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!
use the comment box

Have a comment? Use or comment section at the bottom of this page or Send us a letter!
Check the "Letters to the Editor" for other possible viewpoints!

Ready for more?

  • 2-26-11 Not So Steam punk Belly Dance by Jasmine June
    Since Tribal Fusion is also easily accessible, there have been dancers who begin performing and calling themselves professional when really they are just hobbyists. A professional belly dancer would never label her dance genre based on an aesthetic.
  • 12-14-10 Tribal Fusion: An Evolving Dance Form by Jasmine June
    The biggest contrast between ATS and Tribal Fusion was that improvisation was the basis for ATS while Tribal Fusion, at least in its earliest phase, had a strong emphasis in choreography. This allowed Jill Parker to play around with musicality and to explore musical genres that were appealing to her.
  • 11-3-10 An Intro to Tribal Fusion by Jasmine June
    Since Tribal Fusion Belly Dance is a relatively new dance form, it is especially important to treat the genre with a level of professionalism, or else one runs the risk of discrediting the work of dancers who have dedicated their lives to creating and elevating Tribal Fusion Belly Dance.
  • 9-16-10 To Berlin and Back, Bridging Cultures Through Belly Dance by Jasmine June
    In this way, he demonstrated that belly dance isn’t something that is defined by culture. Rather, it is an art form that can be perfected by anyone who puts their mind to it, and it’s an art form that can be used to bridge cultures rather than divide them.
  • Hindu Extremists Riot at Belly Dance Show
    At the time, I was beginning to understand that this was a potentially dangerous and explosive situation. But I had no way of knowing how much danger I was really in.
  • The Grand International Bellydance Tour or How We Fled India at Midnight, Eluding Our Captors and Evading our Go-Go-Dance Responsibilities. or What Would Fifi Do? It may not have been such a problem for us had the prostitutes not been posing as bellydancers!
  • Return to India – This Time it’s Personal!
    We thought that the misfortunes associated with our previous performance tours of India were simply anomalies in the blissful and glamorous world of dancing overseas.
  • 3-15-11 MaShuqa interviews Dahlal and Tim Kent on the Cairo Revolution for the Gilded Serpent Video report on the Community Kaleidoscope
    In February 2011 while at the Belly Dancer of the Universe Competition, we catch Dahlal/Debbie Sinclair and Tim for an interview. Discussed are the affects of the curfews, blocked streets, and lack of cell phone coverage on the production of costume orders. They also talk about the difference between Cairo and US designed costumes.
  • 3-15-11 Shamadan or Candelabra: Dances Along the Nile Part 4 by Gamila El Masri and Lucy Smith/ Scheherezade
    The style is very earthy and includes great “tricks” like the splits, stomach work while on the floor, rolling over full length on the floor and posturing — complete with quivering buttocks, and various other individual talents.
  • 3-10-11 Cultural Traditions vs Sexual Stereotypes Part 2 of The Female Gaze or "Medusa Dualities in Female Bellydance Performance and How the Gaze Continues to be Relevant Today" by Shema
    There is a fine line between respecting cultural traditions and histories and reinforcing behaviours which are inherently damaging to the perception of the female body and its rights.
  • 3-7-11 Gigbag Check #29 with Samantha of the Bellydance Superstars Video on the Community Kaleidoscope
    Samantha is from Brighton, England. Sam starts to tell of her start with the troupe when Rachel joins the conversation briefly to help out and testifiy to Sam’s talent and commitment. Sam was discovered in Rachel’s workshop in Birmingham. Sam also shows us her gig bag and her favorite skirt made by Madi Love. Sam suggestions bringing a sewing kit and tells of problems getting her
    belt ornaments tangled in her bracelets. This footage was filmed February 15, 2009 backstage at the Marin Civic Center in San Rafael, California
  • 3-4-11 Pangia Does Texas: A Warm Howdy! by Denise Manion, photos by Carl Sermon
    Carmine Guida (New York) Pat Olson (Californina) and I, are all members of the band, Pangia. In August of 2010, we had the pleasure of teaching workshops and performing at Yaa Halla, Y’all! in Grapevine, of the Dallas/Fort Worth area of Texas. It was a distinct delight to have enthusiastic, involved, and engrossed participants in attending our workshops.
  • 3-2-11 Video Report of Barbara’s recent trip Cairo, VIdeo on the Community Kaleidoscope
    We caught Barbara at the Belly Dancer of the Universe Competition in Long Beach in February 2011. She tells us of her trip to Cairo trying to attend the Nile Festival. Included are descriptions of getting to her hotels, rode blocks, checkpoints, neighborhood militias, attending classes, cell phone video, curfew, teachers including Aida Nour, How caring Mohamed was of his group. Barbara is a vendor of belly dance costumes.
  • 2-28-11 The Cairo by Night Festival, November 4-7, 2010, Stockholm Sweden by Nabila
    From the first moment that I arrived in Stockholm until I left, I felt warmly welcomed, relaxed, and it felt so fantastic to be with Zeina and Mohamed Abu Shibeka, that I spend my most memorable time there!
  1. 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.

Sorry, comments for this entry are closed at this time.