Women and the Cultural Reality of Belly Dance

The Cultural Reality of Belly Dance_

Our history as women depending on where we live is intrinsically and culturally different yet we experience the same political and social problems that plague us all just in different ways. I think women in our particular dance form have the tendency to overlook the reality of various cultures   diluting the truth of what dance is literally like in some Middle Eastern countries. The need to embody an alternate image sometimes imbeds itself into the forefront of the esthetically deprived imagination or one that prefers fantasy over reality.

When I lived in Egypt it was the first time in my life that I felt like a minority because of my gender and faith. It was an eye opener especially when I found myself getting into trouble unintentionally.  For instance, I was at a Government building, standing in the wrong line (didn’t know it) to buy stamps and mail letters off to my family. I unfortunately paid a price for standing in the men’s line. I heard a lot of talking behind me but I was so busy writing the letters that I didn’t pay any attention. When it was my turn to walk up to the man behind an open window, he flat out wouldn’t sell me stamps and he made it clear that he wanted me out of the line. I looked behind me and then to my right and saw the women’s line but by the time I had reached his window I was hot, tired and I had been in line for over an hour. I started to talk loudly and ended up grabbing the guy’s shirt pulling him towards me making my point clear he was going to sell me some stamps. Two women came up to me and pulled me out of the line and to the front of the women’s line to the right. Everyone was shouting at me as I walked away and I of course being a hot headed American woman yelled back. Everyone wanted me gone which I didn’t blame them. The government worker for the women’s line was obviously a woman who gave me my stamps in a hurried manner and the women who helped me out all pushed me away telling me to run. I saw soldiers coming towards the front of the men’s line and knew I was being told to go for my own good. As I turned a corner, I looked back and the men talking to the soldiers were pointing in my direction so I started to walk faster and grabbed a cab.  This little scene happened because of a segregated mind set that ultimately could have cost me because I didn’t pay attention. In moments like that you can’t say this is wrong because what is wrong for one person is different for another.

Even with Egypt being a cosmopolitan city I found that protocols were very important to know and respect. Though I found that I should have just left the line and bought stamps another day, I also realized that as a woman I felt that my right to go where I wanted was definitely limited and I didn’t like it.  I don’t necessarily dance that experience or share it much because in the reality of my dance image, it doesn’t fit. Living in Egypt and dancing Egyptian Cabaret have to have something in common or my image will be inconsequential to what I really do represent. That experience isn’t part of the magic that I feel when I dance but in many ways it is an integral part of my identity as a woman. That day was a definite example of two cultures clashing as well as two genders opposing each other.

I think with problems within certain countries, specifically those that influence our dance, we have to understand that we derive not only their history but cultural values and expectations. It didn’t occur to anyone on that particular day when I was in the wrong line that anything was wrong with their system. It became an issue because of my cultural upbringing. People are cultivated within their environment and that plays a huge role into their mind set and habitual way of living. So what I am saying here is that we have to look at the reality of what we represent besides our preferred view of what we portray.

It seems here at home I tend to occasionally defend my dance form from a depraved mind set that doesn’t allow for much explaining. So while I was in Egypt I had to allow for social restraints on my gender based on a religious and patriarchal society and here I tend to defend my gender from social prejudice based on a combined misunderstanding of morals and facts.

An experience in the last restaurant I danced at led me to believe that even though we live in a world full of diverse cultures it seems that most people stay boxed in their own safety nets of what the norm is. For example I was performing for a huge party, one that was full of drunks who talked and laughed so loud other patrons complained. One of the gals got up from the groups table and said she could dance just like me and started to do a strip dance in front of everyone. They of course all started to laugh and I stopped dancing immediately standing in the background until she was finished. She then said in a booming voice, “See there’s not much difference between belly dancing and stripping.” I looked at the restaurant owner and he at me and at that very moment we both decided that my show was over. How could I come back and dance for a table of people that decided what the facts were regarding what I did. I realized educating drunks at that moment was going to be a waste of time. The dance was a joke to them and sometimes even when people think they are civilized they can come across as uncouth and not even know it.

So it occurred to me that we have to understand the psychology of people no matter where we live. It broadens our horizons and makes us view the world in a more academic way so that we understand and become more tolerate of cultural differences. We are the envoys that connect cultures and people together. So even though we all have a fantasy or a need to create a dance image she needs to be a representation that is up with the times concerning the country she represents. The original root form of this dance is world wide so dance with a flying carpet mentality that allows for you to travel or read up on current events. If we all keep up then we all become stronger emissaries in a dance form that inspires and in some ways educates people all over the world. Just remember as women in this dance form we carry the torch for women who either live their lives with outside constraints or live their lives with idealized falsehoods of their own feminine image. Either way, we have to understand enough about the world we live in to be symbols for women in relation to the feminine image that lives with no constraints and embodies the matriarchal strength of generations.

The Ancient Greek aphorism, “Know thyself” can be a warning to pay no attention to the opinion of the multitudes but for me as a dancer I would have to say, knowing myself means understanding the times I live in. A torch that is passed by informed dancers ensures a future generation that accepts the responsibility of their past history all the while knowing their part is to keep their history up to date and alive with a tolerant mind.