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PHOTO CREDIT: Above photo by John Rickman Photography, San Jose, California.

Dear Shira


Dear Shira:

Should I Pick a Middle Eastern Dance Name?



The Question

Dear Shira:

I'm preparing to start working professionally in a restaurant, and my teacher suggested that I choose a stage name to protect my privacy. I'm trying to decide what name to use. When I look at the famous dancers I admire, I see that some use names that sound very American, while others use Arab or Turkish names. Do I need an Arab name if I'm going to be dancing in a Lebanese restaurant? And how do I go about picking one?

--Nameless Nancy



Shira Responds

Dear Nancy:

It's true that many dancers don't use ethnic stage names, even if they dance for ethnic audiences. Instead, they choose stage names from their own culture, such as Suzanna Del Vecchio, Eva Cernik, or Sonya Blacker. There are a number of factors to consider when deciding whether to do that, or whether to choose a Middle Eastern name.


To Choose An Ethnic Name or Not?

Back in the 1970's and 1980's, dancers in the U.S. usually chose names that were either Arabic, Turkish, Armenian, Persian, Hebrew, or Greek. With the rise of the Tribal movement in the 1980's, it became increasingly common for U.S. dancers to use names that came from their own culture. In some other countries, such as the U.K., the use of Middle Eastern names never was very popular, and still isn't now.

If your dance style is not very Middle Eastern, such as one of the fusion styles, it's probably best to choose a dance name from your own culture. Some prospective clients might question your truth in advertising if you use a Middle Eastern stage name but don't dance in a Middle Eastern style.

An Ethnic Name May Be Appropriate If...

  • You actually have Middle Eastern ethnic heritage
  • You expect to work in an environment where most restaurant owners, audience members, and private-party clients will be ethnic
  • Your real name actually already is an ethnic name
  • You try to make your belly dance style as Middle Eastern as possible, and you use only Middle Eastern music
  • You have made the effort to learn some folkloric dances from the Middle East
  • You know Middle Eastern people you can trust to give you intelligent guidance in choosing a name, to avoid choosing something that could prove awkward or embarrassing
  • A Middle Eastern person you trust has already given you an ethnic name as a sign of affection
  • The owner of the restaurant where you dance has asked you to take on a Middle Eastern name

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by John Rickman Photography, San Jose, California.


An Ethnic Name May Be a Bad Idea If...

  • Most of the time, the person introducing you as a performer will be someone who is not familiar with Middle Eastern names, and is likely to struggle to pronounce it correctly
  • You don't plan to perform much for Middle Eastern audiences
  • Your dance style includes a large amount of influence from sources that are not Middle Eastern
  • You don't dance to Middle Eastern music, and your costumes don't resemble those worn by performers in the dance's homelands
  • You have no interest in learning anything about Middle Eastern culture, or in making your dance style as Middle Eastern as possible
  • You don't have access to an ethnic person to guide you in choosing something appropriate

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Pixie Vision, Glendale, California.


Even if you meet all the criteria described above under "An Ethnic Name May Be Appropriate If...", there's no requirement to choose a Middle Eastern stage name unless you actually want one. However, if the restaurant where you dance insists that you adopt one it may be advisable to comply.


What About Cultural Appropriation Considerations?

Part of the discourse around non-Middle-Eastern people doing belly dance is the question of cultural appropriation, and it's a legitimate issue to consider when choosing a stage name.

Generally speaking, I feel it's okay for a belly dancer to choose an ethnic name if she fits most of the criteria above under "An Ethnic Name May Be Appropriate If".

The way I see it, the bulk of the cultural appropriation dialogue comes down to the question of whether the dancer is behaving in a way that is respectful toward the Middle Eastern culture from which our dance form comes.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Pixie Vision, Glendale, California.

A dancer who wants to use a Middle Eastern stage name should consider how her stage name, the way she labels her performance, the music, the costume, and the actual style of dancing all fit with each other. If all of these, put together, create a presentation that would make a Middle Eastern person feel that his/her culture is being honored, then I think an ethnic stage name could be part of that.

Some people might argue that using an ethnic stage name is still appropriation, and we have to live with the fact that sometimes we will hear this sort of criticism. However, I believe that most would be likely to respond favorably to how a culturally-respectful dancer presents herself if her presentation shows that she has done the work to use cultural markers such as a stage name correctly.




How to Choose an Ethnic Name?

The first consideration is which ethnicity of name to use. It wouldn't make sense, for example, to choose a Turkish name if the audiences you intend to dance for are mostly Arab.


Where to Find Name Ideas

There are many places to look for inspiration for dance names from the ethnic group you have decided to use:

  • "Friends" lists of people you know on social media who have many contacts from the region that inspires your particular dance style.
  • English-language web sites of news media such as Al Jareeda or Al Ahram — note the names of the people in news stories.
  • Ask a native speaker from that ethnic group to help you identify a name you'd like.
  • A baby name book for that ethnic group.
  • Lists of names and their meanings on the web.

Of these choices, the first two are my favorites because they indicate which names are currently in widespread usage today. In contrast, the last two may contain names that are either obscure or that your audiences would consider to be odd or outdated.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Michael Baxter, Santa Clara, California.

I don't recommend opening an Arabic/English dictionary and picking a word. One dancer who did that chose "Lebwa", which, according to the dictionary, meant "lioness". Although this is true, the dancer didn't realize is that the word carries the slang connotation of a sexually predatory female, one who devours her victims either sexually or financially. Arabs would see it as either ignorant or tacky and low-class. Either way, it's a poor choice for a dance name because of its cultural connotations.



Is There a Pleasing Ethnic Equivalent to Your Own Name?

If your real name is Rose, you could consider Warda (the Arabic word for "rose", which is also used as a woman's name) as a possible name. If your real name is Julie, maybe you'd like Gawaher (which means "jewel") as an option. If your real name is Mary, perhaps you'd like Maryam. However, before finalizing that as a choice, read the rest of the considerations below.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Lina Jang, New York City, New York.


Asking Others for Suggestions

Asking someone from the ethnic group could be great if the person is a long-time friend or family member whom you know you can trust.

It could, however, be risky if you barely know the person, such as a musician or a friend of a friend. Sometimes people have mean-spirited senses of humor.

I knew of one case where some Arab musicians told a dancer that she should use the name "Sharmoota", which they told her meant "beautiful woman". She didn't speak Arabic, and thanked them for giving her such a beautiful name. Imagine how dismayed she was to later learn that she was the butt of a joke — in Arabic, the word "Sharmoota" means "prostitute". In another case, Arab musicians told a tall, thin woman she should call herself "Fasoulya". She later learned it meant "string bean". It was not a compliment.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Michael Baxter, Santa Clara, California.

Belly dance teachers usually have honorable intentions, but sometimes they don't have enough knowledge of Middle Eastern culture to recommend suitable names. For example, I once knew of a belly dance teacher who named her student with a word that refers to a musical instrument. It wasn't something any Arabs would name their daughter. Imagine how odd an American would think it if someone from Japan learning to square dance introduced herself saying, "My name is Banjo". Similarly, Arab audiences were confused by this dancer calling herself by the name of a Middle Eastern musical instrument.


Researching the Name

Before finalizing the name, it's wise to ask someone with strong cultural knowledge these questions:

  • Is this a currently popular name, or is it one that was used in our grandmother's time but no longer today?
  • Is it the name of a prominent historical figure, such as a serial killer [for example, Raya or Sakina], one of the Prophet Mohamed's wives, a politician, or other well-known person? If you choose the name, will you be comfortable discussing your decision with people who mention the historical reference to you and ask why you chose that name?
  • Which social class would be most likely to name their children this? [You want a name that the upper classes would consider appealing, because they're the ones likely to be in your audience or hiring you for gigs. You don't want a name that is considered low-class if you're hoping to be hired for the prestigious gigs.]
  • Does the name mean something that really doesn't suit you? [For example, the name Samra means dark-skinned, and would be a peculiar choice for a light-skinned blonde.]

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Jeff Obermann, Corvallis, Oregon.



If You Add a Last Name

This too should be verified with someone from the culture. Not all names go together. For example, certain surnames are strongly associated with Egypt, such as "al-Said", and other names are strongly associated with the Gulf region (al-Majed). If you choose an Egyptian first name, you'd want to correspondingly select a surname that sounds like it could be Egyptian.


Practical Considerations

  • Are you sure you know how to pronounce it correctly?
  • Will people from your own culture be able to pronounce and spell it correctly, or will they always mispronounce and misspell it?
  • Does it "feel" right, or does it feel weird?


As you can see from the above points, there are many things to consider when deciding whether to choose an ethnic stage name. It may be the right choice for you, but you'll want to take some care to avoid the pitfalls that many dancers encounter when choosing their names.

— Shira



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About this Column

Shira has received many questions from readers over the years related to various aspects of the dance. In this column, she picks some of the more interesting ones to answer publicly. Details contained in the questions are sometimes removed or disguised to protect the anonymity of the person who asked the question.



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