Feminism & Bellydance
by Yasmina Ramzy
based on a talk given at the Faculty Club, University of Toronto, in April 2009
posted to this site on October 19, 2009
This the second speech I gave at a Toastmasters meeting at the Faculty Club of the University of Toronto. The audience were engineers, university professors, lawyers etc. of varying ages and cultural backgrounds, all of whom had no knowledge of Bellydance whatsoever. I was practicing my speaking technique in front of my scariest crowd: non-Bellydancers.
My mother was a devout member of the feminist revolution. She burned her bra at marches and generally raised havoc for my father and our neighbors. She instilled in me the ideas of famous activists and authors such as Betty Freidan, Germaine Greer, and Gloria Steinem. At 11 years of age, I was not aware of the importance of this political movement and the profound affect it would have on the future of young girls like myself.
When I grew up and became a bellydancer, needless to say, my Mom was perplexed and wondered where she had gone wrong.
To her, bellydance was objectifying and exploiting the female body and in a part of the world where women’s rights were held in little regard. To her, I was sabotaging and against everything she had struggled for. To me, I was part of a new feminist revolution which I call the Bellybutton Revolution.
When I visited the Middle East, I witnessed elaborate 2-hour dance performances featuring solo female artists in all their feminine, sensual and glittering glory with fifty piece orchestras supporting them. Now these were powerful women who were having a lot of fun and enjoying their femininity, and they were who I wanted to be.
When invited to dinner in Arab homes, I would always end up eating way too much; and after dinner the men would go to one room to smoke cigars and play backgammon, and I would join the women as we bellydanced for each other. I was always in awe of how the 5 year old girl, the pregnant mom, and the 85 year old grandma would each shake her hips and strut her stuff with a proud glint in her eyes and with her chin held high. I often wished I could share this feminine pride and power with my friends and other women back in Canada.
During visits home in the 80s, when I told people I was performing in the Middle East as a bellydancer, people had no idea what I was talking about or why I was working….where? Syria? The usual response was to change the subject or make some inane comment about a ruby in the bellybutton. So I often just said I was an accountant – less explaining to do.
Nowadays, most women and some men are either taking bellydance class or know someone who is – everywhere in small towns and cities from Indonesia to Russia, and Argentina to the Yukon. In fact, today I teach in over 60 cities around the globe.
Why is this ancient dance making such a huge impact with women all over the world and why NOW?
In the wedding march or Zaffah, the bellydancer leads the bride and groom in a procession. Along the way, she uses her movements to teach the newlyweds about the birds and bees and to inspire them for their first night together. The Zaffah is often performed at anniversaries as well.
Once, while performing at a large family gathering to celebrate the 50th anniversary of a Syrian couple, I witnessed the enduring power of bellydance. In the middle of my performance, I went over to the couple to pull them up to dance a Zaffah. As I was approaching, the family stopped me and asked me not to embarrass the wife as she was crippled and could not walk. But before I could return to the dance floor, she had grabbed my arm with a formidable grip. She then firmly placed her other hand on the table and used the strength in both arms to help herself rise. Everyone around protested, but she gave them a scolding and got herself almost to a standing position. Using all her strength to support herself on the table and my arm, she beamed a huge smile at me and slowly swayed her hips from side to side.
The room was silent until she sat down, then it erupted with applause and roars of appreciation as she looked proudly into the wide and bedazzled eyes of her husband of 50 years. With the simple act of swaying her hips, she was in her full glory.
During my 28 years of teaching bellydancing to countless numbers of women, I have listened to the many reasons students take up the dance. There is no typical type of woman, no particular age and no particular background.A woman will tell you that she persists because bellydancing enhances self-esteem; or often, women will tell how they’ve found the courage to stand up to a difficult boss, an abusive husband, or other equally difficult situations. Eating disorders have been alleviated, entrepreneurs born, and all have experienced a new awareness and comfort with their bodies regardless of shape and size. They will always tell you it was because of bellydance.
One of my mother’s idols, Gloria Steinem, wrote a book in the early 90s called "Revolution from Within". The premise was that as the result of the Feminist Revolution, women could now vote freely, hold management and public office positions, and receive better pay — although still not equal pay. There was still discrimination when it came to important and powerful job positions. She said that women would never be completely equal to men until deep down, there was a revolution from within; until women themselves truly believed they deserved it, and in particular believed that they deserved equality as women, and not as women emulating men.
There is a new revolution going on. I call it the Bellybutton Revolution. It is contributing greatly to the Revolution from Within that Gloria Steinem wrote about. Bellydancing seems to be opening a new and yet ancient door on how to view femininity, the female body, what can be expressed through it, and the empowerment that feminine sensuality holds.
Ready for more?
- 6-7-09 Ask Yasmina #7: Milaya, Tipping, Gossip
Ask yourself "why?’ over and over again, digging deeper for the truth, until you arrive at that moment when the beauty of Bellydance had you completely inspired and elated, that moment when you wanted the whole world to experience the same joy.
- 5-11-09 Ask Yasmina #6 : Abhinaya, Personal Journey, What’s Missing?
Tapping into the source will change the quality of your movement, your interpretation of the music and your emotional connection to the movement and the music.
- 4-1-09 Ask Yasmina #5, Where is the Goddess in a Vertical Drop and a Shimmy? Or How Can the Practice of Bellydance Lead the Dancer to a State of Grace or Enlightenment?
The most important practice of almost all mystical paths is meditation. It is universal and does not need a frame of reference from any particular theology.
- 10-14-09 Ramadan in Cairo
This idea of renewed religious commitment and the character of Ramadan to involve self-deprivation makes many of us westerners think that this is a somber time, but in fact there is another side to the month of Ramadan that is quite lively and exciting.
- 10-6-09 Researching Dance Origins with the Mazin Family, Photo from Pepper’s Archives Part 2
Yusuf, Khairiyya and Raja looked a Pepper’s hopeful face with the tears standing in her eyes and caved in. A private performance was arranged to take place on the flat roof of the Mazin’s home in full costume with live musicians.
- 10-1-09 Gig Bag Check with Surreyya and Sultana
What does a dancer need to carry in her gig bag? Surreyya has a very special friend she carries in hers! Sultana, a leopard spotted boa constrictor enjoys being displayed for us and having a dance with her partner. Footage was filmed at Carnival of Stars in November 2008.
- 9-30-09 Tajikistan Part II: Land of Dance
After a performance of daf soz (songs with frame drum accompaniment), the musicians played maddoh, followed by raqs-i aspak (“horse dance”), in which a man dances wearing a costume which makes it look like he is riding a horse.
- 9-28-09 Give Credit where Credit is Due!
However, some dancers are using the same music, costumes and choreography in their performances that they first see elsewhere. This begs the question: at what point does copying someone’s original concept or choreography cross over from homage to stealing?