Is Belly Dance Sexy?

what language should we use to describe the dance

Is Belly Dance Sexy?

How to Embrace Sensuality When Words are Traps

Belly Dancer Belly“Now, stand with your pelvis in neutral, feet hip width apart, and knees bent” I told my class of Advanced Beginner students as I showed them a Figure 8. “Don’t do this,” I added, taking my legs wider apart and tilting my pelvis forward. “That’s okay for the club, but it’s not okay here.” As usual my students giggled at my exaggerated impersonation of an ‘impolite’ belly dancer.

Then one of my students asked shyly, as if she was anticipating my disappointment, “But… I don’t understand. Belly dance is sexy, isn’t it? Why do we have to try so hard not to be sexy?”

She didn’t mean it as a challenge. She was simply puzzled by a complicated issue I had often struggled with myself, one that has shadowed our art ever since it was brought to the Western world. Where does sexy belong in belly dance? And what are we to do with it?

A Belly Dancer Named Goldilocks

It’s always a harrowing walk along the edge of the knife for belly dancing professionals. We have to make our living, which means promoting ourselves and advertising our services to a general public that often is very misinformed about what we actually do. It can be difficult finding a common language that sells our classes and shows, but that still maintains an authentic connection to the art. If you lean too far one way, you’ll alienate potential students and customers who may not yet understand or appreciate authentic Middle Eastern culture. Lean too far the other way and… well, you know what kind of names are waiting for those belly dancers.

I don’t know about you, but I feel constantly burdened by the tension that exists between these two extremes. I’m always at the ready to defend my art, ever-anticipating a need to justify who I am and what I do. When I tell people I’m a belly dancer, I’ve come to expect that it will somehow give them permission to ask me personal questions they’d never ask another stranger, or even a close friend. I sometimes assume dancers of other mainstream and Western styles will be prejudiced against me. I often attribute rejections to be included in community events and exclusions from teaching at certain studios to be a judgement of me or my trade.

As I drove home that evening after class, I couldn’t help but think that I had, in some ways, failed in my duties as an instructor. In their studies I had encouraged my students to find the beauty and power, to respect the level of dexterity that it demanded, and to show them expressions of joy, humor, and even tragedy. But in my battle-ready preparedness to defend my art I had not encouraged them to embrace their sensuality. It wasn’t that I thought belly dance shouldn’t be sexy, it was that I assumed they already had connected the two. Or rather, I assumed what they knew about sex and belly dance was overdeveloped and that I, at the least, had to show them other dimensions of the dance, if not tone down the perception that already existed. I was coming to realize, however, that it wasn’t just that Americans tended to oversex belly dance, it was that their idea of sexiness was very different than the sensuality in belly dance. In other words, it wasn’t just the volume, it was the melody of the music, too.

An Ill-Advised Search

In the coming months I thought a lot about sexuality, sensuality, and belly dance. I even did a few searches on Google (I wouldn’t try it unless you are prepared!) to see what happened when I put the terms “sex” and “belly dance” together. In the top ten results there were a few links I didn’t dare click. In others, a teenage boy asked on Yahoo Answers if belly dancers made the best sex partners, to which the replies, also from other young men, unanimously agreed that they were. The experience was so sensationally crazy, one suggested, as to break his equipment. There was also a blog article from a feminist author that questioned whether or not belly dance supported or contradicted stereotypical roles for women, a tutorial “How to Belly Dance Your Way to Better Sex,” and in a forum where, again, the experience of having sex with a belly dancer was being discussed, a woman claiming she was just beginning to take belly dance classes joined the conversation and promised “to use [her] powers for good and not evil. ::wink::”.

It’s particularly frustrating to read these discussions when you think about how many double standards exist. Certainly, more skin is shown in professional ice skating (when there’s even more reason to bundle up!), and yet the sport is an esteemed tradition in Olympic competitions. There’s actual physical contact between partners in ballroom dancing but, at least in this day and age, the waltz wouldn’t be excluded from any wholesome community event. Other exercises that improve physical health, even some that probably do much more for improving sexual health like Yoga, are celebrated by doctors, physical therapists, and psychologists. I’m not going to discuss how and why these double standards came to exist (because there’s already great articles about that), but I think it’s important to acknowledge how challenging they can be.

*I happen to love ice skating, ballroom dancing, and yoga, so I am by no means suggesting that these are not legitimate pursuits. In fact, all of them are great for physical conditioning, and all are beautiful art forms, too.

It’s a Trap!

Why are these perceptions so damaging? Certainly most belly dancers would prefer not to be treated like strippers or prostitutes. But the real dangers, in my opinion, are in the limitations it imposes. In American culture being sexy is a trap. It’s a characteristic of the “other” entertainment, the kind that didn’t get to your television or to the stage by the merits of requiring dedication, talent, creativity, or vision. When entertainment is defined exclusively by its sexiness, it’s value is judged by the physical attributes of the performers, not by their skills.

This means that:

  • To be a good belly dancer, you should fit the American stereotype of an attractive woman. You should be thin, toned, and young. You should have flawless skin, thick shiny hair, and… well, you know. Go open a magazine.
  • The art of the dance goes unnoticed. The preparation and work given to each performance is overlooked. Your technique, your creativity of interpretation, your strength and poise, are relatively meaningless.
  • You’re limited in your expressions. You can be sexy, but you can’t use the dance to celebrate a joyful moment, interpret the loss of a loved one, show triumph over a challenging obstacle, connect to a higher being, share in a sisterhood, or anything else. Even sexy is limited to the American interpretation of being very loud, aggressive, and accessible.

It’s therefore easy to see why ‘polite’ belly dancers shy away from the label of “sexy”. It’s a dangerous one.

But Belly Dance Is Sexy, Isn’t It?

Yes, it can be! But it can be sexy in a way that embraces womanhood in all stages of life, no matter who she is or what she looks like. It can be sexy in the way she dances, the dedicated practice, the creative vision, and the energy that is invested, not what her body looks like through the performance. It can be sexy, but through an entire range of feminine expressions from cheerful celebrations to quiet lamentations, moments of hopelessness to surges of triumph, it can be many other things, too.

To my students: I encourage you to embrace sensuality in your dance, because it is a natural part of the human experience. But I ask that you first examine, and expanded upon, your previous conceptions of sexuality. Be wary of the limitations that “sexy” imposes. Continue to learn about and advocate for belly dance as an art. You have a responsibility to represent it as such to the greater community.

To other professionals: I encourage you to have a “birds and the bees” talk with your students. Let them discuss their ideas about what sexiness means to them and how it relates to belly dance in an environment that is supportive and judgement free. Remember that you’re not just turning down the volume, as I did for years, but also trying to change the melody. Sensuality in belly dance is not always bad.

What do you think?

Does sexy have a place in belly dance? How do you manage perceptions? Please leave your thoughts in the comments below!


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COMMENTS ( 14 )

  • A great essay, Ananke. I’ve thought about this a bit too, though not as consistently as you have. It’s funny — part of what drew me to bellydance was that it allowed me to feel feminine, sensuous, in a way that a 20 year-old who wasn’t comfortable with her body or her femininity otherwise could not be. And yet, what with classes and workshops and DVDs and keeping my stomach pulled in and my lower back long, I’ve forgotten that it can be sexy too. I dance for myself, so it was surprising when I came home from class lately, showed my husband the jewel we had been practicing, and realised he found it — sexy! I’ve laughed at the “dance for your sultan” line for so long, I hadn’t even realised a man might actually find the movements enticing.

    But I agree sexy does need to be more than the Sports Illustrated/California porn/Cosmopoloitan version of it. I googled “sex bellydance,” and actually clicked on the top four links, all videos. “Sex Belly Dancing Princess” was a poorly-lit film from a party in which a bellydancer was going around and getting people to dance in a pretty innocent way. “sex and Belly Dance Arabic Fire too – for adults only +18” was a woman in a tank top and short shorts dancing around in her living room, with pretty nice interpretation of the music — the level of skin showing would impress no one on the Jersey Shore. “Koala sex belly dance” had people with koala masks on, but no actually belly dancing (I think, I could bear to watch the whole thing, but it was also not pornographic). And “Arab sex belly Dancing” required me to click through saying I was over 18, only to reward me with a video of two women in their underwear dancing — in a group of other women, all hanging out, chatting, and so on. It looked like they were preparing for something. Also not a lot of sex.

    I found this kind of funny. Leaving out the Koala people, you had one pro bellydancer who was basically getting people up to party at a really busy event, one woman dancing alone just as I do, and two women social dancing in a female environment. Hardly the coochy-coo implied by the titles, and not really “sexy” in that typical way.

    • Thank you so much, Atisheh, for your thoughtful comments.

      Ah! We have some things in common. I was an awkward teenager when I first started dancing, so feeling more comfortable in my own skin and yes- even feeling sexy- was part of what drew me in. I guess I realized in writing this post that in many ways I left that part of belly dance behind. When I watch (or perform) belly dance I’m wrapped up in technique, stylization, musicality, etc. It’s just like the experience you described with your husband; sometimes I ‘forget’ that belly dance is sexy. For us more experienced dancers it would be good to bring sexy back, lol.

      Thanks also for having the courage to watch those scary labeled videos! That’s good news that their content is not as bad as I assumed.

      I always appreciate your perspective. Thank you so much again for sharing it.

      • Thanks, Ananke. I love the blog!

        Look, I think the truth is, you can do worse things for your sex life than take bellydance lessons. It’s all a bit hyped up, but I think getting exercise and feeling more comfortable with your body are going to be good for anyone — male or female, in fact. But the thing I love about bellydance is that it can be more than that. It’s also a great dance when the, ahem, results of sex happen. When I was pregnant, besides doing every prenatal bd video I could get my hands on, my husband and I would sometimes have little improv sessions in our living room where he would play doumbek (without actual knowledge of Arabic rhythms!) and I would dance to it. I danced all through my labour — and that was four days long. (Okay, I was not dancing on the fourth day.) And it’s also a great dance to do alone, when there’s nobody else in the picture, no partner, no lover, not even a friend. Sometimes we need to let it be a more forgiving dance, because it’s not all about perfect technique, and it can actually accompany the dancer through so many stages of life. I don’t know which other dances I could say that about.

        • Beautifully written! Yes!

  • Very interesting and insightful, thanks Ananke. I’ve actually just shared this on bellydanceforums because someone asked just the same question as your student in a discussion on Bellydance & burlesque.

    As a woman, I think it’s easy to forget a bit about how sexy this dance can be when most of the performers you see are other women, often your friends and classmates. You don’t necessarily see them in that way… Then when you see a guy dancing, there’s a sudden moment of realisation – “oh my goodness, I never noticed before how sexy those undulations look…”. Followed by thinking, that must be how it looks all the time to a heterosexual man watching the rest of us!

    • Hi Rasha,

      Thanks so much for sharing my post. I always appreciate that.

      I think you’re exactly right! And the example of watching men dance is a good one. Because we often think of belly dancers as friends, colleagues or students, or because we’re wrapped up in watching their technique or their presentation we forget. I’m glad Atisheh and I aren’t the only ones.

      Thanks for your comment!

  • Just wanna comment that you have a very nice site, I love the style and design it really stands out.

    • Thanks!

  • Hi Ananke!

    I really liked this article. I’m happy to see other teachers having an open discussion about this topic rather than just shutting down and getting defensive. It is so easy to go into a head space of feeling like we need to fight to be taken seriously that we forget that we’re beautiful, confident, and yes, “sexy” women!

    I wrote a rather long response to this post on my own blog. I hope you’ll check it out:http://nicolebeckerman.com/2013/05/22/re-is-belly-dance-sexy/

    xoxo,
    Nicole

    • Hi Nicole,

      Thanks for reading and for sharing your article. You bring up some really great points. It’s made me realize even more how complex this issue is! Phew! I’m glad that there’s some discussion and I hope it will continue. And for those of you who just finished reading my post and are now hanging out down here in the comments, I’d highly recommend Nicole’s article!

  • Belly dance can be sexy, sensual, humorous, passionate, playful, artistic, emotive, cheeky, flirty, elegant, interpretive, beautiful. . . any combination of these is cool. Just also be skilled and entertaining.

    If the primary goal of the dancer is to be sexy, it becomes raunchy/vulgar and distasteful. But. . . there’s a fine line between some cheeky and raunchy for some moves–like “touching the ground shimmy”–it can go either way.

    • Hi Lara! How are you?

      Yes, I completely agree! Intent is such a large part of the presentation. If you’re intent is art, and ‘sexy’ just happens to be a “side-effect”, then you’re probably in a better place than the dancer who goes out there with the sole intention of being sexy.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  • Thanks for the article. I started belly dancing as a teenager and benefited from the confidence it gave me. Sadly it brought too much of the wrong kind of attention and I got tired of defending it so I moved on. As an adult I have rediscovered belly dance. Now I am less vulnerable, more able to respond patiently to comments and not going to let other peoples’ ignorance keep me from what I love doing. Bellydancing is a sensual art that celebrates the beauty of women; our culture is just not ready for that but we soldier on.

    • Interesting story Hadama! Thanks for sharing.