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Gilded Serpent presents...
Walking the Line:
Reflections from a Christian Dancer

by Barbara Grant

"I think like every other aspect of our walk with Jesus I just have to ask the question does belly dance come in line with the Word of God. Erotic belly dancing. Well it is a sexual act, isn't it? Is it? And the bible is very clear where, with whom, and when any sexual act is to be done!"

So wrote correspondent Miryam Nahar, in a Letter to the Editor of GS published in June, 2004. To date, it has not received a reply on the GS "Letters" page.

I did a double-take when I read Ms. Nahar's letter. It caused me to think. Surely, many Jewish believers in Yeshua and Christians are dancers but are we really engaged in "erotic belly dancing," as she avers?

A Dance of Enticement?
I've personally never thought of my dance as erotic or enticing. I've considered it an attempt to distill the results of study about particular ethnic and cabaret styles, amalgamate them into American form, and present the outcome to an audience as entertainment.

Yet the association of "belly dance" with "the belly" gives rise to much conflict, when the dance is compared against traditional Western forms. Here, I believe, is where the real controversy lies.

 "The feet are the focus of much of the dancing in Europe," writes Piper Hunt ("My Vision of the Desert Archidance," GS, December, 2004.) And how! If you've ever seen Irish/Celtic dancing, you'll notice stiff arms and stiff upper body along with extensive foot and leg movements executed precisely in time to rhythms. Observing the women, you'll often notice fannies (covered by leotard) when dancers turn round. At a modern dance or ballet performance, you may see the outlines of men's genitals in tights. Few Western Christians would believe that watching these types of performances might cause them to stumble in their walk with Jesus.

A fully-covered belly dancer, on the other hand, receives no such pass, perhaps because she is moving her hips and torso. In Western eyes, such movements--no matter how heavily garbed the dancer--are often considered erotic.

I think of them as athletic. It took me more than two years to learn how to execute a belly roll (okay, I'm a slow learner!) and I place the accomplishment in the same category as a gymnast's mastery of backbends and walkovers.

Yet shimmies and belly rolls are foreign to traditional Western dance. That which is foreign is also strange; and that which is strange can be misunderstood.

While Ms. Nahar does not object to belly movements per se, she suggests that "erotic belly dancing" is counterfeit because it does not arise from "deep within our souls." A curious statement... for how can a dancer's motive be ascertained?

Motive and Venue
I'd suggest that for many dancers, if not most, the dance does arise from deep within our souls. It's the result not only of study, but also of a particular freedom we feel when given the opportunity to move every part of the body, not just the few parts specifically employed in Western dance.

Motive for performance, however, can be quite a different matter. I've not personally heard of a dancer who's gone out to perform in order to entice or seduce. Venue plays a role, as well. A belly dancer hired for a bachelor party may see the goal of her job as causing men to salivate (at least) and if that is her motive, she will be performing an "erotic" dance.

This situation is not so much a specific characteristic of Middle Eastern dance as one in which the dance is utilized to obtain a particular, erotic effect. That being the case, Christian dancers might wish to think carefully before accepting such performance assignments.

Venue can also be an indicator of the type of crowd attracted to an event and the type of performance a dancer is expected to offer.

A belly dancer hired to perform in a raucous, cowboy bar may be encouraged to use her performance to increase liquor sales and foster increasingly wild behavior. While a dancer herself may neither drink nor behave "wildly," her performance can be seen as encouraging such effects. As a result, a Christian dancer's performance in this type of venue is probably not a good idea. 

The costumes chosen by a dancer have much to say about how she perceives her dance. A quick look at some of the Bellydancer of the Year winners on the GS website shows relatively conservative costuming, not "come-and-get-me" garb. Yet other photos clearly show substantial amounts of flesh, notably fully bare legs and minimal cover over a dancer's private parts. The range of costumes for our dance spans the spectrum from covered to the Las Vegas-style showgirl look.

I admit that I have a hard time with some outfits, particularly those that leave little of the dancer's body to the imagination. I'd have a difficult time explaining to an observer that the dance is not sexual, and not inclined to promote a provocative response among audiences.

Those not aware of the artistic aspects of Middle Eastern dance will see bare flesh, and it is not at all clear that they will look beyond the body to gain an appreciation of the art.

Of course, that is a circumstance for the individual audience member to ponder. A Christian dancer, determined to walk the line between biblical morality and Middle Eastern dance performance, must make some choices. It's more than a tad hypocritical to both defend biblical morality and dress/ perform in an enticing manner. Though Middle Eastern dance and costuming need not be erotic, we must shoulder responsibility for our choices.

And while I disagree with Ms. Nahar's conclusion that our dance form is inherently "counterfeit" and out of accord with biblical principles, I believe that the Christian dancer, particularly, is challenged to find the right combination of style and presentation that will allow her to experience the joy of the dance without sacrificing her beliefs. The dance is broad enough to allow many varieties of expression and it holds a place for Christians too.

Have a comment? Send us a letter!
Check the "Letters to the Editor" for other possible viewpoints!

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