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

Dear Shira


Dear Shira:

A Jewel in the Navel?



The Question

Dear Shira:

I've been dancing for about 6 months and have done a couple of shows for baby showers for friends and they love it, and are very supportive. I keep getting asked about the jewel in the belly button thing. Can you help me out? I reckon I'd like to do the jewel thing but I've no idea how to make it stick on, or if it is the correct thing to do.

--Curious In Canberra



Shira Responds

Dear Curious:

First, congratulations on having the courage to dance for your friends after only 6 months of dancing! I hope you continue to have this much fun with it!

Now, about your question. When I first started to learn how to belly dance m-a-n-y years ago, it seemed like everyone asked me the same two questions: "Do you wear a jewel in your navel?" and "Can you roll quarters like that woman on television?" The answer to both was "No".

Why People Ask

Many movies made in the U.S. and Europe between 1930 and 1970 portrayed "Middle Eastern" women wearing garb that exposed their midriffs, with large jewels glued into their navels. The photo to the right shows an example of this. This particular scene appears in a movie titled Carry On Follow That Camel, and the be-jeweled navel belongs to Anita Harris. Click on it to see more detail.

In 1930, as a reaction to public outrage over a scandal, the motion picture industry in the U.S. adopted a set of rules known as the Hays Code. These rules were intended to maintain decent, moral standards on the silver screen. One of the many provisions in the Hays Code stated, "Dancing or costumes intended to permit undue exposure or indecent movements in the dance are forbidden." This came to be construed that navels should not be visible on screen.

Anita Harris in Carry On Follow That Camel

In the years that followed its adoption, movie makers sought loopholes in the Hays Code that would allow them to continue titillating audiences. One loophole movie makers exploited was to glue a jewel over the navel to cover it, while leaving bare the surrounding midriff.

"Real" belly dancers almost never glue plastic jewels in their navels like the kind you see in theatrical stores and old movies, unless they are doing a comedy act where the jewel is supposed to be part of the joke or unless they are doing a specialty act that is intentionally trying to mimic the look of old Hollywood movies.

Of course, exceptions exist - the dancer in the photo to the right is legendary Egyptian dancer Samia Gamal, in a scene from the 1954 French movie Ali Baba et Les Quarantes Voleurs. But it is important to note that this movie was made in France, and the navel jewel was required in order for the company to be able to market it in theaters in the U.S., where the Hays Code was still in force.

Samia Gamal Wearing a Navel Jewel

Well-known dance researcher Morocco reported seeing a professional dancer in Turkey wearing a navel jewel once and asked her about it. The dancer said a few tourists had asked her why she didn't have one, and questioned whether she could be a "real" belly dancer without one, so she started wearing it to please the tourists.

The "general public" and many of the women who started to learn belly dancing during the 1960's believed that these navel jewels must be somehow "authentic", since they saw them in so many movies. In those days, the U.S. had precious few teachers of Oriental dance who had actually done research to know what was really done in the Middle East, so there was no one to tell these well-meaning people that they had the wrong idea. As a result, misguided dancers perpetuated the myth for a decade or so, until real facts started replacing the misinformation they had been working with.

Today, the stereotype of the jewel glued into the navel is dying out. There are many reasons for this.

  • Thanks to the education available from dance researchers who have committed their lives to studying the "real thing", and the availability of videotapes showing us the work of stars who perform "over there", we have a much more educated dance community than we did in the 1960's and 1970's.
  • We have a more educated public. They have grown accustomed to seeing dancers without navel jewels in restaurants in their own cities, and the lower cost of international tourism enables people to see real Middle Eastern dancers performing without navel jewels in the dance's native countries.
  • Modern movies no longer perpetuate the fantasy - the Hayes Code that triggered it was discontinued in the late 1960's.


What About Navel Piercings?

Navel piercings became popular in the U.S. in the early 1990's, and quickly spread worldwide. Many women embraced the fashion of wearing jewelry in their piercings.

This style of jewelry looks entirely different from the glue-on fake gem shown in the above scenes from old movies. Many "real" belly dancers do opt to display their body jewelry when they dance just as they might display any of the other jewelry that they wear all the time such as a wedding ring or gold chain.

Pierced navels are not something you're apt to see much in the Middle East, so navel jewelry is not something that would be done for "ethnic" reasons. But you can wear it simply because you like it. You don't need an ethnic justification.


So, Should You Wear a Jewel in Your Navel?

If you have a pierced navel and you want to wear jewelry in your piercing, then go ahead and do it. In doing so, you will simply be making a statement that you too like the fashion of body piercing, and you enjoy wearing jewelry in your piercing.

As for the old Hollywood look of the glue-on jewel, please don't unless you're doing it as a comedy act or as a portrayal designed to evoke the look of old Hollywood movies! Most experienced dancers will think, "She obviously doesn't know what she's doing if she's wearing one of those," and a few of them would probably make rude comments about you, such as saying you're tacky or obviously a beginner.

If you think about all this and still want to wear a glue-on jewel in your navel, the trick to keeping it in is either eyelash glue, spirit gum, or double-sided tape.


Men's Attitude Toward Navel Jewels

I've noticed that men, more so than women, particularly want to believe in the idea that jewels in the navel are a standard part of the belly dancer's "uniform". I think that's because some (but not all!) men find themselves erotically attracted to the jewels. Some may have stomach or navel fetishes, while others may like the hint of another crevice lower down.Such men dislike my advice to beginning dancers to avoid these glued-on treasures, because they would like to see more dancers wearing them.

Since I originally posted this article in 1998, I've received many e-mails from men who simply can't accept the fact that "real" belly dancers rarely wear these things because they wish we would. They try to argue that maybe, at some point in time over the centuries, some woman somewhere placed a jewel in her navel and then did a belly dance. It makes a nice fantasy for them. But even if someone did, it doesn't matter because it doesn't represent the behavior of "typical" belly dancers, either in the past or the present.




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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