Belly Dancing, What it Is and What it Isn’t

There are many myths and misconceptions about the women’s dances of the Middle East. Here are the ones I hear most often:

* MYTH #1: Belly-Dance is some sort of sex dance performed by “harem girls” for some sort of “sheik” or “sultan.”

* MYTH #2: Belly-Dance is the same as Hula Dance, Gypsy Dance or East Indian Dance.

* MYTH #3: Belly-Dance is performed in “Arabian” countries by women who must have large bellies. If a slender woman performs this dance, she will develop a large belly.

* MYTH #4: Belly-Dance is performed in Greek nightclubs by young women with flat tummies and silicone-enhanced chests. It is inappropriate for heavy women to try this dance, especially because it must always be performed in a skimpy costume.

If you have ever believed any of the above statements, don’t feel silly; you probably learned about the dances of the Middle East from Hollywood, or you have personally seen just one aspect of the dance. No one ever told you that there is more to it than what you saw! Here is the complete picture:

* #1: Belly-Dance was not invented to arouse men. Millions of women in dozens of countries enjoy belly-dance at gatherings that are entirely or predominantly female. The women talk, eat and dance in the same way that Western women talk, eat and play cards. The dance predates both Islam and the development of the culture that now dominates the Arabian peninsula. Traditionally, women danced during labor, and their friends danced along with them. This practice has dwindled in the Middle East due to the new dominance of Western medicine. However, it is now becoming more popular on obstetric wards in America! I have friends who danced during labor, and they found dancing to be more helpful than walking, showering or massage. In many countries, belly-dance is the predominant form of exercise for girls and women.

Throughout history, powerful men have enjoyed seeing young women dance, sing, or just stand around. Just because these men enslaved women and forced them to dance doesn’t mean the dance was invented for that purpose. In fact, although the wives and slaves of wealthy men danced among themselves, when there was an important event to be celebrated, traveling dancers were hired. These dancers wore many layers of traditional cloaks, skirts and pants, and they were just as popular with the women of the house as the men.

Mezdulene’s two cents – My favorite response to this myth is from Morocco which went something like, “Honey, I can think of a lot easier ways to attract a man; I do this dance for me. ” I have used it many times over the years, since then, and since men usually ask me the question, I just love popping their bubble of illusion.

* #2 People who show their tummies and shimmy are not necessarily belly-dancing. Belly-Dance has a few elements that are similar to Hula, Gypsy and Indian dances, but these dances are all different.Hula and Indian dancers use their hands (and in Indian dance, their eyes and feet) to tell a story. Polynesian dancers do a lot of shimmying, but they do not perform many other moves that are essential to Middle-Eastern dance. The dances performed by Gypsy tribes have much more in common with the folk dances of Eastern Europe than with dances of the Middle East. The European dance that is probably best related to belly-dance is flamenco, which developed from Middle-Eastern dance when the Muslims ruled Spain.

* #3 There are no “belly-dance laws” requiring dancers to have a certain body type. For some strange reason, Westerners conclude that a women needs to have a certain body type to learn Middle-Eastern dance, but they do not place such restrictions on their own -dances. At a typical nightclub, wedding, or New Year’s Eve bash, people of all ages and sizes dance. If there is a dance craze, all sorts of people flock to dancing schools. No one has ever said, “You have to have a large butt to do the Macarena” or “I have to lose ten pounds before I can learn the Electric Slide.”

* #4 It is true that nightclubs prefer to hire belly-dancers who look like fashion models, but nightclub performers make up a tiny percentage of the women who enjoy belly-dance. The largest audience you will see for a Middle-Eastern dance event will be at a show by dancers, for dancers. The audience will be overwhelmingly female, and in the audience and on stage you will see–and I’m not exaggerating-women from the ages of seven to seventy. You will see every conceivable body type and a variety of attitudes about revealing or concealing them. You will see girls who began to dance at their mothers’ knees, and women who took their first class at age fifty. You will see women who began to dance professionally after just one year of training, and women who have taken the same intermediate-level class for fifteen years just for fun and fitness. Basically, the women have four things in common: they love to dance, they love costumes, they love Middle-Eastern music, and they love Middle-Eastern food.

The laws of exercise physiology are not suspended by the presence of Middle-Eastern music. Have you ever heard anyone say, aerobics will give you a big tush, stretch-and-tone class will give you a big tummy, or swimming will make you grow gills? Of course not! When you raise your heart rate, you burn calories. When you use a muscle, it becomes stronger and tighter. Look at aerobic instructors! The result of abdominal workouts is not a gigantic round pregnant-looking belly! That is the result of chocolate ice cream workouts! Belly-Dance is a fun, non-impact form of exercise. Like any other form of exercise, it will bum calories, tighten and build muscles and increase flexibility.

Note to Jareeders: I wrote this article for a special presentation about Middle-Eastern dance. I know you don’t believe these myths, but I’ll bet you know people who do! Please feel free to photocopy this article and pass it around! Questions or comments? Going to be in Arizona? Write Angelique at Box 1813 Gilbert, Arizona 85299-1813

Mezdulene’s note: – I am adding on the most common myths that I run across here in the Northwest. Some are similar, some are in addition to those that Angelique has covered

* Belly dancers dance with their bellies. While pregnant with my son and on a visit to the obstetrician, I mentioned a show I had just sponsored where my headliner (Halima) ended up in the emergency room after the show with a torn ligament in her calf. His response was, How do you hurt your leg doing belly dancing? That was one of many such questions. In reality, stomach rolls and undulations involve only a tiny fraction of our dance, and many belly dancers don’t even do belly movements.

* Belly dancers wear jewels in their navels.

This is not a Middle Eastern tradition but started in Hollywood during the 30’s as a form of censorship. Navels were too risque to show at the cinema. (Times have sure changed!)

* Belly dancers are strippers or strippers are belly dancers.

My first dance job ever started out with a woman exclaiming, The Strippers are here! It took me years to think of a good comeback for that one.

When a stripper wears a belly dance costume, she is no more a belly dancer than she is a law officer when she wears a police uniform in her routine. There are occasions where strippers also know other dance forms such as belly dancing or ballet, but they are definitely different disciplines.

* Belly dancing is sexual or lewd.

Real belly dancing is family entertainment. It is a dance that children can do as well as older women.

* Belly dancing is easy.

Just like any other dance form, belly dancing takes a lot of practice and discipline to learn. It is an art form and, to become an expert, requires learning not only steps from Egypt, Morocco, Turkey, Arabia, Syria, Persia, Tunisia, etc, but also the rhythms. And, a professional must also be able to accompany her dance and the music with zills (finger cymbals). The next time another type of dancer declares that belly dancing is so easy, I would like to hand her a pair of zills and tell her to accompany herself while she dances and then tell me how easy that is!

* Belly dancing degrades women.

This is an attitude that I have run across and usually comes from misinformed feminist types. I have been told, It’s women like you that get men excited watching you dance, and then they go out and rape other women. I have been told I couldn’t do a benefit for a women’s shelter because what I did was degrading women and encouraging their victimization.

The reality is that belly dancing empowers women increasing their self-confidence and enhancing their self-image along with the physical benefits of the dance. I have seen it in myself and with so many others. Most women victims who learn to belly dance, stop acting like victims, stop walking like victims and stop being victims. This is one of my favorite things about the dance.

Any time, I run across any of these myths and attitudes, I use the occasion to EDUCATE. The more we educate, the less people will believe the myths surrounding our dance. For every person we enlighten, they will enlighten others. And, the best way to educate is to show people what we do by volunteering at nursing homes, festivals, benefits, etc. And, everytime you volunteer, you are actually advertising what you do which will give you the potential for future paying jobs.

About Mezdulene

I am passionate about belly dance, and I love to share my passion by publishing Jareeda Journal, the leading resource for Middle Eastern dance! My intent is to inform and celebrate, by creating a positive and supportive community for all belly dancers. I also sponsor Belly Dancer USA Competition and Mezdulene's Annual Retreat.

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