A Personal Feminist Theory of Belly Dance


Her thoughts on bellydance as a route to empowerment for women (as victims of patriarchal, colonial or sexist powers - secular or religious).

But it seems a bit confused at times. She wants to authentically represent the dance and use it to highlight the plight of women in Islam (or women in general), but wants to draw back from the idea that she is identifying with or being politically activist over the Islamic culture. She wishes to be 'authentic' so as not to appear culturally appropriating the dance, but acknowledges that bellydance is largely an invention to satisfy Western ideals. She wants to acknowledge that belly dance has roots in sexuality, but doesn't want it to sexualise the body. Plus there is no mention of bellydance other than as a female solo public performance - which is largely a recent, Western invention, and certainly not the only way to enjoy it.
Yes, cake and eat it too. She hasn't yet worked out exactly how to hone her ideas into something that allows her to fence-sit with comfort.


Super Moderator
Off topic, but hello, Zumarad! I was just this second thinking of you. There are a dozen folks from New Zealand in my museum at this moment. ;)

Sophia Maria

New member
Thanks for posting this article?/blog post? (I think the format wasn't good enough for it to be an academic article, not to mention a disqualifying reference to Buonaventura, as well as those "dessert" Bedouins, hehe). But I thought it brought up a lot of the critical issues that we do eventually talk about in Oriental Dance.

So... my 2 cents. Or quite possibly 200 cents. I will not be brief. :lol:

I am a feminist and a belly dancer. I am sure that, for some, that statement is an oxymoron and an impossibility.
First of all, this could be too picky, but I want to point out that I flat out disagree with any statement that Oriental Dance and feminism are naturally at odds. They quite simply aren't opposing forces, they are separate things that sometimes diverge and sometimes overlap. Perhaps things have evolved, too. I'm young, but I have heard people say that if you go back a few decades, feminists were sometimes very hostile to oriental dance, seeing it as objectification and too sexual. If this is true, I think feminism has evolved. These days, we are discussing more and more about sexuality and objectification, and that it is not always overlapping. One can be sexual and still be feminist (but that could be another rant for another time).

Because belly dance stands at the above mentioned crossroads, deciding to take it up is a subversive act in a number of contexts.
I truly believe that such uneasy points of conflict are the powerful ones, the ones from which we can alter realities, as well as make a point and a difference.
Here I really agree with her. Personally, I feel I somewhat grew up with oriental dance. I started at 15, and now I'm 22. Especially I started as a very awkward 15 year old, I began to feel self-consciously about my dance, not knowing when it was ok to be sexy or not, or whether I was attractive or womanly or just skinny and awkward. For a while I never had a boyfriend, but was doing a dance that I considered to be confident, and comfortable with sensuality and some level of playfulness or flirtation. This is kind of personal, but back then I wouldn't tell guys about it, because I was scared of getting attention and not knowing how to deal with it. It felt "subverisive" sometimes to be a "bellydancer", because of the looks, attitude, and judgment that I got. It really helped me grow up as a dancer when I funneled all those issues into the realization that...I don't care. I don't care if someone judges me, I love what I do and I do what I love. I am interested in, but not worried that I AM comfortable doing a dance that, quite honestly, in our society and Middle Eastern society, can toe the line of what's acceptable expression of sensuality or sexuality.

She talks about the complication of dance in Arab and Islamic culture...I can speak to the conflicting attitudes of dance in Arab culture to some degree. I am not Arab, but am always learning about the culture, and have Arab and Muslim friends whose viewpoints I actively try to sympathize with. There are some double standards. It is a dance that is well loved. If you make Arab friends, most are happy and excited to see you appreciating a part of Arab culture, and many think it’s awesome that it has garnered such interest. However, it is not a dance their parents usually want them to do, and not a dance acceptable for their sisters to do in front of anyone but family. There are different spheres where things are acceptable and not acceptable. Female vs male, public vs private, social vs performance...It can be complicated, but I think dancers shouldn't shy away from trying to understand that complication.

A big issue I think is the dichotomy between shaabi and sharqi. It’s become a predominantly performance art but it IS an eminently social dance. It’s so hard to untangle it (especially in Arab or especially in Egyptian style) that when you do distill it into pure performance, the dance has the risk of being "inauthentic". For me, part of the joy and authenticity in the dance is the language, the lyrics, the cultural references, sometimes the humor, and almost always the interaction (with your friends dancing along, or with your audience). Many brilliant dancers do performances that retain that playful, social atmosphere. In my totally subjective opinion, this is why I don’t enjoy too much contemporary fusion where the dancer is doing more interpretive dance, or where she looks serious, or angry, etc. It takes it too far from where I personally like to be.

This is also because (and I don’t know how common this is, I hope it is more common than it seems to be to me) I have had a serious interest in Arabic music and culture and language, ever since my early student days. I’ve taken courses on Middle Eastern history, speak shaky basic Arabic, absolutely adore old hour-long recordings of Abdel Halim Hafiz, and like to learn about the different cultures in the Arab Middle East. I don’t judge dancers if they have other interests, but I couldn’t see myself personally NOT being interested in Middle Eastern…stuff! I don’t claim to have all the information, far from it. I don’t want to somehow transform myself into an Arab. And I do not idolize or idealize Middle Eastern things—I am very interested and just learn where I can. I think when you’re learning a dance from another person’s culture, they also appreciate it if you’re doing it in the correct manner. Idolizing their dance or culture can seem strange, appropriating for your own fun can be rude (or embarrassing or ignorant), whereas expressing an honest interest and desire to share in the experience is almost always appreciated.

I do deviate from the author in terms of her perspective on femininity in the dance. I think we almost all agree, at least I hope, that the claims we hear sometimes that “belly dance” is some sort of “sacred” goddess dance, or that this dance was used for mysterious, sexy feminine temple rituals is laughable at best and downright insulting at worst. However, where I deviate, perhaps, is that I do not view Oriental dance as feminine dance. I think Raqs Sharqi has predominantly been developed with the female body and female performer in mind. This has much to do, perhaps, with the scarce acceptability of male performers…the idea that male performers are necessarily gay, ‘f****ts”, or have become female (that’s another complicated issue, the dangerous equation of femininity with negativity and weakness). I think sometimes that another reason why the dance became more female-oriented as a performance art specifically, is because human societies, in my opinion, tend to direct more admiration and power into the female form in general. Put simply, a lot of people often like to watch women. Or keep them from being watched. Take your pick.

But I do not think Oriental Dance is feminine. This is probably because, well, men do it too! Not just performers—I have many memories of being in mixed Arab company when a song came on, and guess what? Men snapping, head bobbling, hip sliding. Arab men dance. Quite a bit, in fact. We couldn’t get them to sit down. :D Kidding (sort of) Yes, performance is a very different story, but that’s another rant for another time.

More specifically about feminism, I think I tend to be naturally suspicious of dance used specifically as feminist empowerment. I don't believe that oriental dance is feminist or anti-feminist by nature, and I don't think it has to be either way. But I do believe that, if I understand correctly what this author does, she does good work. I think this dance (and, really, most other dance forms...oriental dance is not unique) can be a beautiful way of overcoming hardship and confidence issues.

When speaking about female empowerment and oriental dance, I find some dancers making a distinction between what is "sensual" and "sexual", with "sensual" being acceptable, and "sexual" being dangerous and to-be-avoided. Now, this is my opinion, but I don't employ this argument, nor do I think there should be negativity in being sexy. It's important to note that oriental dance is a lot more rich than that. But, sometimes, a dancer is sexy, and that's ok.

I think the reason why oriental dancers argue this stuff so often, is because it really can be a boundary-crossing art. Different dancers chose different limits. But think if you've ever seen a performance by a great dancer, who crossed a line just to see if they could pull it off. Sometimes, artistically, this means they just surprise you by starting one common movement and then completely switching it up. Other times, they may wiggle their butt cheekily (pun intended). They may flick their skirt to show a leg. They may wink at you. It's art, and art flirts with boundaries by definition.

In conclusion, I think all the questions she raises are good questions, and ones that students and anyone who has intention of dancing professionally need to ask themselves. And we all need to listen to the different answers.

Don’t bypass the hard questions—it’s not a dance conveniently created for you or your purposes. Oriental dance is sexy, it is beautiful, it can be crass, it can be elegant, it can be transgressional, some dancers are prostitutes, others are PHDs—all these things coexist. There is no shame in these things coexisting, it’s just messy human reality.

Also, on the subject of feminism, this is perhaps one of my favorite cartoons ever, and pretty much sums up my feelings: https://beingsakin.files.wordpress.com/2011/08/fashion.jpg


Last edited:


Super Moderator
Thank you for a very thoughtful, interesting post. When I first started dancing, I met a ten year old girl who took lessons with her mother. The child was very good and danced happily until she performed in a Stars of Tomorrow show held in her home town. Adolescents came out of the woodwork to tease and harass her after that performance and she gave up belly dance in favor of ballet.

She would be in her late forties now. If I knew where she was, I'd like to ask her about the over all effect dance has had on her life and if she ever returned to belly dance.