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Samia Gamal
Samia Gamal
Gilded Serpent presents...
Belly Dance,
Through the Eye of the Camera.

by Ishtar

We can learn a lot about how a particular culture or artist views the phenomena of belly dance in the way it is described and translated into two dimensional still or moving images.   

Belly dance is an archetype of the feminine experience. When we see it captured by photography we are also receiving information concerning fear and fascination of the erotic powerful women.

In Western films, the audience watching the belly dancer is nearly always male and the context frequently a smoky club. Here we perceive the dance removed from its historical and cultural context. The component parts of the body -, breast and belly, are deconstructed and fetished. Interestingly this phenomenon is far more apparent in Western cinema than in its Eastern counterparts. Middle Eastern camera angles frequently show the whole dancer generally the dancer is presented respectfully (but also erotically) as an artist.  Belly dance in Western film industries often takes place in the private world of men. However many dance scenes in Middle Eastern Cinema are outside in courtyards or deserts where women and men watch female dancers. In Hollywood films it is very rare to see women watching other attractive women. Attractive, powerful women are frequently perceived competitively as a threat to the main female character.

For most non-Middle Eastern people, their first introduction to belly dance is often via a white western patriarchal media. Hollywood has often preferred to examine the oriental dancer as a dangerous sexual archetype, Theda Bara and Mater Hari are two who typify these elements. Biblical epics in the forties and fifties featured a belly dancer (briefly) for light relief. When belly dancers appear in the likes of a James Bond film, we are presented with significant non-verbal information about the perspective from which we should view the dancer.

The camera work, direction and casting collide to create a construct only partially accredited to the dancer. Frequently the dancer is beheaded by the camera -this is symbolic of the deprivation of individual identity of the woman.

However if she is not a real dancer but an actress with a fully formed character we may see her head and shoulders alone. (Like the dancer in Laurence Darrell’s Justine.)

‘The Great Unknown’, and ‘Stars of Egypt are a compilations of clips of vintage belly dancers by Hossam Ramsey – the dancing is breathtaking. We can gain so much cultural and sociological information on the status of dancers as well seeing the true poetry and genius that they display. Stars of Egypt / The Great Unknown show respect and homage to the dancer. One of my favorite dancers - Suhair Zaki – in the “great unknown’’ is filmed like a goddess elevated in a temple like building. She is performing to an audience of adoring males, perspiring madly, and looking-up to her entranced – a deeply feminist film moment.  The stunning Samia Gamal, the most filmed and famous dancer, gave charismatic performances in Egyptian and International films.

She gave Oriental Dance recognition and admiration in Egypt and worldwide. How such a woman came to be so influential in Cairo society at that time is amazing and a positive reflection on the dance.

Leila dancing for Sean Connery in "From Russia with Love'

The film Khali Balak Min Zou Zou (The example of Zou Zou) unusually advances the idea that there may be nothing inherently shameful about being a dancer. Zou Zou is a dancer in her mothers troupe who hides the fact from her fiancé; she tells her mother that ’it is other people who have created the bad name of dancers.’

To critique how belly dance and the erotic mystique of the dusky Middle-Eastern women are represented in the west, we need tools of analysis. I have found feminist theory, in particular feminist media studies, to be effective in the understanding of my own position in society and how one is seen as a belly dancer and how the film/media present the image of a belly dancer.

Belly dance, with its freedom of improvisation and modification within the vocabulary of moves, encourages self-expression. The dance is liberating to women

Today Tribal dance and other divergent forms seem to have taken on the social, cultural and gender analysis of Middle Eastern dance.

Laura Mulvay’s ground breaking article in 1975 Visual pleasure and the narrative cinema, explores the media construction of women as spectacle, to be looked at by the (male) gaze. Women function in film as objects of voyeuristic pleasure. Mulvay draws on Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis to examine the pleasures of scopophilia and narcissistic identification.

Scopophilia is a complex term that describes a human being’s intense desire to look at another, with feelings that are more holistic and satisfying than lust alone.

As women belly dancers or fans of belly dance we spend time gazing at other women both live and on film. We may experience a sense of satisfaction in this, which is hard to define. Perhaps we like to look at an idealized feminine self? Lacan describes children perceiving their reflection in the mirror as more powerful than themselves. Belly dance students often enjoy looking at their own reflections in dance classes - perhaps this is why.

Hollywood cinematic conventions often fetishize the female with objects such as shoes or other items or clothing. This removes us from the actual body of the women (so rendering her less frightening!). Perhaps the belly dance costume and paraphernalia actually makes us less threatening, as these objects themselves have a meaning and symbology. Casting the women as unproblematic means she must be framed in a way where males are as Mulvey put it ‘The active controllers of the Look’.  John Berger writes in his classic study Ways of Seeing, that ‘men act and women appear ‘and that the ‘surveyor of woman in herself is male’; the surveyed female.’ 

The observations of those such as Mulvay apply to the framing of belly dance in the media because the belly dancer is a condensation or typification of a woman who is to be looked at. 

Males dominate photography and film industries in both the west and the east. As well as ideas concerning the status of the dancer and gender, films involving belly dancers can give us information on the class dynamic and stratification that exists.

In the 1920s Egyptian movies began to rely on music and dance scenes, the nightclub and theatre became familiar settings for the film narrative. “Real-life prejudices against dancers, singers and even male musicians were part of the narrative as well,” writes Marjorie Franken in Images of Enchantment. Hollywood exerted a great influence on film nevertheless, and “its fantasy of Oriental dance” filtered through and was taken up and unconsciously parodied by Arab dancers in their desire to emulate Western behavior.


Mata Hari

A frequent theme in Arab films is class conflict. One of my all time favorite films is a Tunisian film called Silences of the Palace (Saimt el Qusur) by Moufida Tlatli. Silences of the Palace is a beautiful heartbreaking film about a young girl, whose mother is a dancer and lover to the married master, and is set within a feudal palace where the servants are slaves .

The film is not uncritical of the patriarchal abuses of Islam—in particular laws that count women as “half-persons” and systematically favor the male in terms of marriage and divorce. The film’s visual language however, favors the rhythms of inner worlds and spirituality.

Lingering camera shots immerse us in the sensual visual worlds of contoured Arabic architecture, idyllic courtyards, fountains and soothing inner spaces are entered and explored.

Main character Alia attempts to uncover the secrets which these silences hide, primarily of who her father is. But there are other secrets as well, such as those surrounding the political struggles outside the palace, as Tunisia fights for its independence from France, and the silent class struggle between the upper and lower class in the palace. Feminine secrets are also searched for, as the 11-year-old Alia has her first period and with it the insight into the joys and sorrows of womanhood. Finally, there are also the silences surrounding rape, as no one will admit to its frequency in the palace.

The emphasis on the curved nature of the Arabic interior becomes a perfect back drop to the films belly dance performance. Alia’s mother performs a full oriental routine for the elite family of the house in their plush family room. She is a dancer but also a slave, she is commanded to dance. She looks happy, beautiful and liberated when she dances in full cabaret costume. Both the women and the men enjoy the performance. Her dance is symbolic of the freedom the slaves find in poetical emancipation. The others look stiff and unyielding as they rely on the dance to introduce a subtle eroticism into a circle where the women seated would find it beneath them to generate this energy themselves.

As one woman states: “in the palace we are taught one rule: silence”. Alia’s memories are inextricably linked with the freedom of spirit generated by music, song and dance which in the film, penetrate the power of the silence.

There is a variety of what could be termed feminist films about Middle Eastern women. 

For example Egyptian feminist Nawal el-Saadawi’s Hidden Faces explores the problems of women working together to create alternative institutions. Elizabeth Fernea’s The Veiled Revolution (1982) shows Egyptian women redefining not only the meaning of the veil but also the nature of their own sexuality. And Moroccan filmmaker Farida Benlyazid’s feature film Bab Ila Sma Maftouh (A Door to the Sky, 1988) offers a positive gloss on the notion of an all-female space, counter posing Islamic feminism to Orientalist fantasies. 5

A number of recent diasporas film/video works link issues of postcolonial identity, the position of women and visions of Middle Eastern culture as perceived by the West.

Clip of Khali Balak Min Zou Zou (The example of Zou Zou)
These experimental films/videos call attention to a diversity of experiences within and across nations. Connected by glaring cultural differences and separated communities we can also recognize equally obvious commonalities.

As dancers when we are filmed or photographed it is a collaboration with another’s view of our work. When any dance is filmed it is changed and altered by the perceptions of those involved in creating the film. What is important to them about the dance will be its focus. How we see the presentation of oriental dance in both Middle Eastern and Western films reflects the ideologies, fantasies and prejudices of those who capture the dancer on film.

The perception of belly dance as an encapsulation of the feminine can both empower and limit women in their creative expression and self-exploration. Ironically performers like Fifi Abdu, Armani and others have strong assertive personalities (masculine traits?) so perhaps there is scope for the whole repertoire of human experience to be presented

The Orientalists described dancers and Arab women to conform to a fantasy and myth that white Western society held about Arab women.

What we see is a fusion of the reality of Arab culture fused with the mystique and/or prejudice held in the minds of the artists. The process of film and photography also has the potential to present the image of the dancer within a preconceived cultural context.

As a belly dancer I am lucky to have had publicity from the media, as this has helped me to be a professional dancer. I have been misrepresented as well – I have been accused of a variety of imaginary heinous acts of a sexual nature (by other dancers usually).

Like with patriarchal perceptions of women generally, the emphasis on the sexual detracts from the complexity, talent and humanity of any individual.

When I look at filmed and still images of myself as a belly dancer I often feel disconnected from the person. I much prefer the image to my ordinary self. When I am being filmed and photographed, I lose control of my own image and have to hope that the person behind the camera will be sympathetic and sensitive to the person I want to be. People may frame me whatever way they choose, but I will never be a marionette, moved by the strings of someone else’s world view.

Bibliography

  • 1- Wendy Buonaventura  bellydancing  Virago 1983
  • 2- Andrea Deagon Feminism and Belly Dance   Habbibi magazine
  • 3- Kappanir  Europes myths of the orient  London 1986
  • 4-Mulvey -visual pleasure and narrative cinema 1975 Bloomington
  • 5- Ella Shohat The Cinema of Displacement: Gender, Nation, and Diaspora,” in Middle Eastern Identities in Transition, UCLA Near East Center Colloquium Series CUNY-Graduate Center1997- http://social.chass.ncsu.edu/Jouvert/v1i1/shohat.htm
  • 6- Zoonen  Feminist media studies ,Sage publications 1994

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