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

Dear Shira


Dear Shira:

Is Belly Dance Intended to Serve Men?



The Question

Dear Shira:

I am having a hard time finding concrete information to prove to my husband that belly dancing did not originate for serving men. He believes that if this dance originated in the Middle East, where women are known to be second to men, the only possible reason for belly dancing would be to entice men, to seduce men, in order for women to get financial support. He even has made comparisons to stripping and other similar types related to stripping. My husband thinks it's impossible for it not to be a dance for men because the clothes belly dancers wear are so seductive. Is he right?

— Wife



Shira Responds

Dear Wife:

It's human nature for people to perceive belly dance through their own biases, whatever those may be. Many men believe that women do what we do solely for their pleasure, as if we didn't have motives of our own. With such a man, there is NO argument that will ever convince him otherwise, because allowing other possibilities would suggest that you consider his winky to be much less important than he believes it to be.

There's a very important point you need to realize: The origin of belly dance is probably not the real issue here. The issue is that he himself thinks belly dancing is very sexy, and he filters all the rest of his beliefs about belly dancing through that basic notion. Perhaps it makes him jealous to think that other men may watch you dance and find you sexy. He may be trying to use an origin theory to justify those feelings of jealousy. If that's the case, it doesn't matter how many facts you give him about the origins of belly dancing — it's not the real issue. It's a disguise for the real issue.

Still, you asked for information about the origin of belly dance, so I'll respond to the best of my ability.

I can wear a brown paper sack and someone will make something sexual about it. It always is in the eyes of the beholder what they see... or want to see.

— Bert Balladine, to a television reporter, regarding belly dancing



The origins of belly dancing are lost in time. The first woman to ever do a hip drop has not left us a diary stating, "Today I decided to invent a new dance. The reason I did it is..." Therefore, all we can do is speculate.

People's guesses about the origins of belly dancing tell us a lot about what they want the origin to be:

  • Women who guess belly dancing originated as a tool for priestesses to honor a goddess want the origin story to convey a message of female empowerment.
  • Women who guess that belly dance originated as a tool for preparing the female body for childbirth want the origin story to celebrate motherhood.
  • Men who guess belly dancing originated as a tool of seduction want to justify their erotic fantasies about women dancing for the pleasure of men. Such a man typically enjoys thinking of himself as the master of a harem, surrounded by delectable women competing for his favors.

Your husband probably doesn't want his fantasy destroyed by inconvenient facts.


About the Clothes Belly Dancers Wear

Part of your husband's argument is that the costumes belly dancers wear are very "seductive". It's very important to realize that today's midriff-baring costume style is a 20th-century invention.

For example, consider the photo to the right of Mata Hari, a Dutch performer whose exotic dance career prospered from 1903 until her death in 1917. Her dance style was based on a mixture of what she learned during the time she lived in Indonesia (5,000 miles away from where belly dancing comes from) and the music hall dance style of France (French can-can, etc.) She was known for her striptease act in Paris. But none of this was related in any way to belly dancing. She was of European ancestry, and her popularity as an entertainer was achieved through provocative performances in the Paris burlesque venues designed to appeal to European audiences. Although Mata Hari performed in many places throughout the world, including Egypt, she was never in Egypt long enough to learn anything about belly dancing.

Andrea Deagon's research suggests that the midriff-baring bedleh (belly dance costume) we know today originated in France, based on the costumes worn by Mata Hari and other music hall dancers, and was brought to Egypt by people who saw it in Paris and decided to bring it to the stages of the Middle East. Others believe the bedleh evolved by eliminating the blouses worn under the vests of Ottoman-era costumes (such as the one worn by Fatima in the photo below). At this stage, we have theories, but not definitive proof.

Mata Hari

Although we can't yet pinpoint exactly how bedleh came to be used in raqs sharqi (Egyptian belly dance) costuming, one thing is for certain — no one has been able to document the use of midriff-baring bra/belt/skirt costumes in the Middle East before the 20th century, and raqs (belly dancing) certainly existed as a performing art before that. For example, a dancer named Shooq performed at the 1869 opening of the Suez Canal.

So, what did belly dance performers in the Middle East wear before the 20th century?

Compare the above photo of Mata Hari wearing her French music hall garb with the drawing to the right. This drawing to the right is from an 1848 lithograph showing dancers in Egypt playing finger cymbals.

As this image shows, Egyptian dancers of the 19th century wore garments that were not particularly seductive. Their midriffs were covered by multiple layers of clothing — the blouse that came down to the knees like a skirt, the jacket over it, the full trousers.

Click the photo to see more detail.


This 1897 image to the right is a still from an early film by Thomas Edison. The dancer is Fatima, an authentic Middle Eastern dancer who performed in the U.S. during the 1890's. As with the Ghawazee dancers shown above, Fatima is fully clothed, but the style of garment has changed somewhat since the styles that prevailed half a century earlier. She still wears a white blouse covering her bosom and midriff. However, the coat with elbow-length sleeves has been replaced by a sleeveless vest that is cropped under the bustline.

Click the photo to see more detail.

Other photos exist of authentic Middle Eastern dancers from this era. All are dressed very similarly to either garb similar to what the Ghawazee are wearing in the above photo, or to what Fatima is wearing in this photo. I recommend the book Looking for Little Egypt by Donna Carlton to see more photos of what style of garb performers of raqs sharqi were wearing in the 1890's and early 20th century.

Clearly, if this is how professional dancers were dressed in the 1890's, then the dance was performed by women who wore clothing that modestly covered their bodies.

The midriff-baring bra/belt/skirt costumes that we associate with belly dancing today were a 20th century invention.



Belly Dancing in the Middle East Today

Among Middle Eastern people, belly dancing has long been a social dance that women did with other women, and men did with other men. Just as we use social dancing as part of our celebration at wedding receptions and other family occasions, so do people in the Middle East. In traditional households, women celebrated separately from men. For each special event, men had their party, and women had a separate one. Men danced with other men, and women danced with other women, all using the moves that today we think of as "belly dancing" moves.

In my nine trips to Egypt, I have been a guest at a number of weddings and other parties. I have seen the men belly dancing with each other on one side of the room, and women belly dancing with each other on the other side of the room. Everybody was doing the same moves. There was no seduction going on.

In some areas, after feeding a large noon meal to their men, women would congregate in the homes of female friends, neighbors, and family members for socializing. Often, these gatherings would involve playing music and taking turns dancing for each other. In this way, eligible single women could make themselves known to the mothers and sisters of marriageable men. Older women could use these occasions to simply relax and enjoy the pleasure of other women's company.

Your husband's fantasy of Middle Eastern women using sexydance to find a man to support them financially seems very peculiar to me. It sounds more like what I'd expect from a European courtesan than from a Middle Eastern woman, to be honest. Traditionally in the Middle East, marriages were arranged by the parents of the couple. A young girl would be promised to someone many years before she reached marriageable age, and this is still done in some families even today. There would have been no need for a girl to use feminine wiles to secure her financial future, as her parents would have already made arrangements for her before she reached marriageable age.



The Professional Entertainers

European tourists visiting the Middle East in the early 1800's were fascinated by the dance performances they saw because the torso-focused dance style of the Middle East was so different from the arms-and-legs focused dance styles they were accustomed to seeing in Europe. People told friends back home about the strange style of dance they had seen while abroad, and this generated a great deal of curiosity. Soon, European visitors to the Middle East were seeking dancers to hire so they too could witness the spectacle they had heard about.

Some of these European visitors, such as Gustave Flaubert, were more interested in hiring prostitutes than professional dancers. Such prostitutes were willing to include dance as part of the entertainment they offered, if that's what their clients requested. This is probably one of the reasons many men today think of belly dancing as a dance of seduction — because of the written records by Gustave Flaubert, George William Curtis, and other men whose tourism goals were focused on the whorehouse experience.

"Oriental dance," which is the theatrical presentation of the dance form that is known as "belly dancing" in the U.S., evolved out of the nightclub industry that began in he Middle East in the 19th century. At first, Middle Eastern nightclubs were modeled on those found in Europe such as the Moulin Rouge and the Folies Bergère. As the industry matured, it increasingly incorporated local Middle Eastern influences as well. The most famous dancer in Egypt during the 19th century to appear in such a nightclub was Shafiqa el-Koptiyya, who headlined at the El Dorado club.

At first, the professional Middle Eastern dancers performed in clothing that was part of their typical wardrobe, as shown in the photo of Fatima above. Additional photos of such professional dancers can be found in Looking for Little Egypt by Donna Carlton. The notion of wearing a special costume designed for dance performances that differed from normal dress-up attire arose in the 20th century, and is usually attributed to dance-related innovations by Badia Masabni in the 1930's.

Just as modern-day ballroom dance costumes are quite stylized for professional performances as compared to what people might wear when going dancing socially, so are belly dance costumes. But neither dance form originally featured sequin-covered skimpy costuming — in both cases the sexy look we know today was created in the 20th century for theatrical purposes.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: This illustration shows legendary Egyptian dancer Tahia Carioca performing in a scene from the Egyptian movie Shatie el Gharam (Shore of Love), which was released in 1951.



Responding to Your Husband

And now, back to your husband's specific comments:

  • Origin Of The Dance. Ancient origins are lost in time. People who claim to know the origin of this dance are simply voicing theories, and these theories are often based on what they want the origin to be.
  • His Motives? Ask your husband why he clings so fiercely to his fantasy of a dance of seduction. See if you can push him to give voice to his real point. Ask him why is it so important to him to invent origin stories of belly dance as something that gratifies the male libido? Could it be that he is trying to justify how he feels when he sees you dance? This is the heart of the matter. If he is unable to confront his prejudices and try to separate fact from fantasy, then it doesn't matter how much factual evidence you present to him — he will reject anything that disagrees with what he wants to believe.
  • Garb. The sexy costumes that dancers wear today originally appeared in the 20th century, probably around the 1930's. Before that, women wore midriff-covering costumes to perform.
  • Regarding Seducing Men. There are many ways a woman can seduce a man to get what she wants from him. She doesn't need belly dancing as a tool to do it. Often, simply saying, "Come here," is quite sufficient. This has been true since the dawn of time.
  • Mass Media. From the very beginning of moving pictures technology, movie makers in the U.S. and Europe have used “Middle Eastern dance” as a means of adding sexual innuendo and sexy eye candy to their productions, usually portraying scantily-clad women dancing for the pleasure of a sheik, sultan, or other powerful man. My article Mass Media, Mass Stereotypes examines this in detail. Point this out to your husband, and ask, "You don't believe everything you see in the movies or Mighty Mouse cartoons, do you? Then why assume this is true?"

Of course, I acknowledge that individual women have possibly danced for their husbands in private as a type of foreplay over the ages. But that doesn't automatically mean belly dance originated that way, nor does that mean it's the primary way the dance has been used throughout history, either in the Middle East or in other cultures. Women have also been known to cook wonderful meals for men as a tool of seduction, but most of us understand that seduction wasn't the sole purpose or origin of delicious cuisine.


Closing Thought

As I noted above, I think the issue for you is much larger than an intellectual debate about history, however interesting such an intellectual debate might be. I think you need to turn the discussion into a larger of question of how it makes him feel to watch you dance at home, and how it would make him feel to watch you dance in front of other men.

— Shira



Related Articles

Other items on this web site related to historical fact on Oriental dance and additional perspectives on the whole "belly dancers as seductresses" issue include:


Book Reviews

  • A Trade Like Any Other. My review of a book by Karin van Nieuwkerk that offers a solidly researched perspective on the role of professional dancers in Egyptian society.
  • Looking for Little Egypt. My review of a book by Donna Carlton which contains many photos of Middle Eastern dancers who appeared in the U.S. in the 1890's and early 20th century showing the dance garb that was commonplace before Hollywood forever contaminated Oriental dance with its harem fantasies.
  • The Belly Dance Book. My review of a book edited by Tazz Richards. The articles in the historical section are excellent.




Other Resources





This article originally appeared on the Gilded Serpent web site, though this version has been heavily revised since it appeared there.



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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