Belly Dance and Feminism:
Different Issues, Different Perspectives
Introduction to IBCC Panel on Bellydance and Feminism
posted April 16, 2010
Top photo:Meiver models "Arabiia" a computerized belly dance costume that turns into a burqa,
created by Lebanese designer Ayah Bdeir. Photo by Cati Vaucelle.
“Feminism” is a familiar word in the 2010’s, but what exactly does it mean? How does it relate to belly dance? And how can it help belly dancers navigate the pitfalls (and pleasures) of our adopted art? At the International Bellydance Conference of Canada, April 21-25, in Toronto, EmmaLucy Cole (Shema), Meiver De la Cruz, and Andrea Deagon will present different perspectives on feminist issues in a panel called “Dancing in Your Own Voice: Feminist Belly Dance in a Changing World.”
Feminism embraces more than one point of view, and feminist perspectives lead to many different decisions and courses of action. Feminism is a tool for thinking – for understanding and putting a name to issues you may be wrestling with in your own dance life, and for seeing belly dance in the light of broader economic, social and political realities.
Feminism and belly dance have been intertwined in North America since the 1960’s, so many different varieties of feminism have influenced belly dancers over the past 50 years. Meiver points out that goddess thealogy, physical fitness, spirituality, and “ownership” of childbirth have given a feminist grounding to belly dance at different times in its development, while ATS (American Tribal Style), with its “formulations about diffusing ‘the [male] gaze,’ avoiding glitz, and dancing in groups of women with no leader,” provides another feminist interpretation of belly dance. In addition, she points out its economic influence: “Many women all over the world are doing business (and making good money, and careers) out of selling merchandise, teaching, making costumes, etc., related to belly dance. It’s a women’s industry, to some extent.”
All three panelists feel that changing times require revision of the feminist perspectives that supported the first Western belly dancers of the 1960’s and ‘70’s.
For Andrea, one issue is that some women-oriented readings of belly dance gloss over problematic areas in how belly dance actually functions in the West. “Some feminist ideas have found a home in belly dancing from the very start: sisterhood, solidarity, claiming power over one’s sexuality, claiming a voice, acceptance of all bodies, using the body as a tool for spiritual experience that can also be sensual, and so on.” But in professional performance, many dynamics “contradict the lovely atmosphere of the first dance classes – and we often fail to acknowledge this. I think we need to be aware of places where the myths of belly dance as always enhancing to women are overturned, so we can incorporate a more honest awareness of the ways belly dance is situated in the real world.”
For Emma too, observing some of the unpleasant dynamics of belly dance in both England and North America fuels her own interest in feminist perspectives. “There have been so many moments performing when I have resented the ‘sexually available’ representation of belly dance – from having my bottom pinched at a hunt ball, to being propositioned with no expectation of refusal, to the assumption that as a belly dancer I cannot possibly also be educated and intelligent.”
For Andrea, one of the ways belly dance can help address this public perception is from within, if belly dancers face hard questions like “Are you complicit in creating situations, for yourself or for others, that do not promote respect for women? Are you true to yourself? Are you responsible to others? Are you falling into traditional cultural patterns that actually undercut your own and others’ ability to function as dancers?” Andrea’s perspective reflects one of the most common tenets of feminist thought: that awareness can ultimately lead to change. Emma agrees. “As women, as individuals, and as artists, we have the capacity to make choices and to change perceptions even on a local level. We do not have to fit into pre-assigned roles or images.”
“Roles” and “images” are problematic for many dancers, not only because of the tiresome stereotypes still present in the general public’s views of belly dance, but also because belly dancers almost always adopt the stereotypical trappings of “femininity.”
Andrea comments, “One of the issues I had with belly dance when I began performing was the ‘girliness’ of it. I had always been a tomboy and had never used makeup, done my nails, sprayed my hair, or any of that. When I moved into performing, I had mixed feelings about adopting such a traditionally feminine self-presentation as a vehicle for my own experience of life, the music, and all the other things belly dance expresses.” While she ultimately came to accept and even enjoy this self-presentation for its archetypal positioning of the dancer and the polished, powerful position “beauty” offered her, she still wrestles with the cultural dynamics of why belly dancers, who speak so often of empowerment, acceptance of difference, and individuality, are so willing to embrace this stereotype.
This is a key issue for Emma as well. “It can be very easy for dancers to become caught up in the mythical ‘fantasy’ element of being a belly dancer – from the sequins to the hair pieces, from perfect nails to that perfect ‘California’ smile. I do not believe that there is anything inherently wrong with choosing an assigned role when it is so relevant to the sale of the dance as a performance, but perhaps if dancers were able to engage in discussion about these areas, then our community as a whole would learn that there are many sides to this dance – not just the predictable harem-dancer image portrayed so insistently by the media.”
For Meiver as well, media images, including subtexts such as the dancer’s “beauty and acquiescence,” are significant, especially since dancers incorporate these images into their own dancing. Taking a broader view of how performance creates roles and polarizes complex realities, she is particularly concerned with “the way in which women are presented and represented on stage, and in the element of control which we have over our perceived femininity and place as performers in society.” These issues are more than skin deep, since they include “the social expectations and media-induced assumptions applied to our bodies.”
As a performer with substantial experience outside North America, Meiver is particularly aware of how the worldwide prevalence of North American media reproduces stereotypical Western ideas of other cultures that perpetuate misleading (and often racist and sexist) fantasies.
“Belly dance performers, especially those in North America and Europe, are global media and image makers. I am concerned with increasing awareness of how the images dancers create not only represent those individual dancers, but also impact how the world consumes Eastern art forms, and sees the cultures that these dances come from. My feminist approach is one that looks at how sexist oppression intersects with class and racial oppression.
In that approach a practice that is racist cannot be considered feminist, because racism negatively impacts the lives of women of color around the world.”
For Emma, feminism offers belly dancers many different ways to address issues they encounter in their dance lives. “From an individual perspective, there are so many elements of feminism which could inform and develop a dancer’s performance – from an awareness of social politics, gender relations, and the implications and responsibilities of using a dance which emanates from countries which often have poor reputations for women’s rights, to the ownership of the body and the history of women as performers.” Andrea agrees, giving these issues a personal twist: “The key belief of feminism, in some definitions, is that the root (historically and otherwise) of all human oppression is the oppression of women. Everything else leads from that. This means, to me, that if we are to address inequities in the real world, we need to speak from a very honest place when we assess who we are and what we want to accomplish. If we aren’t honest about our relationship to the world as gendered beings – female or male – then it will be hard to be honest about anything else.”
As Meiver sees it, feminism itself requires a broad perspective. “Beyond intellectual and artistic production, and beyond social contexts and social movements, feminism is about everyday life: our right to vote, to own property, to drive ourselves around. Who makes the food we eat, and what they are paid, who makes the clothes we wear, where [they are] in the world … our personal family decisions to bear children or not, who we are in relationships with and how those relationships are defined, who provides our health care and what access to health care choices we have, what we wear and how our appearance is read by others.” Along with this perspective comes the responsibility to act on it, as a belly dancer, in socially accountable ways.
Andrea’s talk, “Belly Dance in Patriarchy,” discusses the ways in which conventional views of belly dance as matriarchal and empowering mask how it is really situated in the world.
She raises issues such as the problems of birth and fertility in the popular explanations of belly dance, the feminizing of Arab performance aesthetics, and the ambivalent functions of archetypes, arguing that recognizing patriarchal dynamics allows for a more truthful and grounded experience of belly dance.
Emma’s contribution, “Inverting the Gaze,” uses the ancient Greek myth of Medusa, whose beauty was transformed into ugliness and whose gaze could turn what it touched into stone,
–to interpret the role of fantasy in belly dance: why the myth needed to exist in the first place, how ‘beauty’ can both create and destroy us as dancers, and how the role of fantasy or myth is key to our acceptance as female artists.
Meiver’s paper, "Women of Color Feminisms and the De-Colonization of Arab Dances," focuses on several key questions of how belly dancers might really seek liberation – not only from personal constraints, but from problematic cultural dynamics that influence every aspect of belly dancing. Many belly dancers have embraced feminism as a philosophy of liberation, but is the dance form itself liberated? If not, then what does it need to be liberated from? Although we claim to live in a ‘post-colonial’ era, many of us still either live under colonial relationships, or struggle with colonizing mentalities.
Can a dance form be liberated (de-colonized) or liberating, if its practitioners are not? Who can de-colonize belly dance, and how?
The “fourth panelist” is the audience, and discussion will follow.
Shema or Emma does Fire Sword
"Dancing in Your Own Voice: Feminist Approaches to Belly Dance"
will be held, Thursday April 22, 2010
at the International Bellydance Conference of Canada in Toronto, Ontario
Gilded Serpent will be reporting from the event.
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