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

Dear Shira


Dear Shira:

Is It Okay to Show the Palms of My Hands to the Audience When Dancing?



The Question

Dear Shira:

My teacher told me it that Arabs consider it insulting to show the palm of my hand to the audience when belly dancing, such as what the dancer in the drawing to the right is doing. Is this true?

How do I avoid showing them my palm? It seems like my palm is visible to the audience in almost everything I do.

--Afraid to Offend

Robbery Victim Arms



Shira Responds

Dear Afraid:

I have heard many belly dancers repeat this claim that showing the palm is a major insult. It puzzles me a bit, because there's no such taboo in Arab culture.

Now, the arm position seen on many student dancers such as the one I'm using in the photo to the right is not attractive. So perhaps some teachers tell their students, "Don't show your palms to the audience," when what they really mean is, "Don't hold your arms in a position that makes you look like a robbery victim because it doesn't look appealing." Perhaps your teacher was told something like this when she was a student, and misunderstood the reason why her instructor was trying to correct her hand position.

There is nothing about the palm of the hand itself that is offensive. There is no need to make a conscious effort to hide the palm from view.


PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by John Rickman Photography, San Jose, Califorhnia.

If you look at the photo of me to the right, you'll see that my right palm is fully in view. The hand position in this photo is not insulting to Arabs (or anyone else that I know of). However, I don't think my hand looks very attractive in this position. The problem here is not the fact that the palm of my hand is visible; rather, the problem is that the fingers are splayed out in a way that doesn't look particularly graceful.

If I saw one of my students using this hand position, I would recommend that in the future she try to angle her palm toward the floor instead of forward toward the audience. My reason would be simply that the palm-toward-the-floor position would look more pleasing.

Shira Showing Her Palm to the Audience

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Jeff Obermann, Corvallis, Oregon.

There can be times when showing the palm seems natural and appropriate. For example, in the photo to the right my palms are visible to the audience as my hands move in the course of the dance. When this photo was taken, I was moving my arms to the music and the camera captured a moment when my palms happened to be visible. This kind of natural hand movement is a normal part of dancing, and is not insulting to anyone.

Sometimes the hands can be used to gesture in a way that matches what the song lyrics are saying. For example, if the song contains the word "albi" (sometimes spelled "qalbi" or "kalbi") which means "my heart", it might be appropriate to momentarily place your hands on your heart as a way of expressing what the lyrics said. Such gestures are like adding spices to food - in small amounts, they can enhance the flavor of your dance, but if done to excess they can be annoying and distracting. It's okay to use such gestures now and then, but please take care to not overdo it.

Shira Dancing

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Lina Jang, New York City, New York.

Depending on how you do it, turning your full palm toward someone else could be construed as aggressive. For example, the "stop in the name of love" gesture with straight arm, palm facing directly toward another person, is typically aggressive, holding that person at arm's length. In the scene to the right from Shereen's music video for the song "Sabri Aleel", the vocalist is telling the man in her life that she has run out of patience with him. She sings, "You took my soul, my life, my mind and you left me with a sick heart." The gesture works with this song because of what the lyrics are saying, but it would be out of place in a romantic love song.

Although this palm-forward gesture is only mildly annoying in the Middle East and northern Africa, in Greek culture it is considered to be a major insult.

To summarize, there is no need to consciously hide your palms from the audience. Instead, simply focus on cultivating graceful, attractive hand movements that frame the body and respond to the music.


Shereen in Music Video

P.S. It actually is a taboo in many Arab countries, including Egypt, to point the soles of your feet toward another person. The brief glimpse of the bottom of a foot while using traveling steps around the dance floor is fine, but it's important to avoid sitting in a position that causes the bottoms of your feet to face directly toward another person. I'd particularly advise dancers doing floor work to be aware of this. Aiming the soles of your feet directly at another person is one of the biggest insults you can offer to an Arab.

Some say the reason for this is religious. The bottoms of the feet are the only thing the Devil can see of us when he looks up to earth from below. In Arab culture, the thought is that we walk on the Devil to show him just how much we scorn him. Therefore, if we aim the soles of our feet at another person, we are insinuating that we believe that person to be as deserving of our disgust as the the Devil. For the same reason, when we remove our shoes in an Arab country (which is often done when entering a home), we should not turn them so that the soles face upward toward God — this would be an insult to God.

This is also why you'll sometimes see photos or video in the news of Arabs throwing their shoes at a photo of an unpopular political leader.



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Other articles on this web site related to gesturing in Egyptian-style Oriental dance include:



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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