“Ye to sirf prostitutes karti hain”
(It’s a dance done only by prostitutes)
I was dumbfounded one morning when my boss made that scathing statement while we were discussing how we spend our weekends pursuing our passions. He further went on to share some unsolicited advice on how I should “Do it only in front of my husband or boyfriend.”
I was infuriated by this crude ridicule of the integrity of the art I love and my soul felt agitated. I would have made a snide remark about his caveman mindedness if, at that instant, the demure girl in me wasn’t forced to reconsider the choice made a year back.
I reminisced. I had, with great enthusiasm, consciously chosen to learn belly dancing as a way to explore and express my femininity. Initially, I was skeptical about participating in an experience that is assumed to be sexually exploitative but was immediately struck by contradiction. For the first time, I appreciated my body for what it was able to accomplish physically and aesthetically.
It felt so good. The doubt transpired. It transfigured into an urge to spread awareness about the art form and address the stigma attached to it.
‘Belly Dance’ is a popular improvised version of Raqs Sharqi, a dance form originated in the Middle East that involves undulating and serpentine movements of the torso. Highly recognized by the image of a voluptuous woman in a sequined costume and bare midriff performing such movements.
It originated as an art form passed on from a mother to her daughter to prepare the womb for child birth and was often performed at social gatherings.
Then how come along the way an art with such sacred origins came to be known as disreputable, something no proper women would indulge into and it was shameful for men to watch as well.
“Belly dance exists at a point of conflict between women’s expressions of fundamental truths, and patriarchal interpretations of this expression. It is not an easy place to be”, Andrea deagon phrases it well. It is these points of conflicts from which we can alter realities.
While for women the dance was a way to express emotions and a creative outlet to reconnect with their sensual selves which are an intrinsic aspect of the human state.
The patriarchal era viewed women as a potentially disruptive force and their sexuality considered dangerous, due to the assumption that men are unable to resist their powerful lure.
The cruel patriarchal norms thus gave rise to a stereotype of belly dancers as sexually available, morally questionable, exotic unveiled dancer, an antithesis to restrained Muslim womanhood.
Moreover, when the west started to colonize the Middle East, it attached the element of exotic to it. Failing to understand the movement vocabulary they wrongly perceived it as something sensual and irrational. It was soon shunned as a dance that arouses carnal desires in men.
Because men cannot control themselves against women’s allure, they put the responsibility on women instead. Are there any other reasons why it would be so intrinsically wrong for women to express their sensuality in public?
I would say belly dance is transgressive because it destabilizes social assumptions that women should not (publicly) shake, or draw attention to their breasts, hips, abdomens, and especially their pelvises.
Today, women around the world are taking it up and you ask them why?
To go beyond the comfortable into what stretches, challenges and revitalizes the mind. It helps them to tap into their physicality, reconcile with their body, feel liberated and foster a spirit of sisterhood.
It is sad that such an expressive dance form remains so misunderstood by a majority of the society and because of my unabashed love for it I can only hope the world soon comes to embrace it.