Earning Power, Ethnology, and Happily Ever After
Part I: The Mythic History
If you spend any time online reading about belly dance (and if you’re reading this, you obviously do), you have probably encountered the “dancing for dowries” explanation of the coin-covered belly dance bra and belt. Coin bras and belts, popular in belly dance costuming since the 1970’s, offer a mysterious, evocative alternative to the glittering beadwork that more obviously reflects mainstream glamour. We have all seen the photographs from the 19th and early 20th centuries showing women – dancers – draped in coin jewelry, and obviously their jewelry inspired the use of coins in modern belly dance costuming. So it’s natural to want to know the customs behind the fashion. This article is about the ways we have constructed imaginative histories to explain this aspect of belly dance. The ways we interpret wearing money – the juxtaposition of earning power, sex, adornment, and belly dance – say a lot about the way we see belly dance and ourselves.
Dancing for Dowries: The Mythos
The basic story is this: We wear coin costumes because sometime in the past, young, marriageable women would dance for the coins that were thrown to them, which they would then sew onto their hip scarves, saving them for a dowry. When a girl had earned enough, she could give up dancing and return home to a proper and happy marriage, after which she would no longer dance in public.
The story has many manifestations. On one of the older sites devoted to belly dance, bdancer.com, Me’ira offers this version of the story:
In classical Greece, a woman from a poor family tied a sash around her hips and went to dance for her dowry in the marketplace. Spectators threw small gold coins at her, money which she then sewed into her bodice and hip-belt as decoration, since she had no where else quite as safe to keep them.
Me’ira has written many effective and accurate commentaries on belly dance, but this is not one of them. There is no evidence from ancient Greece of women dancing for their dowries.
All the same, this account has been repeated on any number of sites, incidentally without either attribution to the modern author or references to the primary sources (that is, sources from the original culture, here ancient Greece). Another version of the story, repeated by a reporter in the mainstream press from an interview with the belly dance teacher Elena Griffin, shifts the emphasis to the Arab world and adds detail:
Young women would sew their dowry onto their clothes to let men know how much money they had … As they followed the caravans, men could hear the coins jingling from far away, they would know a woman of marriageable age was in the next caravan. They could see the girl’s dowry on her clothes and know whether he could afford to marry her. (Meserve 2009)
Other variations shift the location to North Africa, and some specifically name the Ouled Nail tribe as the group practicing this “dancing for dowries,” a variation I will discuss later.
The “dancing for dowries” stories I quoted above are not supported by any evidence, which makes them “mythic histories,” or myths masquerading as historical accounts. (I will sometimes also use the term “mythos” or “myth,” to describe them).
Lacking evidence, why do we tell stories like this? To fill a gap in our knowledge that is difficult to research? Maybe. But even when facts are thick on the ground, history can be told in many different ways, slanted to reflect one perspective or another, or to explain different things. And history–based explanations of modern practices often have an element of fiction – or perhaps myth is a better word. In fact, one of the purposes of all mythology, from ancient Greece to modern America, is to explain the present through reference to the heroic events of the past.
In our community, where so much knowledge is transmitted orally or on the Internet – and this applies especially to Internet “history” – there is no prerequisite that “histories” of belly dance contain any facts at all, and many belly dance histories are entirely fabricated.
Well then, why has this particular story – “dancing for dowries” – persisted so long and in so many different forms? A contributing factor is the misreading of the practices of the Ouled Nail, but there are other, more internal reasons for its popularity.
Mythic histories do not come into being unless they satisfy a deep need in a culture (or a sub-culture like ours). When a mythic history is told and retold in a context like the belly dance community, you have to assume that there are strong underlying reasons for its popularity. It must be satisfying some vision of the dance that dancers have, or satisfactorily answering internal questions about the meaning and value of our dance or ourselves as dancers.
Sigmund Freud commented that “myths were public, collective dreams” (Scarborough 24) and whatever you think about his ideas on penis envy, he had a point about myth. This means that just as dreams might reveal your underlying neuroses, mythic histories can be a chisel-point we can use to get to the heart of some underlying assumptions about our dance and ourselves –helpful or harmful – that do not always come out in our conscious minds.
What underlying feelings, beliefs, anxieties, or hopes do our mythic histories reveal about our relationship to belly dance in the present world? In this case, the “dancing for dowries” mythos contains a tangle of conflicting issues about independence, status, money, and the value of belly dance.
Let’s look at some elements of the story in turn.
“Dancing for Dowries” Unpacked
Why is the story set in ancient Greece? Greece is a part of the “belly dance world” in the West, since Greek restaurants hire belly dancers, Greek tchiftetelli has many moves in common with social forms of belly dance, and so on. At the same time, Greece has the reputation of being the founder of Western democracy, science, and philosophy – the key elements of civilization. When belly dance is placed back in ancient Greece, the dance is somehow legitimized. No [we can claim], this isn’t the dance of the harem slave – free women were doing it in Greece millennia ago!
Putting the story into ancient Greece is a way of legitimizing our dance by associating it with the “classical” and “pure.” Too bad there’s no evidence. But another “too bad” is that we feel the need to look beyond the dance itself to find associations that give it legitimacy in the popular consciousness of the West. In giving in to this desire, we may be undermining the real claims to legitimacy belly dance has in its own right.
Why is the dancer portrayed as a “poor girl”? If we are mythologizing our dance, why not portray ancient belly dancers as aristocrats and queens whose coined necklaces reflect their wealth and status? But even if you stick to the “dancing for dowries” scenario, why insist on low status for the dancer? Ordinary “middle class” women rather than the poor could also reasonably be portrayed as dancing for dowries.
But poverty means you have a good reason to concede to outside necessities. The dancing girl couldn’t help dancing – she had to.
The use of this poverty excuse reflects the ambivalent attitude the largely middle-class belly dancer has toward professional performance. On the one hand, belly dance is art, and performance is the epitome of its expression. On the other hand, everyone “knows” that belly dancers provide a sexy come-on an tease to their male audience members – don’t they? Encountering this persistent expectation gives belly dancers in the West a defensive attitude. The idea of “necessity through poverty” in the mythical dowry-dancers is a hedge against the blame that can accrue to the dancer for performing this sexy dance just because she wants to. If she had to, it might not be so bad. Economic necessity, by the way, was the reason given by many lower-echelon dancers in Cairo as to why they were dancing professionally in Karin van Nieuwkerk’s 1980’s interviews (van Nieuwkerk 1995).
There is another dimension to poverty, though, which anyone who has performed professionally has encountered. The dancer may be middle class and well established in her comfortable home and day job with benefits, but when she takes a dance job, she suddenly becomes poor. Desperately poor. She will dance for ridiculously low sums of money, as if she needed the gig to put food on her table or buy her kids shoes. She will accept money thrust into her costume whether she likes it or not, and take on the burdensome duty of trying to instruct her audience (smiling the whole time) as to where their dollars – and their fingers – can go.
Belly dance is an expensive hobby, and most of the women dancing in public venues such as restaurants just plow their earnings back into their dance habits. The money one earns from gigging is very welcome. It may even justify the value of the hobby/profession to dubious family members. But undercutting and other related economic practices reflect the kind of desperation that only poverty can explain – whether that poverty is monetary or another sort.
Unfortunately, it is the desire to perform at any cost – or for any price – that aligns the modern belly dancer with the “poor girl” in the “dancing for dowries” scenario. The acceptance of this artificial “poverty mentality” undermines professionalism in belly dance, and the “poor girl” of the “dancing for dowries” story reflects this unpleasant dynamic.
Why do they throw her money? There is a long tradition in the Middle East that persists into the present day, of tipping belly dancers by putting money on the body or (less commonly) in the costume. Several 18th – 19th century travelers’ descriptions describe audience members tipping dancers by pressing small gold coins to their foreheads or elsewhere on their bodies. This is not quite the same as throwing. To be fair, the idea of throwing money to performers has a tradition in the West as well, though it is usually not really throwing but dropping coins (or bills) into a receptacle that either sits in plain sight or is passed around during or after the show.
Perhaps the coin-tossing is modeled on the generally enjoyable modern practice of customers showering bills on the dancer. Of course, being pelted with coins would be less pleasant! But a subtext of the coin-tossing scenario is – in the absence of waiters, helpful friends, or spouses – who picks up the coins from the dirt? The dancing girl, of course. That’s a little more solitary necessity than the average belly dancer wants, and it is diminishing to the dancer. But it is implicit in the story. Which brings us to the next question.
Why does she go alone to the market place? The market place stands for an impersonal world where buying and selling is the order of the day. In this mythic history, there is no real context for the dancer, except that she is unmarried. Does she leave her father’s home every day to go to the market place? Does she live on her own, away from home, while she earns her dowry? Does she live with other dancers – or dance with them? Any given town would presumably have a number of dancing poor girls, so did they dance together? Did each stake out a spot?
The vagueness of the scenario allows us to read into this pseudo-historical account the “single life” that most adult women experience, for at least a few years, in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. This dancer is a single girl! She can overturn the standards of propriety that would apply to women that were either married or too young – she can dance professionally now, which would be frowned on at any other time in her life. This ability to fly in the face of propriety, and to do it on one’s own and in the commercial, money-driven world, resonates with the freedom of living single away from home that has been a (usually exciting) facet of contemporary women’s lives.
The dowry-earner’s temporary overthrowing of the bonds of propriety takes its context in part from the very modern experience of freedom our times allow us as single women.
On the other hand, this alone-ness slides the story past two central issues in the belly dance world: both the sisterhood one ideally feels with one’s fellow dancers, and the bitchiness that can result from jealousy, competition for jobs and students, and so on – which surely puts it in the realm of fantasy!
Why does she wear her coins? The mythic history comments that there is no safer place to keep them than to wear them on her own person as jewelry. This (for a change) is accurate to practices in several historical Middle Eastern cultures. It also provides an interesting and inspiring model for modern women. We are trained to display our beauty in a limited and conventional way. Things like designer labels are subtle by comparison to a necklace or belt of clattering gold coins. This kind of display of one’s own value – even if that value rests on patriarchal assessments of women’s worth – is inspiringly non-conformist in today’s day and age. It fits in well with the experience of belly dancing as uninhibiting and as celebrating individual expression and beauty – at least, if you consider how wearing such adornment might make you stand out among your modern peers. The metallically-adorned dancing girls were presumably conforming to the standards of their [fictitious] cultures.
Why is she dancing for her dowry? That’s the crux of the matter. The answer rests on the nature of the dowry.
Dowry is a complicated animal, and not all cultures treat it the same. In ancient Greece, the homeland of this mythic history, a dowry was a sum of money, goods or land allotted to a woman by her father upon her marriage. It was managed by her husband, but was meant to benefit and support her and her children, and if he divorced her for a reason other than adultery, he had to give her dowry back to her – or rather, to her male guardian. So in ancient Greek terms, and to a lesser extent in the Western world for whom the values of ancient Greece have trickled down, “dancing for dowries” makes sense.
On the other hand, in the Arab world, it doesn’t. Dowries in the Arab world (called mahr) are typically not given by the bride’s father to the bride (and by extension to her husband). It goes the other way – the husband-to-be gives a sum of money to the father of his future bride. The money is typically understood to be for her benefit and protection, and may go to things like purchasing a home, household goods, or clothing and jewelry for the new bride. Like ancient Greek dowry, the Arabic mahr is meant to protect the bride financially, as well as in less tangible ways, since it establishes a solid bond of obligation between the husband and the bride’s family (see Barakat 1993: 110-111; Rashad et al. 2005).
In any case, the facts of Arabic dowry practice means that “dancing for dowries” does not make sense in the Arab world. The girl’s family, let alone the girl herself, were not expected to provide her with her dowry – that was the job of the husband to be. (So maybe he should be out dancing for it!)
So the real question is, why is dancing for dowries, unlikely given Arab customs, so appealing to modern belly dancers as an explanation of not only the coin bra and belt, but the logistics behind women’s professional dancing?
One of the things about dowries that jumps out at the modern feminist is that they put a price on a woman – there is an element of “buying and selling” involved in negotiating a marriage that seems to reduce the woman to the value of the services and goods she is worth. This (in scholarly circles) is sometimes described as “reifying” a woman (from the Latin res, “thing”), literally “making her into a thing” whose value can be measured in concrete terms.
In the “dancing for dowries” story, the woman is in the interesting position of reifying herself: accepting and acquiescing to the idea of her material value, and doing her best to conform to the sort of value society has set for her. Presumably the dancing brides know what the going rate is, since when they have it they stop.
The idea of reifying women can, in our minds, easily blend into the more acceptable (to us) idea of offering service for money (which is what belly dancers do when they dance for pay). But dancing for dowries is not only about the service-for-pay exchange that the dancer is doing to get her money, but also the “women as thing” reading that (in the Western world, anyway) the concept of dowry implies.
This reification shows up in variation that shows of men following the caravans, so that when “men could hear the coins jingling from far away, they would know a woman of marriageable age was in the next caravan. They could see the girl’s dowry on her clothes and know whether he could afford to marry her.”
The marriageable girl is clearly evaluated according to her monetary value, and marriage is portrayed as essentially an economic exchange. But who exactly has the financial power? Could a poor man go after a woman with lots of bling? Or did her jingling dowry mark the woman off for only men of equal wealth? Or maybe – in a reversal of patriarchal valuing of feminine beauty – for only the studliest?
Despite its socio-economic confusion, the image of the caravan with its jingling potential brides, and the excitement of the men as they hear their approach, manages to capture the excitement at the advent of the nightclub belly dancer, in the whirl of sound and rhythm that marks her entrance (and in anticipation of the bills that will bristle from her costume before the night is done). The other elements of this story – who is active, who passive, who is financially in control, etc. – are muddled, as is perhaps appropriate for an art whose financial and sexual issues are so deeply contested.
Happily Ever After?
One common variations appears on several sites, for example: “Most well respected women saved their payments until they had enough to buy a dowry, never to dance again after marriage” (Belly Dance Divas n.d.). Women who dance for money are defined as “respected,” a position modern Western dancers want to claim, despite the poor reputation of belly dancers. The dowry-dancers are also thrifty, a conventional Puritan value that is incorporated into the mythos. This model of “dancing for dowries” uses the historical metaphor to affirm that belly dance, at least under certain circumstances, is a respectable thing to do.
But isn’t it interesting that the “happily ever after” of this story means “never to dance again”? Belly dance is therefore defined as a temporary thing, something to be laid aside once its (economic) usefulness has passed. This is directly counter to the mainstream discourse of belly dance, which emphasizes that belly dance never needs to be abandoned, and that it is always an appropriate pastime, that older women gain more emotional maturity and power to compensate for their loss of youthful energy, and so on.
Women’s right to keep belly dancing, and the consciousness that sometimes a woman’s decision to continue dancing will cause dissent in her immediate family, are central issues in the belly dance world. Stories of dancers forced by their husbands to give up their dancing constantly circulate, giving voice to the recreational belly dancer’s legitimate fear that outside forces may conspire to stop her. Such stories emphasize the repression of women, and belly dance serves as both a symbol of a woman’s right to self-expression and a means by which she can claim that right.
On the other hand, realistically speaking, most of the women who study belly dance do it for a while, learn and incorporate its lessons (to whatever extent), and then lay it aside. The “never to dance again” of this mythos may reflect this reality.
The mythos may also reflect the discomfort that exists on a deep level with many women in our world, that says that something as sensuous as belly dance is not appropriate for the old (or even the married), or that something as fulfilling and self-centered as belly dance is only appropriate – or perhaps only possible – in a life that is free of demanding husbands and children with multiple after-school activities. Few recreational belly dancers are free of those things, ironically – so the idea of “belly dance abandoned” may have a bittersweet resonance for women who are obliged to put their own desires for dancing on the back burner, to attend to the needs – or selfish demands – of their families.
The subtexts of the “dancing for dowries” mythos give us a lot to think about. These same issues impact the ways in which we tell the story of the Nailiyat, professional dancers of Algeria whose practices probably inspired the idea of dancing for dowries in the first place, and whose coined jewelry probably did inspire the coined belly dance bra and belt.
Barakat, Halim. 1993. The Arab World: Society, Culture, and State. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Belly Dance Divas. n. d. About Belly Dance. http://www.bellydancedivas.co.za/AboutBellyDance.html. Accessed June 9 2009.
Deloncle, Pierre. 1927. La Caravan Aux Eperons Verts. Paris: Librarie Plon.
Dinet, Etienne, and Sliman Ben Ibrahim. 1926. Khadra. Paris: H. Piazza.
Fromentin, Eugene. 1857 . Un Eté dans le Sahara. Ed. Anne-Marie Christin. Paris:Le Sycomore.
Gautier, Théophile. 1865 . Loin de Paris. Ed. G. Charpentier. In Théophile Gautier, Ouvres Completes, vol. 9. Geneva: Slatkine Reprints.
Herodotus. n. d. History. (Public domain.)
Hichens, Robert. 1904. The Garden of Allah. New York: Grosset and Dunlap.
Lazreg, Marnia. 1994. The Eloquence of Silence: Algerian Women in Question. New York: Routledge.
Me’ira. n.d. The World’s Oldest Dance. http://www.bdancer.com/history/BDhist1.html. Accessed June 14 2009.
Meserve, Casey. 2009. Dancing For Themselves. Kingston Reporter. Feb 20.
Michelle. n. d. Collecting Your Dowry. http://www.farfesha.com/pages/dowery.html. Accessed June 1, 2009.
Morgan, Lawrence. 1956 . Flute of Sand. Bristol, UK: Cinnabar.
van Nieuwkerk, Karin. 1995. A Trade Like Any Other. Austin, Texas:University of Texas Press.
Rashad, Hoda, Magued Osman, and Farzaneh Roudi-Farhini. 2005. Marriage in the Arab World. Population Reference Bureau. http://www.iiav.nl/epublications/2005/MarriageInArabWorld.pdf.
Accessed June 15, 2009.
Scarborough, Milton. 1994. Myth and Modernity. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
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