Shake it! Belly dance in modern Egypt

For the past month we have been taking belly dance classes at a local gym and on Friday, we got to see a professional dancer perform in Ain-el-Sokhna, a town near the Red Sea.  The dance, beautiful as it is, seems totally at odds with the outward appearance of Egyptian women and what I perceive as the conservatism and disdain for open sensuality that Islam preaches.  There are a lot of questions on my mind, specifically: in a place where the majority of women cover their body, their hair, and sometimes their faces, how could this type of entertainment possibly fit in?

In Egypt, actresses can be accused of immorality for portraying anything less than demure figures of feminine virtue, but belly dancing, with its glitzy sensuality, is still widely accepted as “raqs baladi” or “country dancing,” certainly a far cry from my original concept of country dance.

From a historical perspective, belly dancing is a part of the territory: references to it appear in A Thousand and One Nights, in the Gospel of Matthew in which Salome dancing for Herod, and in ancient Babylonian mythology: the goddess Ishtar danced to bring her husband Tammuz back from the underworld. This kind of dance is all about one’s sense of the beat, but unlike the even tempos of most western-style dance, the music shifts constantly to allow for the greatest possible range of movements. (Music samples: Mezdeke- Shik Shak ShokArabic Belly Dance Group ~Hammamat, Harem ~ Sultana Belly dance has been around in some form for millennia, but there are contradictory opinions on whether it should be condoned as part of the culture or condemned as sin.

Belly dance is in the public sphere, where both men and women can be entertained—there were even little kids watching in Ain el-Sokhna—but there was still an element of haram (sin) when women averted their eyes in embarrassment or men refused to be pulled onstage by the dancer for fear of trouble with their wives.  It’s interesting how belly dance really is in the out in the open, yet in a society where women seem to be undervalued and repressed, the dancer can still have the entire audience wrapped around her finger.  She uses her sexual energy, her beauty, and her skills to empower herself, or at least put on a show of complete, blissful confidence.  She might have bad ankles or flab around the midsection, but she can be beautiful, happy, fascinating, and strong when she moves onstage.  With one smoldering look or one drop of her hip, she gains power over her audience by displaying complete ownership of her body.

 This has great potential to freak people out.  It’s easy to see, therefore, why people might call the dance dirty or the dancers whores and loose women.  They are powerful in a way people do not understand.   Islam does not seem to say anything specific about belly dancing, but forbids prostitution and encourages women to be chaste and virtuous.  Depending on how you classify belly dance–as art or as seduction–it’s easy to see where the resistance against it arises.  Still, at celebrations, even the most conservative girl is likely to get up and shake her hips without fear of punishment from conservative relatives (as long as the girls don’t aspire to going professional).  I got the sense from watching the audience in Ain el-Sokhna that this kind of dance is a point of pride for many people—as many consider Egypt the birthplace of this style of dance and therefore Egyptians as its best performers.

But is belly dancing sexual objectification of women?  My feminist side says definitely, at least in terms of what we saw in the professional act and in the context of hijabs.  Maybe the hijab is the exact reason why belly dance is so appreciated and perhaps why it has taken its present form, since in almost all other (public) spheres women are covered up or at least kept from expressing overt sexuality.  Would women put on skimpy outfits and wiggle onstage if men didn’t get such a kick out of it (and happily break out their wallets at the prospect)?  Perhaps not—just like many aspects stripping, pole dancing, and porn.  However, the character changes completely if it is viewed from the perspective of a woman dancing for her own pleasure.  In that case, it can be a cathartic experience; and that’s what I have had the fortune of seeing in dance class every week.

I really appreciate being in these ladies’ midst, since many of them come to class covered up and then have the chance to unwind for an hour, laughing and wobbling through new routines.  The minute shimmies and muscle isolations take significant skill, but the women seem to have a sense of what this kind of dance feels like on their bodies. They know when they’re supposed to shimmy and move quickly and also when they’re supposed to slow down and go all serpentine. The instructor encourages us to feel the music instead of worrying about whether we are dancing “right” or not. She says never to cover our faces or cower while we are dancing because we dance to celebrate our beauty, which does not come from bone structure or from perfect curves, but from an inner sense of self.   What could be more fantastic than that?

P.S. Satin Rouge is a great movie to see if you’d like more of a background on belly dancing in the Middle East.  Here’s a review.

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