Breaking the Belly Binary: Gender, Words, and Belly Dance

Disclaimer: I write this from my perspective a cis-gender woman in a female-dominated dance form. That influences my perspective.

How many times have you heard statements such as:

Belly dance is by women for women.

This is a woman’s dance.

This dance was meant for woman’s bodies.

We don’t allow men in our classes.

Can men belly dance? (With the implication being that they can’t and that they shouldn’t, and if they do, then they’re queer, with the further implication that that characteristic makes them inadequately masculine, and therefore flawed because they are more “woman” than “man.”)

Or this one, usually in class situations: “OK, ladies!”

Dancers of all styles are realizing that these statements are problematic. But perhaps these concepts are brand new to you as well, or maybe they’re familiar and you, too, have been thinking about what I’m calling in this post, the “Belly Binary.”

Several of my colleagues have written excellent blogs and articles regarding gender in belly dance (such as this post by Kamrah), calling attention to the fact that male-identified and gender non-conforming (including gender-fluid, non-binary, and trans* people) have been engaging in solo improvisational dance in the Middle East and Central Asia for centuries, and that not all belly dancers identify as being “a woman.”

gender, sex, belly dance, femininity, male, female, trans, queer

The Exclusionary Feminine

Claiming that belly dance is for “women only” presupposes many things. One, that there are essential gender characteristics, that women hold certain characteristics that are diametrically opposed to those that men have. While polarity and spectrums (note I didn’t say “binary”) exist in archetypal study—anima/animus, yin/yang, dark/light, night/day, moon/sun, inside/outside, internal/external—these divisions are not so easily applied to living, breathing human bodies.

Gender is performative and exists on a spectrum. How we interpret clothing, hairstyles, make-up (and the lack thereof), gestures, and movement as either masculine or feminine is cultural, societal, and learned.

When dancers say that belly dance is for women, it reveals a tension between “male” and “female” in our societies with predominantly Abrahamic faiths. Even those of us who are not religious have been exposed to and likely raised in societies in which these faiths dominate moral, social, and gender norms. In North America, the claim that belly dance is essentially female seems to me to be a search for a space where those who identify as female can escape the everyday realities of having a female body: catcalling, harassment, degradation, violence, and more.

But desire for a safer space does not negate the fact that belly dance is not essentially “female.” Acculturation, both in the Middle East and outside of it, not biology, has shaped our perception of belly dance as feminine art.

All Bodies Can Dance

Of course, there are those who argue that biological men have slightly different physiology then biological women… First of all, that’s a question of sex, not gender, and it’s an argument rife with holes. As this recent article from Stanford explains, even the chromosomal bifurcation isn’t always a binary. Remember this non-binary cardinal from the news a few weeks ago? Or maybe you saw this beautiful intersex butterfly?

As long as your body has the bones and muscles required to dance (and that doesn’t even mean having all of them, or that all of them should be of “normal” ability), you can dance. Just check out the dancers of AXIS in San Francisco.

By claiming that this dance is for women, we are not only excluding men but we are excluding the even more marginalized population of gender non-conforming people—gender-queer, non-binary, gender-fluid, questioning, and trans* to name a few—who might want to check out a belly dance class.

An Implicit Contradiction

Saying that belly dance is a “woman’s dance” also contradicts many dancers’ claim that “belly dance is for everyone” and that the belly dance “community” is welcoming to all. Indeed, some dance studios and companies truly do welcome all, but when we use gendered language, we may be negating our claims.

In addition, the notion that belly dance is inherently feminine is an Orientalist construct. The idea of a feminized, passive, mysterious, ancient “Orient” is a fantasy perpetuated through North American belly dance practice (I can not speak as much to practices elsewhere).

Yes, the professional dancers in Cairo’s 5-star hotels are women, but this dance form as performed socially is not exclusively for those who identify as female. Indeed, there is also a long history of professional male dancers who have performed solo, improvisational, pelvic-articulated dances.

It’s important that we look at what this dance form is and what it has been, rather than what we want it to be, at least in regard to fantasy.

Inclusion Can Begin With Words

In the classes I both take and teach, we have a variety of bodies, identities, and expressions. Dancers are taught the same technique, the same movements, and the same combinations.

Personally, when teaching, I try to avoid gendered language, using “dancers” or “everyone” instead of “ladies,” (especially because sometimes not all the students self-identify as female, and respecting identity is important).

Breaking this language habit can be difficult. But my saying “ladies” out of habit isn’t more important than respecting someone’s individual identity.

Majority-Female ≠ Women Only

And while we belly dancers must be aware of the realities and struggles that professional performers in the Middle East face—including that a professional female belly dancer in Cairo is considered “the norm,” (and yet still incredibly marginalized) while a male is an aberration, but also that a professional female performer is also often considered to be a “fallen woman” with no honor—that does not mean that we should perpetuate an exclusionary binary in our own engagement with the dance form.

And while today, belly dance is a women-dominated subculture (a term coined by professional dancer and colleague Sabriye Tekbilek), solo, improvisational dance in the Middle East has been performed—professionally and casually—by women, men, and gender non-conforming dancers for as long as we have a record of it.

Why Does This Even Matter?

And you might ask: Why would a cis-gendered woman belly dancer care about this anyway?

Inclusiveness. Equity. Justice.

Dance is for all. Dance is a gift we give to each other through movement and expression. Belly dance is expressive, technical, and cultural. The movements associated with belly dance are performed by all genders as a folk dance and profession. Why deny anyone of the experience of learning culture and themselves through movement?

Read More…

Butler, Judith. “Your Behavior Creates Your Gender.” Big Think

Dox, Donnalee. “Dancing Around Orientalism.” TDR/The Drama Review 50:4 (2006): 52-71.

Karayanni, Stavros Stavrou. Dancing Fear and Desire: Race, Sexuality, and Imperial Politics in Middle Eastern Dance. Ontario: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 2004.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Vintage, 1978.

Shay, Anthony. The Dangerous Lives of Public Performers: Dancing, Sex, and Entertainment in the Islamic World. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

Van Nieuwkirk, Karin. ‘A Trade Like Any Other’: Female Singers and Dancers in Egypt. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995.

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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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2 Responses

  1. I rarely see men belly dance in the US. But, I must say when I have, they are often the very best dancers. Horacio Cifuentes comes to mind for example. As a matter of fact, the first belly dancer I ever saw perform was a incredible dancer named Ester who danced in the 1970s in SF. A beautiful dancer with amazing charisma and a loving heart.

    I see no reason men should be excluded at all. We benefit from their presence.

  2. Hola soy Pol de Argentina,no binarie y ya hace mucho hice danza del vientre (en ese momento era una chica mujer cis) mi gênero câmbio,se feveló y así mí vida también dio un giro enorme. Estoy pensando en retomar esta danza que tanto me apasionaba ,una de las razones por las que no se me ocurría volver a hacerlo antes es porque me imagina esta nueva yo ‘con forma de mujer cis bellydancer’ y me parecia horrible NO SER YO! Leer este artículo me hizo replantearme con más fuerza la idea de que puedo hacerlo aún ahora ,siendo no binarie y disfrutando de esta danza si me gusta gracias fue un aliento! Y por otro lado acá en Argentina hay muchos bailarines de bellydance que son hombres gays de hecho uno muy reconocido incluso en Egipto que es Amir Taleb ,pero el esquema en general sigue siendo bastante binario (mujer que baila esta danza o hombre Gay ) buenísimo esto pero me pregunto: podremos abrir aún más el abanico?
    Gracias. Saludos c❣️

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