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Gilded Serpent presents...
A Big Picture Book Review:
Martha Burns' "Belly Dance, Celebrating the Sacred Feminine"
Reviewed by Stasha

How the Belly dance world has changed during the 30 years in which I’ve been its participant! Once, I had to search for music and imagery, but now, it regularly comes into my email inbox directly. In this case, it was a simple email announcing a new book release scheduled for October 2008: “Belly Dance, Celebrating the Sacred Feminine”, by Martha Elena Burns. Another email was from my friend, Amira of Las Vegas, who said, in part: “This book is, perhaps, the biggest in the world of Belly dance photography that’s ever been created...” and she sent along additional statistics:

  • Over 70,000 photos of Belly dancers were made in creating this exquisite portrayal.
  • Large 10” x 12.5” coffee table book 160 full color pages
  • 120 dancers’ vellum overlays
  • Gold metallic ink

This unreleased (as of this writing), tome intrigued me instantly, and I contacted the author for further information (

“The book is meant, among other things, to be a source of unity and celebration in the entire Belly dance community,” said Martha Elena Burns.

Burns lives and dances with her family in Santa Monica, California, and she photographs Belly dance throughout the United States. This book features images photographed during a 10-year period, both in black and white and color, in nature settings, and during live performances.

I asked for, and was granted, the opportunity to see an advanced finished copy (a galley copy), to interview the author, and report to you what I have learned. I believe this book will be of interest to more than the Belly dance community alone. It contains prose and poetry concerning passion, the goddess, and the power of the sacred feminine. It’s also a meditation on the healing found in this most ancient of dances!

Christine Northrup, MD (best-selling author of “Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom”) has set its tone in her forward. Several years ago, Dr. Northrup was transported by a Belly dance class experience, feeling a deep connection and sense of knowing.

“When I first started to do a simple veil dance, I nearly fell to the floor weeping,” she writes, “it was a profound and powerful experience I will never forget.” She continues, in part: “ ... Belly dance reawakens ancient wisdom in our bodies..... tapping into my Divine power through the movements of creation that are part of this wondrous dance....” and concludes “These movements are a pathway to pleasure, fitness and stamina.”

Burns comments: “Interestingly enough, I discovered Belly dancing and Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom at the same time. After my first miscarriage (a total of four), my pre-natal yoga instructor recommended Belly dancing as a way to exercise and heal my body and mind, and to re-focus my energy toward a positive and constructive endeavor. I walked into my first Belly dance class feeling depressed and angry. However, after a few weeks of reading the mind-body concepts (in ‘Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom’) and having been blissfully immersed in the rhythmic spirit of Belly dance, I embraced my feminine soul for the first time. Passion for living returned along with the deepest respect and reverence for life. The pivotal moment in time was the beginning of exploring and discovering the mind-body connection and Belly dancing. It was also the beginning of my Belly dance photography book.”

Burns continues: “ the time the book was almost completed, I realized that it was more than a photographic journey. The title became ‘Belly Dance, Celebrating the Sacred Feminine’, a title which pays tribute to and encompasses the wild woman, the goddess, the great mother goddess, and all that relates to the soul, divinity, and creation.

This collection of photographs represents and honors women of all sizes, colors, and ages dancing their wisdom, grace, beauty, and power. I want to share—especially with women—the profound connection I feel with all women through Belly dance.”

Various dancers’ thoughts are reflected throughout the book, for example:

“One joyous afternoon at my friend’s family home in Cairo, his mother and I danced until we couldn’t anymore. She plopped onto the couch, and as she adjusted her headscarf, she said, “Oh no! I danced too much! I should go pray now.” I answered, “Oh? But I just saw you praying.” - Eva Cernik

As well as dancers’ self-actualizing statements; for example:

“A Dancer is not great because of her technique. A Dancer is great because of her passion.” -Martha Graham

The greatest voices of this book are the images of dancers, a lot of them! If you like costumes, you’ll love this book. Its first image is a breath-taking swirl of skirts and veil that seems to capture the dancer at the moment she appears to embody a glass sculpture by Dale Chihuly.

Martha also employs an inventive photo collage of movement: on one page, several photos of the same dancer executing the full range of the movement. Martha has the uncanny ability to capture a dancer at the perfect moment of the movement without losing the vitality of the action.

“With these exquisite, beautiful images, I am impressed with Martha’s ability to delve deeply into each dancer’s essence.” -Angelika Nemeth

Beyond these stunning realistic images, there are artistic treatments, printing techniques, metallic paper, and image manipulation, transcending into the realm of pure aesthetic art. One such textural image is a metallic print of a dancer superimposed on a crunchy close up of sparkly sequins.

Some images and text may have become too ethereal: one vellum page was so dream-like, so sheer, the image was almost too ghostly to see, the text not read easily. (I heard that some of the vellum pages have been edited out of the final copy—this may have been one of them.) However, this technique was used again—much more effectively—several pages later where the translucent vellum dream of a dancer with her veil is paired with a photo of the same dancer with her veil in the rolling surf. Then, once again, this technique is creatively employed where a translucent dream-like veil juxtaposes a stronger static pose beneath, as if one dancer is dreaming the other.

Burns’ book features inspiring quotations from iconic women’s literature:

  • Crossing to Avalon” and “Goddesses in Everywoman” by Jean Shinoda Bolen,
  • The Mists of Avalon” by Marion Zimmer Bradley,
  • Women Who Run With the Wolves” by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, and others.

“When a woman senses that there is a mythic dimension to something she is undertaking, that knowledge touches and inspires deep creative centers in her.” Jean Shinoda Bolen, M.D.

 (These sources are fully referenced in the book’s index should you wish to read them in their entirety.)

Every page is a work of art, a truly astonishing array of images. The content is very inclusive and features all age ranges, body types and styles. You will see yourself, your best self, in these pages.

There is a dance
that lives
in my bones

-Alice Walker

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Check the "Letters to the Editor" for other possible viewpoints!

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