In my conversation with Larissa a.k.a. Zaara on Zeitgeist Radio, she mentions the "exoticism of orientalism" that can happen in the Western experience of belly dance. But what is Orientalism, and why is it a problem?
Orientalism and Otherness
Orientalism is a concept that refers to the annoying Western habit of depicting and representing the East, particularly the Middle East, in a way that reinforces stereotypes, exoticizes, and perpetuates power imbalances. It is a set of assumptions and representations that position the East as "other," inferior, and in need of Western intervention or control (or "civilization"). Orientalism often reduces diverse cultures, histories, and peoples into a single uniform, stoic idea.
As an example: in the West, we find belly dance fascinating, mysterious... and often sexual. Western society has constructed a fantasy image of belly dance that focuses on sexuality, mystique, and "otherness." This view (especially sexual aspects, am I making a point?) reinforces Western (male) fantasies and desires, distorting the cultural and historical contexts of the dance (example: "the hip movements symbolize female fertility." **gag barf take your fertility and shove it**).
Orientalist representations of belly dance are deeply entangled with the legacy of colonialism. This power imbalance has shaped how belly dance has been understood and portrayed in Western culture, perpetuating unequal power dynamics (both culturally and sexually) and reinforcing patriarchal Eurocentric narratives.
Phew. Hang in there.
The most powerful weapon... is the dance itself
Despite the impact of Orientalism, belly dance communities are perfectly poised to reclaim and redefine the dance form on their own terms. One of the best ways to decolonize the dance and showcase its rich cultural heritage... is to dance!
The belly dance form itself is uniquely positioned to take a stand in the struggle against systems that repress women. Belly dance contains a profound ability to empower women; the very form of the dance itself is a channel for intensely feminine self-expression, while also serving as a platform for promoting body positivity, and self-acceptance.
By considering the empowering aspects of belly dance, we unveil its potential in challenging societal norms and fostering personal growth.
Liberation through Self-Expression
Belly dance performance is a display of visceral self-expression. Each dance is a story told through fluid movements: figure 8s deep in the hips flow into belly rolls and on into serpentine arm movements. The stories are mesmerizing, graceful, exciting, and tell a story completely driven by the dancer.
Belly dancers use a wide range of body language and gestures to convey specific emotions and depict characters within a story. They use their arms, hands, and fingers to communicate joy, sorrow, longing, or playfulness. For example, a dancer might use flowing and graceful arm movements to represent a flowing river or depict a character reaching out to someone. They may incorporate elements from folklore, mythology, or historical narratives specific to the region or culture they are representing.
Each dancer's body shape, size, and physical attributes contribute to the way they interpret and express the movements in belly dance. Their unique bodies can evoke different visual aesthetics and emotions. For example, a dancer with fluid and graceful movements might portray a delicate and ethereal character, while a dancer with strong and powerful movements might embody a fierce and commanding persona.
Even if two dancers do the same dance, their different bodies will tell different stories. They communicate emotions, inspire drama, and share desires through their very bodies. The dance becomes a language of liberation, allowing dancers to break free from the confines of societal repression and embrace their authentic selves regardless of shape or size.
Embracing Body Positivity and Self-Acceptance
In a society that imposes unrealistic and unhealthy beauty standards on women, belly dance serves as a powerful antidote by promoting body positivity and self-acceptance. The dance form celebrates diverse body types, encouraging individuals to embrace their curves and lines as not just acceptable, but beautiful and integral to their storytelling.
One of the first moves that may come to mind when you think about belly dance is the belly roll, a controlled rolling motion of the abdominal muscles, creating a wave-like movement across the belly (side note: this move is very difficult! Look it up on YouTube and give it a try. You'll likely be sore after!). Having belly fat is considered a positive for this move - the move is designed for fat to accentuate it. It's the same with shimmies and other vibration moves, where the natural movement of fat in response to muscle contractions can amplify the impact of the move, making them more visually dynamic and engaging.
Cultivating Feminine Strength and Agency
Belly dance embraces the power of femininity, enabling dancers to harness their inner strength and agency. The intricate movements and challenging techniques require a deep connection with some of the tiniest muscles in the body, fostering a sense of physical strength and honesty. By reclaiming the feminine as a source of strength and resilience, belly dance dismantles patriarchal notions that seek to diminish and suppress women's power, inspiring dancers to embrace their own unique forms of strength.
Oh my god, yes, I am a STAR.
As dancers master new movements, perform in front of audiences, and experience personal growth, they gain a sense of accomplishment and pride. In our interview, Zaara shares one of her memorable moments performing:
I was soloing and I just tapped into something. I was just on a roll and the crowd was kind of going crazy and I was spinning really, really fast at the end. The drummers were going really, really fast to match my spinning and I actually kind of tripped on my skirt. But when I landed, I made this cool pose at the end and everybody thought I had done it on purpose. And I was just like, oh my god, yes, I am a STAR.
Community and Shenanigans!
The fluid and sensual movements of the dance form allow women to connect with their bodies, experience a sense of control and ownership over their movements, and cultivate a positive relationship with their physical selves. This embodiment of movement empowers women to embrace their sensuality and express themselves authentically. Great, right?
But no one exists in a vacuum. Belly dance communities often foster a sense of connection and sisterhood among dancers. The classes, workshops and performances (and shared RennFaire shenanigans!) bring women together to support and uplift one another and have a damned good time doing it!
Listen to my full interview with Zaara HERE.