Belly Dance And The Feminine ImageAdd to favorites
History shows us through paintings that the veil came to symbolize the untouchable and tantalizing appeal of women in the Middle East. To show just a little part of the body was alluring enough to cause men to pine for women’s affection. If we look at 19th Century paintings of various scenes of women dancing, the look of the belly dancer is quite refined. The distinctive folds in the belt or the accessories from the ankle all the way to the headpiece tell the individual story of each dancer. This is how dancers from the past to the present set themselves apart from their contemporaries.
I can remember seeing “Cleopatra” starring Elizabeth Taylor for the first time and thinking how beautiful the costumes were and how much fun they would be to dance in. “Samson and Delilah” with Hedy Lamarr is my all time favorite biblical movie and her costumes inspire me even to this day. Claudette Colberts costume in the 1934 “Cleopatra” looks like a costume of today. Hollywood had very unusual ideas about what the women from the Middle East wore. But if we look back through time the belly dance costume really hasn’t changed all that much. This really surprised me because as I was doing my research it became apparent to me that when you have a good design it’s hard to improve on it.
Recently I danced with a wonderful group of performers who were Asian dancers. Their costumes were amazing and I have to admit that I felt a little out of place in my cabaret costume. Their movements were very subtle and their gestures very soft and poetic. Which made me wonder what kind of poetry would belly dancing be? When it was time for me to perform I realized that our music really says a lot about our image. My costume was like magic because it made me feel free enough to dance and tell our story within my movements and gestures. In some ways I felt an obligation to relate to the audience that what I do as a dancer and performer is serious and respected.
But I have to question why I even felt the need to defend my costume and dance form. The dancers with their movements almost seemed to speak to me teasingly asking me why I wasn’t covered more. Maybe I was just hearing my own voice questioning this. After I finished my dance the response I received overwhelmed me. It became apparent to me that because of the difference of my costume and dance the audience was able to appreciate the culture that I represented. Costuming really does make the difference for people. It’s almost as if the audience can see the story within our movements all the while watching our costumes accenting each word danced through our bodies.
Years ago when I was in Cairo I was able to see Zuhair Zaki dance live and as I look back I realize how lucky I was to have seen such a legend perform. Zuhair Zaki is the total sum of what the belly dance image is for me. Every movement told a story and helped me “hear” the music. I was taught a very good lesson that night because I saw what a masterful dancer can do with music. I also saw Zuhair Zaki become the essence of belly dance as she performed. It wouldn’t have mattered what she wore or where she was. The spirit of the dance was in her and you could see it and feel it. These are those spiritual moments that change you forever!
A few weeks later I saw Dina perform and was totally surprised at the sexual innuendos that emanated from her dance. The image of belly dance changed that night for me because I had assumed that provocative gestures were not allowed. Actually let me take it a step further, I didn’t think it was necessary. But somehow Dina made it work for her and as I watched her performance I saw that she did a wonderful job. Her sexuality never got in the way of her performance. It enhanced her movements and I understood at that moment that Dina chose to dance free of any inhibitions or restraints her world put on her.
As a modern woman I often wonder how close my image is to women back hundreds of years. Our evolution as women has never been more evident than in the belly dance world. If we look at the dance of the seven veils the removal of the veils represent seven earthly illusions that fall away with each veil. In order for us to become the total feminine archetype in myth these veils must fall from us so we can transcend into the Goddess. As with all myths I wondered what these seven veils of illusion were because I had a suspicion that we may still be portrayed within this myth today. It became apparent to me that each illusion had an opposite side to it. So here’s my version of the seven illusions.
1. The Virgin-Temptress
Many dancers have both abilities to enchant their audiences by offering the untouchable innocence of movement combined with eye contact that teases with a fleeting look.
The ability to captivate our audience is a major part of our story telling but with all stories we must tell the audience that what intrigues them is only an illusion. This in itself can be perceived as a deception because we work so hard on the illusion that at moments it may become real.
3. Mother-Sex Goddess
Both of these describe the dilemma all women come across through out their careers. While we dance as women who understand what it means to carry and give life we are also expected to be proficient in the art of love. The illusion for most people is that we can be both but they want the two separate.
4. Wise woman-Childlike Innocence
The knowledge a dancer puts in her performing sets her apart from the average dancer. Knowledge is power and our movements speak volumes in regards to our history. The illusion here is that while we dance with experience our audiences to a certain degree want a virtuous dancer that will give them an unsullied look at our dance.
In our dance we are compelled to perform from places of the heart. At least some of our music has this impassioned theme in certain songs. As women we feel the need to complete ourselves which is why we search for our mate. The mistress on the other hand is compelled to search outside of this completion which in itself is the wife’s mirror opposite. We distance ourselves from the mistress personification yet in the eyes of our admirers the hope is that they get a glimpse of her.
Poetry and music speak of the dancer that takes her audience to places of sublime heights. As dancers we are the muses of our times. At the same time we experience the audience that doesn’t understand our dance and they try to alter it to fit their perception of the world. We than become a misunderstood version of our own poetry.
7. Diva-modest maid
A dancers self confidence has to come across to the audience or they will be sorely disappointed. Many fans expect a confident woman during and after shows. Yet I have found that dancers can almost believe too much in their personas that they create. We can get caught up in this illusion just as much as anybody. The catch here is to know when to turn your dance persona on and off.
As belly dancers we inspire so much in people and our allure isn’t just the pretty costume, it is what we signify as women.
My question is do we understand what it is that we represent for so many? I have worked with a few women who were disassociated from their body image. They had no clue how beautiful they were because they bought into mixed messages from the media and cultural attitudes. How comfortable are we in the position of the archetype for today’s women? If we can’t get past the door of self appreciation, than I don’t see us in the forefront of today’s feminine society. Let us not forget how immeasurable we are as women. Our dance helps us create our own personal myth in which we than can escape into our own feminine image.
I have often wondered that after creating our feminine image, do we than transform gradually into her? Isn’t this really what belly dance does? We heal and than become the women we are intended to be. This is how I believe the essence of belly dance lives and thrives through each generation of women. If we can understand our own image than we can be living examples of what belly dance is and the veils of illusion than become nothing more than invisible restraints that disappear through our own transformation. In this sense we than are reborn into women, who are comfortable in their own body, mind and spirit. And there is no better way to express our dance than by embracing who we are and dancing with veils of our choice.