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Is Belly Dance Provocative?

Tulay Karaca

by Maria Strova
An edited excerpt from her published book,
"The Secret Language of Belly Dancing"
posted January 21, 2010

Usually, the first idea that one has of Belly dancing is that it has to do with sexuality in some way, but not so much the sexuality of a woman. The fantasy about Belly dance seems to emphasize an arousing effect that provokes the desire of the man watching her dance. Sometimes, in clubs or in TV, we can still hear a dancer presented in this way: “…and now, specially for the gentlemen’s pleasure, here is Jasmine!” 

This type of introduction might suggest that the dancer is an object that inspires the longing and attention of men, but it doesn’t seem to promote her intent.

This stereotype of Belly dancing  has caused me a lot of displeasure; it has made me angry to see how imprisoned in negative models Belly dancing still is, and how much it had lost since it was formerly an ancient art that honors the female body.

I think it’s necessary to clarify the difference between Belly dancing (an art form that is sensual by nature and erotic at times) and other performances that are associated with erotic dancing (such as stripping or lap dance). Some of the proponents of those dances would like their dances to be recognized as an art and may be used as equivalents of Belly dancing itself. 

It would be demeaning to speak of Belly dancing as only an erotic, “provocative” dance, because the Belly dancer doesn’t look for a sexual effect with her dance, and she doesn’t aim at turning on her spectators, or encouraging them to act on their desires, turning a fantasy into a physical act. This is not the intention of art but pornography, and I think it should be left that way; we should recognize the intent or objective of the performer when we see a Belly dancing  performance.

As a true artist, a Belly dancer conveys her inner life through movement, breath, use of lights and choreography, pauses and with this discovers all the aspects that make up the human being and sexuality as a creative energy of life. This is the energy that makes the world go round and has allowed us all to come into existence. This energy that is so important to life is expressed through its dance, Belly dancing . I don’t like to deny the sexual aspect of Belly dancing. To deny sexuality is to deny Life, but Life itself could never be expressed merely through a provocative dance!  It is not related only to the sexual act or sexual desire because the audience is raised above that desire.

It’s doesn’t exclude sexual energy; art just goes above and beyond. It’s symbolic.

The archaic, cultural aspect of Belly dancing recalls a life philosophy that is different from our western roots in regards to sexuality. During the time preceding the monotheist religions, the activities concerning the body, such as sexuality and fertility, were considered holy. There was an infinite series of relationships that weren’t limited to the physical outlet, but were interlocked in a complex figuration of life. Gender, sex, and eroticism have the potential to completely transcend the biological sphere. For the ancient religions, sexuality was something infinitely more complex than the one instinctive outlet. 

Dancing was an authentic workshop with which people handcrafted the psychic life. Dancers, sought unity with nature through movement, the melting of tensions and complete relaxation of the being. I’m convinced that Belly dancing still can draw from the component that is erotic, but at the same time, it has a sacred aspect to it. This forgotten aspect of the dance, is the key to reinvent dance, to experience the dance in all its aspects and to feel the eroticism is about womanly desire and women’s spirituality and not only a way to please the male gaze.

The dancer might discover that sexuality is not limited to the sexual act or to reproduction, because, for as much as it is an act of procreation, our sexuality doesn’t exist only within the relationship we have with another person. On the contrary, it is manifested, through the body itself, in the harmonious relationships with life, with other people, with pleasure and pain, with what happens around us. It’s an experience that begins by having a good relationship with our bodies and the feeling of physical pleasure.

This dance is about discovering our sexuality in our own terms—a place in the language of our dance that expresses itself in movements, especially those involving the “forbidden” areas: breasts, hips, pelvis, belly.

It’s the passion that we discover inside ourselves, and, freeing ourselves from restrictions of taboo; we are free to express it. It’s the spiritual power that, like fire, we can give without consuming ourselves. 

The Masculine Aspects of Belly Dance

In my book “The Secret Language of Belly Dance”, I talk about the meaning of the element of fire in Belly dancing. I realized that it could seem arbitrary to insert the symbol of fire into a feminine context such as  Belly dancing because usually it is considered to be a more masculine symbol, belonging to the authority of the Father, the supremacy that was brought to life by Apollo in Greek mythology. 

NeyHowever, precisely because fire and water are opposite elements figuring into the solar and lunar symbolism, between them there exists a single, harmonious dance. In reality, feeling the presence of this element in Belly dancing  confirms for us that it’s a feminine art, one that preserves the dialogue of opposites and truly aims at completeness. It wouldn’t be possible to arrive at the definition of a feminine dance, which we usually consider belly dancing to be, without recognizing the masculine aspect. It would be like defining night without day!

In this dance, which I feel is a “dance of transformation,” (life-death-life movement) there is an implicit idea of the rhythm of opposites, and for this, the symbols of both genders live together in the dance. They alternate, converse, and play. Just as the sun and moon alternate in a day, as we dance, we alternate the elements that feed from the solar symbolism with the elements of the nocturnal symbolism. Dumbek

To illustrate this game of opposites more clearly, I’ll cite the example of the music that we usually use, the type made with the oldest and most essential instruments—the drums and the flute. The music of the drum, which excites us with its striking rhythms, and which we interpret with fast, beating movements, is seen as the masculine aspect, since it marks the rhythm. Like the sun, it can have variations, but it remains constant. In contrast, the melody of the flute, which we interpret with fluid, continuous movements, transforms. It changes like the moon. It unwinds; it comes and goes. It is the feminine aspect of the music.

Another beautiful male-female correspondence between these two instruments can be found in the shape and sound that each has. The flute has a phallic, masculine shape, but produces a feminine melody with its high-pitched, fluctuating tones. On the other hand, the drum has a dish-like, feminine shape, but produces a strong masculine sound. The musical fusion of these two instruments generates a harmonious union of opposites: in shape, in both masculine and feminine energy, and in the rhythm and melody of the music. 

A good part of the dancer’s interpretive skill is in her ability to bring out both aspects, at different times during the same varied dance, but also at the same time in two different areas of the body. For example, we might see the rhythm of the drums in her hips and the melody of the flute in her arms. Like all creative arts, the idea behind the dance is in the game, the exploration of the different possibilities the music has to offer the imagination. Just as in the artistic, harmonious creation, we try to discover both aspects of the male and female psyche. 

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  1. Pauline CostianesNo Gravatar

    Jan 26, 2010 - 02:01:41

    Well, the  problem that nobody wants to address, is that if we keep
    calling this dance by the name we were stuck with in 1893  “belly dance”, than what chance do we have to be taken seriously? I follow
    the school of thought espoused by Ibrahim (Bobby) Farrah. He
    detested the term “bellydance” for obvious reasons. It is  silly,
    buffoonish, and doesn’t give the art it’s due. Better to have to explain
    that “Oriental Dance” doesn’t mean Asian, and that it’s the proper translation of “Raks Sharki”, which is what the Arabs themselves call it, than to continue propagating this foolishness.

  2. adminNo Gravatar

    Jan 26, 2010 - 08:01:10

    Pauline! We need even a preliminary article on Bobby. Would you be game?

  3. Beth SyrnykNo Gravatar

    Jan 27, 2010 - 11:01:52

    Changing the name will not change the attitudes. We must as bellydancers take out art seriously ourselves first, then others will do so as well.  There are still far too many woman out there who beleive this is a dance of seduction and promote it as such.  When we all take our dance as seriously as ballet dancers do and put the time, effort and practice into it perhaps then it will be seen in a new light.

  4. BarbaraNo Gravatar

    Feb 6, 2010 - 09:02:25

    Maria is beautiful, her book and dance message is very beautiful.
    TRUE – Until this DANCE is taken as seriously as ballet or modern, jazz or tap or ballroom etc it won’t ever be accepted or respected on the same level – but maybe that is what some want – to keep it” the dance for everyone’ which it is be also…….a funny quandary

  5. Nneka Femi HalimaNo Gravatar

    Feb 16, 2010 - 07:02:39

    I think what americans have contributed to the dance is absolutely astounding. You have created a home where a stepchild could be cherished, nurtured and grow. Raqs Sharqi is one of the few ethnic traditions of the world that hasn’t dwindled in the past 100 years. It’s been innovated, renovated and disseminated unlike so many others that are now extinct. Bellydance classes have become a normal offering at any dance school, along with ballet and modern dance.

    I’m no expert, but it seems that the proponent for all of this has been the devotion of WOMEN in the western hemisphere. In all places of the world, both sexes are struggling to define the feminine identity. It is as mysterious, awesome and powerful as life itself. Any activity women take up that deals powerfully with identity will be subject to scrutiny. Every facet of civilization is reflective of the whole.

    What you have on your side is a local community – that you built – that understands your work as a dance artist.

    In places like Trinidad & Tobago, where raqs sharqi is just getting a foothold, we don’t have that. I think 90% of my audience has a revelation when they realize by seeing me dance, that sensual and sexual are not the same thing. On the one hand they are disappointed (that it wasn’t slutty enough), but then it makes them think. Then they try to prove that what I do is not really bellydance.

    Now, here’s the clincher: In the absence of a large community of reputable bellydance companies, schools, trade publications, competitions, workshops, seminars, etc, etc. Where’s the cavalry to back me up? Where are the other dancers that offer similar performances to the same audience, thereby venerating my position?

    The lay person will always view bellydance as provocative. They haven’t had the opportunities we’ve had to break through the stereotype and see what’s really there. That’s something only a community of dedicated knowledge-seekers can do. Like biochemistry, or astrophysics, bellydance is specialized knowledge. You can’t expect the average person to just ‘get it’. It takes our whole community of like-minded people to shine the light.

  6. TamarNo Gravatar

    Feb 17, 2010 - 02:02:01

    I agree.  I have been dancing for 30+ years and I am pained by the new dancers in our area that consider it a pure seduction.  The dance  manifests our feminine energy.   Most men @ a performance are expecting to be seduced, but are indimidated by the dancers.  Afterwards their wives and girl friends flock to us, wanting to take lessons.  They get it!!!


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