Written on the Body: Bellydancing and the Feminine Aesthetic

Arabesque Dance CompanyWomen in Toronto have various reasons for taking bellydancing. According to Yasmina Ramzy  of Arabesque Dance Academy in her article, Bellydancing and Women’s Self-esteem, “During twenty years of teaching Bellydancing to as many as 120 women a week, I have come to realize that the reasons students take up the dance are varied and that there is no “typical type” of woman. They come from all walks of life. These women persist because Bellydancing enhances self-esteem…. all women love to Bellydance. It is an expression of a woman enjoying her femininity, sensuality and the power that the female body has as an embodiment of reproduction.”

I began my bellydance training at Arabesque Dance Academy in January 2004. After my first two weeks of bellydance lessons, I made the following observation:

"My hips have entered the Creation as a piece of the mechanics of Life. Like the pistons in a car, my hips are a conductor and a converter of energy. If I only had the means to plug myself into my computer and household appliances, I’m convinced that my hydro bill would dramatically decrease."

"If a woman were to spellbind anybody there truly wouldn’t be a better recipient than herself and then her lover. But I am convinced that to limit herself and the bellydance to that function would be a terrible waste of potentials and a lack of perception. The master bellydancer compacts into her hips the power of the shaman and priestess."

Technically, this dance stimulates and stretches the internal organs with its demands in flexibility and muscle isolations. The dance has a unique focus, in its curving patterns, which compliments the female form. It teaches the body to understand how it is aligned, being able to carry one movement from your fingertips to your toes. The dance is also mentally challenging. Movements are often layered simultaneously, made more intricate by adding higher levels of release and agility.

Leona Wood    Belly Dance MagazineLeona Wood, in her article, Dance du Ventre: a Fresh Appraisal  Part I & II, suggests that the desire to spiritualize or mysticize this dance is a result of trying to offset its striptease stereotype. It also poses as a lure to the ‘exotic’ for Western women.

Since the 60’s, Leona’s research has helped create academic acceptance for Oriental dance. She has presented the lecture series, "The Near East: Islamic Tradition and the Modern World" and “The Performing Arts in a Moslem Context" at University of California in Los Angeles.

“The claim that the dance is intended less as entertainment than as a ritual symbolizing motherhood has a special appeal for feminists; it is therefore not difficult to understand the motivation for such eager accepta

“Much of the nonsense that is circulated about oriental dancing is rooted in a profound ignorance of the cultures in which it is the social and theatre dance, the classical and the folk dance.”

Aisha Ali confirmed that bellydance “is a social dance when done by folks and an entertainment dance when performed by professionals.”
Aisha is an internationally recognized authority on the dances of Egypt and North Africa and director of the folkloric ensemble, the the Aisha Ali Dance Company for over twenty years.

Hannan Sultan, a Toronto-based professional bellydancer, has a more liberal view. “Bellydance isn't one thing. There is bellydance as a dance done on stage by professional performers. There is bellydance as a social dance done by Middle Easterners. There are people who use bellydance as a spiritual tool or practice. I think they are all separate things. I think that bellydance is empowering for us because it allows us to pursue and honour a feminine aesthetic.”  

Hannan began her training in Portland, Oregon and has since become an instructor and award-winning, international performer of Middle Eastern Belly Dance.

“It‘s a language. I can embody every personality that a woman can be -- including the hag, the drag queen, the bitch,” chuckled
Maya Al Samry, a professional bellydancer in Toronto. When performing, her chief pleasure is connecting with the other women in the audience and encouraging them to explore this language.

I asked Yasmina Ramzy if she believed her students had an obligation to study the history of the dance. She smiled and said that there are no ‘shoulds or shouldn’ts’ when learning to dance. However, women who perform bellydancing should learn its heritage.

“This is more than your average dance. It’s not just physical movement. You are taking on thousands of years of history and emotions and celebrating women.”

A Little History on East Meets West

Through research on the Internet, there is one repeated historical moment in Chicago with the ‘World Fair’ that coined the term 'Bellydancing' in 1893 – beyond that everything else tends to vary. The late 1800’s planted this dance in North America and Europe with a fad in Eastern ‘exoticism’.

The dance can be traced as far back as Ancient Egypt & Mesopotamia but, due to its nomadic tendencies, traveled and rooted itself throughout Asia, the Middle-East and North Africa.

According to Leona Wood, “By the time they reached France in the early fifteenth century, they were known by a variety of names, but at least one group called themselves “Egyptians” (hence Gypsy) … In Egypt, Spain, Hungary, Russia and wherever else they are found, Gypsies have assimilated the local styles of music and dance and made them their own.”

Radhiya Taj lists some of the groups that developed from this movement: The Shikatt (meaning wise women) from Morocco, the Khaleeji dance from Saudi Arabia, the Ghawazee from Egypt and the Ouled Nail from Algeria are a few examples. “Many countries around the world have their own style of dance and have been instrumental in sharing their influences in the art of Middle Eastern Dance.” Radhiya Taj is a St. Louis-based dancer.

Leona describes this dance’s historical transformation into its most decadent version: “by a series of actresses, courtesans and dancers: Cleo de Merode, Sarah Bernhardt, Maud Allan, and others, who indulged themselves in an oriental charade that set the stage for a notorious and persistent stereotype.”

An example of one of these courtesans/dancers is Margaretha Geertruida Zelle. Born in the Netherlands, she posed as a Javanese princess named Mata Hari, “the eye of dawn.” Mata Hari made her official debut on March 13th, 1905 by performing the ‘bellydance’ at the Museum of Oriental Art in Paris before a six-limbed statue of the Hindu god, Siva.

With no training in Oriental Dance save what she had observed during her marriage to a military soldier in Java, she writhed and stripped, near-naked, herself and the bellydance into the showgirl act. She is even quoted as having said, “The temple in which I dance can be vague or faithfully reproduced, as here today. For I am the temple. All true temple dances are religious in nature and all explain, in gestures and poses, the rules of the sacred texts.” I found this story in (of all places) the Crime Library website, written by Denise Noe.

Like any bellydancer who dances solely for the pleasure of men or for sex, according to Maya Al Samry, the biggest offence is that they completely miss the point. They offend by their ignorance; they disfigure a dance that is meant to be so much more. Yet, they are part of this dance. By history and fate.

“The exotic influence from the western world is more interesting and desired by new generations of Middle Easterners,” said Aisha Ali. “They are flattered by the amount of interest that western women have shown in Raks Sharqi and like any art, when there is a lot of competition and patronage, it thrives – even if temporarily it is being developed by outside cultures.”

“The creators of the bellydance we know today (the ones emulated by professional entertainers) were strongly influenced by Hollywood and Russian ballerinas,” Hannan agreed.

Yet because of the West, Maya explained, any bellydancer who had been dancing before the 80’s had to fight hard to be recognized as a professional dancer. She, herself, almost accidentally signed up for a performance in New Orleans that expected the striptease version. But had bellydancing never captured western attention, it would never have traveled so far or developed such a strong following from women around the world -- dancers determined to have the bellydance recognized as an art form. Examples of this are some of the dancers listed in this article.

The Sex Symbol

When first approaching bellydancing, as a Torontonian, it never occurred to me that people might think this dance was indecent. Exotic -- yes. Erotic -- like any dance – only as much as you want it to be (so then, who’s being erotic – the dance or you?) I didn’t understand why so many dancers, during my research, were so vehement that bellydancing was a serious art form or why they felt so strongly against the name: ‘bellydance.’

But I also didn’t know what it felt like to defend the dance or myself from indecency. The name ‘bellydance’ definitely has a different effect on the general Toronto public than the name: “Raks Sharqi’ or ‘Oriental Dance.’

Let’s look again at Mata Hari. She exploited a culture she barely knew for her own profit. Who was Mata Hari? A woman shrouded in mystery, accusation and audacity. Random searches on Mata Hari on the Internet give various versions of her life. She had moved to Java with her military husband. Some stories say he was a brute, other stories say she was bored. One child was poisoned and the other was taken from her in their divorce. She, a woman alone in the early 1900s, went to Paris and designed the character of Mata Hari. Her ‘Dance of Love’ became a sensation where men promised fortunes for her favours, even the German royalty. Her sensation lasted no more than five or so years. During WWI, she was accused of being a spy. Sometimes she was a German spy, sometimes a French one, sometimes both. Sometimes she was a scapegoat who had an unfortunate weakness for men in uniform. She was executed by firing squad in 1917.

When discussing the history of bellydance, Hannan said, “There are several theories about the history of the dance, but I don't believe that we have had thousands of years of "bellydancing" as we now know it … I tend to think that the reasons people give to explain the history of something that is undocumented can tell us more about their agenda than the history they are trying to explain.”

The sexual association with this dance is not entirely due to the influence of the West. Historically, many of the women who cultivated and studied this dance were also raised to be prostitutes.

In an article by dancer and researcher, Jasmin Jahal, entitled, The Ouled Nail of Algeria, she describes the skilled female dancers of the Ouled Nail in Algeria. The Ouled Nail are known for introducing some of the most elaborate movements and accessories to the bellydance. These women earn their living by dancing and prostitution. “They leave their desert town between the ages of nine and twelve … The Ouled Nails have to obtain sufficient wealth to secure a good marriage. After the marriage, an Ouled Nail settles down to being a good wife and mother.”

The article quotes Ted Shawn, a famous American dancer from the early 1900's who didn’t encourage the decadent version of this dance after witnessing the Ouled Nail: “It is not a suggestive dance for the simple reason that it leaves nothing to the imagination, and because of this unashamed animality, revolts the average white tourist to the point of being unable to admire the phenomenal mastery which these women have of parts of the body…”

Yasmina describes another tribe of women called the Awalim: "...known today as prostitutes and dancers, but were once highly respected in society for their expertise in all the arts including poetry, literature, dancing, music and the art of making love. It was their occupation to teach these arts. In the Middle East today and abroad in Arab communities, it is customary to perform the Wedding Procession or Zaffah at all weddings. The Rakiseh or Bellydancer leads the wedding procession from the church or mosque to the reception party. Along the way, she encourages the couple to perform hip movements and to occasionally kiss. Whether the family is Christian or Muslim, this tradition is so strong that many mothers feel if the Bellydancer is not present at the wedding, the couple may not produce babies and wealth. In small villages, still today, the Bellydancer leads the newlyweds to the bridal chamber to consummate the marriage rather than taking them to the banquet hall.”

In Jasmin Jahal’s article on Turkish bellydancing, Top Turkish Talent, it is clear that their version is sexual.

Although, Turkish bellydancing has existed for at least 500 years, the focus to cabaret bellydancing began around 1923, “At that time, women were liberated in many aspects of life, and bellydancers enjoyed a freedom they never before had. Dancers found more opportunity to perform in a way that allowed them to aggressively display their feminine beauty and emphasize sexual appeal.”

It is even suggested towards the end of the article, that the aggressive sexuality in Turkish bellydance is not just from a desire to be decadent but also as a resistance. “Turkish belly dancers, today, struggle against the morals of a Moslem country. As artists they dare to see how far they can take sensuality into sexuality.”

“In fact,” Maya suggests, “the West’s initial fascination [with bellydancing] might be the result of a similar resistance to the Victorian era.”

Maya wishes to remind all dancers scarred by the stripper stereotype, “Sex isn’t bad.“ When Maya dances her focus is personal expression. “I want to show how much I love this dance. Genuine expression includes life, vitality, love, sensuality, joy and friendship. Sex is one of them.”

As quoted by Hannan, this dance is “strength through softness.”

Whatever our personal feelings about ‘the sex object’, she is rooted in the history of women as well as this dance. We have been repulsed and fascinated by this creation. If we dance as a way of celebrating or understanding our feminine nature should we not accept or try to understand all aspects of our sex. Being women ourselves how can we ignore that we know she isn't just a sex object.


There are new hopes and fears as popular culture is again rearing its head towards this dance. Artists such as Beyonce Knowles and Shakira have introduced bellydance elements into their acts. Though this attention creates renewed interest & revenue for the dance, these proud women threaten to put bellydancing right back into the sexual stereotype it has fought so hard to get out of.

“We are still unable to accept the idea of an autonomous woman,” Maya stated.

Hannan is concerned that the popular styles are shutting out the traditional styles. “There are other dance forms that this dance grew from, and they still exist or are dying out for the same reasons that native culture persists or dies anywhere. In Egypt, the dance (as a professional art form) is in a perilous situation because of the growing fundamentalism and economic situation there.”

As there are so many strong voices involved in bellydancing today, Maya is more encouraged by the idea of evolving the dance so long as standards of pride and integrity are maintained.

The main wish for the future of this dance is that the history of the dance be preserved and that the dance be acknowledged as a legitimate art form. These two walk hand in hand. To study this dance, is to understand its true merits and complexity.

To press any of these dancers with too many questions on the anthropology of women and bellydancing would veer towards being beside the point. She is a dancer. Her best answers come when you watch her dance. Thus, forcing me, a woman, to ask the question, why and how can I look to bellydancing to explain my nature and potential? Perhaps, the dancer will explain the nature and potential of the bellydance.

My last observation as a beginner bellydancer, went thus:

“Funny how the hip shimmy can be so difficult one minute and next I'm a freakin’ bumble bee. I don't think it's about how much you practice rather my level of ease at the time. Unlike most dance steps, shimmies can't be broken down into parts and done in slow motion. I tried doing it really slow, but of course that's not shimmying that's doing accents. Shimmy means you LET GO! Now how do you explain how to do that? You just do. Somehow. And I do. Sometimes.”

© lyw

Feedback on the article:

Dec. 28, 2004

I read your article and I'm very impressed. It must have been a pretty big project to do. Even though it's long it kept my interest and I think you really are a very good writer. I've tried to read two biographies recently, about people I was interested in, but I gave up because the writing was so tedious.

Amazing how you managed to work Jeannette Winterson into the article.

Ken Glazebrook is a director of dance film documentaries. His credits come from: Spirit of Dance Series

Jan 25, 2005

I feel you did an excellent job of presenting different issues related to the dance. I was very impressed that you sought out a number of sources. Thank you so much for writing such an informative article!

Hannan - is an instructor and award-winning performer of Middle Eastern Belly Dance.

 Currently based in Toronto, Ontario, she has delighted audiences all the way from Seattle, Washington to Istanbul, Turkey.