Middle Eastern Dance and the Internet

When I first joined the wired world in 1982, women were scarce in cyberspace. The Internet was still a governmentally-funded network of information about science and technology that required its users to be proficient with the not-very-easy-to-use UNIX environment. The company I worked for, CompuServe, was one of the early pioneers in the private sector to offer an easier-to use way of access information via modem. "High-speed" modems at the time were 1200 baud, and using CompuServe at 1200 baud cost $17 per HOUR. Scary, huh? CompuServe's "chat" area, known as the "CB Simulator" because it followed the metaphor of citizens' band radio, was populated with a community of almost entirely men. When I popped in and identified myself as a "belly dancer", they all went wild with their eagerness to talk to me.

I pretty much spent all my online time in the CompuServe environment until 1997, when I decided it was time to update my skill set and get Internet-savvy. At that time, a couple of years after the Internet had been opened up to the masses and the Worldwide Web had introduced an easy-to-use point-and-click face on the Internet, women were still definitely a minority in cyberspace. And since the vast majority of Middle Eastern dance artists are women, there were very, very few Middle Eastern dance web sites. So, in July, I created mine. That was also about the time I discovered the "med-dance list", a listserver that allows about 800 Middle Eastern dance aficionados to exchange e-mail.

Just over the last few years, I've watched the Internet transform the belly dance community. The impact has been profound.

Affordable Advertising

It wasn't so long ago that the only ways a dancer could advertise her classes in her community were the local Yellow Pages, the course catalog published by the institution that sponsored her class, flyers, and word-of-mouth. It was expensive and time-consuming to get the word out.

Today, a dancer with Internet access and a little computer knowledge can quickly put up a web site that advertises her classes and performances. Prospective students frequently search the web when looking for local classes.

Whenever I begin a new 8-week session of classes, I ask my students for a show of hands to see how many found out about my classes through my web site as opposed to the course catalog published by the Adult Education program that sponsors my classes. Usually, 1/3 to 1/2 of my new students found me through my web site. It works.

Even dancers without web sites can promote their classes on the Internet. Online directories such as mine at http://www.shira.net/directory.htm offer free listings to dancers worldwide.

Better Knowledge

Many belly dance teachers don't know much about dance history, Middle Eastern culture, or even the music used for dancing. They just know bunches of moves, where to get costumes, and how to use props. From 1981 to 1997, I was very frustrated because I took regular weekly classes from 8 different people plus attended a number of workshops, and just couldn't seem to find the answers to basic questions like what my favorite songs were about, what role belly dance played in Middle Eastern society, etc. All these teachers dismissed my questions as unimportant or unknowable.

When I ventured onto the Internet in 1997, I quickly found two wonderful web sites with great dance information: Stefan's Belly Dance Home Page, and Kimberly Cyr's Middle Eastern Dance Resource Guide. Both sites are still worth visiting, even though neither one is updated any more.

Another resource that I found to be tremendously helpful in expanding the depth of my knowledge about Middle Eastern dance was the "med-dance list". This is a listserver (a type of discussion forum technology that delivers the messages via e-mail). Even though many Yahoo clubs and other online discussion forums have popped up over the years, the "med-dance list" still has the largest membership and highest message activity of them all. To join, just send a plain text (do NOT used the "Styled" option in your mail software) e-mail message to majordomo@world.std.com whose only text says, "subscribe med-dance" (without the quotation marks, of course!) You'll get an automated reply asking you to confirm your subscription request. Follow the instructions in that e-mail, and then you'll start receiving about 30 e-mails a day.

Since then, of course, many additional interesting web sites have appeared on the scene with information about Middle Eastern dance. Today, there are hundreds of them. You'll find my favorites listed right here on my Links page.

In addition to the dance-oriented sites, there are many, many web sites put up by Middle Eastern people with information about Middle Eastern culture. My two favorites are Al Mashriq and The Egyptian Castle.

Community Building

The communications-oriented corners of the Internet such as the discussions on Suite101, the med-dance list, and the Yahoo clubs bring dancers together who otherwise would never have the opportunity to meet.

Thanks to connections with other dancers I have made on the Internet, I have had the opportunity to:

  • Form lasting new friendships with wonderful people like Morocco whom I would never have otherwise had an opportunity to get to know.
  • Party with dancers in other cities that I've traveled to on business for my day job.
  • Get to know other dancers in my own community better through the more frequent contact.
  • Find out about events in nearby cities that I otherwise wouldn't have known were happening.
  • Travel to Egypt with a small group of wonderful people.
  • Get exposed to differing opinions on dance issues that I hadn't even realized were controversial before I got on the Internet.
  • Learn so much more about Middle Eastern music, dance, and culture in general.
  • Teach workshops in other cities, sponsored by people I met on the Internet.

In Conclusion

The Internet has opened many doors for belly dancers to attract students, reach out to the general public, get advice, and make new friends. It offers a lifeline to dancers in rural areas who need the support of a community to keep their dance energy alive. Many dancers have reported that the Internet has changed their lives.

Bellydancing Bellydance Bellydancers


This article originally appeared on the Suite101 web site, in the Middle Eastern Dance category, on December 22, 2000.

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