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

Dear Shira

Shira

Dear Shira:

Is Belly Dancing Acceptable for Young Girls?

 

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The Question

Dear Shira:

I've been involved in a debate over whether belly dancing is a suitable activity for young girls. The proponents say it's good for body image, exercise, etc. Those opposed to it talk about its seductive aspect, the issue of stage mothers, the fear that perverts might stalk the girls if they perform in public, and the negative reactions of the public.

I'm torn. At what age are girls taught how to belly dance in the Middle East? Is belly dancing a good activity for girls here in our U.S. society? What do you think?

--Torn

and

Dear Shira:

I recently attended a local dance recital featuring children from about three years old into the early teens. As I was watching the performances I heard a woman in the audience murmur that she wondered whether any of the parents felt as uncomfortable as she did about the skimpy outfits and suggestive grinding movements. It hit me like a brick. When I looked back to the stage it was like I was seeing a totally different display. Eleven six-year olds in glittery, skimpy one shouldered spandex outfits; faces full of makeup; hands on their hips pumping back and forth furiously. I've never felt more appalled, it was involuntary. A minute before they were a bunch of kids learning muscle control, what happened?

--Conflicted

 

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Shira Responds

Dear Torn and Conflicted,

It's human nature for people to perceive belly dance through their own biases, whatever those may be. Therefore, it's not surprising that people's incorrect pre-existing belief that belly dancing has something to do with seduction will cause them to be uncomfortable seeing children do this dance.

In its countries of origin, belly dancing is a social dance deemed perfectly appropriate for people of all ages, including children, to do at weddings and other family occasions. In these cultures, belly dancing is simply a recreational activity.

However, in North America we've endured a century of the entertainment industry using belly dancing in seduction scenes of movies and television shows, warping the public's understanding of what this dance is about. Even children's cartoons such as the Mighty Mouse episode The Sultan's Birthday depict belly dancers performing for the carnal pleasure of the Sultan. So it's no wonder that people occasionally question whether belly dancing is appropriate for children to learn.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: Aziza al-Tawil, from New York, at 1 year old in the Parthenon, in Houston, Texas. Her mother was a professional dancer named Johanna.

Aziza Tawil

 

Consider the Double Standard

Any dance form can be viewed as a wholesome activity for the participants, or as an activity that encourages adults to get ideas they shouldn't get about the child performer. Dance, by its very nature, invites the audience to gaze at the movement of the performer's body, and the people watching will place their own interpretations upon what they see. In this way, belly dancing really isn't any different from gymnastics, figure skating, baton twirling, ballet, or any other performing art.

For example, one way to describe a ballet performance by children is to comment favorably on the beautiful lines of the body, the cuteness of the children, how well they synchronize their movement, the beauty of the choreography, and so on.

Another way to describe the same ballet performance is to comment on the high développé (leg lift above the head) and how it encourages the audience to gaze at the dancer's crotch, or to point out how the snug-fitting leotards and tights invite the eye to examine the shape of the child's body. In fact, certain fetishists ogle photos of young girls doing ballet stretches.

A child wearing a midriff-baring belly dance costume is often much more covered than the children in dance recitals who wear shorts and crop tops for hiphop or jazz performances. Often, hiphop choreography in particular is much more sexually aggressive than belly dance choreography, just because of the nature of hiphop as a dance form. Yet, many of the people who question the appropriateness of belly dance for children are accepting of hiphop. Why?

ABOUT THE PHOTO: Aziza al-Tawil, at age 5, appears with her mother Johanna on a poster.

Conflicted, I have a question for you. After you became dismayed at the children with "their hips pumping back and forth furiously," how did you then view children's performances of other dance genres? Did you apply your "appalled" filter to the other dance styles as well? If not, why not?

Aziza al-Tawil

 

A Look At Dance in The Middle East

In the Middle East, girls are not particularly "taught" how to belly dance. Middle Eastern countries don't have belly dancing classes like those seen in the U.S., Europe, and Australia. In fact, the notion of being "taught" to dance is completely alien to them. Tunisian dancer Leila Haddad commented in a workshop that her family back in Tunisia think it's very strange that she can make a living teaching people to dance. In their culture, girls simply learn to dance while growing up by spending time with their adult relatives at family gatherings and copying what they see the adults do. It's not so different from how most of us learn the social dances of our own cultures — we accompany our parents or older siblings to festive events and copy what we see them doing.

In a charming section of the book Grandmother's Secrets, the author describes the first time that her grandmother invited her to dance for an afternoon gathering of women from the family and neighborhood. Not long before, her first period had arrived and she took on the attire and social status of an adult woman. Her first dance performance was another acknowledgement of this coming of age.

But remember, knowing how to dance socially versus performing in public for an audience of strangers are two very different things. Middle Eastern parents usually do not encourage their daughters to embrace careers in the performing arts unless they themselves are working performers. In a respectable Muslim family, a girl can perform for female family members, friends, and neighbors, but not for strangers, particularly males! In a family where the adults make their living as musicians and dancers, a girl might aspire to become a dancer. But even then parents often hope their children will enjoy a better life than they did, so if the family finances permit they'll probably try to steer their girls into a different direction.

 

So What About Western Society?

In contrast, in the United States many parents eagerly encourage their young girls to become involved in beauty pageants, cheerleading, tap dancing, ballet, gymnastics, ice skating, modeling, team sports, and acting. Some parents even aggressively push their children into these pursuits despite the children's objections.

It wasn't always this way. At the beginning of the 20th century, respectable women still wore corsets and floor-length skirts. Exposing even a shapely ankle was risqué. "Show business people" were certainly not considered part of respectable society! They were often viewed as being at the bottom of the social ladder.

But American society changed over the next 2-3 decades, and soon movie actresses were viewed as glamorous people despite their often scandalous personal lives of divorce, extramarital affairs, and remarriage. After still more time, under the increasing influence of movies, radio, and television, the performing arts became admired, and young people of both genders aspired to become stars.

Today, a child in North America who is skilled at any of the performing arts or sports is often a source of great pride to his or her parents.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: Aziza al-Tawil performs on the television show The Turkish Voice, which aired in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Ankara, Turkey. Aziza was on the show from age 6 through 13, filmed in New York.

Aziza al-Tawil

 

Is Belly Dancing Good For Girls?

 

Belly dancing can be a great activity for a girl, for many reasons:

  • Fun! It's fun to learn how to do things your friends can't do, such as balance a glass of water on your head or roll your abdominal muscles. It's fun to dress up in the wonderful costumes that belly dancers use. And, it's just plain fun to DANCE.
  • Exercise Benefits. Belly dance is a form of exercise, and exercise is very healthy for the human body. Exercise promotes strong muscles, flexibility, and strong cardio-vascular health. It also releases endorphins into the brain, which generate a feeling of well-being. Done regularly, exercise helps prevent obesity.
  • Mental Well-Being. Girls in American society, more than boys, are beaten from an early age into being dissatisfied with themselves: their bodies, their faces, etc. Girls, more than boys, are surrounded by magazine articles and advertisements that promote use of make-up, bust enlargement techniques, ever-changing fashions, hair color, and diet plans. The point of the constant barrage of ads is to make girls so dissatisfied with their current appearance that they'll go out and purchase these products to "fix" their problems. Belly dancing provides a girl with an environment that teaches appreciation for her own body, whatever it may look like. It offers her a way to feel beautiful without dieting herself to malnutrition or enriching big corporations with her spending money.
  • Social Opportunities. Dance offers a girl another group of people to meet, outside the usual settings of school and church. A girl who feels shy and awkward in school may find that dance class provides a more comfortable place to meet people and make friends.
  • Cultural Awareness. Learning a dance from another country can bring new life to how she thinks about that culture. Instead of thinking about boring history books, terrorists, oil profits, or wars when she hears a country mentioned, she'll think of its music, clothing, and folk traditions.
  • Public Appearance. In the adult world, people who are skilled at public speaking have many great job opportunities open to them. Learning how to be comfortable in front of an audience as a child will equip a girl with a valuable job skill for her future.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: Aziza al-Tawil at age 12, modeling for Art Students League, New York City.

Aziza al-Tawil

 

But What About The Negatives?

It's true that there can be a negative aspect to encouraging a girl to belly dance. Each family must find its own answer to these issues:

  • Choosing the Right Teacher. A good belly dance teacher will make sure her students realize that the dance did not originate as a dance of seduction. She will encourage them to use the dance to explore moods such as joy, introspection, cuteness, and fun. However, not all belly dance teachers are good teachers. A parent may want to ask the teacher questions, watch her teach, or watch her perform to evaluate what kind of behavior the teacher encourages in her students before enrolling the child in the class.
  • Stage Mothers And Fathers. Stage parents are often adults who wish they could have been stars as children. Whether the activity is gymnastics, ballet, drill team, piano, cheerleading, team sports, tap dance, ice skating, beauty pageants, baton twirling, or any other pursuit, there will always be some parents who push their children hard to excel. After too much of this, it's not fun any more. A parent needs to avoid putting pressure on the child to be "the best" or "the cutest", and just let her enjoy learning something new. And if the child claims she would rather try a different activity instead of belly dancing, of course the parent should honor that. There's no point in forcing a child to learn something she dislikes — it will only foster resentment.
  • Perverts. It's true there are sick adults who engage in twisted sexual fantasies. Children engaging in all public activities (even grocery shopping) are at risk of this, not just the ones performing belly dance. Some years ago, parents of cheerleaders brought a lawsuit against a man who had snapped close-up pictures of their daughters' crotches as they did leaps and poses during ball games at their school. He was selling these photos to other perverts. There are also fetishists who fantasize about gymnasts, ballet dancers, ice skaters, and even just plain ordinary young girls walking to school. Belly dancing doesn't pose any more risk than these other activities. It can be challenging for parents to strike a balance between giving children the freedom to pursue activities while keeping them safe.
  • Negative Reactions of the Public. Many people incorrectly assume belly dancing originated as some sort of sexual titillation for men, and these people may react negatively to the idea of children doing it. One way to prevent this is to refer to the girls' dance as "Oriental" or "Middle Eastern" dance instead of the more provocative term "belly" dance. Another is to select folkloric costumes for the girls with covered midriffs instead of the glitzy bead-and-sequin midriff-baring confections. In a Bible Belt community, perhaps the girls could charm locals through a tasteful dance portraying a Biblical character such as the Virgin Mary, the queen Esther, Miriam the sister of Moses, etc.

Performances

It should be fine for children to perform belly dancing in public. As noted above, instead of sequinned costumes that expose the midriff, it may be better to use more folkloric costume styles such as dresses or tunics worn over pants. If a troupe consists primarily of adults with only a couple of young members, it's wise for the parents to accompany the group to all performances so they can supervise their children's safety. If the parents can't personally go to a given performance, it may be wise to choose another adult to take responsibility for supervising the children's safety.

Parents should not assume that the teacher or troupe director will be able to do an adequate job of watching their children. Troupe directors have many distractions vying for their attention in performance situations, including herding adult troupe members, talking to event organizers, supervising setup of the sound system, etc.

PHOTO CREDIT: Shira wears a folkloric dress from Egypt in a style that could be appropriate for child performers. Photo by Michael Baxter, Santa Clara, California.

 

Closing Thought

Belly dancing can be a fulfilling activity for a girl if her parents approach it with the right attitude and take sensible precautions to protect her from the bad behavior of adults. A low-cost way to try it is to borrow a beginning-level video from the library or purchase a good-quality low-cost video and see if the girl still wants to pursue dance classes after learning what the video teaches. She may discover that this activity is one she'll enjoy for the rest of her life. Or she may decide she'd rather learn to play the tuba.

— Shira 

Shira

 

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Related Articles

Other articles on this web site related to children's experience with belly dance include:

 

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Instructional Videos for Children

 

 

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Acknowledgements

This article originally appeared on the Gilded Serpent web site at www.gildedserpent.com under Shira's "Mailbox Missives" column in 2001. The version on this page has been revised and updated.

 

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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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Copyright Notice

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