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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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