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Is Bellydance on a Downward Spiral?

Ask Yasmina #18

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by Yasmina Ramzy
posted April 17, 2012

Usually I take questions from readers and try to give some kind of comprehensive answer. This time the question is from me to the universe or perhaps it is a revelation I have come to realize recently that has shocked me to the core.

Is the presentation of Bellydance on a downward spiral after the years of so many trying to lift it up?

The latest full scale Arabesque Dance Company production called JAMRA just finished a few weeks ago. As all of our annual productions, there were 7 performances in a prestigious theatre of 450 seats sponsored by an arts centre and two arts councils. Arabesque consists of 17 male and female dancers and 11 musicians and vocalists.

When compiling the information for the programme, some of the dance artists in the company asked us not to use their real name for fear of complications with their main employment.

These are dance artists who dedicate between 10-20 hours a week to rehearsal and practice with Arabesque. They are serious artists who have many years of training under their belts. Some are instructors as well. They are fearful that they may be found out – the horrible truth exposed that they are a Bellydancer.

The last time I heard anyone fearful of admitting they were a Bellydancer was in the late 80s and early 90s. Those were days when we began to take great care to educate our audiences; to set examples that Bellydance was high art, not striptease; that Bellydancers did not dance on tables or take money in their bra strap or sit with customers after their performance. Yes, it often seemed like an uphill battle but progress was always being made. It is what impelled me to get up in the morning and what brings the 35 members of Arabesque together to work so hard. If members of my own company cannot admit publicly that they Bellydance – including myself on occasion – how can I complain when an arts council does not give me a grant?

After asking around, I found that this Bellydance shame which I thought was long gone was actually a growing trend. Does this mean my last 30 years of diligent efforts of raising awareness was for naught? Should all those dancers around the world who have worked so hard to establish Bellydance as art give up if the community is making a U-turn? Is this just a short bad phase? I am looking for feedback. Is it my imagination or is Bellydance becoming more sexualized and more commercialized? Are dancers actually allowing someone to stick dollar bills in their bra strap? Is it the economy? Really?

This is my 18th column for Gilded Serpent and pretty much every previous column offers examples of how one can demand respect and feel pride in Bellydancing as well as the benefits in rebound and ripple effect that this offers for all communities. I offered these examples because the readers asked the questions. What is the point if a handful of Bellydancers are constantly sabotaging the earnest efforts of those who respect themselves and the art? Is it possible to organize and fight this growing trend?

At the first International Bellydance Conference of Canada, Randa Kamel (Egypt) spoke on one of the panels and was asked about the stigmatization of Bellydance in Egypt. She said it was sad because there is a long lineage of dancers who have loved and respected the art form – from Samia Gamal to Sohair Zaki to herself. But unfortunately, there are a few who ruin it for everyone by acting immodest and disrespectful of themselves and the art.

Very soon will be the last conference, this May 2012. The first one was in 2007 inspired by the International Conference on Middle Eastern Dance in California in 2000. The main feature of the International Bellydance Conference of Canada which made it stand out amongst other Bellydance festivals and events was the focus on highly researched lectures concerning history and socio-political impact as well as panel discussions and debates. Issues were raised such as Commercial Bellydance vs. Women’s Empowerment, Ethics and Conduct, Men in Bellydance, Globalization of Bellydance, Feminist Approaches to Bellydance, Body Image in Bellydance, Cultural Appropriation; Exploiting or Honouring, Tribal Dance Evolution, Art vs. Commercialism, Teaching Standards and so on. Each of these discussions went overtime with the vibrant energy of a room of 150 Bellydancers who really cared about the issues and the future of our art form.

I have noticed that more and more festivals these days include similar type discussions and lectures by scholars. This is very encouraging.

Perhaps things are getting better but there is an equal negative influence that holds onto the inertia of old ways of thinking. Perhaps it is a parallel struggle to women’s plight in general. Feminism has created laws that have allowed women to seek new roles in power and wealth and yet still, basic attitudes have not really changed concerning men’s attitudes towards women and women’s attitudes towards themselves. Perhaps Bellydance is the poster child for many things society needs to examine, work on and dig deep into in order to understand the root causes of its struggles.

The issue could be described in the chicken and egg analogy. Which is first (or last)? Feminine sensuality and Bellydance viewed as negative and degrading or Bellydancers cheapening and selling out their feminine sensuality? At the end of the day, I believe Bellydance is a great vehicle to facilitate change in the hearts of those who dance and those that view it. Bellydance offers an opportunity to claim feminine sensuality as positive, sacred and healing, akin to most art. Please spread the word. The next time you see a dancer in Egypt or elsewhere degrading the art form, perhaps you could offer her/him a better way to present themselves. I am pretty sure I cannot give up just yet.

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   |       |    15 Comments

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  1. No Gravatar
    Anthea (Kawakib)

    Apr 18, 2012 - 06:04:41

    Thanks so much for writing about this issue. I won’t hide being a bellydancer, but it always seems like the image of bellydancing needs constant correction in the mind of the public – something I naively thought we wouldn’t have to do forever.
    I also know bellydancers who won’t use their real names out of fear of what might happen to their jobs, or what their co-workers would say. I’m sorry they feel they have to do that.
    One of the reasons is as you put it, “Bellydancers cheapening and selling out their feminine sensuality” and no doubt thinking they are somehow empowered by doing so. I don’t think it’s all about the economy although I’m sure that plays a large part in what type of behavior some bellydancers put in their act as well as what types of dance studio owners promote. I’m so glad I don’t have to run a studio and make those decisions!

  2. No Gravatar
    Marie

    Apr 18, 2012 - 06:04:00

    You ask thought provoking questions, Yasmina.  I started bellydancing to improve my confidence and explore my femininity.  At the same time, I found dance and a what I thought was a beautiful art form.  During the 5 years I spent at my studio I saw it get increasingly “sexed” up.  There was an emphasis on being sexy over dancing well.  Our costumes began to show more and more skin, despite the presence of children.  Finally, we started offering an increased number of burlesque and striptease classes.  

    It is impossible to defend bellydance as a true art form when studios are offering bellydance classes alongside striptease classes.  Further, the more dancers emphasize their cleavage and thighs over skill and grace, the less the arts foundations are going to be willing to offer up grants.  

    I consistently argue with dancers from the studio I left that bellydancers need to learn some basic dance fundamentals, and I am told that bellydance is an ancient dance that should stay that way.  Dance evolves.  Until instructors learn more than how to teach hip drops and shimmies we will never be taken seriously.  I am sorry to tell you that is just the fact.  

    And yes, I have seen plenty of dancers accepting money in all sorts of places on their costumes.  Until dancers stop dancing for tips — PERIOD — you will never be seen as a serious dancer.  Have you ever seen a ballerina or a jazz dancer picking up tips in a restaurant?  

  3. No Gravatar
    EssGee

    Apr 20, 2012 - 01:04:54

    I’m a doctor and mom and have been studying bellydance for about 5 years. My colleagues know that I bellydance, as do my friends, and I feel no shame in it. I use a dance name because my professional boundaries with patients must be clear, and I don’t want a patient to be put in an awkward position that may blur the lines.

    But I have been dismayed by the blurring of lines between burlesque and bellydance in recent years, because while fusion styles do permit some overlap, most bellydance styles are not related to burlesque, striptease, pole-dancing, etc. That is not the history of the dance, nor does it honor the ancient traditions, the unique regional styles, and the dancer-centered artistry of bellydance. The viewer is invited to enjoy the skill, joy, flirtation, and inevitable sensuality of the performance, but there is an understood and respectful distance between dancer and the educated viewer. WE have to teach Western viewers these things, however.

    Burlesque & other dance forms—like it or not—are Western forms that originated for the viewer, private or public, and have always been specifically erotic. Eroticism may be very beautiful, it may be artistic and tasteful, it may center on the pleasure of the dancer as much as the viewer, but it’s purpose and focus is sexual enticement and the fantasy of union. The putting of money into a bra or belt is a burlesque & “stripper” tradition. It implies payment for pleasure & illegal professions. We don’t have to like these implications, & maybe we’re trying to change social attitudes about sex, but erotic dance is what it is in 2012. Just tag along with a bachelor party or try to get a well-paid gig at a restaurant doing a striptease & see how “far we’ve come”. Let’s not fool ourselves. 

    I feel that Western misconceptions, weird conservative moralizing from certain social groups, and the failure of some in the bellydance community to make the distinction has blurred the lines to an unfortunate level. I do not agree with the misconceptions or moralizing, but YES, I believe that it fails bellydancers when we let viewers put money in our costume in a Western striptease tradition. Why do that if only because it gets more money than offering a basket, or simply expecting proper payment for artistic performance as agreed upon in advance? What is that saying? We are teaching people that’s what we do, especially if they are just copying what they see others doing. If we let people leer at us when we bellydance, it’s like the comedian who yields the floor to a heckler instead of putting him in his place. If outsiders don’t understand correct etiquette, the meanings of what we do, and what our personal  boundaries are, WE are responsible for teaching & correcting them. WE are the artists. The stage is OURS until we yield it. I really would like to see this beautiful  community of women separate and distinguish these two dance forms. They should be enjoyed each for what it is.

  4. No Gravatar
    rakssister

    Apr 22, 2012 - 10:04:22

    I normally look forward to Yasmina’s articles on here, but I find this article extremely condescending. Yasmina speaks as if her way is the only way for this dance to be an art form and everyone needs to live up to her standards. In fact, if we go to Egypt, we should let them know how to do their dance!! 
    Every art form has people that toe the line. Are there people that explicitly go so far as to make a disgrace of the dance form? Sure, and time and lack of jobs will weed them out.  But there are multiple ways to view this dance. For example, I am not sure I would have the gall to go to some of the original 1970’s “American Cabaret” dancers and tell them that by accepting body tips they were/are doing a disservice to the art form. 

  5. No Gravatar
    Terry

    Apr 23, 2012 - 11:04:39

    Interesting article and thought provoking comments.  Not so sure that the origination of tipping for bellydancers originated from stripping and or burlesque…have had many arab peoples attempt the same. Usually all it takes is a tsk and a chin lift tilt or a finger shake to let them know it is off limits. Then they proceed to shower the money on my head! (Never have I picked them up, usually tip the waiter or busboy to do it)..  Often a western audience doesn’t have the same sensitivity to decipher those subtle no no’s.  This is one of the pitfalls of performing in a cafe setting…not everyone has the luxury to perform their dance in a nightclub setting where the physical boundries of dance floor and patron seating is clear. For that matter have the chance or inclination to present in a theatre setting.
    I have to agree with the sentiments….meshing of bellydance with burlesque, overt female bashing, dancer shame….not a pretty picture.

  6. No Gravatar
    Morocco

    Apr 25, 2012 - 01:04:32

    I’m repeating this for the trillionth time: call the dance by its rightful name!

    Aside from the fact that Raqs Sharqi = ORIENTAL/ Eastern Dance & *not* “belly” anything, as long as WE continue to use that MISnomer & not the correct name of the dances & do NOT correct others who use it, the problem of lack of respect or being taken seriously by the general public will continue BECAUSE of the totally negative/ racist / sexist baggage “belly” dance carries – like the “N” word … Dare I mention the recent valid brouhaha over the political gathering at the “N”head Lodge? SAME sort of thing.

    Read the “What’s in a Name” section of my book for further proof *&* the original, full, disgusting caption that was under the familiar photo of those 3 lovely 1893 Ghawazi dancers when it was first published in 1894. I have that book of photos. Totally proves my point. 
    Yes, I love my belly, but it takes one’s whole body & brain & soul to do justice to this dance of ours, NOT just our agile abs …

    Morocco

  7. No Gravatar
    Barbara Grant

    Apr 30, 2012 - 01:04:08

    Pauline,
    With respect to your very last comment in your GS Letter to the Editor in re: Tribal Dance, I actually do see that happening–that is, from my viewpoint, Tribal bellydance (or “American Tribal Bellydance,” or similar names) really _is_ breaking off into its own art form–if it is not there, already. For example, I’ve seen teachers advertising tribal classes who make the point of saying that this is not “traditional” belly dance (sigh, whatever that means!) but something different, and then going on to explain the differences. I’ve also seen trademarking and branding done with respect to aspects of the tribal dance form. In my mind, this serves to promote the idea that the two forms have diverged; if that’s correct, I’d expect to see more evidence over time.

  8. No Gravatar
    Morocco

    May 2, 2012 - 06:05:43

    Small addition to my above comment: you dancers have NO problem calling Milaya Leff Milaya Leff or Haggala Haggala or Debke Debke or Karsilama Karsilama or Bharata Natyam Bharata Natyam (you get the idea), so WHERE is the problem with calling Raqs Sharqi Raqs Sharki & Oryantal Tansi Oryantal Tansi???

    No more excuses!!!

    Morocco (Aunt Rocky) 

  9. No Gravatar
    Bobbie Barry

    May 2, 2012 - 05:05:50

    Well, Melaya Luff, Haggala, Debke and Karsilama are not terms that are used in advertising to bring an uneducated North American public in the door for classes.  Advertising “Raqs Sharqi” or Middle Eastern Dance doesn’t do the trick either.  Unfortunately “belly dance” does.  It’s when they walk through the door that we are able to educate.

    But then comes the dilemma as to what to call it – Raqs Sharqi (Egyptian), Oryantal Tansi (Turkish), Tsiftitelli (Greek)?  All names that refer to the same dance despite the differences in music choices and styling.  Which should you use as the “generic” catch phrase if you teach stylings from all three countries?

    If you want to get really picky I would say “Middle Eastern Dance” is a more appropriate term to use since it covers more countries (though, obviously, not all) from where this dance form is found.

    Respectfully,
    Bobbie 

  10. No Gravatar
    Bobbie Barry

    May 2, 2012 - 05:05:42

    Re Yasmina’s column I too wouldn’t dream of telling a native dancer from Egypt or a dancer working in Egypt that they are not doing things correctly.

    By the same token I also agree that I wouldn’t like to tell a dancer from the American Cabaret/American Classic era that they did a disservice to the art form by accepting body tips.  

    And I would like to know if Yasmina in her early dancing days ever accepted body tips and when she decided that it was no longer acceptable?

    Bobbie 

  11. No Gravatar
    Bobbie Barry

    May 2, 2012 - 05:05:02

    One last thought:  I actually LOVE Randa Kamal.  But hasn’t it occurred to anyone that her costuming (which I do not mind at all – think it suits her) could also be considered immodest and disrespectful to herself, women and the image of this art form?  Not to mention her more aggressive style which is in contrast to the softer, coy sensuality of Egyptian dancers who came before her?  I wonder if that ever came up in discussion panel at IBCC 2007?  And who would have the gall to tell her so?  I most certainly wouldn’t.  As I said I love Randa Kamal.  I just think it a bit hypocritical to focus on only one thing that could be considered a detriment to this dance.  

    As for not ever seeing ballerina’s and jazz dancers accepting tips in restaurants – that may very well be because they don’t dance in that environment.  Their dance form is usually presented in more formal settings like theatres whereas Middle Eastern Dance, having originated from social folk dancing retains that sense of sociality as well as being “elevated” to more formal settings.

    Bobbie 

  12. No Gravatar
    Morocco

    May 2, 2012 - 06:05:53

    FWIW, before Ballanchine was so well funded by Lincoln Kirstein (bless him!) *&* the US/USSR ballet rivalries (& in other areas) that “elevated” ballet, you DID find it in bigger, fancier night clubs (& some dives too!) & lots of jazz, tap, ballroom, Apache, etc. I saw both in many of the clubs I worked in as a Flamenco dancer (& before).

    Tipping/ praising performers with gifts of money (or just throwing money to show off for friends) *is* an old, traditional ME custom, but NOT “on the body” … reference the scene in “Khalli Belek min Zouzou”. Westerners, however, insist on misinterpreting it. So what else is new??

    FWIW #2, I also like Randa Kemal a lot … 
     

  13. No Gravatar
    Bobbie Barry

    May 2, 2012 - 09:05:50

    But were those the kind of night/supper clubs that had a mini “stage” for bands or entertainers?  I assume they must have been because though I can imagine ballroom and tap might be adapted, I can’t imagine ballet or Jazz being performed amongst tables.  

    I can’t say I know anything about the tradition of tipping in the Middle East, just that’s it’s been done here in North America in various ways for a long time.  But I do wonder why some dancers have experienced tipping on the body (as well as money showers) by people from the Middle East at private functions without ever indicating where or how they would like to receive the tips?  
     

  14. No Gravatar
    Morocco

    May 3, 2012 - 05:05:56

    BB,

    I’m not going to do a back & forth here, so this is my last comment: in *all* the clubs that I worked in (from “then” till now) there were stages or sufficiently large cleared areas in the center of the floor. We *never* squeezed between tables & there was no “floating”.

    As for the rest, READ MY BOOK, “You Asked Aunt Rocky” – it’s in there. The promo is in your Snakebytes. 

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Gilded Serpent

MaryEllen Donald