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 our attitude toward
From antiquity, people have recognized the connection
between naming and power.
The name "belly dancing" entered U.S. awareness
in the 1890's, when the Columbia Exposition in Chicago first
brought Middle Eastern dance artists to the attention of the
American public. 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.
Modern-day dancers are challenging the use of this term. Some
leaders in the dance community advocate the use of more correct
terms such as "Middle Eastern Dance" or "Oriental
Dance", while others continue to embrace the name "belly
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 accompanied its arrival on U.S. shores. "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 fat 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", or "Oriental dance". Neither language
uses the name of 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." Comic 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.
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". This
approach is particularly popular in Pagan circles, where the
dancers want to honor the abdomen as the center from which new
life emerges. These artists seek to reclaim the term "belly
dancing" from its scandal-linked origins and imbue it with
the power of 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 term "Oriental dance" 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 "the general public" of prospective students
is likely to recognize. But 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" to gain more respect
in the academic dance community.
What If It's Not Purely Oriental?
Many artists today have experimented with blending belly dance with other dance forms such as African, jazz, hiphop, and modern dance. Once movements that are not inherently Middle Eastern in nature have been added to the dance, it becomes something that is no longer truly Middle Eastern dance. People often call these blends "fusion". For example, a dancer who brings together modern dance and Oriental dance might call the result "ethno-modern fusion".
Middle Eastern dance? Oriental dance? Belly dance? Ethno-modern fusion? Raqs sharqi? Or something else? Use the term that makes you the most comfortable, but do so from an informed perspective. Think about what response the name you select is likely to evoke from others, and choose accordingly.
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.
Poll reflects votes since October 26, 2002.
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