Photo by Lina Jang courtesy of Dorit Konig

The Women Fighting Sexist, Racist Stereotypes Around 'Belly Dancing'

Though the dance has been a cultural celebration among women for centuries, professional performers of raqs al-sharqi have struggled to gain respect since the term "belly dancing" was coined.

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Jul 11 2017, 4:53pm

Photo by Lina Jang courtesy of Dorit Konig

"Why do you call it that?" Leila Haddad says when I ask her about belly dancing. "I've never heard of nose dance or finger dance or ear dance." Haddad is the esteemed Paris-based choreographer known for bringing traditional Arab dance to world-class theaters and her unshakable commitment to restoring its respectability. "In the Arab world," she says, "it has never been called the dance of the belly. I have nothing against the belly. The belly is the house of all humanity. It is a sacred place, but we don't call [the dance] that. The name of the dance is raqs al-sharqi."

Raqs al-sharqi is Arabic for dance of the East or dance of the Orient, referring to the Middle East and North Africa. Some dance scholars consider it the oldest dance in the world. In the last century and a half, as the West has commodified the dance, its reputation has become hypersexualized—a fact which endlessly frustrates both those who have studied raqs al-sharqi and those who consider it an integral and beautiful part of their culture. The dance has not always been synonymous with everything sensual and seductive, yet these connotations aren't completely unfounded. Its origins date back to what many anthropologists believe was a fertility ritual practiced long before the Ottoman Empire and for a time, many women who practiced the dance publicly were prostitutes. However, what stereotypes fail to account for is that privately, Arab women—from grandmothers to doctors—have taken part in the dance amongst themselves and away from the male gaze since its inception. Today, people who partake in raqs al-sharqi professionally struggle to shake off the sexual misconceptions that surround their art form.

In short, the misnomer "belly dancing" and its connotations are a result of Orientalism, a concept popularized by the scholar Edward Said that describes the West's patronizing—and often fetishizing—representations of "the East." In 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte, accompanied by French scholars, began his military campaign in Egypt to one-up Britain in colonial conquest. At the time, Egypt was largely gender segregated. So, when Napoleon and his smart friends needed some female energy—and the European prostitutes Napoleon requested couldn't make it due to Britain's blockade—they found themselves interacting with Egyptian prostitutes who were often also dancers. Historians speculate that Napoleon and gang began to call the dance, danse du ventre, or dance of the stomach, and thus the English translation "belly dancing" was born. As Haddad pointed out, nowhere in the Arab world is the dance called raqs al-beden, or dance of the belly.

Leila Haddad performing in traditional Tunisian raqs al-sharqi clothing. Image courtesy of Leila Haddad.

Along with the name, Orientalism helped contribute to the dance's salacious reputation which now exists in the Arab world as well as the West. In the Arab world, however, these connotations surround professional dancers only, not the dance as it is practiced in homes and during celebrations from weddings to henna parties. Vivant Denon, one of the scholars who accompanied Napoleon to Egypt, wrote in his book (which is considered one of the founding texts of Egyptology) that the dance "conveyed nothing but the gross and indecent expression of sensual intoxication." In her book on the history of raqs al-sharqi, dance scholar Rosina-Fawzia B. Al-Rawi writes that "Westerners took their [the tribe, Ouled Nail's] belly dancing, which was associated with prostitution, to be the original one."

Today, thousands of professional dancers and choreographers deal with the repercussions of these stereotypes. This, more often than not, leads to experiences where these women—who have often spent years mastering the art form—are belittled and objectified. And the perpetrators are not a niche community. In 2008, the New York Times reviewed Haddad's performance at NYU's Skirball Center. Of her dancing, which is considered to be the least sexual and the most culturally accurate in the professional community, the Times had the following to say:

Cultural differences be damned, a come-hither, over-the-shoulder smile accompanied by a jutting, undulating pelvis means roughly the same thing in most places. Ms. Haddad offered too much of both. That's a shame, because her fiercely controlled arms and beautifully rendered, curled-toe footfalls hinted at a deeper artistry, one that might have matched the marvelous male singers and musicians who shared the stage.

Haddad admits that like the tango or the salsa, the dance is sensuous, "but if you stop only at that point it's boring. There is spirituality, it is intellectual, you have to understand the music, you have to use your heart, feeling," she says.

Dorit, a dancer and teacher of raqs al-sharqi in New York City, also works to elevate and bring non-sexual attention to the form. "I have my own way of bringing respect to the dance," she says, "and that's by dancing respectfully and portraying myself respectfully. I will always cater more to the women than the men."

Still, throughout her career, Dorit has become all too familiar with the sexism that results from misconceptions about the dance and its dancers. Once, in the middle of her performance, a couple motioned for her to come over to their table and proceeded to ask her if her breasts were real. This encounter was, unfortunately, not an isolated incident. She has numerous accounts of situations where she's been disrespected because of her work with what she calls Middle Eastern dance, something she was initially drawn to for its music.

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Dorit explains that the film industry has further degraded the reputation of both the dance and its dancers. In the early 20th century, raqs al-sharqi began to appear in Hollywood productions such as Cleopatra and The Sheikh, the latter of which involves a casino wherein Arab men gamble for their wives. Similar false and fantasy-like depictions of Arab culture and raqs al-sharqi appeared in Hollywood movies frequently for the next 50 years, deepening the misconceptions of the Arab world and its most famous dance form.

Western film also contributed heavily to the transformation of the dance's costume. In the Arab world, attire for the dance varied from country to country but often involved a loose-fitting layered dress with a scarf tightly wrapped around the hips and loud jewelry. However, as early as the late 1800s, filmmakers like D.W. Griffith (who made the original, highly-criticized Birth of a Nation) portrayed Arab female dancers in the jeweled bra and long skirt ensemble called the bedlah that comes to mind today when people hear the term "belly dance."

During the golden age of Egyptian cinema (the 40s through the 60s), which was heavily influenced by Hollywood, Egyptian dancers and actresses such as the famous Samia Gamal began to appear in more revealing costumes. These films often engaged with the American portrayal of the "belly dancer." That is, women dancing to seduce the king or a group of men. However, they also frequently portrayed the dance as performance art or entertainment for large groups of both men and women.

Image courtesy of Leila Haddad

Today raqs al-sharqi in the States is viewed primarily in restaurants and clubs for mixed audiences. This trend began shortly after a raqs al-sharqi performance at the 1893 Chicago World Fair. Despite offending the audience's strict Victorian conservatism, the dance proved captivating and soon appeared in cabarets and food venues across the country.

In the mid 80s, however, Haddad had a different vision for the dance: She wanted to bring it to the stage. Haddad sees this as a form of protest against the stereotypes of both raqs al-sharqi and Arab women altogether. "People have no idea what Arab women are like," she says. "They have two ideas: either oh this poor Arab woman beaten by a man or a whore." By bringing it to the theater, Haddad, like Dorit, hoped to bring respectability and an appreciation for the art to the dance.

Though Haddad has been invited to perform around the world and Dorit has been invited to perform at the White House, neither of them believe the promiscuous and deviant stereotype projected onto women who dance raqs al-sharqi have changed much in the last half-century. "It's still very difficult to impose this art form in the theaters," said Haddad, "but I'm fighting like a tiger."

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For many years Dorit refused to use the term "belly dance." "I don't like to say it because it brings up all these ideas of what a belly dancer is and most of them are negative," she says. But as a working professional in America, she has realized that she must call herself a "belly dancer" in order to retain marketability.

Like many artforms, raqs al-sharqi has endured a drastic change in the last 15 years with the advent of social media. For one, it has received more exposure. Videos of raqs al-sharqi dances on YouTube often receive views by the millions. Most recently, the dance has become extremely competitive. Dorit describes the most modern adaptations of the dance as "Olympic sports." Competitions, held everywhere from Denmark to Cairo, feature dancers who have moved away from the flowy movement styles of classic dancers in favor of extremely difficult, isolated movements.

Haddad believes the future of the dance will be onstage and in theaters, but only if more choreographers and dancers heed her call to action: She wants them to open companies and build studios to keep the dance alive, and set the record straight when it comes to its misconceptions. Haddad considers her dance to be very political. "With dance, you can denounce things," she says. "My grandmother didn't dance in the cabarets. She used to dance among women in homes. It was a dance, it's part of our culture."

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She leaves me with simple advice to share with my fellow Americans: Don't be lazy. "Rock'n'roll has never been translated in France," she says. "We say this is 'rock 'n' roll'. It is time for Westerners to put themselves into another culture. The same efforts we Easterners make, the Westerners can make."

The dance is called raqs al-sharqi.