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

Belly Dancers of Color:

Defeating the Stereotypes

by Razi

Why hello there!

If you are reading this then you are probably attempting to satisfy some curiosity in regards to the art of Middle Eastern Dance aka Oriental Dance aka Bellydance. You’re finding information about the dance, techniques, costumes, videos what have you. There’s a chance that you are already a student of the dance on some level (beginner, novice, intermediate, advance/professional) or you are thinking about taking a class but haven’t made that step. If you haven’t made that step my question to you is what’s holding you back? As I have started performing I’ve met many women who don’t believe that they too can bellydance.  In the case of many women of color (in my experience) they’ve fallen victim to the stereotypes associated with bellydance.

Razi
At this point, you’re either nodding your head in agreement or raising one (or both) of your eyebrows wondering, “What does she mean by stereotypes?” In case you’re wondering about the stereotypes, yes, there are stereotypes even in the world of bellydance (what great hobby doesn’t have them?). If you don’t believe me here’s a small self-assessment. Close your eyes and think about all the bellydancers you’ve seen. What was their body type? What was the color of their skin?  How many were young? Old? Not so old? If you can think of more than one body type, skin color, or age range then congratulations! You live in an area with a diverse bellydance community. If not, you’re probably wondering about those stereotypes. Photo of Razi

So what are these stereotypes?  How many are there?  Truth be told, there is no set number of stereotypes out there so I’ll tell you of the ones I know.  Brace yourself…

“I’m too big/fat to bellydance”

This here is a big’un (get it, big’un). Many American women believe that they are simply too big to bellydance. Bullhonkery I say! That’s the result of living in a society that praises the elusive size negative 0.  Bellydancing can be many things; one of them being the celebration of the body. There are many women (and men) out there dancing with body types ranging from bone-sick skinny to normal-ish to thick to curvalicious and then some.  Many professional dancers, cabaret and tribal, are above the status quo for body size (did you hear that: professional dancers).  All in all, these people are comfortable enough to shake what genetics gave them and not care about that others say.

“Women of color don’t look like bellydancers”

Well what does a bellydancer look like? Let that run around in your head for a while.  I won’t lie when I started down this bellydancing path the image I had of a bellydancer was a light-skinned, long haired, scantily clad woman shaking her hips and clanging her zills to the beat.  Back in my day (the late ‘80s early ‘90s) bellydancers were invisible unless you saw them on movies and I sometimes wondered if they had the same dancer working all the shows. Now we have the internet and ain’t it grand?  We can now see that there are plenty of bellydancers of all skin tones from all over the world. Some are closer than you think. For me, when I learned that I wasn’t the lone bellydancer with dark skin I loved it. It did wonders for my self-esteem knowing there were professionals out there that resembled me. And when I found a video clip of a curvalicious black bellydancer, “WHOO!” seeing her dance made me want to dance.  If she could stand up and get down in all her glory, why can’t I? Photo of Razi

“You do know this is not a booty dance…(Mostly directed to Black women)”

Okay I will admit these two here had me a little irate because 1) it shows that ignorance is alive and well and 2) someone has made these statements to me. Little did I know that other women have also had these things said to them in some way or another. I believe that people say this statement because they believe that some women cannot dance without out making it vulgar. We have the media to thank in part for that. That is why (although I would never condone violence) I believe that those who knowingly say either of these statements to a bellydancer should be shaken vigorously. Women (and men) are not built the same. Some of us have more jiggle in our wiggle and more pep in our step. That can make a move look completely different on several women. Overall, stand up for yourself and don’t let anyone take your joy or stop you from dancing.

“So…what else do you do besides bellydance?”

Although it may appear to be an innocent question, this makes my inner demon scream. I blame men (not all, but some) for this stereotype mostly because it’s the men who say this kind of craziness. This stereotype is a relic from people who didn’t know the difference between bellydance and the hootchy-kootchy.  Once again, stand up for yourself and don’t let your joy be taken away because of someone’s foolishness.

 

So what have we learned from this?  That depends on you.  I hope that by reading this if you’ve been on the fence about bellydancing you’ll give it a try, whether you do it by class or by a video.  I hope that if you are already a student no matter your age, size, or skin color you’ll keep at it.  The points that I have stated are only some of the disdain that is out there.  Not everyone will experience these stereotypes, some may experience them more than others.  My response to it, those people aren’t you, they’ll never be you, so don’t let them dictate your happiness.  Love yourself.  And remember, when all else fails…shake something.

Happy Zill Clanging,

Razi

 

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About The Author

Razi has been devoted to music since an early age.  She combined her love of music with her curiosity and began her bellydance studies in 2001.  Although much of her studies have been through personal instruction she received guidance from talented instructors such as Donna Whitley (Moroccan Cabaret) of Greenville, NC and Scarlett (American Cabaret) of Savannah, GA.  She received an invitation to become member of the dance troupe, Mei’attah Raqs, in 2007 and continues to dance with the troupe.  Mei’attah Raqs performs at various events in the Savannah, GA area.  Razi’s primary dance style is American Cabaret and she is proficient in sword and veil techniques.  Razi continues to develop and refine her technique by attending various workshops.  In the future she hopes to travel nationally and internationally taking workshops and performing…but first she has to finish graduate school.  ;-) Photo of Razi

As an African American bellydancer Razi strives to find diversity.  She has learned, and believes, that bellydance (aka Oriental dance / Middle Eastern dance) is a dance that does not take from one single culture.  The dance itself is older than most civilizations.  She also believes that both women and men can enjoy being a part of this dance.  She hopes to introduce and inspire as many people (regardless of age, shape, and ethnicity) as she can to the dance. 

Razi is thankful to all those who have inspired her and kept her in love with this ancient art form.

Her current aspirations are to master the zills, floor work, and to attend the 2009 B.O.C.A. (Bellydancers of Color Association) festival and one of the Rakkasah festivals in the near future.  Hope to see you there.

 

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