Gilded Serpent presents...

Empowering Women in India through Belly Dance

India Collage

by Jasmine June and Samar
posted March 17, 2011

When people associate countries with belly dance, they often think Egypt, Lebanon, Turkey, Morocco, and India, among others. However, the belly dance scene in India is small and virtually unknown compared to these other countries. Belly dance in India barely peeps out of the shadows of the increasingly popular Bollywood scene. As well, the movements in belly dance are sometimes equated with the gyrating hips of modern Western dance styles, and give belly dance a taboo status.

Despite being one of the more taboo forms of dance in India, belly dance is able to empower Indian women.

There are several levels in which empowerment occurs. From creating the textiles for the costuming to selling the costumes from a family owned storefront to becoming an instructor, belly dance is able to transcend its taboo status and empower the women who are involved with this dance.

Samar is a business man in India who represents Craft India Overseas, an establishment involved in manufacturing and supplying Middle Eastern costuming, accessories and jewelry to all facets of the belly dance scene. As such, he has an informative opinion on how belly dance is perceived in India. He says that until around 2004, belly dance was referred to as the “shameless show”. He continues to explain that, “Well that is what a conservative society response would be. India is the land of Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Jains, Buddhists and Zorastrians. All the mix in the world, but still the core of the Indian society is conservative.”

He also touches on the hypocrisy of the Indian culture embracing Bollywood, but frowning upon belly dance. The term Bollywood derives from the more popular cousin of the West, yet is considered an inspiration from Hindi songs during the 80’s and early 90’s. The “Burger” generation has been pushed into a belief that Western shimmies are vulgar and that the Indian gyrations are acceptable. This is hypocrisy to an extent, but also includes the fear of losing Indian identity. Surprisingly, the Indian majority forget that the youth can add to the art of belly dance just as it has evolved from a traditional Middle Eastern dance into the more dramatic Tribal Fusion and American Tribal Style in the United States.

Samar's ParentsDespite the mark of taboo, belly dance has flourished in India, as is evident from Samar’s business success. Craft India Overseas was created by Samar’s parents in 1992. He explains,

“Our family was not into belly dance, no one in our family knew anything about this art. When the making of these costumes and accessories started in 1992, we were just as curious about it and started to research this. With the advent of the Internet in India in 1994, we were already browsing and learning about this dance form. We were the first ones out of Asia to get a catalog online with belly dance costumes and stay on till now and hopefully for a long time to come.

Being through many phases in the business, we were amongst the earlier ones to get into design copyrights. We started to streamline the business with more process clarity and a better system to be able to respond to the customer in case of queries. We are probably one of the early Oriental dance costumes and accessories manufacturers to be an ISO 9001:2008 quality management systems certified establishment.

This was a small business set up by my Father and Mother, honestly with a dream of financial independence. It became much bigger along the way and they started enjoying being apart of it for what it was. It is now an integral part of the family discussions, day to day life even and yet surprisingly no one in the family knows how to dance. Isn’t that something? I guess I’d have to learn it someday.”

Samar and his family have made a successful living from one of the key components of belly dance: costuming. While Craft India Overseas is involved primarily with the distribution end of things, the business also provides jobs to the women who make the textiles and costumes.

The company works with less fortunate and troubled families and women, and pays the women a decent sum for their crafts as a way of helping them out.

For example, one of the groups is run by a widowed women who employs other women to make crafts for the company. A lot has been said about how the dancing part of belly dance empowers women, but empowerment trickles down even to the finer components of the dance. The women craft the products for Samar’s company are not belly dancers, and yet they achieve financial stability because of the demand for belly dance costuming.

Another aspect of empowerment is how belly dance in India affects the dancers themselves. Dancers, such as Essa Duhaime, Meher Malik, and Katie Holland, have labored to change the opinion about this art. They have been instrumental in creating a belly dance scene in India and carrying it forward. Not only are these dancers able to generate an income from performing and teaching, but some of their students go on to perform and teach, as well. Meher Malik operates the Banjara School of Dance and the school has grown to about five hundred students in just three years. How’s that for success?

These women continue to dance, despite being frowned upon by conservative society. Katie explains that she has it exceptionally difficult as a white belly dancer because people often equate her with a prostitute! Some prostitutes in India dress up as belly dancers, which obviously worsens the situation.

While there still may be a sense of taboo surrounding belly dance, the nature of the dance to create community amongst women has allowed belly dance to gain enough popularity in India that studying and performing the dance is at least tolerated. This isn’t to say that studying and performing belly dance is not met with hardships, but that perhaps the stigma is slowly starting to fade.

More from Samar soon!
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   |       |    2 Comments

  1. No Gravatar
    Lurker

    Jul 18, 2011 - 08:07:36

    I’m taking belly dancing classes, and I think there are some similarities to Indian bollywood dancing.    It’s unfortunate that belly dancing has a bad rep, when hand, arm, hip and feet movements are recognizable in Indian movies!  The differences are that  belly dancing is more isolated and refined, whereas Indian dancing is more energetic and not as focused on posture.

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