Belly Dance Photography, Sexuality vs Sensuality

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belly-dancer-leyla-najma-feather-headress-barebackThere’s a saying that states a picture is worth a thousand words. If so belly dance photography could fill volume upon volume. Every dance generation had their look that represented the mind frame and issues of their time. Photography can tell us so much about our history and show us how far we have come and how far we still have to go. Either way, women have always had the ability to cause a stir when it comes to posing for photos.
If you look at Mata Hari, she was a woman ahead of her time but she also paid the price for her eccentric and bold behavior. Are we still paying the same price even to this day? If Mata Hari knew her demise would she have continued life as usual? Would any of us today change how we present ourselves if we knew the cost down the line? These questions led me to look at our dance image in photography and how influenced we are by society standards and our own.

For what purpose do we photograph ourselves? Is it empowerment caught forever in a photo or is it a moment where we allow ourselves to be sensual women? An image can provoke many emotions within society. The big question is what responsibility do we have to society to represent an image that is acceptable and respectable. The belly dance costume throughout history has become a symbol portraying us as the seductress or temptress. Let’s look at Salome for example. The chance that she “belly danced” was slim because of the etiquette of her day and dancing like she is portrayed in movies would have ruined her chances for marriage. But history says she belly danced and requested to have John the Baptists head cut off. Belly dance through history became an accessory with
Salome when in fact her dance style would have been more acrobatic. My point is that many artists through out history have painted the famous scene of Salome dancing which ultimately made her a symbol of seduction. So a painting or photograph can be a powerful influence on the minds of society. This can also lead us to contradictions regarding our image. How can we have a respectable image when our legacy is already tainted?

Cleopatra embodies all the elements that most women thrive to achieve. Her name alone can cause the imagination to run wild. Is this not the same reaction we want people to have when they see our photographs? If you look at websites and magazines you will see a variety of photographs of various dancers in sensual poses. A dancer can convey many messages with her body positioning which can lead the viewer to think her message isn’t just sensual but sexual. So photographs are used to get a certain message across to as many viewers as possible. So what happens when our message is portrayed in a well thought out photograph and the end result is not sensual but sexual? Where does sensuality and sexuality cross? The definition of sensuality is; the capacity for enjoying the pleasures of the senses. The definition of sexuality is; the state of being sexual.
So what if the two were combined together than that would mean that we enjoy our sense of being sexual. Is this bad? Cleopatra was aware of her sexual influence and as a woman ruler she used this to her advantage. In our day and age don’t we do the same but in a different way?

Isadora Duncan wrote:

“Virtuous people are simply those who have not been tempted sufficiently, because they live in a vegetative state, or because their purposes are so concentrated in one direction they have not had the leisure to glance around them.”

Isadora Duncan was also ahead of her time because she had many relationships and was an unfortunate drunk in her later years. The one thing I noticed about Isadora Duncan is that her personal life never showed in her photos and she was a true artist to the end (tragic as it was). So in Isadora Duncan’s case, her message was never misunderstood just like with Cleopatra. The difference is one used her sexuality and the other used her sensuality. Either way the image of both women whether it is in paintings or photographs depict images that invoke women from all over the world to try and emulate them. So what this says to me is that we want a little bit of both when we create our photograph image.

Our individual images in photographs are a big part in selling our dance ability to the masses. How do we choose an instructional DVD if we are not familiar with the teacher? The front cover says so much about her ability as a dancer and teacher. So when I worked with my videographer for my first instructional DVD, we decided to use a photograph with me dancing with a color format that would appeal to the eye. The artistry behind creating any image is essential in having a photograph that impacts our target market. So in the end we are selling both our dancing and our image. Both have to appeal to the masses in order for us to be a success.

Joseph Jaworski states:

“We do not describe the world we see, but we see the world we describe.”

How far can any belly dancer push her image and make it acceptable not only for our community but for the outside world? If too much sexuality is shown in a photograph does it affect the way our community sees the dancer? The reason why I am asking is because there can be so much insinuated in a pose. A seductive look can imply something that never crossed the mind of the dancer.
Anyone can make a photograph mean and represent whatever they want it to.
So what a dancer says in a photograph is powerful and can affect many people.

A William Shakespeare quote says it well:

“There’s language in her eye, her cheek, her lip,
Nay, her foot speaks, her wanton spirit looks out
at every joint and motive of the body.”

Society can create a double standard for anything it wants. Is our image as dancers facing this double standard not only from society but from our own community? Back in the 1960’s and 1970’s the LP covers were very provocative especially in regards to the poses of many of the belly dancers. Some of the costumes had slits up the thigh showing only skin and see through skirts and there is even a dancer with no skirt on at all. We don’t dress this way today and costumes of today have a more designer look to them. It’s evident that our fashion sense has changed through out the years but how about our attitude toward provocative poses and skin? As women in a very unique and ancient dance form I feel it is important to show in photography how we have changed through out history. These photographs are “our” lineage and they show the world what and who we are. Perhaps because of issues with self image and the Playboy era we have wanted to say, “We are different”. We don’t have to take our clothes off in photographs to get across that we are sensual and sexual women. On the other hand I myself love photographs that show a part of a leg or shoulder and the back.

As Mae West once said:

“I speak two languages, Body and English.”

So perhaps without knowing it we have taken all of our trials and tribulations as women and found the perfect outlet to express our feelings and thoughts about the world around us. Dance expressed through the body demonstrates those wordless poems that can only be conveyed with emotional and passionate motion.
Photographs that capture these emotions through movement, poses and attitude, than become timeless and a way we make “our” mark on the world.

Agnes De Mille:

“To dance is to be out of yourself, larger, more beautiful, more powerful. This is power, it is glory on earth and it is yours for the taking.”

When I’m on stage I often feel naked because all of me is being expressed through my dance. So my image on stage is many things including the sensual and sexual. Today I have found peace with both therefore my photographs show the viewer the woman that I am and the dance that I represent. Photography shows how comfortable I am with myself. So do we critique photographs by how comfortable or uncomfortable we are with our own body image? It’s only natural to do so. In the end how we view photography says a lot about how we live our lives and feel about ourselves. There is no right or wrong way to view photography. And since your body is a representation of your life impression, photography is what you want it to be. One of my favorite quotes says it well:

Religion says: The body is a sin.
Science says: The body is a machine.
Advertising says: The body is a business.
The Body says: I am a fiesta.
Eduardo Galeano

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About Leyla Najma

Lifelong professional Belly Dancer dedicated to providing “Belly Dance Instruction That Is Easy To Understand And Learn That Connects The Dots”

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