This morning I searched Pinterest for “Vintage Belly Dance”, hoping to find images of dancers from the 1940s-1970s. What I mostly found, however, was late 19th-century photographs of women in fantasy Middle Eastern costumes, such as Mata Hari and her contemporaries. These images were labeled “Vintage Belly Dance”, but while they are indeed vintage, these women weren’t belly dancers. They were playing dress-up for a camera, or, like Mata Hari, they might have been courtesans (a fancy term for a high-class sex worker). Then I started thinking about the influences from which contemporary belly dancers, particularly those who associate with the tribal fusion stylization, pull for costuming and performance, and how to be informed practitioners of our art, that we could consider the context of these influences.
There are two ways to interpret the term “Orientalism”. The first is that of the art movement by European, mostly French, painters of the late 19th century, who specialized in “Oriental” (Eastern, mostly Ottoman, Middle Eastern, and North African) subjects. European men painted the majority of these works, and while some painted mostly accurate scenes of what they observed on their travels, they also superimposed their idea of what the Middle East should or could be. Sometimes they painted what they imagined to be true, such as the interiors of harems and female bath houses, which were and are realms from which men are forbidden.
The second, and more politically-charged interpretation is how the late scholar Edward Said used it in his seminal work Orientalism(1978). He described orientalism as a “fundamentally… political doctrine willed over the Orient because the Orient was weaker than the West, which elided the Orient’s difference with its weakness.” (Orientalism, p. 204). His argument is that by simplifying the Orient (for him, this meant mostly the Arab world), the imperialist western nations were able to exert political influence and label Arabs as “other”, uncivilized, and immoral. We see vestiges of this sentiment in stereotypes about the Arab world in how male Arabs (and Muslims) are labelled either as violent terrorists and/or “backwards” and technically-challenged religious extremists, and female Arabs are depicted as nubile slaves and harem girls who lounge around in waiting for their sultan or as sultry femme fatales who use their exotic wiles to tempt unsuspecting Western men (such as in several James Bond movies). (Parenthetical aside: reference to Said’s book does not mean I agree wholeheartedly with the entirety of it.)
So what does this have to do with us?
Many belly dancers want to learn how to dance, perform in a beautiful costume, and feel good about their selves and their bodies, goals which I believe are positive and innocuous, at least on the surface. However, belly dance is not just a movement vocabulary or a path to greater self-esteem. It is a dance from a region with a gnarled and complicated history with Western Europe and the United States, and part of our education in this dance must include an awareness and, at the very least, basic knowledge about those relations. As non-Middle Eastern people performing a Middle Eastern dance, we have cultural responsibilities.