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Can a Non-Arab Dancer Really Belly Dance?

Non arab dancer

by Margaret MacLennan
posted March, 30, 2010

Belly dance is seen as an Arab art form, and has gained considerable popularity outside of that circle. But can a non-Arab belly dancer really belly dance? Should a non-Arab represent a cultural art form when she is not a part of that culture? This article is an attempt to arm a non-Arab belly dancer against the inevitable questions leveled about whether her ethnicity or cultural background should prohibit her from dancing.

You are a professional belly dancer. You are not an Arab. And you’re derided for the hundredth time for daring to dance without the pedigree.

This article is an attempt to arm the non-Arab dancer with a break-down of the argument against daring to partake in a foreign culture and suggestions for proving to yourself and to others that there is no ethical dictate requiring you to drop the finger cymbals and get back to your own culture.

That non-Arabs watch and enjoy the dance clearly demonstrates that it is accessible to non-Arabs. That many successful non-Arab dancers clearly exist further demonstrates that good dancing has nothing to do with genetic or cultural prerequisites. Indeed, the popularity of belly dancing with non-Arabs proves that the dance has a value beyond its historical and cultural context.

The notion of culture has always been confusing, and I shall attempt to use the term loosely. But, the notion of cultural transfer is the centerpiece of the complaint. You, the defendant dancer, must be able to prove to a questioner that culture is not as fragile or unavailable as they might assume. In this article, I intend to take the question, break down its reliance on cultural rigidity and show that if we accept the truth of the question’s premises, we will have to accept something that is inconsistent with history and reality.

Since it is my goal to arm you, the dancer, with the ability to disprove or sway, I caution that embarrassing or ridiculing your questioner will cause them to become defensive and unresponsive.

Since any disagreement between two sides is essentially a disagreement over terms and a misunderstanding of logic, you should start out by defining between the two of you both what culture is and what a belly dancer is. By defining terms properly at the beginning we avoid big errors at the end.

Since not every person questioning you will be knowledgeable about the dance, you need to keep anecdotes relevant to their situation. Since your questioner may not be hostile, do not immediately skip to your conclusions but rather talk it out, allowing them to draw their own. New students and friends, too, may wonder whether non-Arabs should dance.

pedigree certificateWhile I will stick to common sense responses, I will try to avoid emotional responses. Charges of White guilt commonly crop up, stating that we, the White Man, should not further vandalize and appropriate other cultures. This argument is silly: not all non-Arab dancers are white and none of us personally have committed the oft-cited, sticky-issue Crusading and colonizing. Believing that the White Man should still be paying for past horrors is exactly the same as believing that Germans shouldn’t be forgiven for more recent horrors. No culture or society has clean hands and I reject any notion that we should judge individuals based upon their culture or race. To proclaim that "This is offensive because I feel offended!" ignores that not every person is offended by the same things. Whether something is universally offensive is not a function of your personal immediate response. I might be offended by a screaming child on an airplane, and I will no longer be offended when I find out that the child has an illness causing him or her great pain. Indeed, I will feel ashamed that I was so quick to judge. Feelings and emotions are not necessarily rational. The goal of this article is to end up with a rational answer to the culture question which is applicable to the situation of every dancer.

For the purpose of this article, I shall assume that the question is posited toward a non-Arab belly dancer. The argument is usually as such:

  • Premise 1: Culturally significant or exclusive traditions are only available to those who have grown up in that culture.
  • Premise 2: You can only properly represent and understand the culture if you have grown up in it.
  • Premise 3: Belly dance is a culturally significant or exclusive tradition
  • Conclusion: Therefore, a person is unable to represent or understand belly dance unless they have grown up in the culture to which it is significant.

As you can see, the strength of this argument rests on whether you are willing to accept the first premise. If that premise can be shown to be false, then the conclusion will be false. But I will demonstrate ways to disprove all three premises. You may do well to ask your questioner whether they agree with each basic premise. If they do not, then they should reject the conclusion as well. If they reformat their conclusion then this article should still provide you with enough examples for you to adapt.

Fusion DancerRebuttal to Premise 1: Culturally significant or exclusive traditions are only available to those who have grown up in that culture.
To examine the differences between our respective cultures, there must be respective cultures in the first place. Since I am able to point out and identify cultures, I will agree to this statement. But cultures vary because cultures are of people, and people change. Both America and Canada are splendid examples of the variability of culture. For example, I am a Canadian of Scottish descent. And since the Scots descend from the Irish (both of which are now discrete but similar), it must have been that the significant traditions of the Irish morphed into the significant traditions of the Scottish. While there are traditional Bards significant to the Irish, the idea of a class of educated poets are not necessarily exclusive (many cultures had a Bard class, e.g., West Africa’s Griot class). Culture is what the people do, and people often do the same things like compose poems or dance.

In regards to belly dance, there has been little consensus on its cultural origin. Is it Lebanese? Egyptian? Turkish? If all of these places are indeed separate cultures, then how was the dance passed from one to another, and who will we declare to be the inventor? If the questioner is correct, then belly dancing is for the Arab culture. But "Arab culture" is not singular, but rather a catch-all. If only a person from "the" Arab culture (which encompasses many, many cultures) or an Arab culture may dance, then what if a person is part Egyptian?

Which part of the person may dance? And if a person is part Egyptian and part Lebanese, then must they wear only one high-heel?

If a person is adopted into or out of the culture, then whose pigeonhole are they to be segregated into? Culture is learned. We just happen to learn primarily the culture that we grew up in.

If the culture I learned as a child is the only culture I identify with, then I hit a wall when I realize that I am only ever identical to myself. I am distinct from my family and friends. Nobody is exactly like me, and even if I had a belly dancing identical twin, she would still occupy space over there while I occupy space over here. The culture I am expected to identify with is not simply my personal experience. Growing up with a culture does not allow me to identify fully with others who have grown up similarly. Being born into a culture does not delegitimize a person’s interest in another culture. I am more properly a human. I am Canadian by accident. Should I be more bound by my accidental "Canadian-ness" than my humanity? Should I be unable to participate in what is properly available to all humans, that is, emotion and movement, which are the two properties of dance?

Rebuttal to Premise 2: You can only properly represent and understand the culture if you have grown up in it.
Even if we accept the part about understanding culture, we must ask further whether we can not, or should not identify with other cultures. We have proven in premise #1 that cultures do change (meaning that we can identify with other cultures), so the questioner must mean that we should not. This alone might be enough to quiet your questioner: it sounds very, very odd to assert that we should not identify with other cultures. If they do not base their life around complete xenophobia, then they do not believe in this very thoroughly. Most people wouldn’t think twice about having bagels and coffee for breakfast and ravioli with French wine for supper.

If you had earlier decided that culture is connected to language and music, then it is proper to wonder how humans are able to learn secondary languages. Many of us have lost our native tongues in favour of English. How could this cultural exchange have occurred, unless cultural boundaries are loose? Remember, the people influence the culture. So if the people change with the invasion of another population, then the culture will change. This has happened countless times throughout recorded history. My ancestors were representative of Gaelic speakers, and I am now representative of an English speaker. As well, I am representative of Canada while my ancestors were representative of Scotland.

The cultures that you are able to represent are not genetically determined. Culture is invented and then learned.

For many of us, belly dance is culture that we have learned as adults, not as children. It follows from the above that an Arab may represent Arab culture, and that a non-Arab can represent Arab culture. That a non-Arab should represent an Arab culture appears to be a function of having learned about the culture, as explained below.

Premise 3: Belly dance is a culturally significant or exclusive tradition
Belly dance, like any dance, will be a mix of technique and emotional carriage. There are a set of movements which a human may perform, and belly dance is different from other dances in that it proscribes that the movements be a certain way, and to a certain set of appropriate music. A highly technical dancer may have no emotion, and vice versa. Is it the technique or the emotion that is considered connected to the culture? Belly dance technique is not as finicky as it must be learned as a child, like learning to distinguish the particular sounds of a language. But even a difficult language can still be learned as an adult. Languages in the Chinese and Celtic groups have sounds which are virtually indistinguishable to those who have grown up speaking a Romance language, but hearing a sound is a much different activity with different relevant synaptic connections than is learning hip drops. Proper technique can be learned without having grown up around it (and sometimes you learn the improper technique, instead!).

But, technique aside, I believe most dancers would agree that the crux of this issue is rather in the emotional content. So, the questioner may be asserting that it is impossible to emote like an Arab without being an Arab. As for the emotional content itself, we humans are able to experience the full gamut of emotions, so there can be no realistic problem about whether a non-Arab can experience the same emotions as an Arab. What is left to address?

Grandama DancergrandmaA person who believes the stated conclusion — that belly dance is exclusive to Arabs — is probably just confused about the importance of the learning curve. Yes, witnessing Grandma with the assaya may positively influence a dancer in later life. As well, witnessing Grandma as an abusive alcoholic will influence a child. An abused child is more likely to be an abusive parent in the same way that a child exposed to great dancing is likely to be a great dancer. The two are correlated, but one does not cause the other. The dancing you may see as a child may imprint like other cultural features, like language. A first language will imprint itself, too. It is possible that having seen hour upon hour of good dancing and having heard hour upon hour of well-formed language will import this into later life. By then, it will seem easy and natural, making a dancer seem "authentic", like a native speaker of a language using their slang and grammar. I do not recall learning either slang or much grammar, but have managed to use both properly enough to be understood. Yet learning slang and grammar can be boiled to a matter of pure man-hours: I know English slang and grammar because I speak it daily. My readiness with the language is a symptom of immersion. I can learn the same skills in another language if I choose. So if exposure as a child to Arab music and Arab dance influences the adult, then it was the hours of exposure that gives the adult a very good eye for interpretation. And a dedicated dancer may closely match this.

There are certainly legitimate concerns about representing the dance. Doing a happy-dance to a tear-jerker will make you look silly if you are dancing for those who know the song, and doing Saiidi to karshilama will prove to those "in the know" that you ignored a certain duty of care toward finding out about the culture before advertising yourself as representative. The language difficulties can be overcome quickly by a fluent friend, an internet search or listening very carefully to the emotional carriage of the music and singer. But if I want to call it Saiidi, then I must accurately represent Saiidi. Hiring an Egyptian-style dancer who turned out to be an American-style dancer would irritate me, just like if I was given a hamburger after ordering steak.

You must accurately represent what you say you represent to clients and students. They are, after all, paying you for the service you’re claiming to provide! But, you needn’t be an Arab and you needn’t have grown up in the Middle East.

In the final analysis, a dancer can embrace a culture of her own choice, but she needs to make a real effort to learn about it if she wishes to call herself well-versed in that culture’s dance style.


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  1. Leyla Lanty

    Apr 1, 2010 - 09:04:27

    Thank you Margaret!   I agree with you wholeheartedly!

  2. Leslie Jones

    Apr 20, 2010 - 03:04:25

    I am very torn by this piece–on the overall question, I certainly agree. However, the entire premise is based on an error. I think we can all agree that Turkey is the font of a great deal of “bellydance” but Turks are not Arabs. Muslim, by and large, yes, but Arabs, no. Same for Persians/Iranians.
    And here, I think, is where the dreaded term “bellydance” comes into its own. What most Europeans and North Americans ” dance, I would submit, is bellydance, a dance that has arisen through the mixing and melding of a wide variety of Middle Eastern, Central Asian, and North African indigenous dance forms. If we present ourselves as performing a culturally authentic dance form indigenous to the Middle East, then perhaps someone might challenge our understanding of the dance (though I agree with the analogy with language–you can learn a new physical language just as you can learn a new verbal language, though you may always “speak” with an accent). But if we stop cringing from the term “bellydance” and claim it as our own evolution, acknowledging our Egyptian/Turkish/Lebanese/Moroccan/whatever teachers, then the question of whether a non-Arab can bellydance is moot.

  3. Margaret MacLennan

    Apr 21, 2010 - 05:04:51

    Hello Leslie!
    That I chose to use “Arab” as the name for the kind of person who is stereotypically a real bellydancer arose from a recent exchange with a friend of mind.
    I originally wrote a smaller version of this piece when this friend told me that she was meeting some opposition with her decision to start teaching bellydance again after time off. Her, being blonde and white, was asked why she felt it was alright for her to dance when she obviously wasn’t the stereotypical bellydancer. So we got to talking a little about how to respond to those who think you need a pedigree to dance. The target of the article are dancers who may need to defend themselves in light of their ethnicity. I tried to pick out the usual beliefs of a person who thinks that one kind of person can’t possible do another kind of dance, and then I outlined different responses to those misguided beliefs. And those misguided beliefs are often that “Arabs bellydance”.
    I chose “Arab” as a placeholder, mostly — a placeholder for the common misconception of “which culture” or “which colour” or “which community” is connected to the bellydance. It’s certainly legitimate to remind me that it’s not just an Arab dance, but since the conclusion does away with the necessity of needing to be of a certain community to be able to do a certain dance, I felt I could at least get away with it. Oops… I think that’s called a “misunderestimation!”
    The term bellydance is so charged I tried my darnedest to tiptoe around it. But if we’re bellydancers, then bellydance must certainly exist. So, I do feel there is a measure of appropriateness in talking about bellydance as a thing. Since there is bellydance, there must be some kind of standard that makes a thing bellydance. But I don’t know that standard, exactly. I tried to qualify myself at the end by mentioning specific dance styles which aren’t so loosely defined as the B word.
    As an aside, “What is bellydance?” would be one very interesting topic to see further explored. I suppose we can make a list of things that aren’t bellydance and go from there… “Bellydance isn’t: a pillow. a cloud. the concept of altruism. a group of puppy dogs.” but that would take a long time.

    I should have clarified in my article, but when I talk about specific, authentic or indigenous dances, I mean the specifics like beladi, Alexandrian, Gulf, pot dances… so if you have “I do beladi!” on your business card you should really be able to perform beladi. Otherwise it would simply be false advertising. But again, beladi is much more standardized and defined than bellydance, and those with the misconceptions are probably going to be those who don’t know anything beyond the harem fantasies.

    Since my friend was confronted about her bellydancing-while-white, I still feel that the word bellydance suits the needs of the article.
    But since the conclusion is against the stereotype — that Arabs are the only ones who can bellydance — I feel there is no lasting harm from the use of these words.

    But we should maintain that bellydance exists, whatever it is. Because if bellydance doesn’t exist, then what is it that we do?

  4. Alex Bensky

    Mar 28, 2014 - 09:03:21

    One of my favorite violinists is Kyung Wa-Chung, who is a Korean. I am particularly fond of her recording of the Sibelius Violin Concerto, written by a Finn. I have never seen anyone suggest that because she did not grow up in a western culture, or Finnish culture, that her interpretation of the Sibelius or any other classical composer are therefore limited or illegitimate in any way. The name for people who do think that is “idiots.”

    Why should it be any different for belly dancers?

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