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Women in Contemporary American Middle Eastern Dance

By Laura Osweiler (Amara)

Presented at the 2000 Cultural Dance Studies Conference

Contemporary American Middle Eastern dance falls into the category of women's dances for its practitioners, audiences, and those with little exposure to it. It is definitely a gendered dance genre. This is not to say men do not perform Middle Eastern dance in the United States, there are male dances. But, if they cross over into the female styles and into the culture of being a woman in this dance, they are viewed as feminine. This paper will examine the complex and ambiguous manners in which American women use contemporary American Middle Eastern dance as a subversion of gender expectations and reinforcement of women's traditional roles.

Much of the paper is my interpretation of how I think the American Middle Eastern dance community views itself and the problems, which result when dealing with others outside of the practitioner community. I emphasize, "views itself," because as both a practitioner and researcher, I conceive the dance differently than many dancers.

By emphasizing this is a "woman's dance," a gendered genre, draws upon a binary: dividing men and women. As most feminists and American Middle Eastern dance practitioners emphasize the need to strengthen the "weaker" side of the binary, they would agree we inhabit a patriarchal society. And that women, due to the influence of Cartesian binary system (men over women, mind over body, culture over nature, public over private, and intellect over emotion), have been long associated with the weaker aspect of the dichotomy upon which "Western" philosophy has been built.

Ecofeminist Mary Mellor puts forth five feminist and ecofeminist stances on "the dualistic power structure that separates 'public man' from 'private woman:'1... to transcend or 'jump' the barrier by denying its claim about women's differences; 2 ... to dissolve the dualism by challenging the assumptions about woman/nature that it represents and the sex/gendered divisions of labor which result; 3 ... masculine-feminine dualism as potentially complementary, although not in its current destructive form; 4 ... to see masculine/patriarchal values as inherently damaging and destructive; and 5... [to] see sex/gendered dualist structures as representing a fundamental and enduring difference and/or conflict of interest between men and women."1 Based upon information from interviews and my own participation, most American Middle Eastern dancers lean toward the third. That in order for a beneficial complementary masculine-feminine dualism to be established the women's agency needs to be emphasized in order to balance humanity. From an anonymous writer: "[O]ur dance [is] to lift women up and empower them... I want people to equate our dance with expression of femininity (unless, of course, a man is dancing) and all the grace and beauty that goes with being a female."2 Many women who find gender imbalance in their lives may be first draw to this dance because of its emphasis on the missing feminine agency. Halimeda: "[The dance required a] confidence level in your own femininity, that was certainly something that was lacking in the rest of my life. I am a computer programmer [and] I worked almost totally with men.... at the naval air station... Here was something that was feminine and strong."3 Anaheed: "The image that I started with was, just my personal image, a powerful, feminine, woman in touch with her body:"4 These two women, both professional American Middle Eastern dancers, demonstrate the longing for a feminine role which society expects them to fulfill but which they cannot find in the public man's world. They are reiterating the dualistic notion of male/female while also breaking from traditional roles by taking themselves as "women" into the public realm.

These examples represent a stance held by many American Middle Eastern dancers. Because their beliefs grapple with this dichotomy and patriarchal society, this leads to the question: is feminine agency inside or outside of the realm of patriarchy? There are several views regarding this issue. Some feminists, such as Val Plumwood, via Mellor, believe that because the concept of woman grew out of patriarchal structures, there is no escape and that "[t]o celebrate womanhood is to celebrate something that has been created by inequality."5 Another view, by Simone de Beauvoir via Judith Butler, maintains women in the weak position of the dichotomy: "... women are the negative of men, the lack against which masculine identity differentiates itself...."6 Yet another perspective, by Luce Irigrary and Helene Cixous, "take the Lacanian position that all culture represents a patriarchal world. Language itself represents the symbol of the phallus: all knowledge, culture and language is phallocentric.... So where is embodied woman to go? For Irigrary and Cixous, the embodied woman and particularly her sexuality, is the only aspect of woman which escapes male control."7 American Middle Eastern dancers believe in a female agency from which they can unite and form a solidarity and which works outside of the patriarchy. Elizabeth Buck writes in her thesis: "Many of these dancers... find strength through celebrating qualities of the feminine principle--receptivity, mutability, nurturance, intuitiveness, ... creativity,"8 and spiritual connection to the earth.9 As a means to escape the patriarchy and as a source for power, some dancers believe these principles came from an ancient matriarchal time. In this matriarchy a woman's body was not something to be feared and ostracized, but to be celebrated and worshiped as the giver of life. Through these beliefs, they hope to "prove" that contemporary society is not the only way to live. To quote Chilla Bulbeck, these "...matriarchal myths can serve a political purpose (as they do for the goddess cultists in the west), a 'rediscovery and renaming' of a golden past which demands a more egalitarian present."10

A problem with feminine principles is that they become generalized and universalisaized which leads to essentializing and ahistorizing. To quote Dannalee Dox: "[W]eastern dancers... describe the movements of belly dance as expressing an 'essence of femininity' which needs no audience, and which is separate from historical or cultural aspects of the dance."11 What this statement demonstrates is the ambiguity of the feminine agency. If it is outside of history, then it is outside of the patriarchy. But this particular statement is in opposition to the belief of a matriarchy which is also in a historical and cultural time.

Though universalism embraces a group for a cause, it does not reflect the differences. Chris Cuomo writes: "The myth of universal Woman has resulted in feminist theory that reflects the experiences and interest of only some women, while claiming to be about, or for women generally."12 One area in which differences can be seen is body type. Stereotypically, Middle Eastern dancers are depicted as voluptuous: big breasts, big hips, and fleshy. This image alone breaks from the ideal American woman of young and thin. In American Middle Eastern dance there is quite a range, an acceptance, and positions for all shapes, sizes, and ages. Though this is a source of pride for the American Middle Eastern dance community, it is also a universalized ideal. When looking at specific examples, not all positions can be filled by anyone. For example, professional jobs, though they are not as restrictive as in western ballet, do demand certain physical requirements. Some restaurants and clubs owners desire tall, young, pretty, and, or thin dancers. And in fact, on many occasions, a prettier less qualified dancer may be hired over a better, mature dancer. This situation in itself creates many problems, some of which demonstrate the lack of control dancers have over some settings and the influence of American popular culture upon this dance.

In "Western" thought, the mind holds a precedent over the body. And indeed, American Middle Eastern dancers employ their minds to studying the dance through writing, reading, and discussion. But this art form is primarily about reiterating the body, especially the female body. The body is a site of power for American Middle Eastern dancers and contains many ambivalences: where, according to Elizabeth Grosz: "The body is neither - while also being both - the private or the public, self or other, natural or cultural, psychical or social, instinctive or learned, genetically or environmentally determined."13 This definition blurs where the binary foundation begins and ends.

As I have already mentioned, American Middle Eastern dancers have crossed over into man's public arena by creating an area for women. From Mellor: "Upper-, middle-, and upper-working-class white women (who incidentally are the majority of public dancers in the United States) have historically been prevented from playing a full part in public life on grounds of their biology."14 Though perhaps not as prevalent today as 30 years ago when there was a resurgence in the dance, the fact that a woman has has moved into the public sector breaks away for traditional roles. But some of the spaces created look like a private one in many ways. Traditionally the dance is performed in intimate settings: someone's house or for a small gathering of people. In the United States, clubs and restaurants which do not have stages, recreate a similar feel. Even when there is a stage, a dancer usually at some point comes off of it and dances in the audience. This connection is an important and vital aspect of the dance. The improvised nature of Middle Eastern music and dance allows for a rapport to grow and for performer and audience to feed off of each other's energy. Some Americans may associate the close proximity of the dancer with the intimate connection people get at home with friends and family. In addition, there is the stereotypical image of the dancing girl performing for a sheik or sultan in his bedroom. Sexuality can also be emphasized in the costumes and movements which accentuate the taboo area of the hips, pelvis, and breasts (being the physical aspects which separate men and women). This leads to the dance to be viewed hyper-sexually by many people.

Middle Eastern dance is a visual expression of the lyrics and music. And because there is no narration, a dancer is not seen as playing a character. Thus the distinction between the performer's persona on stage as off stage become burred. This brings in the idea of citation by the performer of the role expected to see by the audience. Is the dancer able to manipulate the image? At a showcase performance, Marguerite, "dragged the guy out and I told him say, 'spank me mommy, naughty poodle' and he could not deal with it.... I do a lot of real outrage stuff sometimes when I am performing like that, ... a burlesque of it. Its so pushed over the top so its no way taken serious, because they're not going to let me artistic anyway."15 Through a reiteration of the stereotype that the dancer is sexual, dancers can use humor as a tool to take gender expectations to an point of absurdity. Halimeda: "Make fun of yourself and other people."16 Your repartee with the audience has to be quick. "You know that anything you do is not going to be taken seriously...."17 As both dancers have voiced, the audience may not take them as serious artists. Though the dancer knows she is mocking the image, the audience, especially if all they know is the stereotype, may not see the gesture. These citations in turn reinforce dancers with traditional female principles. People are there to see what they want to see: Aegela: "There dealing with an image in their mind, more so than the image they see in front of them.18 And in fact, according to Psychologist Walter G. Stephen: "...when people's behaviors are inconsistent with stereotyped-based expectations, they are liked less than when their behavior confirms the stereotype and ... that even as information that might counteract a stereotype is being encoded, other aspects of the stereotype are being strengthened."19

As previously mentioned, control over choice is important for dancers who are trying to break stereotypes: for dancers to decide where, when, how, and for whom they dance. The problem arises with trying to reach that position of being able to choose, especially for professional dancers who rely on the dance for a living. It is difficult to break the image when that is what you are being hired and paid. Zahra: "It's very hard to balance all of that out, it's hard to be a dancer, and be in the business that has been set up in America a certain way... it's very difficult to change it... and most people don't want to stop...."20 Many dancers may choose to perform in what they would consider a not ideal setting in order to make money or to promote themselves. Marguerite: "I also did because it's a job, and I am trying to earn enough money to get good advertising so I can pick and choose between the types of jobs I do.... I'm at the mercy, unless I want to do something else."21 Some dancers are able to arrange so they do not have to take every job, either through the support of another's income, holding another job, and, or teaching. Creating and performing at venues outside of the restaurant/club scene can be artistically rewarding for those feed up with the stereotypical image. Though typically not very profitable, these venues often created by dancers for other dancers allow them to experience a more idealized situation: one in which they have more power over how they want to present themselves and be viewed.

American Middle Eastern dancers deal with two types of women representations: the ideal image of an American woman and the stereotype of the belly dancer. Often by breaking one image, they reinforce the other. For example, by performing in the "male" arena, women are breaking from the private sector, but they are doing it with a feminine agency: one which celebrates the body and reinforces woman close to her body and to nature. Though American Middle Eastern dancers are subverting women's roles in American society, they are not escaping from the heterosexual matrix.

Through Butler's discussion about the subject can we see how the power in which we try to subvert also sustains our agency. "The subject might yet be thought as deriving its agency from precisely the power it opposes.... If the subject is neither fully determined by power nor fully determining the power (but significantly and partially both)...."22 And "Subjection consists precisely in this fundamental dependency on a discourse we never chose but that, paradoxically, initiates and sustains out agency."23 It is the heterosexual matrix which sustains much of the American Middle Eastern dance identity.

American Middle Eastern dance is intertwined with gender to such an extent that to remove gender would be to remove huge sources of strength and power for many participants. Though many concepts like femininity, nature, the body, and sexuality are constructed, does not mean we should ignore them, but examine them for information. According to Mellor: "Ynestra King, a social ecofeminist, does not assert a 'natural' affinity between women and the natural world, arguing instead that the socially constructed identity of women and nature could be consciously used as a 'vantage point' for 'creating a different kind of culture and politics..."24 By knowing our position and creation, American Middle Eastern dancers can understand where our strengths and weakness lie (often in the same place) and that this is where we can look to change our positions. Nancy Hartsock, via Mellor, argues "that the starting point is not women's experience, by virtue purely of their female embodiment, or women's experience as a subjective phenomenon, but women's experience as a historical and material relation, which may be built upon either by women themselves or by politically conscious activists (including men)."25

1. Mellor, 181-182.

2. Sexuality and our dance, 36.

3. Halimeda, personal interview, 1999.

4. Anaheed, personal interview, 1999.

5. Mellor, 115.

6. Butler, trouble, 9-10.

7. Mellor, 99.

8. Buck, .99.

9. Of the few books on the dance, most such as, Rosina-Fawzia Al-Rawi’s Grandmother’s secrets. The ancient rituals and healing powers of Belly dance (1999), Daniela Gioseffi’s The great American Belly dance (1977) and Earth dancing: Mother Nature’s oldest rite (1980), and Dahlena’s The Art of Belly Dance (1975) culminate around this unity. Articles mentioning this topic are endless.

10. Bulbeck, 21.

11. Dox, 7.

12. Cuomo, 133.

13.Grosz, 23.

14. Mellor, 72.

15. Marguerite, personal interview, 1999.

16. Halimeda, personal interview, 1999.

17. Halimeda, personal interview, 1999.

18. Aegela, personal interview, 1999.

19. Stephan, 45. See Costrich, N.J., L. Feinstein, L. Kidder, J. Maracek, and L. Pascale’s When stereotypes hurt: Three studies of penalties for sex-role reversal," Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (1975) and Jackson, L.A. and T.F. Cash "Components of gender stereotypes: Their implications for inferences on stereotypic and nonstereotypic dimension," Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (1985).

20. Zahra, personal interview, 1999.

21. Marguerite, personal interview, 1999.

22. Butler, power, 17.

23. Butler, power, 2.

24. Mellor, 104.

25. Mellor, 109.


Aegela, personal interview, February 19, 1999.

Anaheed, personal interview, February 16, 1999.

Buck, Elizabeth. (1991). Rakkasah: An American Middle Eastern dance festival. Recreating and re- creating self through the other. Unpublished Master thesis, University of California, Los Angeles.

Bulbeck, Chilla. (1998). Re-orienting western feminism. Women's diversity in a postcolonial world. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Butler, Judith. (1990). Gender trouble. Feminism and the subversion of identity. New York: Routledge.

----------- (1993). Bodies that matter. On the discursive limits of "sex." New York: Routledge.

----------- (1997). The psychic life of power. Theories in subjection. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Cuomo, Chris J. (1998). Feminism and ecological communities. New York: Routledge.

Dahlena and Dona Z. Meilach. (1975). The art of belly dance. New York: Bantam Books.

Dox, Donnalee. (1997). Thinking through veils: Question of culture, criticism and the body. Theatre Research Journal, 22, 150-162.

Forner, Michelle L. (1993). The transmission of oriental dance in the United States. From raqs sharki to "belly dance." Unpublished Master thesis, University of California, Los Angeles.

Gioseffi, Daniela. (1977). The great American belly dance. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

----------- (1980). Earth dancing: Mother Nature's oldest rite. Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole Books.

Grosz, Elizabeth. (1994). Volatile bodies. Towards a corporeal feminism. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Halimeda, personal interview, February 12, 1999.

King, Ynestra. (1992). Healing the wounds: Feminism, ecology, and nature/culture dualism. In Alison M. Jaggar and Susan R. Bordo (Eds.), Gender/Body/Knowledge/Feminist Reconstructions of Being and Knowing (pp. 115-141). New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Marguerite, personal interview, February 11, 1999.

Mellor, Mary. (1997). Feminism & ecology. New York: New York University Press.

(1998, June). Sexuality and our dance. Readers survey. Jareeda, 36.

Stephan, Walter G. (1989). In Daneil Bar-Tal, Carl F. Graumannn, Arie W. Kruglanski, Wolfgang Stroebe (Eds.), Stereotyping and prejudice. Changing conceptions. New York: Springer-Verlag.

Zuhair, Zahra, personal interview, February 11, 1999.

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