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Two Representations of American Middle Eastern Dance

By Laura Osweiler (Amara)

Presented at the Second International Middle Eastern Dance Conference - 2001

The representation of the dance as feminine comes in two forms: one held by American mainstream society and the other by its practitioners. The first, built upon dominant patriarchal-colonial ideas, is the belly dancer: a voluptuous woman wearing a skimpy outfit, whose "aim," due to her loose virtue, is to make money by sexually enticing male patrons through erotic movements.1 The second representation, though also tied in with the patriarchal representation (i.e. constructed in opposition to), has a strong feminist foundation. Here, the dancer's image of herself has grown out of explorations and expansions of women's roles, in particular, by American, white, middle-class women. 2 In this context, the dance has been constructed as one for all women, regardless of ancestral background, age, body type, or talent.

According to theories put forth by Judith Butler, these representations structured upon a system of laws, such as colonialism and gender, are maintained by participants. Their actions based upon arbitrary rules, solidify over time into inner essences, naturalness,and identities.3 By congealing, these systems hide their construction through accumulating historical weight and thus protecting their power bases. But on closer inspection, repetition and citation, in fact, brings in room for slippage, fluidity, and instability into these systems. Through examining the construction of the two representations can one see characteristics solidify into essential principles and agents and others into subversive practices. By digging into the juxtapositions and points of contradictions can one explore the difficulty dancers have in reconciling the stereotypes with their own multi-dimensional views as women, artists, and entrepreneurs.

Both dancer's representations grow from colonial power over the Oriental Other, though their employment of it is for different purposes and outcomes. Generally, male colonialists' aims are to control and dominate both the Orient and women by speaking for them. For example, Edward Said writes: "Flaubert's encounter with an Egyptian courtesan produced a widely influential model of the Oriental woman; she never spoke of herself, she never represented her emotions, presence, or history. He spoke for her and represented her."4 Of course, Flaubert did more than speak for the Oriental dancer. By including descriptions of Hanem's dance and their sexual encounters, Flaubert associated the Middle Eastern dancer with sex. And by probing and opening up the often closed women's sphere to the West, Flaubert and other male Orientalists also blurred the difference between life on- and off-stage. But women colonialists, in this dance's context, incorporate and appropriate the Oriental Other into their sense of self-identity. Because the Oriental Other is a means for Western patriarchal resistance, the differences between the East and West are pushed aside for the unity of a Universal Woman's dance. Thus silencing the Oriental Other's voice. Once white, American, middle-class women took the Oriental Other into their own identity; it became their job to represent it to Western culture. Amy Koritz makes this point regarding the Early Modern dancer, Maud Allan and her work, The Vision of Salome. Koritz writes that because Allan was a Western women who became popular through using the Oriental Other (and I would add as there were no renowned Middle Eastern dancers in the West), her dancing "reaffirms the West's superiority, since it takes a Western woman to understand and represent the essence of the East...."5 A more recent example can be seen in the 1970s. Though during this time the American-Middle Eastern dance scene, including nightclubs and Renaissance Fairs, was inundated with American participants and thus creating an all time high in notoriety, awareness, and popularity, national Middle Eastern dance company tours like Reda's Egyptian troupe in 1972 and Turkish FOTEM in 1976 6 failed to gain notice in the United States.

In order to subvert the male colonialist's image professional American-Middle Eastern dancers find ways to legitimize their work. Their position is to not only to resist male patriarchy through appropriating the Oriental Other but also to gain power within the Western patriarchal system without losing their middle-class position or being absorbed completely into the powerless Other. To further break their art from low-class standards and sex appeal, practitioners downplay their sexuality by aligning themselves with positive middle-class values. Rules of professionalism are the main ways for American-Middle Eastern dancers to legitimize their performances in the male public arena.7 Because dancers' on- and off-stage personas are often blurred, to project an off-stage persona dancers maintain a social barrier8 from the audience and owners.9 With regards to on-stage behavioral rules and actions, perhaps the most controversial aspect of professionalism is the manner if, and how, a performer accepts tips: collecting it in a basket or plate; having it thrown over the dancer's head; or placed in the costume. There are other issues involved in tipping besides breaking the male representation. One has to do with accepting or rejecting tips as a sign of admiration for the dancer by an audience member. But more importantly is the economic factor because tips are a major source of income for many dancers. The dancer's gaze can also be a means to disrupt and dismantle the male voyeuristic position of the audience and the male representation of the dancer. As the audience is often in close proximity, interacting verbally, smiling, looking at the women, and saying something funny are import aspects of communication and shows an active participation by the dancer. Though a dancer does run into the possibility of being usurped into the male gaze in which her look is seen as a flirting gesture in the audience's mind.

Much of American-Middle Eastern dance's legitimacy and defiance comes from a space created by women for women. In turn, the new space encourages women to explore and perhaps even re-imagine themselves in an environment where male domination is not so prevalent. From the standpoint of womanhood, American-Middle Eastern dancers look for a history and future outside of the male-centric arena. The emphasis on promoting a women's history stems from the belief that the phallocentric point of view is only the partial truth and that women's (and other group's) experiences need to be heard.

Power in the community comes in the form of camaraderie based on shared experiences and kinesthetic awareness amongst participants. Because audience members have either taken classes and, or performed in community venues, (women) spectators can relate to the performer on a visceral level. The experiential quality found in this woman's sphere is depicted in the writings and art work of visiting Western women who related their own social positions and status with women in the Middle East. But it was the Early American Modern dancers and Delsartean practitioners who really created this foundation. Through these movements forms, American women were able to explore new social roles and attitudes. Much of this was accepted by upper-class society because members were able to practice and perform in their homes and for other women. Their performances for each other lead to the creation of an amateur dance life-style still prevalent in the American-Middle Eastern dance community.

Another means to achieve legitimacy is to exchange sexuality with the Oriental Other's spirituality. For American-Middle Eastern dancers (and Early Modern dancers), re-connecting the dance to ancient religions and myths gives dancers historical power and precedence and differentiates the portrayal of their bodies on stage in a more respectable manner from the lower class hootchy-kootchy dancers and strippers. This type of spirituality also put dancers in touch with strong goddesses and heroine figures.10 An example of this can be seen in Ruth St. Denis's work. Deborah Jowitt writes: St. Denis "would achieve the Oriental outlook by identifying herself with a figure who already had it, a figure who could personify her ideal inner self. In the East, she knew, the gods danced. By casting herself as various goddesses, beyond human desire, she could stand for the enlightenment she sought."11 The Other's spirituality also serves as a reaction against patriarchal religions and hopes to show that there are other ways to live.12

Many middle- and upper-class white American women (who are the majority of professional dancers and proponents of the dance), are drawn to American-Middle Eastern dance's image of a strong feminine women. Some women have come to realize (learn) there is a gender imbalance in their lives and looks towards Middle Eastern dance's feminine agency to balance it. These participants feel the patriarchy has denied them this femininity and that it needs to be "re-"newed. This denial or suppression depends upon feminine qualities assumed to have existed prior to their denial, which leads the notion of femininity to be essentialized. This essence is thus rendered as ahistorical, never changing, and as something, which all women possess.

As a defense mechanism, women practitioners protect their women's space by maintaining and reiterating rules from the heterosexual gender binary system. This gender separation protects the female dance from intrusion and domination by men. It also leads to the feminization and limiting of male participants. Though men are feminized does not mean there is not a maintenance of gender division with in the dance. For example, Staged-Folkloric dances tend to maintain strong gender barriers13, which is partly due to the distinctions made in the authentic dances and the influence of ballet's aesthetics. The feminization of men is stronger when male performers enter the space constructed by the male colonialists' representation as feminine (i.e. nightclubs).

Drag is an interesting component of gender in American-Middle Eastern dance, which is often left undiscussed. The acceptance of drag within the American-Middle Eastern dance community depends upon which gender is performing. Women are accepted as cross dressers because they are making fun of male domination and are taking on masculine characteristics as their own. But men in drag are a different issue14 because they threaten the women's space. This fear stems from several reasons. One is that men in drag are perceived as making fun of women. For women who feel they are not taken seriously and are looking for respectability, men in drag are making this process harder. But more substantial is the issue of men entering the arena as a "female" and taking over opportunities of women representing themselves. But perhaps the most impending aspect is the transsexual's ability to play with gender expectations.15 The drag persona threatens not only concepts of masculinity and femininity but also the whole heterosexual matrix as it demonstrates the fluidity in which gender roles can be transposed to the other.16 But this subversion is not necessarily a complete success as drag also re-creates the distinctions between these two genders. The drag belly dancers reiterates that this is a female dance, and in order for a man to do it, he must become a female to the farthest capacity he can.

Many dancers complain that the image of American-Middle Eastern dance has not changed in the past twenty to thirty years. This is due in part to the dancers' unquestioning acceptance of essentialized notions of femininity based upon the heterosexual gender binary system. Though the emphasize of this woman's dance as a point of solidarity has been beneficial for some, the community has neglected to examine how the dance intertwines ethnicity, social class, and gender. Though there are accepted differences, members of this community do not often acknowledge that participants are made up almost exclusively of white middle-class women and that very few Middle Eastern women participate in the community. bell hook criticizes the white, middle-class second wave of feminism of which American-Middle Eastern dance rose and where it currently sits. She writes: "Their (white bourgeois women's) version of Sisterhood was informed by racist and classist assumptions about white womanhood.... Their version of Sisterhood dictated that sisters were to 'unconditionally' love one another; that they were to avoid conflict and minimize disagreement; that they were not to criticize one other, especially in public."17 Chris Cuomo has also criticizes this position on sisterhood. She 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."18 hooks does call for unity based on shared beliefs and goals but "[we] do not need to eradicate difference to feel solidarity.... We do not need anti-male sentiments to bond us together, so great is the wealth of experience, culture and ideas we share with one another."19

Over the past thirty years, American-Middle Eastern dance has gained an amount of acceptance by the general public. There have also been great strides in documentation, research, and dissemination of information in the dance community. Practitioners have also created a space, which cultivates tools and actions to subvert the dominant patriarchal society. Though many concepts like femininity, the body, and sexuality are constructed, is not to deny that people feel solid and essential characteristics. Nor does it completely undermine the power placed in femininity and women. But by knowing our positions and constructions, 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. Getting back into body politics, according to Janet Wolff, needs "not [to] depend on an uncritical, ahistorical notion of the (female) body. [But b]eginning from the lived experience of women in their currently constituted bodily identities - identities which are real at the same time as being socially inscribed and discursively produced - feminist artists and cultural workers can engage in the challenging and exhilarating task of simultaneously affirming those identities, questioning their origins and ideological functions, and working towards a non-patriarchal expression of gender and the body."20 What I want to reiterate is that construction, essentializing, and usage go hand in hand. And it is in their connection and conflicts which makes this such a dynamic and wonderful dance to study, perform, and teach. This is also where the community needs to explore, dig, and unpack, in order to continue its process of changing women's positions in society. American-Middle Eastern dancers should use its strength and power already in place to expose, explore, and gain new sources of solidarity for even more powerful positions. We also need to exert our power within the dominant culture by coming together and examining what, why, and how we are doing things. What do we wish as a group to accomplish?

1. These images of the dancer is an accumulation of the author's experience and five interviewed dancers: Anaheed, Halimeda, Marguerite, Aegela, and Zahra.
2. This is not to say there are no Middle Eastern dancers in the United States but immigrant professional dancers are rare. For example, out of the dozen teachers I have had, only one is an immigrant from Egypt. Though there are no statistics, there are many more non-Middle Eastern dancers than dancers who can trace some part of their family's lineage to the Middle East. And for those who can trace parts of their lineage, their responses and actions are Americanized.
3. Butler 1990b, 33.
4. Said 1978, 6.
5. Koritz, 141.
6. McGowan, 5-6 of Chapter IX.
7. These rules were discussed by the interviewees and observed (and employed) by the author.
8. Orbe, 17. Maintaining barriers: "Imposing, through the use of verbal and nonverbal cues, a psychological distance from dominant group members."
9. At times in Egypt, Raqs al-Sharqi dancers were encouraged to sit and drink with customers, as the performer received a percentage of the drinks' profits. At other times it was against the law for them to sit with audience members.
10. See Serena 1972; Dahlena 1975; Gioseffi 1977; Aradoon 1979; Buonaventura; Delilah 1997
11. Jowitt, 137.
12. Bulbeck, 21.
13. This area definitely needs to be explored further with Laban notation and description.
14. Aradoon 1979, 173.
15. Meyer, Moe 1992, 72. Meyer writes an interesting account of a transsexual (one who has undergone a sex change), Jeannie and her persona of Jeannie from I Dream of Jeannie. The context of her stripping routine is critical to the way she is perceived. In a non-gay club, her transsexuality is never revealed, but in a "drag show, it is the transsexual body, not the female body, that becomes the object of the gaze."
16. Butler 1993, 237.
17. hooks 46.
18. Cuomo, 133.
19. hooks, 65.
20. Wolff 1990, 138.


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