

    I read your paper in the context of the recent conference @ Penn on Re-thinking Sex, which has gotten me re-thinking the various ways in which sexuality is enacted globally. Your work brings to mind, in particular, a panel on “Globalizing Sex” which began, “having sex travel does strange things to it.” We learned about “queer diasporic re-visions” in Africa, the “traffic in money boys in China,” the “unsecured life” of Filipinos working in the Middle East, the “spectacularly uneven enforcement and access to sex” in South Africa today, and “who is allowed the tourist’s gaze” in this country. It is out of that context that I find myself, in reading your paper, wanting to know less about how the colonialist gaze once operated to shut down male belly dancers, and more about how they are perceived, locally, today. In a culture as homophobic as Egypt, how is the male dancer seen? What functions does his dance perform? Is there really no threat of sodomy, no perception of the performance of homosexual enticement?

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