Why I’m Glad Belly Dance in the US Is Declining

What a headline, right?

Class numbers are dwindling. Festivals are disappearing. Bellydance Superstars is long gone. And who even watches an actual instructional DVD anymore?

Well, that’s right. I’m glad that belly dance in the US is on the out and out.

But, wait, you say! How can someone who has invested some serious time and resources into being a belly dancer, and who earns a substantial part of her income from teaching belly dance, say such a thing? Why would I celebrate what Laura Tempest Zakroff calls “The Toilet”?

Hear me out…

Abigail Keyes: Why I'm Glad Belly Dance in the US is Declining

We’re Doing Some Much-Needed Soul Searching

Of the dancers I have contact with, both in and out of the Salimpour School, there is a sense that it’s long overdue that non-Middle Eastern dancers own up to the fact that the popularity of belly dance was built on the exploitation, stereotypes, and fantasy of an exotic Orient.

For decades belly dance has been the locus of an e(x/r)oticized, feminized fantasy, where (mostly white) women have sought sisterhood and a refuge from the toxic masculinity that many of us deal with day in and day out.

But many dancers are realizing that using belly dance as an escape from the troubles and toils of daily life is just not appropriate, and is, for lack of a better word, appropriation.

Owning Up to Orientalism

And while I still believe that the term “cultural appropriation” doesn’t really address what it’s really about (that is, cultural imperialism, the systemic imbalance of social and political power, and outright racism), related discourse in mainstream media outlets has forced belly dancers to take a good hard look in the mirror and decide whether or not we still want to practice this dance form. I might not agree with Randa Jarrar that white women need to stop dancing, but her article stirred up some much-needed discussion in a dance form rife with white-dominated Orientalist fantasy.

Those of us who are sticking around—and who aren’t from the culture or origin—have to do the difficult work of owning up to wrongs we might have committed, and that kind of work isn’t for the casual hobbyist who just wants to shake it with her “sisters.” (Also, gender isn’t a binary. Using belly dance as an “all women” space is inherently exclusionary and historically inaccurate. But that’s a post for a different day, and oh, hey, Kamrah already wrote it.)

Finding Other Movement Arts

Many former belly dancers are realizing that doing this professionally takes a lot of effort, time, and unpaid labor to practice responsibly. Some of us are sticking around, and others are deciding it’s not for them.

I’ve noticed that quite a few dancers who started belly dance in the early 2000s have moved on to other alternative movement forms, such as aerial arts, hooping, flow arts, burlesque, and niche fitness practices. That’s awesome! Many of these movement forms don’t carry with them the same cultural legacy and responsibility that belly dance does. (Of course, movement arts such as poi and fire staff DO have cultural histories in the dances of Polynesian peoples, but I leave that to practitioners of those forms to discuss those connections.)

Figuring Out Why We’re Belly Dancing

As a traveling dance instructor, I have the opportunity to talk to many practitioners in diverse communities throughout the world. My most recent trips and interactions have revealed a sense of “Why are we doing this?” and dancers asking the question, “Why do I care?”

When we ask ourselves these questions, not just about dance, but about any activity in which we are involved—be it a hobby, a job, or a relationship—this introspection can reveal much about ourselves. It can also give us clues on what to do next. Do we keep dancing? If so, why?

Dancers are reevaluating what they really want to get out of belly dance. For some, it might just be a once-a-week class, and for others they have made it a career. Either way, many dancers I’ve talked to lately seem to be reflecting on their desires and goals for being involved in belly dance.

Some people have figured out that belly dance isn’t for them. And, yes, means fewer people at festivals, workshops, and classes, which also means less money circulating throughout the industry and community. But it can also means that those who are continuing their involvement are very invested in it.

We’re More Invested in Learning

With the (temporary) fading of belly dance from the public eye, that means fewer students who are looking to feed their egos by teaching and performing well before they are ready.

From my view, the dancers that I’m teaching on a weekly basis are more invested in learning than performing. They want to know more about their bodies, technique, and, of course, cultural context. They’re not taking class to look cute in a sparkly costume. In fact, it’s almost difficult to get people excited about performing.

The dancers that we’re attracting at the Salimpour School are more mature, either in actual age or in attitude towards their dance practice. They are more humble with regard to whether they want to take the stage. They carry far less drama and ego with them into the studio classroom than students who are eager to perform, which is a relief and a joy.

Fewer Performances, Smaller Egos

Now many restaurants have closed altogether, and there are fewer restaurants featuring dancers, attracting smaller audiences, and the pay sucks. While this is shitty for the professionals (especially the pay part), it’s also less attractive to the 6-week wonders who would promote themselves as professional and undercut the rest of us.

And, at least where I am, there are fewer opportunities to perform. That might just be a Bay Area thing. But compared to Washington DC in the mid-2000s, when DCTribal was hosting events, and DC Tribal Cafe happened every month, and there were several Middle Eastern restaurants that featured performers, we were awash in performance opportunities. And audiences packed into those shows.

It seems like it has become far less likely for a young person to take up belly dance to become a “star.” Thank goodness.

Preparing for the Next Generations

This current downturn seems to be much like the one we’ve already seen in the 80s. At that time, dancers who stuck around were more likely to invest time and money into digging deeper into the history and culture of belly dance than the ones who started dancing in the 1970s to get in touch with their sexuality and to shock their “Leave It to Beaver” parents.

Belly dance will, I’m sure, see another resurgence, but it might be in another 30 years. In the meantime, I believe that in the diaspora, the dance will be in good hands.

Passing the Torch to the Millennial and Homeland Generations

Millennials (a label I am loathe to use but it’s what we’ve got) have far less time and disposable income than younger Generation X dancers like myself, or the Generation X and Baby Boomer-generation dancers who taught me. They’re far less likely to take a dance class just because it looks fun or different. They want to put their money where their values are.

Of the Millennial dancers that I see involved in belly dance today, they are far more aware of the social justice issues inherent in a contemporary belly dance practice. They want to talk about issues of cultural appropriation. They want to know how they can be more responsible when they dance. They actually come to lectures about history and culture. Those who pass as white are less afraid to check their privilege and give space to dancers from the culture of origin.

The even-younger Homeland Generation will be even better equipped to discuss and embody these complex topics, as they have grown up with social media that brings these issues directly to their personal profiles every day.

So just as fads come and go, so does belly dance. But before it returns to the popular spotlight, those of us who are still dancing must create the resources and foundations to empower the next generation.

Isn’t that a wonderful reason to stick around?Save


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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33 Responses

  1. I’m going to agree with you Abby. I love that my students are more focused on learning than performing.
    Here in South Florida the zumba studios take on the types of students that want it easy.
    Zumba offers them belly dance and bollywood all wrapped up into a knee and lower back pumping choreo learned in 1 hour. They’re weeding the none dancers out for us.
    Thanks for this.

    1. Thank you, Alina. This shift seems to be the trend across the country… we’re hunkering down and I think the community will be better for it. 🙂

  2. We really are so much better off. This started happening down here in 2011. Zumba and other fusion fitness classes were way easier and even cheaper. While I was charging $16.00 drop in, and $10 with card. Fusion studios popping up charging $5 drop in. We couldn’t compete.

    you would laugh…………..I did product test for zumba (I’m not a zumba anything LOL….but I got the gig through a friend) While we were testing……filming…….we were of course “zumba’ing”

    they straight out told me I was bellydance incorrectly…..because I wasn’t throwing my hips out far enough. I kept telling them it would hurt. they asked me to break it down and then told me that was too hard. please do it the way we told you. LOL ……… NO!

    keep your zumba!
    thank you for this blog. I really thought it was just us down here

  3. Interesting read…I question myself all the time about why I am still dancing@52yrs old. It is certainly not to perform. It always comes back to the fun & pleasure of learning a discipline (dance) I had no previous experience of. Cultural appropriation is something that holds more curiosity than passion for me…maybe that is a generational concern.
    Thank you for your thoughts.

  4. I remember you writing a blog post in response to one I wrote in which you said I “wasn’t a belly dancer” which really hurt at that time, but it encouraged me to explore a different path and create performance art in a different way, ultimately forming my business and current livelihood. While I still disagree with you that I’m not a “real” bellydancer, I’m still grateful to ultimately to now be working full-time as a performance artist, so… thanks! I still think we can encourage people to study an art form, learn the history, and create fusions that grow the art form in a respectful way.

  5. There is a season for everything under heaven …

    Seasons are cycles, they come and go. As someone who learned to belly dance in the 1970s, I agree with you that the desire to learn this dance has ebbed and flowed over the decades. But I believe there is one reason you did not mention that women return to this art form – for healing. Of the many “main stream” dance forms, belly dance is accessible to a wide variety of shapes, sizes and fitness levels. You are not always required to concentrate on choreography, so the mind is freer to enjoy the movements and express internal conflicts. In Europe they call “primitive dance” movement therapy. They use it to heal psychological ills and help learning disabled children. Ancient dance satisfied far more than a desire to wear shiny sequins and be the center of attention. A major part of it was group interaction, joining together with others for a shared experience. Perhaps the fad of belly dance as it manifested in the 2000s has waned, but the need for emotional expression through movement is an enduring human trait. I am certain that new generations will discover its benefits and the cycle will continue.

  6. Thank you for your insight! As a Middle Eastern Dancer of Lebanese heritage who began a professional career in the late 70’s, I appreciate your perspective and faith that our sensitivities to a culture long exploited are more in tune to the Orientalist implications. Shukran!

  7. This is a thought-provoking article. I’ve been thinking a bunch recently about the cultural appropriation inherent in non-Middle Eastern people belly dancing–and will continue to ponder.

    The cultural appropriate issues aside for a moment, I’d love to hear what you think about “hobbyist” belly dancers performing in shows that are clearly designated as student performances?

    1. I love when people dance and the performances are billed appropriately. A student recital sets up the audience’s expectation that the dancers will be students. We can then give them a supportive place to perform, dance, and show what they’ve been working on throughout the session or course. These kinds of performances are absolutely necessary for any dance form.

  8. Perhaps performing opportunities in the East Bay are declining but that is not the case in the North Bay. We have several ongoing monthly performance series. I created a quarterly series for 2016 myself. We have several major performance events. While gathering committed students is still a challenge and perhaps more so than in 2000, there are plenty of wonderful local teachers, many of whom direct their own dance companies.

    I have never been a dedicated Middle Eastern enthusiast. My dance background is from modern dance, a style of dance that I am no longer fond of. I came to belly dance because of the criticism I received from other modern dancers regarding how it was inappropriate to smile while performing or to be involved in costuming. (My style of modern dance was rather aesthetic.) My own personal style would now be called a fusion of the 2 art forms. My interest has always been to be the very best dancer I can be. I have to say that I really do not care about how “authentic” my work is. It is authentic to me.

    I also must add something that I personally observe. The Salimpour School is an invaluable resource for dance in the United States. The people I have met there are fine individuals with excellent learning abilities but to say that ego is less involved is a bit insincere to me. There is just as much ego matching in the Salimpour classes I have attended (few) in the past several years. The atmosphere imo is similar to what one sees in a ballet class where people struggle for position in the classroom and compete for who looks the best in the mirror. I have found much less ego positioning here in Sonoma County. (Also perhaps less technical excellence from some points of view.)

    1. Thank you for your perspective from the North Bay! I’m glad to hear that there are more opportunities in your neighborhoods. You’re lucky!

      And I’m sorry to hear that you had some icky ego experiences at our school. There have been some, um, interesting personalities throughout the years, most of whom are no longer around. 😉 I find that with our current workshop students (and weekly students), they are truly there to learn, not look good in the mirror. When was the last time you came and took a class with us?

      1. Earlier this year. Every once in awhile I revisit Salimpour technique. I studied with Suhaila extensively for 4 years, 20 years ago. This last revisit taught me that I am no longer a Salimpour dancer. The aesthetic is too particular for me so I probably won’t be coming back. I respect what Suhaila has accomplished and how strong she has stayed over these years. But now I like studying with different people and arriving at my own aesthetic.

  9. I can’t thank you enough for this! I hope this gets widely circulated in the community! So many great points, and it’s nice to finally read something positive about Millenials for once. 😉
    Re: Alina the point about Zumba is great. I’ve been thinking about getting certified for years and I thought it might be a bit corny but this is actually a great reason to offer it (and similar classes) at a studio. Keeping full classes of Zumba and fitness might help a teacher support his/her more sparsely-attended (but more dedicated/serious) Bellydance classes.

    1. Haha! Well, I’m part Millennial and part Gen X (depends on what year cutoff you’re using), so I get really tired of all the “Millennials are destroying _____” crap, too!

      I feel like going into fitness avenues that take real responsibility for the body are the way to go. I started (but have yet to finish) a certification in Stott Pilates, and it’s changed my belly dancing for the better. I feel like a more responsible instructor, too, with the knowledge that training, and of course my dance degree, has given me. In this day in age, we have to have multiple hustles!

  10. I agree it probably is a good thing, it’ll be popular again soon enough. I kind of feel like Tribal/Fusion is more influenced by fads and trends than cabaret is so it might be good for the genre to be a bit less trendy.

  11. Super interesting article. Thank you!

    An additional perspective….I am an American living in Sevilla, Spain. I started bellydancing in the States in 1997 and, upon discovering flamenco, sold all my stuff to move here to study flamenco.

    So it has been super interesting to find my way back into bellydance here. To put things into perspective, Spain’s dictator Franco died in 1973. Before this, Spain was almost completely isolated from the outside world for 36 years which means, among many things, Spain never had a sexual revolution like we had in the States. So, with this in mind, I could definitely say bellydance has been a very current dance of liberation for many women here. To add to this, Spain is celebrating 40 years of democracy which, apart from 36 years of a being a dictatorship, means Spain’s social structure and those that are deemed “born with unearned privilege” are largely still based on how close your family was to being royalty, what side of the civil war you were on, where you grew up, how much money your family has, where you went to school, etc (in addition to, sadly, how “non-Gypsy” “non-Jew” and “non-Arab” you look like or really actually are).

    On top of all this is the fact that Southern Spain was under Arab rule for 700 YEARS. That is a LONG time and you can still see the influence of those 700 years in the faces of the people here, the food, the architecture, the music, the language, the way people do business, the way people socialize, etc, etc. With the boldest and most in-your-face examples being the numerous cross and churchbell topped minarets throughout Andalusia, the very deliberate show of Christianity triumphing over Islam. So having said all of this, I find myself looking and wondering what the motivations are for the enormous bellydance boom here. Is it female liberation by culturally appropriating women of unearned privilege? Or is it something much deeper than that, a re-discovery of a nearly forgotten yet still super prevalent part of Spanish culture? Is it a silently creative way of thwarting the male dominated machismo that still largely makes up Spanish culture and has for centuries?

    Don’t get me wrong, there are definitely your “6-week wonders who would promote themselves as professional and undercut the rest of us.” I understand the lure of sparkly costumes and all-eyes-on-you performances, but there is DEFINITELY not the earning power here as there is/was in the US. So, why are Spanish women getting into bellydance? How does your mention of “those who pass as white” being “less afraid to check their privilege and give space to dancers from the culture of origin” apply here? Are Andaluz women dancers from the culture of origin? What about Northern Spanish women who have no direct ties to Al-Andalus?

    And apart from all that, I can’t help but draw parallels to flamenco with regard to foreigners and their support to the art form. I have to say that, after living and studying here for 5 years, thank god for the foreigners and their extreme love and devotion to flamenco. You see flamenco here is seen by MANY natives as something extremely “cateto”. What does cateto mean? Basically it can be translated as “redneck”. Flamenco does NOT represent Spain for the majority Spaniards. Flamenco to them represents an out-dated and embarrassing stereotype. I really feel that without the dedication of so many outside of Spain, flamenco would die out.

    So, I sometimes wonder, as a woman (yes, as a privileged white woman), if the same could be said of bellydance. I can’t help but become enraged when I think of how bellydance (or nearly any feminine dance in some cases) is, and has always been, viewed in light of the male-dominated religious fundamentalism found in many corners of the world. And I can’t help but wonder what would become of bellydance if it hadn’t been for the popularity of belly dance being built on “the exploitation, stereotypes, and fantasy of an exotic Orient.” As you pointed out here in your article, it’s time for those of us “sticking around” to go deeper into “why are we doing this?”

    1. Thank you for posting that here! It’s interesting that both Flamenco and belly dance are not particularly popular pastimes for people from the cultures of origin.

  12. Great post! I’m really grateful, I was looking to read this, Thank you so much!
    Also, I wanna know your opinion about the “students” (they are students, but they are self promoting as a professionals) who are teaching without being ready? Every time I’m seeing some of them I always think: They are not being aware of their irresponsibility? Thank you again

    1. Thank you for your comment! I mean, we’re all students, right? But there are some students who REALLY REALLY want to perform before professionally before they have the etiquette, knowledge, and training to do so.

  13. I love belly dancing though I certainly dont perform for audiences. As a long time Physical Ed instructor I think it is one of the greatest forms of exercise aound.

  14. Oh man! Those early 2000s days were the BEST! Doing the same DVDs over and over until they wore out, traveling hours (and saving my pennies) to go to shows and workshops of stars, pages full of notes from, watching grainy youtube footage and copying Every. Single. Move. again and again. Kids these days are so spoiled with their online classes and HD youtube videos and pre-made costumes available at the click of a button. Back in my day, we had to go to actual classes. Walking uphill both ways. In the snow.

    To me, it seems all dance forms are on the decline. I’ve seen several studios close or have to cut back on classes. When I go out, nobody is dancing anymore (well, no young people, just the handful of weirdo 30-40 year olds 🙂 ). Paradoxically, dance in media is on the rise- there are several dance shows on TV, videos all over youtube, etc, although I do find it a bit concerning that on these shows the dances are very short (60-90 seconds) and dancers pack in as much as they can to impress judges/voters. How can you cram an emotional connection into that time? You can’t, which actually may be part of the appeal. People nowadays were raised on social media and smart devices, and research is showing they are having more difficulty with actual human connection. So maybe while they can appreciate dance as a feat of athleticism, they don’t want to participate because they don’t understand that deep, emotional connection.

    It really is a shame since our society is now (finally!) becoming more accepting of Middle Eastern culture. It would be great if people actually wanted to *learn* about it, too. That’s another interesting topic- are we becoming so afraid of cultural appropriation that we aren’t learning about or experiencing other cultures for fear of being offensive? I agree we need to be respectful- and a lot of what I saw in the 2000s definitely took things WAY too far- but I’m not sure I like this trend that everyone needs to remain in their own cultural bubble.

    Anyway, great post. Lotsa stuff to think about, and hopefully bellydance will again have its time in the sun.

  15. I have questioned a lot of times many aspects of the dance. I still do it to the degree I do because my body is the strongest and happiest with the degree of belly dance training that I do. It also keeps me happy channeling extra energy I have and keeps me from being depressed. I feel it is very helpful for everyone including people with PTSD. I have other reasons for practicing, but for my over all complete health is the absolute reason.

  16. Wow! What a wonderful post, that really made me think of why I absolutely love this art form! For me, I feel it is very soul freeing, spiritual, devotional, meditative, and yes, it does make me leave my daily problems behind for a while, also strengthens me as an individual, it makes me think of compassion, forgiveness, courage, taking responsibility, so many things that I’m grateful for! Interesting to hear that other cultures appreciate can appreciate another region’s dance more than the natives themselves, hey? I’m Brazilian and it hurt me in the past to hear my fellow country people criticise the Brazilian Indians, yet, people from other lands will travel there especially to get to know those natives and learn something from them! Maybe through dance would be similar, it could be a bridge to unite people and cultures?

  17. I love belly dancing… Not as a performer but as a dancer, as I love to dance. We used to do charity shows that boosted my self confidence and taught me to accept my flaws. I hope belly dancing never dies.

  18. What a wonderful post- raw and straight-to-the-point. I appreciate every word of this, and have a deep respect for you, for understanding that bellydancing isn’t just a hobby for some- it is something that is deep-rooted in our culture that deserves reverence to both the heritage and the authenticity of the dance.

    Awesome stuff.

  19. I could only make it through this article 1/2 way before I started rolling my eyes . . . are you serious?

    Bellydancers who come from Egypt, Turkey, Lebanon, Greece and etc over the years taught us to bellydance because they wanted us to learn, to keep it safe and continue the traditions due to the fact that sharia law is becoming an inescapable danger to the future of bellydance in the Middle East and other places.

    We don’t know where bellydance really originates from, yet you want to purport a continued victim mentality hiding behind a veil of identity politics . . . in bellydance . . . where it really doesn’t belong.

    It’s a folk dance and has been done for thousands of years by men, women, children and the young-at-heart.

    Own up? Own up to what? Paying Randa Kamel for her teaching and performance services? What about ydancers like Suhaila Salimpour and Zahra Zuhair who learned the art form in America but have a clear and provable Middle Eastern lineage?

    It seems like you’re the one who needs to do the soul searching and discover WHY you perform Oriental Dance my dear. Certainly, you’re entitled to your opinion but your presentation of it leaves much to be desired.

    1. Too bad you only read half the article, because maybe if you had, you’d have understood what I was writing about.

      And you mention Suhaila Salimpour. I’m one of 7 dancers in the world licensed to teach her and her mother’s formats; in fact, she refers to me as her “right hand.” I have apprenticed with her, and she trusts me with her methods, which she did not only develop in the US, but also during her many years as a professional performer in the Arab world.

      You also refer to me as “my dear.” I am not your dear. I have been studying this dance form, the regions from which is comes, and dance as a living discipline longer than you have, according to your resume.

      Not sure what I said, but it sure seems to have struck a nerve. Perhaps it was the use of the term “white”?

      1. I meant “dear” as a means to make you relax but clearly it didn’t work the way I hoped . . . for you to take such a small word and make so many interpretations and assumptions out of it is mind boggling, to say the least.

        Your associations with Suhaila and length of time in this dance are neither here nor there . . . it’s interesting you don’t address anything I did talk about in relationship to what I read . . . Just because I disagree with you doesn’t mean you struck a nerve. How can you possibly glean that from a text-format comment? I clearly acknowledge that you have your own opinion but you do not extend the same courtesy. Perhaps you should re-read what I wrote.

        In these times why wouldn’t you use belly dance to escape from stress and strife? It is meant to and intended for transporting the audience as well as the dancer to places of fun, joy and celebration. And you mention that dancers are understanding they shouldn’t use it as a tool for escape but fail to mention which ones; who says that? It would make your claims more credible.

        You wrote: “For decades belly dance has been the locus of an e(x/r)oticized, feminized fantasy, where (mostly white) women have sought sisterhood and a refuge from the toxic masculinity that many of us deal with day in and day out.”

        And while I agree with you about the oversexualized aspect embraced in American culture since it’s introduction to the World’s Fair in 1893 and it’s propagandized lasciviousness since WWII (look at movies like “In the Garden of Allah” featuring Marlena Dietrich) , is that really our fault? Is it really up to us bellydancers to “own up” as you say? Or is it up to us to educate each other and our audiences about what it really is? An ancient art form that people have literally been doing for centuries that’s meant to connect us with our audiences and each other.

        And toxic masculinity? Come on, what about toxic femininity? Speaking only for myself, some of the worst experiences I’ve ever had in life were at the hands of women due to their self-gratified and immorally justified behavior, decisions and betrayals. Yes, I’ve had my share of negativity with men too but women are not exempt from this.

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