Saturday, July 31, 2010


National Public Radio (NPR) recently did a story on the conservative reaction of women in the American Arab Community in Detroit to belly dancing. Many women interviewed had daughters or other relatives learning or actively belly dancing in and around the Detroit area. I wasn’t surprised that most of these women were adamantly dead set against the American or European version of this dance and thought the amount of strategic exposed skin and the seductive movements highly improper and inappropriate behavior. Many of their daughters, nieces, etc had been discouraged from the dance and some even censured for it. I thought to delve further into what has become a major phenomenon in the United States and most western countries.

First of all, “belly dancing” is a western term and mostly fostered and romanticized in the 18th and 19th centuries and introduced to America at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. The dance caught on, became more risqué and a staple on the vaudevillian circuit. Then along came Hollywood and film and the rest is history. As sexual and suggestive as many appreciative Americans think belly dancing - it is nothing more than a middle eastern/north African Family inspired activity that appears to have been originally intended only for the eyes of the women of the clan.

There are a lot of theories about the dance that attribute its origins to just plain entertainment or the remnants of an ancient eastern folk dance. Perhaps it is the result of all the above though we are well assured that this form of dance has been thoroughly romanticized, reinvented for Europeans and Americans and even reintroduced back into the Middle East where its movements and presence are not wholly welcome. The dance is still performed there but generally with more clothing than we Americans would accept or expect… So, while we apparently can’t be certain about the origins of the dance, this writer personally believes the Family inspired theory that it is a dance performed by women for women.

In the United States we now see belly dancing performed as entertainment in many Middle Eastern restaurants, clubs and hookah bars. Sometimes the “men folk” of these restaurants seemingly chose those establishments as nothing more than an indulgence and opportunity to appreciate the female form undulating to supposed ancient rhythms and movements. Many dancers learned their skills at dance studios or even exercise clubs where the benefits of the dance are obvious.

Belly dancers Kaya and Sadie from Denver, Colorado made the finals of the 2010 version of America’s Got Talent and with their stunning performance drew rave reviews from Judges Piers Morgan and Howie Mandel (who wanted more) not to mention thousands of admiring male and female fans on the Internet. Sadly Kaya and Sadie were eliminated from the competition though Howie understandably wanted to take both Kaya and Sadie home with him…

We need note also the presence of the famed American professional dance troupe – the Bellydance Superstars - who were formed in 2002 by famed producer and manager Miles Copeland of BTM, I.R.S. Records and Sting fame. The troupe has toured the world to rave reviews for six years including Europe, Asia and Africa including Morocco where they played in Marrakesh, Casablanca and Rabat. Word is still out on whether they will play Middle Eastern hot spots in Egypt and Syria (how about Iran?) where Copeland hopes to sow the seeds of American goodwill. We do earnestly hope that his admirable efforts will bear fruit.

Now, I am a big fan of Middle Eastern cuisine (right hand only – please) and am well beyond the basics of pita bread, hummus, and baba ghanoush. While in the southeastern US I frequented several Middle Eastern and Mediterranean restaurants owned and operated by Middle Eastern businessman and restaurateurs. I was pleasantly surprised with the attendant belly dancing. The dancers were all friendly and would even talk with restaurant patrons after their performances.

All the girls appeared to be of Middle Eastern descent. Of course, I had to ask where they learned to dance. Much to my delight and perhaps the harbinger of an additional breakthrough diplomatic strategy that could end the thousands of years conflict in the Middle East was their collective answer. They had all learned to dance at the local Jewish Community Center. Hmmm.


Ned Buxton

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