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Beyond Bodily Beauty in Belly Dance

I’m short. 5’1” and some change.

Being short is my reality, and so, I think about it a lot. And, because I’m a dancer, I think a lot about how being short affects my physical dancing, as well as how others perceive my dancing body. My body is my body, and while I can change my muscle tone and, to some extent, my weight, no amount of diet or exercise will make my arms or legs longer, my rib cage smaller, or my pelvis narrower. Which is fine, because I am happy with my physical body.

But that’s not what I’m here to talk about today.

What I want to look at is how we view a dancer’s physical body informs how we unconsciously evaluate their performance…. and whether or not we want to spend our money to take a workshop with someone. Hang on to your hip scarves, because I couldn’t contain myself.

Belly Dance, beautiful, aesthetic, social justice, equity in dance, body types, ballet

Do we really celebrate all body types?

There’s a lot of talk in the belly dance world about how this dance is for “all body types.” Some kind of similar language is in probably 75-90% of all marketing copy for belly dance classes and workshops.

This is a noble aspiration, to teach dance to all body types. To see all body types on stage, so that other dancers are inspired and take up dancing themselves. Dance can be empowering, because it teaches us agency over our bodies, no matter what they look like.

The question of dance access for “all bodies” is also an issue that comes up in talks of equity in dance outside the belly dance world. I’ve heard from my colleagues in other dance communities, particularly Euro-American concert forms, that they have been subject to body-shaming, both explicit and implicit, from the time they were children to the present day.

But when we look at who the most popular performers in belly dance and related fusion interpretations (and keep in mind that my perspective is mostly that of a North American living in California) actually are, we’ll see that “all body types” aren’t necessarily represented.

Many (notice that I did not say “all”) of the dancers getting hired for festivals are 3-4 of the following:

  • Skinny or fit (but not “plus-sized”)
  • Young or have the appearance of youth
  • Long-limbed
  • Could be described as “physically beautiful”
  • White or white-passing
  • Bonus: Have aesthetically-pleasing costuming*

And there’s even a body type aesthetic difference in dance styles: the “fusion” scene often celebrates the long-limbed and long-torsoed, and even more muscular dancer than the “Oriental” festivals, which appear to prefer larger hips and breasts. One might even argue that these dancers are, regardless of genre or interpretation, “sexy.” (And of course, different regions of the Middle East also have their preferred body types, but for the sake of this blog post, I’ll be looking at North America. I also recognize that my physical appearance makes it so that I benefit from some of the bullet points above.)

Of course there are exceptions. And one of those exceptions is for dancers who are now considered “matriarchs” of their form, and no longer perform regularly or they have retired from professional performing. The community no longer celebrates them as performers, and in this blog post I’m talking about dancers celebrated as performers and instructors on the touring circuit. 

I think that when we are drawn to a particular dancer, there’s a part of us that wishes that we could have their physical attributes. We want to look like them, even if such a transformation is impossible. We want to embody part of their essence. We want to be as beautiful as they are. We’re human and this is a natural attraction.

But when we celebrate the dancers who are on the touring circuit who embody the bullet points outlined above, we cannot ignore that we are, indeed, implicitly (and explicitly) celebrating their physical bodies.

But does that mean that we are, then, not supporting other dancers who might not be embody these bullet points? And at what cost?

Fetishizing vs. celebrating difference and otherness

And that’s not to say that we’re not eager to share the latest inspiring story of a dancer who defies convention to follow their dancing dreams. Like Erik Cavanaugh, a ballet and contemporary dancer who is not only “plus-sized” but also a man. It so often seems like when we celebrate these dancers we’re not praising their dance so much as the idea that they are great dancers not because of, but in spite of their physical bodies.

Of course there is genuine excitement, particularly from dancers who themselves do not have “conventionally-attractive” or even a “typical” dancer’s body themselves. We naturally want to see bodies who look like our own getting positive attention, and it shouldn’t be an uncommon occurrence, because representation matters. …like Beyonce’s dancers at Coachella who defied body-type stereotypes and the dance company Pretty Big Movement, which in addition to being a company of non-skinny ladies, is also women of color. And of course, there is also AXIS Dance Company in San Francisco, which is partially made up of differently-abled dancers.

But we must be careful when we share one of these “feel-good” stories. When we do celebrate a dancer’s “difference”—whether they be “plus-size,” defying gender norms, or differently-abled—are we fetishizing that difference and otherness rather than celebrating the skill, performance, and presence of the dancer themselves? Not that it has to be one or the other, of course. 

And think of how much harder these dancers must work to even attract our gaze in the first place.

Putting our money where our bodies are

So how can we then reconcile that reality when we’re so thrilled to share the latest story about a dancer with an unconventional body, or a dancer who defies American corporate beauty standards, but our own industry is dominated by conventionally-beautiful bodies? How often are we actually promoting and supporting less-conventional body types with our money in our own genre(s)?

If there are mostly conventionally “beautiful” dancers on the circuit, meeting at least 3 of the bullet points above, that can’t possibly mean that there are dancers out there who aren’t those bullet points who aren’t worth studying with. Because I know quite a few dancers with lots of skill, knowledge, and experience to share—dancers who have been in the scene for decades—but they aren’t being invited to headline festivals. 

What’s more likely is that dancers with similar levels of technical skill, creativity, and stage presence are not being noticed on a national (and even global) stage because they do not meet our immediate and unconscious aesthetic requirements. And if they’re not noticed, then they are not hired. If they are not hired, then they are not recognized outside their immediate communities. It’s a vicious cycle for a dancer who might want greater recognition, but never are able to break through the beauty barrier.

“What about video?” you ask. How many times have you felt or heard, “Oh, I didn’t get so-and-so’s dancing until I saw them live”? And, again, if the dancers with different body types aren’t recognized, they’re less likely to benefit from the viral nature of social media sharing which so very much drives marketing in the global belly dance industry.

There’s also a big difference between sharing a video and paying money to take a workshop. Because, let’s face it, money does talk.

Bodily thought experiments

Basically, what I’m talking about here is recognizing and disrupting implicit bias towards what we expect a “dancer’s body” to look like. If we’re from North America or Western Europe, chances are the “dancer’s body” in our head is greatly informed by the long, lean, limber ballet body promoted by George Balanchine in the 1950s and 1960s. And even in ballet, preference for that body type is under fire, not in attempts to skinny-shame by any means, but in an attempt to prevent a lot of the toxic messages young ballet dancers receive about their future hire-ability.

So, when I watch a dancer, I like to do thought experiments. I’ll imagine them in a different costume. I’ll gender swap them. I’ll change their body type. And I ask myself, how does altering their body in my head change my interpretation or enjoyment of this dance? Why?

If we were to look at two different bodies with the same skill level, doing the same dance, we’re more likely to gravitate towards the more “aesthetically-pleasing” body…. unless we’re looking to celebrate the more marginalized body to begin with. So, the next time you watch a performer, make a mindful choice to pay attention to what their body is doing. 

Being a mindful dance-watcher

What it all comes down to is a sense of meta-awareness as we’re watching dance. Why are we reacting the way we do and what is the impetus behind that thought? Basically, are we aware of our own thoughts? Yes, mindfulness.

If we are not mindful when we watch dance, then we might very well be contributing to and reinforcing stereotypes and hegemonic power structures that dictate which bodies are “acceptable” dancing bodies and which are not at the expense of other dancers who are just as skilled and who have a wealth of knowledge to offer to our community.

And maybe ask yourself the next time you attend a festival or watch videos from the latest dance convention: Was I drawn to this dancer because they fit my idea of what a “dancer” should look like? How can we support equally or more skilled and experienced dancers who are not conventionally beautiful? 

Do you have a favorite dancer who defies body stereotypes and isn’t getting as much attention as you think they should? Share in the comments.

Let’s celebrate what we love.

*By “aesthetically-pleasing” I do understand that we can mark a well-prepared and professional-level dancer by how well a costume fits their body. What I’m trying to draw attention to here is the idea that sometimes we are drawn in by a dancer’s costume before we look at their dancing.

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Hi! I'm Abby!

Welcome to my blog!

Here you’ll find my thoughts on everything from history and culture, to fusion and hybridity, to performance and training tips. I’m passionate about excellence, curiosity, and education in dance… in the studio and beyond.

In addition to holding Level 5 (Teaching Certification) in the Salimpour Formats, I also have an MA in Dance Studies at Mills College.

While belly dance and its related forms are my first love, I also teach American Modern Dance History at Mills College.

As director of the Salimpour School Berkeley, I hold weekly community belly dance classes in Berkeley, California.

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