Profession or social practice?
It is probably common knowledge amongst sociologists of art that belly dancing as a social practice is based on more than meets the eye and the ear in terms of historical development. By discussing it as ‘social practice’ I refuse to consider it solely as a monetised activity (to dance and be remunerated for it by clients), thus allowing some space to reflect on the ways its performance in public enabled human interaction. Once the profession of migrant working-class women in Eastern urban cultures and in the emerging economic centres of the West alike (raqs sharqi and hootchie-cootchie as the sensation of the first nineteenth-century Expos and the nomadic groups of circus caravans; danse du vetre as the past time of French colonisers in Algeria and Tunisia), this hybrid form of embodied art or craft allowed its performers to acquire some sort of social presence.
We could, of course, connect the histories of belly dancing to the socio-cultural standing of its historic performers: as moving people, invariably female and less frequently male artists from the urban metropoles of the East, Spain and Northern Africa, ‘belly dancers’ were differentiated from the local aristocracy and the emerging middle classes, who progressively became their consumers/clients. But this is history; I am more interested in discerning how a different sort of differentiation and social exclusion would eventually develop in postmodern contexts into a technique of dialogue between gazers (consumers) and performers (professional dancers); and how performance itself is, today, a form of power over those who gaze, thus balancing a once unequal exchange.
Diachronic looks: belly-dancing as disenfranchised mobility
Note that at least until the nineteenth century (inclusive), in Eastern and North African urban consumption sites the so-called Ghaziyah (female dancers bearing the stigma of mobile invaders/outsiders, as the term denotes; or that of prostitution, as the term’s root in ghawa or enamoured means) would not be seen as reputable citizens. Their very movement and theatrical performance (though not presented in bikini attire but in costumes covering the whole body) was the negative equivalent of that of much-respected awalim (literally the educated women), the female story-teller or poet, singer and musician who could safely entertain an audience without risking accusations of obscenity (Buonaventura 2010). This phenomenon, which conforms to a hidden ‘aristocracy of the senses’ (hearing vs seeing, aurality/orality vs. visuality-with-kinaesthetic performance), is not what happens today in most developed contexts.
Image R. Tzanelli, 'Helena Bellydancer (Leeds, UK)'
Synchronic observations: beyond the trap of ‘professionalism’
I watch belly dancing these days and note how the professional dancer uses her body (around the midriff, the swinging hands and lifted legs) and her face (smiling, smirking, inviting or teasing) to tell a story; how people respond in various ways to the immediacy of her gaze and movement (exhilaration, pleasure, embarrassment or even lust); but, above all, how she commands a dialogue with her ‘clients’ that redirects their gaze and ear from any (wrongly perceived as) sexual innuendos to what truly matters: the skill. The focus on ‘skill’ both connects the dancer’s embodied movement and intellectual knowledge into one complex, which gazers cannot access or comprehend without effort. This is why many professional dancers are also teachers/instructors these days.
And then there is the question of what audiences get out of watching other dance. I would argue that what I primarily consume, amongst other people, is not a narrative of female sexual emancipation, but a demonstration of control over the means of communicating with strangers (or friends in the crowd). The Ghaziyah of old (or those still using belly dancing as a professional feminist statement against female oppression) would develop with the help of artistic movement a ‘speech situation’ conforming to what Spivak calls ‘answerability’ (Spivak 1988; Landry and MacLean 1996; Inoue 2006). Simply and contextually put, embodied story-telling would establish a connection with those watching the performance, alerting them morally to the presence of the dancer as a human being in the flesh, not different from them (for contemporary dance genres see Wieschiolek 2003; Keft-Kennedy 2005).
Bridging social distance through the immediacy of performance, Ghaziyah’s ‘answerability’ would create an imagined togetherness, even though in reality the dancer would be treated as of a ‘lower breed’ (Ong 1982; Bakhtin 1990:32). Contemporary professionals move beyond this limited objective: not only are they de facto humans, they substitute in consumption contexts the old awalim: because they possess the techniques of artistic mobility, appropriate ornamentation and athleticism, their story-telling is a priori that of an empowered subject.
Much can be said about the conditions of consuming the body per se, the site this takes place and the objectification of female dancers – especially, but not exclusively those who are not white. But race and gender hierarchies open up a new chapter, which does not provide straightforward answers to social representation and inequality, so I reserve such analysis for another time.
Bakhtin M.M. (1990) Art and Answerability, edited by M. Holquist, translated by V. Liapunov. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Buonaventura, W. (2010) Serpent of the Nile. London: Saqi.
Inoue, M. (2006) Vicarious Language. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Landry, D. and G. MacLean (1996) ‘Introduction’, in D. Landry and G. MacLean (eds) The Spivak Reader. London: Routledge.
Ong, W. (1982) Orality and Literacy. London: Routledge.
Wieschiolek, K. (2003) ‘Ladies, just follow his lead! Salsa, gender and identity’, in N. Dyck and E. Archetti (eds) Sport, Dance and Embodied Identities. New York: Berg.