Gilded Serpent presents...
I've been involved in a debate over whether belly dancing is a suitable activity
for young girls. The proponents say it's good for body image, exercise,
etc. Those opposed to it talk about its seductive aspect, the issue
of stage mothers, the fear that perverts might stalk the girls if they
perform in public, and the negative reactions of the public.
I'm torn. At what age are girls
taught how to belly dance in the Middle East? Is belly dancing
a good activity for girls here in our U.S. society? What do
It sounds like this debate is represented by the mothers/aunts and other mentors
of belly dancing girls on one side, and those who know very little about it
on the other. I personally believe that both sides have valid points, but I
wouldn't want to support the extreme interpretation of either side!
First, A Look At The Middle
In the Middle East,
girls are never particularly "taught" how to belly dance. They
don't have belly dancing classes like those seen in the U.S., Europe,
and Australia. In fact, the notion of being "taught" to dance is completely
alien to them. In a workshop taught by Leila
Haddad, Leila commented that her family back in Tunisia think
it's very, very strange that she can make a living teaching people to
dance. In their culture, girls simply learn to dance while growing
up by spending time with their adult relatives at weddings, circumcisions,
parties celebrating the birth of a new baby, gatherings of women, etc.
and copying what they see the adults do. It's not so different
from how most of us learn the social dances of our own cultures--we accompany
our parents or older siblings to festive events and copy what we see
In a charming section of the book Grandmother's Secrets, the author
describes the first time that her grandmother invited her to dance for an afternoon
gathering of women from the family and neighborhood. Not long before,
her first period had arrived and she took on the attire and social status of
an adult woman. Her first dance performance was another acknowledgement
of this coming of age.
But remember, knowing how to dance versus performing in public for an audience
of strangers are two very different things. In many parts of the Middle
East, society accepts the idea that a man's honor is greatly defined by the
behavior of his wife, mother, sisters, and daughter. A female who behaves shamefully
brings dishonor on not only herself, but also on the men of her family. And
one of the most shameful professions a person of either profession can have
is that of show business. "Son of a dancer" is a profound insult. The
book A Trade Like Any Other by Karin Van Nieuwkerk explores this in
For this reason, Middle Eastern parents certainly do not encourage their daughters
to embrace careers in the performing arts. In a respectable Muslim family,
a girl can perform for female family members, friends, and neighbors, but not
for men, and certainly not for strangers! In a family where the adults
make their living as musicians and dancers, a girl might aspire to be a dancer.
But even then parents often hope their children will have a better life than
they did, so if the family finances permit they'll probably try to steer her
in a different direction.
About Western Society?
In contrast, in Western
countries such as the United States many parents eagerly encourage
their young girls to become involved in beauty pageants, cheerleading,
tap dancing, ballet, gymnastics, ice skating, modeling, team sports,
and acting. Some parents even aggressively push their children
into these pursuits despite the children's objections.
It wasn't always this way. At the beginning of the 20th century, respectable
women still wore corsets and floor-length skirts. Exposing even a shapely ankle
was risque. But American society changed over the next 2-3 decades, and
soon movie actresses were viewed as glamorous people who often led scandalous
lives of divorce, extramarital affairs, and remarriage. After still more
time, under the increasing influence of movies, radio, and television, the
performing arts became admired, and young people of both genders aspired to
Today, a child who is skilled at any of the performing arts or sports is often
a source of great pride to his or her parents.
Is Belly Dancing Good For Girls?
Belly dancing can
be a great activity for a girl, for many reasons:
But What About The Negatives?
- Fun. It's fun to learn
how to do things your friends can't do, like balance a glass of water
on your head or roll your stomach. It's also fun to dress up in the
wonderful costumes that belly dancers use.
- Exercise Benefits. Belly
dance is a form of exercise, and exercise is very healthy for the
human body. Exercise promotes strong muscles, flexibility,
and strong cardio-vascular health. It also releases endorphins
into the brain, which generate a feeling of well-being. Done
regularly, it helps prevent obesity.
- Mental Well-Being. Girls
in American society, more than boys, are beaten from an early age
into being dissatisfied with themselves: their bodies, their faces,
etc. Girls, more than boys, are surrounded by magazine articles and
advertisements that promote use of make-up, bust enlargement techniques,
ever-changing fashions, hair color, and diet plans. The point of
the constant barrage of ads is to make girls so dissatisfied with
their current appearance that they'll go out and purchase these products
to "fix" the problem. Belly dancing provides a girl with an environment
that teaches appreciation for her own body, whatever it may look
like. It offers her a way to feel beautiful without dieting
herself to malnutrition or enriching big corporations with her spending
- Social Opportunities. Dance
offers a girl another group of people to meet, outside the usual
settings of school and church. A girl who feels shy and awkward in
school may find that dance class provides a more comfortable place
to meet people and make friends.
- Cultural Awareness. Learning
a dance from another country can bring new life to how she thinks
about that culture. Instead of thinking about boring history books,
terrorists, oil profits, or wars when she hears a country mentioned,
she'll think of its music, clothing, and folk traditions.
- Public Appearance. In
the adult world, people who are skilled at public speaking have many
great job opportunities open to them. Learning how to be comfortable
in front of an audience as a child will equip a girl with a valuable
job skill for her future.
It's true that there
can be a dark side to encouraging a girl to belly dance. A smart parent
will consider these issues, and exercise good judgment in making decisions:
- That Seduction Thing. A
good belly dance teacher will make sure her students realize that
it did not originate as a dance of seduction. She will encourage
them to use the dance to explore moods such as joy, introspection,
cuteness, and fun. However, not all belly dance teachers are good
teachers. A parent may want to ask the teacher questions, watch
her teach, or watch her perform to evaluate what kind of behavior
the teacher encourages in her students before enrolling the child
in the class.
- Stage Mothers And Fathers. Stage
parents are often adults who wish they could have been stars as children.
Whether the activity is gymnastics, ballet, drill team, piano, cheerleading,
team sports, tap dance, ice skating, beauty pageants, baton twirling,
or any other pursuit, there will always be some parents who push
their children too hard to excel. After too much of this, the child
starts to hate the activity, and suddenly it's not fun any more.
A parent needs to avoid putting pressure on the child to be "the
best" or "the cutest", and just let her be a girl who is having fun
learning something new. And if the child claims she would rather
try a different activity instead of belly dancing, of course the
parent should honor that. There's no point in forcing a child
to learn something she dislikes--it will only foster resentment.
- Perverts. It's true
there are sick adults who engage in twisted sexual fantasies about
young girls. Children engaging in all public activities (even grocery
shopping) are at risk of this, not just belly dancers. Some years
ago, the news carried a story about a lawsuit brought by parents
who discovered that a man had snapped close-up pictures of cheerleaders'
crotches as they did leaps and poses during ball games at their school
and was selling them to the late night crowd. There are also fetishists
who fantasize about gymnasts, ice skaters, and even just plain ordinary
young girls walking to school. Of course, parents should take care
to keep their children safe from these people, but there's no need
to make the girls prisoners in their own home. It's better to teach
the girls sensible habits that will continue to keep them safe as
- Negative Reactions Of
The Public. Many people who are not familiar with belly dancing
assume it's some kind of strip show, and they may fiercely disapprove
of having "that sort of thing" in their family-oriented community.
One way to prevent this is to refer to the girl's dance as "Oriental" or "Middle
Eastern" dance instead of the more provocative term "belly" dance. Another
is to select folkloric costumes for her with covered midriffs instead
of the glitzy bead-and-sequin confections. Perhaps the girl could
charm locals through a dance portraying a Biblical character such
as the Virgin Mary, the queen Esther, Miriam the sister of Moses,
Belly dancing can be
a great activity for a girl if her parents approach it with the right attitude
and take sensible precautions to protect her from the bad behavior of adults
(including her own parents!) A low-cost way to try it is to borrow a beginning-level
video from the library or purchase a good-quality low-cost one such as
Magical Motion and see if the girl still wants to pursue dance classes
after learning what the video teaches. She may discover that this activity
is one she'll enjoy for the rest of her life.
Dance by Mimi Albert
There's an attitude here toward life, toward the art of movement in general,
which expresses the affirmation of a belief in the human spirit and its manifestation
in oneself, one's gender, one's position in society.
Your Dance on a Pedestal by
Najia El Mouzayen
dancers make the mistake of using the entire width of the front part
of their feet when they dance, because they have never been taught
dancer's footwork. "Ankle wobble"indicates...