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

Belly Dance: A Dance By Any Other Name


"Je ne suis pas et ne serais jamais une danseuse de ventre." --Nadia Gamal

(Translation: "I am not, nor will I ever be, a 'belly dancer'.")


The name we give to something shapes attitudes toward it, both our own, and also those of others. This is why names matter.

From antiquity, people have recognized the connection between naming and power.

The name "belly dancing" became widely known in the U.S. in the 1890's, when the Columbia Exposition in Chicago brought Middle Eastern dance artists to the attention of the American public.

Dancers from the Middle East had actually been featured years earlier in 1876 at the Centennial celebration in Philadelphia, but at that time there was no scandal. Seventeen years later, in 1893, a savvy promoter named Sol Bloom advertised the scandalous "belly dancing" as a way of attracting more visitors to the entertainments of the world's fair, and the term has been with us ever since.

Modern-day dancers are challenging the use of this term. Some leaders in the dance community advocate the use of more accurate terms such as "Middle Eastern Dance", "Oriental Dance", or even the Arabic word "raqs" (which means "dance") while others continue to embrace the name "belly dancing".

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




What's Wrong With The Term "Belly Dance"?

Names have power. For many people, especially those who have never truly seen the dance performed by a skilled professional, the name "belly dancing" carries with it that scandalous reputation that arose in the early 20th century. Most members of the general public think they know what "belly dance" is, but usually they're wrong.

"Do you take your clothes off? Is it like stripping?" are common questions that arise when someone tells a friend she is trying out a "belly dancing" class. Or, a man will pull up his shirt to expose his hairy, flabby midriff and say, "Oh, look, I can belly dance - I've got the belly for it!"

In the Middle East, the term for the dance is raqs sharqi in Arabic and Oryantal dans in Turkish. The correct translation into English for both of these terms is "dance of the East", "Eastern dance", or "Oriental dance". Neither language references any body part in its name for this dance form. In fact, many Middle Eastern people feel that the name "belly dance" is a vulgar term for a beautiful performing art.

The mere word "belly" sounds humorous to many people. It is associated with beer bellies, belly laughs, jelly bellies, fire in the belly, pork bellies, the belly of the beast, and bellying up to the bar. The Red Elvises recorded a song titled, "I Want To See You Belly Dance." Comedian Craig Shoemaker has a section in his stand-up routine called "My Mother Was a Belly Dancer." Because of all these comic associations, the term "belly dancing" sounds rather humorous and undignified to many people. It suggests that the dance is not something that needs to be taken seriously.

The name also fosters misconceptions. It leads people to believe that "belly dancing" is based on rolling the abdominal muscles, when in fact that is a miniscule part of the dance. Non-dancers proclaim themselves to be "belly dancers" because they have figured out how to do abdominal rolls, even if they don't know the difference between a hip lift and a hip drop, even if they have never heard of Oum Kalthoum.

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




So Why Do Some People Still Want
to Call It "Belly Dancing"?

Still, there is a group of professionals who have made a conscious decision to call what they do "belly dancing". These artists seek to reclaim the term "belly dancing" from its scandal-linked origins and imbue it with either feminist power or something sacred.

This approach is also very common among the "tribal fusion" movement, who consciously try to distance themselves from anything remotely Middle Eastern. Such dancers see the term "belly dancing" as giving them permission to make up anything they want, regardless of whether it has anything to do with the cultures the dance comes from. They avoid the terms "Oriental dance", raqs, or "Middle Eastern dance" because they don't want their creative urges to be constrained by the original ethnic foundation of the dance.

Many modern-day dancers will use the name "belly dancing" to advertise their classes, because they realize that is the name that prospective students are likely to recognize. However, when applying for arts grants or planning performances in arts venues such as theaters, museums, etc., they'll often advertise their performances as "Egyptian dance," "Middle Eastern Dance," or "Oriental Dance" as a way to distance themselves from the unsavory reputation that the other term has managed to retain for over a century or the undignified connotations that the word "belly" raises in many people's minds. Rather than calling herself a "belly dancer", an individual may refer to herself as an "Oriental dance artist" or "Raqs Sharqi artist" to gain more respect in the academic dance community.

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




Why Is the Term "Oriental Dance" Problematic in North America?

In many Middle Eastern countries, the preferred English translation for raqs sharqi and Oryantal dans is "Oriental dance". However, in North America many people resist using this term.

There are a few reasons for this:

  • In North America, the word "Oriental" has been used as a slur referring to people from eastern Asia. For this reason, many people of Asian descent understandably despise the word.
  • Dancers who are not familiar with the use of the word "Oriental" as a slur may still prefer to avoid using it due to concern that the public would erroneously think they are talking about dance from China or Japan.
  • Many people today think the East/West labeling is obsolete, too much of a holdover from the Colonial era. They ask, "East of what, exactly?" These people often prefer to use either raqs baladi (dance of my country), or just raqs (dance).
  • Fusion dancers often try to avoid using a name for the dance that refers to the Middle East because they feel their fusion dance no longer contains enough influence from its regions of origin to call it that.

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




What If a Performer's Dance Style Is Not Purely Middle Eastern?

Many artists today have experimented with blending raqs with other dance forms such as jazz, hiphop, Bollywood, and modern dance. Once movements, props, and music that are not Middle Eastern are added to the mix, the resulting performance becomes something that is no longer truly Middle Eastern dance. People often call these blends "fusion". Sometimes they use the term "fusion" on its own, whereas other times they may add a descriptor such as "transational fusion" to indicate that the dance draws influence from multiple regions. The term "Tribal fusion" is still popular, but some dancers are moving away from that due to concerns about possible cultural appropriation involved in using the word "tribal".

As noted above, fusion dancers are often uncomfortable using the terms "Oriental dance", raqs, or "Middle Eastern dance" because they feel there isn't enough influence remaining from the regions of origin to claim the term. These individuals are respectful of concerns about truth in advertising and cultura appropriation.

In fact, increasing numbers of dancers are dropping the term "belly dance" from describing what they do, and simply calling their style "dance theater", "interpretive dance", "transnational fusion" (as noted above), or just "fusion".

These newer terms, such as "transnational fusion", are useful because they free the dancer from the constraints imposed by a more specific term such as "belly dance", and open the door for innovation.

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




What Do You Think?

Respond to this opinion poll below to register how you feel about naming the dance that so many of us love to do. Then view the results to see how your own opinion compares to what others have expressed.

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Poll reflects votes since October 26, 2002.


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