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Dancing Around Orientalism

Donnalee Dox

Orientalism and La Danse Orientale

Edward Said warned against accepting Orientalist images of reclining odalisques, dancing harem girls, and mysteriously veiled women without interrogating the foundations of these images in Western intellectual formulations (1978:20304). Though Orientalism has its limits as an analytical paradigm, adaptations of belly dancing in the West clearly engaged a system of representations grounded in those formulations.1 Barbara Sellers-Young and Anthony Shay (2005) have shown in detail how Western belly dancings costumes, staged scenarios, aestheticized veiling, performance of sensuality, and associations with spirituality Donnalee Dox is Associate Professor in the Department of Performance Studies at Texas A&M University. She is the author of articles on theatre in the intellectual traditions of medieval Europe which have appeared in Theatre Journal, Theatre Survey, Viator, and The Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism ; and The Idea of the Theater in Latin Christian Thought: Augustine to the Fourteenth Century (University of Michigan Press, 2004). She took her first belly dance class in 1990 and has since published essays in Theatre Research International and Belly Dance: Orientalism, Transnationalism, and Harem Fantasy, edited by Anthony Shay and Barbara Sellers-Young (Mazda Publishers, 2005).
TDR: The Drama Review 50:4 (T192) Winter 2006. 2006 New York University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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and femininity draw on and sustain the fascination with a hidden, mysterious East that Said identified. The Orientalist fantasy of secluded, sensual women that in particular marked the Easts alterity to European culture in the 19th century remains a foundation of belly dancings appeal to Western practitioners and audiences today.2 Paradoxically, however, Western belly dancers themselves often interpret Orientalist images as a celebration of alternatives to Western patriarchy, materialism, and logocentrism (see Said 1978:207). If European colonial gazes saw in the harem and the veil repression, cultural backwardness, and frustrating secrecy, contemporary Western belly dancing transforms these same images into testaments to corporeality, the persistence of ancient wisdom in the modern world, and the uncontested value of open self-expression. Western belly dancing challenges the Orientalist frame in that it critiques Western culture by giving positive value to Orientalisms critiques of the East, but at the same time validates the Western ideologies and aesthetics at the very core of Orientalism.3

Othering the Middle East

As it has developed in the West, belly dance combines footwork, movements, costumes, and performance conventions from a wide range of Middle Eastern and North African social, folk, and ritual dances with those of professional Egyptian nightclub dancing (often referred to as cabaret dancing). Today, the common names belly dance, Oriental dance, la danse Orientale, and Middle Eastern dance are all used to refer to this syncretic genre, with traditional Egyptian raks sharki as the most prominent stylistic component. Belly dancings history and popularity in the United States can be traced to the late 19th century.4 For the 1893 Chicago Worlds Fair Midway Plaisance, Sol Bloom promoted versions of Egyptian, Persian, Moroccan, and Tunisian dances, which gave rise to the then-scandalous danse du ventre performed in vaudeville houses, burlesque shows, and on film. By the 1920s, variations of Middle Eastern social and folk dances, with the addition of veils, had entered the private sphere of Western salons as a form of exotic artistry and self-expression, a vision reinforced by stage performers such as Ruth St. Denis and Maud Allan.5 In the 1960s and 70s, belly dancing reemerged out of feminist efforts to claim and express womens sexuality. The growing popularity of belly dance generated a pedagogical taxonomy of movements (Tunisian hips, Turkish backwalk, basic Egyptian, belly roll, etc.), which parsed Middle Eastern dances into individual movements for studio teaching and gave belly dance credibility as a legitimate dance form. American tribal belly dance, a distinctive genre drawing on images of heavy drapes, pack animal tassels, and turbans associated with nomadic peoples, developed in California during the 1970s and is still popular.

1. For critiques of Edward Saids Orientalism (1978) and Culture and Imperialism (1993), see MacKenzie (1995:815 and 2031); Turner (1994:612); Kramer (2001:2743); and Dallmayr (1996:11516). 2. For more on the Wests alterity to the East, see Tavakoli-Targhi (1994). 3. The Melbern G. Glasscock Center for Humanities Research at Texas A&M University supported on-site research for this project. 4. For popular sources on the transmission of belly dance to the West, see Buonaventura (1990); Carlton (1994); and Wilson (1994). 5. On Maud Allans portrayal of Salome as an icon of British imperialism and sexuality, see Koritz (1997) and Walkowitz (2003). Dancing Around Orientalism

Figure 1. (facing page) Dream Dancer. Shadia in the odalisque pose. This picture was hung in the entrance of an Afghani restaurant in St. Paul, Minnesota, in the mid-1990s. For Shadias current work, see <>. (Photo by Neimaha)


The construction of a Middle Eastern Other through this culturally eclectic dance varies with the venues that contextualize a performance. In Western cultures women can dance comfortably in venues ranging from gala studio shows and dance camps to arts festivals, Renaissance fairs, and Middle Eastern, Greek, and Afghani restaurants where Western women, standing in for the Other, lend authenticity to the dining experience (see Gray 2002; Stavrou 2002; Deagon 2002; Wilkinson 2002). Subgenres such as spiritual belly dance, goddess dancing, bellygrams, and belly dance workouts adapt belly dance to other trends in New Age spirituality, fantasy entertainments, and fitness. At another level entirely, belly dance, as a studiotaught art form in and of itself, yields sophisticated, well-researched concert performances by Middle Eastern dance companies, such as the Jawaahir Company in Minneapolis. Master teacher-performers, (New Yorkbased Morocco [Carolina Varga Dinicu] is a good example) take great care to emphasize the cultural contexts and regions of origin for the social and folk dances they choreograph for the Western concert stage. In Saids paradigm, however, even the artistic explorations and preservationist efforts of these and other dancer-researchers, such as Aisha Ali, Laurel Victoria Gray, Elizabeth (Artemis) Mourat, and Leila Haddad cannot escape exoticizing the Middle East as they reconstruct and experiment with traditional dances of Middle Eastern cultures on Western stages for Western gazes.6 No less than Orientalist paintings, the ethnology of 19th-century Worlds Fair exhibits, and early 20th-century European travel writings, these permutations of Middle Eastern dance play out a desire to know the East by transposing it into Western modes of representation.7

While Western belly dance reproduces an aestheticized, imaginary vision of the East and its women, its popular practice warps the Orientalist frame by making the dancer the subject of experience rather than the object of a gaze. Andrea Deagon, a classics scholar and professional dancer whose essays on belly dance have been influential in constructing a discourse for practitioners, summarizes a widespread understanding of belly dance as an expression of the instincts of the soul by means of the body. Belly dance, she writes, offers an escape both into oneself and beyond ones time and place as the spiritual and carnal merge. Belly dance offers women an alternative aesthetic to that promoted in Western cultures in which evocation is more meaningful than argumentation, [and] excitement is more effective than persuasion. In the practice of belly dance, women can resist the Wests logocentric orientation, which values the mind over the body, order over chaos, [and] male over female. Belly dancing evokes
Donnalee Dox

Figure 2. A Harem Queen outt, described as dancewear for the modern Mata Hari. Featured as Item P9254, from the Pyramid Collection Catalogue of Personal Growth and Exploration. (Photo by Jonathan Lanman)

6. For issues in cross-cultural dance and Western adaptations, see Trimillos (1995); Segal (1995); and Reed (1998:51112). 7. For a compilation of Orientalist travel writings, see Mabro (1991).


eternal forces, which must be balanced with respect for the wisdom of the Middle East (Deagon 1997:910). Following Deagons formulation, the very qualities that once were judged to mark the East as culturally inferior to the Westfemininity, spirituality, secret wisdom, preindustrial culture, corporeality, and nonlinguistic communicationbecome a promise of cultural progress. Performing this cultural alterity is vital in Western belly dance, though its popular practice in the West, and often the discourse on belly dance created by practitioners, tends to erase ethnicity, class, and national culture as categories of difference.8 In its popular practice, belly dance is broadly construed as a form of personal expression rooted in a kind of liberal humanist feminism and governed by notions of womens experience as universal. Belly dancing is often described by practitioners as a natural expression of gender that is unique to women, with gender understood to be a stable, heteronormative category (see Mohanty 2003:10623; Deagon 1999). The Orientalist critique of womens seclusion as the mark of a backward culture does not come into play in the contemporary discourse on Western belly dance. Claims of belly dancings liberating effects (psychological and physical)of its potential to reveal ones self to ones self (often interpreted as spiritual wisdom), of the dance as a celebration of womens bodies and childbirth, of the dance transcending political and social systems, of belly dancings undulations and sensuality as an alternative to the skinny bodies promoted in Western advertising and fashion, and of the importance of experiential wisdomreplace both the fears and modernizing impulses embedded in Orientalism. Beyond the representation of an exotic East and the perpetuation of Orientalist imaginings, this reversed hierarchy gives belly dance a very precise value for its Western practitioners. Dancers frequently describe connecting to, controlling, displaying, and appreciating their own bodies in direct relation to cultural alterity. Maya, for example, speaks about masquerading as a Middle Eastern Other in terms of a physical expression that leads to self-awareness. MAYA: [What appeals to me is f]reedom of movement, express[ion], flow, grace. The workout and body strength Ive obtained, the total connection between body and mind, total awareness of joints and muscles. Expressing myself, expressing my inner joy. The costumesjust like playing dress up. (2003) Self-awareness here requires finding ones self in the Other as represented in the Orientalist frame. For Kasia, belly dancing and its costuming allow for an expression of sexual power, which connects directly to a positive self-image. This dancer places herself within the Orientalist painting as a seductress, but makes herself the speaking, feeling, dancing subject, rather than the object of an anonymous male gaze: [I like] the energy and the learning of your inner you [,] the fun flirtation and seduction you can do. This dance has given me confidence in myself as a person (2003). For many women, belly dancing generates a sense of power, presumed to be unavailable in other dance genres. Comments like these also feature prominently in newspaper articles reporting on the popularity of belly dance, which present and explain the dance as a form of exercise, cultural exploration, and self-expression to a broader Western public (see Cooney 2002; Duenas 2002; Finan 2004).
Dancing Around Orientalism

8. For the discourse that reflects and constructs belly dance among practitioners, see print and electronic venues such as Habibi: A Journal for Lovers of Middle Eastern Dance and Arts ; Arabesque: A Journal of Middle Eastern Dance and Culture ; the online Middle Eastern Culture and Dance Association (MECDA) list, <>; and the website <>, which offer discussions of technique, style, history, cultural contexts for dances, the authenticity of specific dances, choreography, music, spirituality, feminism, performers, performances and competitions, and topics such as resisting sexual objectification.


But the relationships between the physicality of any dance form and potentially oppressive social or cultural conditions that affect it are themselves paradoxical (Reed 1998:521). Belly dancing is particularly fraught in this regard. It offers an escape from a tyranny of exacting standards for body images promoted in Western fashion and media. Monica, an Australian dancer, says that belly dancing counters what she calls the harshness of the Western body image: [Y]ou have to be close to yourself, you have to know every part of your body. And once you do that, you cant be harsh again (2002). But while popular discourse sets belly dance against such perceived constraints in Western culture, it paradoxically celebrates belly dancing as an expression of a universal feminine, which Western culture is thought to repress. The ease with which a woman can display her body in public is itself a cultural value and it is not universal. Women belly dancing in public in the West lacks the social stigma public dance carries in countries where costuming and performance venues have been governmentally regulated (Egypt), where dancers have been marked as prostitutes (Turkey, Iran), or where public dance has been banned for periods of time (Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt, Turkey).9 As Cassandra Shore, founder of the Jawaahir Company, observes, most Arab Americans (except Egyptians) tend to dissociate themselves from their traditional dances (2003). New York dancer Morocco also notes cultural differences in the perception of womens public dancing: [I]ts totally OK [] for [Arab] women to display themselves in spontaneous, improvised raks sharki in socially acceptable and family settings. But put on a costume in front of strange men for money? Absolutely not! (2003). The emphasis on the open display of sexuality as a demonstration of womens self-empowerment is, in part, a function of Western representational practices. Arab American women, as Barbara Sellers-Young notes, frequently describe women as artful dancers when they perform with reserve and quiet joy in which their sensuality is focused inward. An aggressive display is often read as a Western form of expression [] outside of the communitys normative structure (2003:5). Egypts tradition of venerating top nightclub performers, such as Nagwa Fouad, glamorizes the image of the professional belly dancer in the Middle East for Western practitioners. But as Said pointed out in Homage to a Belly-Dancer, his obituary tribute to Egyptian dancer and film star Tahia Carioca (d. 1999), the theatricalized sexuality of Cariocas American imitators denies the evocative subtlety of the dance. Western imitators fall short of the restraint and inward focus characteristic of Egypts star performers (Said 2000:349). The overt performance of exotic sensuality, overplayed as it might be in the West, is exactly what many Western women find appealing and liberating about belly dance. The rhetoric of empowerment also requires dissociation from the notion of belly dance as a contemporary cultural function. Working dancers in Egypt, who comprise a social and economic category far less appealing than that of star performers, are less worried about Orientalist misrepresentations of belly dance in the West than about the treatment they receive as professionals in their own society (van Nieuwkerk 1995:1). Raja Amaris 2002 film Satin Rouge received widespread attention among Western belly dancers for its depiction of a Tunisian widows sexual reawakening as she learns to dance for money in a seedy club. While the film reinforced belly dancing as a means to the end of self-awareness, it set that selfawareness against a backdrop of degrading working conditions and social stigmatization.10

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9. See Mydans (2002) on the case of the Pakistani dancer and political activist Sheema Kermani, who performs for private gatherings rather than risk government censure. 10. On the status of women entertainers in Egypt, and on belly dancing and prostitution, see van Nieuwkerk (1995:12832; 4560). On the changing status of women in Egypt, see Hatem (1996). On the social status of Moroccan shikhat dancers and the transformation of shikhat performance from a cultural symbol of shamelessness to a symbol of national diversity, see Kapchan (1996:181-211).


Figure 3. The Jawaahir Company in the dance Ya Wahiba, performed in Minneapolis, Minnesota, July 2000. From left: (standing) Khalila, Toha, Tina, Zulaika, Risha, Elena, Zana, Dorothy, Jemorah, Anna; (kneeling) Naima and Lilah. (Photo by Blue Diamond) Western women who present Egyptian cabaret dancing as culturally authentic, modeling their image on that of star performers, gloss over the status of most professional dancers in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East as low-class, hired entertainment in clubs, at weddings, in tourist venues, and for private parties.11 Western belly dancers are not automatically consigned to this kind of social marginalization, precisely because a Western gaze codes belly dancings display of sexuality as Other, outside Western social and cultural norms. The use of the terms danse Orientale and Oriental dance to refer to belly dance also serves to distinguish belly dancing from forms of professional Western erotic dance and stripping, even as they evokes the odalisques, harem women, concubines, and dancers who Flaubert, Delacroix, Ingres, and other Orientalists depicted as sexual entertainers.12 At the same time, the term Oriental dance avoids acknowledging belly dancings associations with stripping or prostitution in countries such as Lebanon or Turkey (Helland 2001:131). Western dancers are much more likely to identify belly dance with ancient Mesopotamia or Persia than with modern-day Iraq, Iran, or Saudi Arabia, and to link belly dance with ancient rituals as a way of situating womens sexuality outside of Islam and Christianity, as well as social, economic, and political conditions (see Christopher 2000). The discourse on belly dancing can thus present and value it as an eternal, timeless womens dance that escapes any religious, political, or cultural systems that might impinge upon a broad concept of womens freedom.13 For practitioners, belly dance (to recall Deagons words) takes one beyond ones time and place, and also beyond identification with a social or economic class of women in the Middle East. Masquerading as a Middle Eastern Other in a studio gala or restaurant also sets a Western dancer safely apart from identification as a Western stripper or prostitute.
Dancing Around Orientalism

11. For a discussion of the stigmatization of lower-class venues and dancers in Egypt, see van Nieuwkerk (1995:6165, 12930). 12. On representations of exotic Others in dance forms, see Reed (1998:509). 13. On Western freedoms and stripping, see Hanna (1998).


Nevertheless, Western dancers who perform in public settings are often acutely aware that while they understand themselves to be expressing a sense of empowerment in the performance of exoticized sensuality, they are likely to be read as sexual objects in a Western gaze. How the masquerade of the Eastern Other, which is central to that sense of empowerment, contributes to that reading is virtually absent in the popular discourse.14 It is not uncommon to find reproductions of Orientalist paintings on display in Western belly dance studios, where they provide inspiration despite their European provenance and perspective. Western dancers find themselves performing this cultural Other and playing into Western expectations of authentic belly dance. So deeply is the Orientalist paradigm rooted in the Western consciousness that dancers themselves are often unaware of the extent to which the qualities they value in Middle Eastern dancesensuality, mystery, exoticism, femininityhave already been constructed through a history of Western, male representations. Western practitioners of la danse Orientale continue to dance around Orientalism.

Inside the Harem and Under the Veil

To insist that Westerners cannot talk about non-Western practices is to advocate a selfdefeating, helpless relativism, writes Nancy Hirschmann (1992:42). Political action for women, she suggests, requires a willingness to interrogate cross-cultural expressions of womens devaluation. It would seem that Western belly dancings claim to speak for universal womens experience flies in the face of meaningful cross-cultural expression or critique. Still, a pervasive sense of womens devaluation is prominent in the discourse on belly dance. Rather than marking a frustrating absence, as they did for the Orientalists, the harem and the veil become symbols of womens presence, value, and visibility in Western belly dance. Ultimately, however, the imagery reveals more about Western culture than about an elusive, authentic East. Meyda Ye eno lu, working through Foucault, Lacan, and Derrida, locates the Orientalists fascination with the harem and the veil in the colonizers inability to see the authentic East. Orientalist judgments compared veiled women with the relatively free women in European cultures. The resulting obsession with concealed women, writes Ye eno lu, led to an overrepresentation of Oriental women in an effort to evade the lack posed by a closed inner space. [] The more the Orientalist subject has tried to know and conquer the zone of darkness and mystery, the more he has realized his distance from authentic, real knowledge of the Orient and its women. [N]ostalgia for the real Orient [] motivates the Western subjects irresistible urge to enter this forbidden space. (1998:73) There is no such psychological frustration in Western belly dance. If an imperialist gaze found the secluded harem and the prohibitive veil to be impediments to knowledge of the Orients women, belly dance uses these same tropes of concealment to authenticate and celebrate womens real bodies out of a profound nostalgia for self-knowledge. British crossover singer Sarah Brightman spins a romantic fantasy of alterity and seduction in the title song of her CD Harem: I hold your Eastern promise close to my heart / Welcoming you to my harem (2003). This is the harem the Western belly dancer enters. It is not the Orientalists dark, mysterious void, but an idealized community of women into which men mayor may notbe granted access.15

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14. See Deagon (1999) on the commodification of womens performance, the subversive potential of belly dance, and a plea for dancers to interrogate the working conditions and the gazes that construct their dancing. For the cultural norms that organize specific body parts as sexually charged, and the belly dancers movements of hips, shoulders, and torso as acts of defiance, see Stavrou (1999).


Ironically, Western belly dancings overrepresentation of the East through theatricalized costumes, movements, and makeup compensates not for the Orientalists inability to see the East, but for Western womens sense of being invisible in Western culture. The harem and the veiled body do not impede knowledge of the Orient, but become the very means by which the wisdom inherent in the Middle East (Deagon 1997:10) can be accessed. The studio mirror reflects this imagined harem; a stage performance reveals it to an audience. The desire to embody this Middle East writ large on the stage becomes a demonstration of ideas about self, individuality, and freedom that are grounded in Western formulations (see Hirschmann 1999). While the harem and veil, as markers of the Easts cultural alterity, license womens exoticized self-expression, the acceptance of their bodies on display is what ultimately makes that expression possible. A Western dancer performs the truth that the colonial gaze could not find. Performing the wisdom of the Middle East in the West occurs at the intersection of the excitement a colonial mentality generated around womens seclusion and a simultaneous need for transparency. At the site of a Western womans belly-dancing body, tropes of concealment mark the dancer as an Other who should not be visible, performing for eyes that should not see her. But the truth she reveals turns out to be the harem of the Western imagination. The Mistress of Ceremonies at a 2003 gala show in Houston, Texas, referred to the harem as a forbidden place as she gave the audience a knowing look and a sly wink. Her suggestive smile implied nothing less than a breach of the imaginary haremand fulfillment of belly dances promise of sex. Popular discourse on belly dance idealizes the harem as a space where women dance together independent of men and free from a male gaze. This imaginary harem offers a conceptual alternative to Western patriarchy. Gender segregation, which Western liberal values would otherwise cast as repressive, becomes a utopia. Polygamy, generally considered an oppressive practice, need not intrude on the empowering image. The idea of a laconic, erotic harem evoked by the Mistress of Ceremonies quoted above is itself largely a Western creation.16 Harem, from the Arabic haram, meaning both forbidden and sanctuary, traditionally refers to the rooms of a dwelling set apart for women in a wealthy household, or more generally to all women living in a single household (Mernissi 2001:1213). Across the chasm between Eastern and Western conceptions of the harem, as Fatima Mernissi observes, only the Western image offers anxiety-free sex: [] Muslim men represent women as active participants, while Westerners such as Matisse, Ingres, and Picasso show them as nude and passive. Muslim painters imagine harem women as riding fast horses, armed with bows and arrows, and dressed in heavy coats. Muslim men portray harem women as uncontrollable sexual partners. But Westerners, I have come to realize, see the harem as a peaceful pleasure-garden where omnipotent men reign supreme over obedient women. [] The tragic dimension so present in Muslim haremsfear of women and male self-doubtis missing in the Western harem. (2001:1516) Belly dancings imaginary harem allows women to construct their sexuality independent of a male gazewomen dancing for womenbut the context is heterosexual. This Western male gaze is, as Ye eno lu points out, always and already imagined in the field of the Other (1998:44). Men might be absent from the imaginary harem of belly dancing, but the dancers conventional flirtatious gestures, choreographed winks, and suggestive facial expressions assume a male gazewelcoming you into my harem.

Dancing Around Orientalism

15. Leila Ahmed, in contrast, finds that the West has its own harems in the structure of university halls. She recalls Girton College, in Cambridge, U.K., as a version of the community of womenthe haremas I had lived it every summer in Alexandria (1999:18183). 16. For accounts and analyses of harem culture, see Mernissi (2001:1128), Farmaian (1993:348), and Ahmed (1999:99105).


In one sense, the contemporary Western belly dancer places herself in the position of the female European traveler, writing within the harem among its women and purporting to speak its truth. Unlike the female Orientalist travel writer, however, the Western belly dancer does not privilege everyday domesticity, but instead exoticizes harem life and embellishes the dancer along the frustrated sightlines of the colonial, male gaze (see Lewis 1996:12790). She dances not as a witness to the inner workings of the harem, but as an embodiment of the Orientalist fantasy of relaxed and uninhibited sexuality. She constructs the dance itself as a product of uninhibited pleasure and beauty, with herself at its experiential center. If Western belly dance, like the Orientalist canvas, overrepresents the harem as a place of mystery, it simultaneously reveals a self that is constructed by Western values. The performative display of female sensuality so valued in Western belly dance presupposes the Western preference for openness and transparency that Ye eno lu discusses. A Western dancer voluntarily entering, exposing, and exiting from the imaginary harem also transgresses both the cultural realities of harem life and the fantasy of a forbidden inner space.17 Belly dancing exposes that interiority to multiple gazesincluding the gaze that looks back from the studio mirrorwhich have already imagined it. By exposing the harem as a place where sensual women dance while they wait for sex or liberation, the Western dancer who stands in for the East gives the fantasy the status of the real. The idea of a harem as a community of women also creates an environment in which women have inherent, positive value, even though the psychological liberty of the Western belly dancer (as well as her simulacrous performance) is ultimately predicated on the Western fascination with impenetrability and invisibility. The self-presentation of the Western belly dancer as forbidden cultural Other offers a protective shield that is unavailable to strippers, exotic dancers, or for that matter, most professional dancers in the Middle East. But that shield also preserves an Orientalist frustration: In her guise as the Other, the Western dancer must remain inaccessible. If Western belly dance has internalized the image of the harem that Mernissi describes as distinctly Western (and male), a strange passivity is automatically built into the harem fantasy that belly dance evokes. Despite the liberal humanist cast to belly dancings womancenteredness, the idea of the harem reinforces (even desires) a patriarchal social order. Like the image of the odalisque, the harem fantasy romanticizes womens subordination, which undermines the sense of liberation the physical movements of the dance offer, the opportunity for self-exoticism, and the fascination with an imagined cultural alterity.18 Veiling, like the harem, is also a powerful metaphor in the Western imagination. A colonial mentality made removing the veil vital because unveiling and thereby modernizing the woman of the Orient signified the transformation of the Orient itself (Ye eno lu 1998:99). This desire surfaces in seemingly innocuous metaphors in Western discourse. A 2003 opinion piece by Paul Krugman, as one example, described tax cuts as a fiscal dance of the seven veils in which pretenses would be dropped one at a time to reveal the true face of a political agenda (2003:A23).19 A narrative of revealed truth also structures a belly dance routine. A Western dancer who begins veiled in the first section of a standard routine (often referred to as taksim in the West rather than magensi ) sets up the expectation that she will eventually reveal her body. Veils will be removed in a slow, elegant display that is thought to distinguish danse Orientale from striptease; then, as the performance progresses, veils offer choreographic options for creating elaborate shapes and patterns around a dancers body. This aesthetic derives in part from the stylistic legacies of Mata Hari, Ruth St. Denis, and Isadora Duncan, as well as the image

Donnalee Dox

17. On the harem as womb, see Ye eno lu (1998:92). 18. For more on the Western fantasy of passive women in the harem, see Mernissi (2001:89116). 19. For a discussion of Salome and the dance of the seven veils as a traditional trope of revelation in Western belly dancing, beginning with Oscar Wilde and Richard Strauss, see Deagon (2005).


of Oscar Wildes Salome. The idea and image of wrapping and revealing the body, however, became an integral part of belly dance with its reemergence in the 1960s and 70s (Deagon 2005:25253). But if Orientalisms perception of the Islamic veil as deceptive mask turned the Oriental woman into an enigma in the 19th century (Ye eno lu 1998:44), that enigmatic, Othered persona still gives the Western belly dancer her cach today. The costume veil allows Western performers to stand in for a real Middle East, although it is essentially a Western innovation not traditional in the Egyptian raks sharki. It serves as a marker of cultural alterity, veiling a dancers Western identity with a fantasy of Otherness.20 But as popular discourse on belly dance repeats over and over again, the Western dancer reveals the truth of her own self, not that of the Orient. Because the Western belly dancers veil is a stage prop, it can circumvent the complex realities of veiling as a cultural and religious practice. Immediate cultural referentsdifferences between required veiling in Saudi Arabia and prohibitions on veiling in Turkey, for exampledrop away in belly dancings overrepresentation of a generalized East. In Orientalist thought, however, the veil became a perplexing barrier to truth: [I]f [Arab women] wear a mask, or masquerade or conceal themselves, then there must be a behind-the-mask, a knowledge that is kept secret from us. The mystery that is assumed to be concealed by the veil is unconcealed by giving a figural representation to this mask and to the act of masquerading as an enigmatic figure. However, what is thus unconcealed [] is the act of concealment itself. (Ye eno lu 1998:45) Exposing the mechanism of concealment allows Western belly dance to rework this Orientalist problem with veiling. Unveiling becomes a volitional act in which the dancer performs the Western desire to know what is beneath the veil. Though the Western dancers gaze appears to come from the Others side of the veil or from within the harem, her performance requires that she must also be seen. A desire for transparency and openness organizes an aesthetic play of visibility and invisibility, according to Western ideological formulations.21 By engaging fantasies about unknown bodies and cultural practices, belly dance appropriates the image of the Eastern Other to fashion a Western self. I feel I cannot be myself, Iranian Zahra Eshraghi remarks regarding the hijab: Its not the true me, I have to wear a mask (in Sciolino 2003:A6). The belly dancers costume veil, masking the Western dancers cultural identity, signifies part of the experience echoed in Eshraghis words. I wear the veil [nikab] because it is a law, Italian Muslim Sabrina Varroni says: It is an obligation of my faith (in Fisher 2004:A3). If Western societies view veiling as an unmitigated fountain of oppression against women (Sabbagh 1996:xxiii), how does discarding a costume veil onstage position the values of women who choose veiling in everyday life? In practice, choosing not to display ones (female) body in public can itself be an affirmative gesture that reinforces emotional and psychological autonomy (Hirschmann 1999:43, 47), offers privacy (El Guindi 1999:82), preserves family honor (McDonough 1995:131), demonstrates resistance to sexual permissiveness (Kapchan 1996:19395), and organizes social hierarchies. Reasons for veiling can range from overt coercion (state-mandates and cultural police in Afghanistan, Iran, and Algeria) to modest social pressure with an overt emphasis on womens individual choice (Hirschman 1999:42). Speaking of veiling in Islamic countries is thus as universalizing as speaking of women (45).

Dancing Around Orientalism

20. For a European example of the social complexities of the hijab and its interpretation in the West, see Moruzzi (1994). 21. For a cross-cultural comparison of the ideological valuations of visibility and invisibility, see Ahmed (1999:95).


Belly dancings aestheticized, iconic representation of veiling as generically Middle Eastern or Arab or Islamic betrays Western formulations as intricate as those of the harem in the Western imagination. Because the veil has been such a powerful symbol in Islamist revolutionary movements, its relationship to Western concepts of womens agency, freedom, and mobility remains double-edged. A view of Islam as a source of womens inequality and oppression continues to make the veil a mark of gender inequities. From the earliest resistance to British and French colonialism in the Middle East, taking on the veil demonstrated opposition to European rule, while abandoning the veil signified complicity with Western values, even as imperatives to veil or not veil remained a demonstration of social control. As cross-cultural feminist analyses show, Western efforts to liberate non-Western women from veiling only reinscribed womens bodies as symbols, replacing one method of control with another, and denying women a language of resistance and agency not only by introducing Western concepts of individual rights and freedom, but also by demonstrating the frequent inadequacy of these to Eastern social-cultural contexts (Hirschmann 1999:43). In her analysis of National Geographic photographs, Veils and Daggers (2000), Linda Steet demonstrates the conceptual leap veiling demanded, and continues to demand, in relation to Western expectations of transparency. One of the National Geographic photographs Steet reproduces from February 1980 shows a topless European woman sitting on a Tunisian beach with her back to the camera, as a (presumably Tunisian) man walking by in front of her gazes at her exposed breasts. National Geographics text, and the visual text of the photo, describe European visitors as free-spirited, in contrast to the Tunisians who fail to maintain proper decorum in the face of seaside nudity (2000:146). A contrasting 1973 photograph from Algeria shows two veiled women walking toward the camera, as a male figure in the background watches them from a distance (151). The photographs caption describes the Casbah as representing shadowy romance to outsiders (152). With these and other photographs, Steet makes the point that National Geographics uncritical presentation of near-nakedness as free-spirited, and veiling as shadowy, reveals nothing less than an intellectual formulation that values the overexposed woman over the underexposed woman (147). If Steet is correct, Western belly dancing performs the same value hierarchy. The rationalist discipline of the Western mind goes awry in its desire to penetrate and expose what it imagines is hidden under the veil (Ye eno lu 1998:43). If the Western mind feared a veiled body, the neotraditionalist Islamic mind fears an unveiled body. In the imagined West of neotraditionalist Islamic thought, physically exposed women mark a culture of rampant and unrestrained sexuality (McDonough 1995:129). At this extreme, the display of the female body so valued in Western belly dancing suggests uncivilized decadence and chaos. 22 In the postmodern West, however, a belly dancer is neither a threat to the rationalist discipline of the (male) European subject, nor to a neotraditionalist social order predicated on keeping women out of the male gaze. Rather, she is caught in the tropological excesses of the veil, as it moves from cultural practice to symbolic prop. Western belly dance essentially translates the state of being in Islamic dress (muhegabiyya)wearing the burqa, chador, nikab, or hijabinto an opportunity for declaring physical freedom and open sexuality without penalty. If the idea of womens veiling in daily public life is perceived as oppressive, then shedding a costume veil becomes an act of liberation automatically, and contra the popular discourse on belly dance, becomes associated with an industrial, secular, progressive West. This process becomes a demonstration of presence, one that wants to expose a body reclaimed by modernizationthe imagined ancient body redolent of the wisdom that Deagon describes, and the fully, freely exposed body of the modernized West. This is the paradox. What Western dancers consider an act of resistance against Western

Donnalee Dox

22. See the summary of neotraditionalist Islamic thought and its approach to the West, based on the writings of Mawlana Mawdudi, in McDonough (1995:129).


cultures harsh demands on womens bodies, to use Australian dancer Monicas word, is made possible by the cultural value placed on transparency, openness, and, as Steet points out, the willing exposure of the body. As much as the popular discourse on belly dance in the West emphasizes the unity and sameness of women across cultures, the discarded veil automatically validates the unveiled body as the preferred norm. While belly dancing might provide a means by which women can perform resistance to aspects of Western culture, the satisfaction and appeal of the dance depends on Western concepts of self, autonomy, visibility, and womens rights. When the last veil is dropped, it reveals a Western self.

Dancing between Orientalism and Terrorism

The attacks on the United States on 11 September 2001 prompted that exposed Western self to rethink belly dancings place in American culture. From an uncritical fusion of Middle Eastern and Western aesthetics, and rhetorical formulations of womens sexuality and selfexpression, dancers confronted the national, cultural, political, and religious identities that belly dancing suddenly and unavoidably evoked. The immediacy of Islamic terrorism abruptly called into question the extent to which the Middle Eastern Other that belly dance represents was not generically Middle Eastern or Oriental but specifically Arab or Muslim, and what that representation might mean. Some dancersmainly accomplished performers who travel, study, and teach regularly in the Middle Easthad already forged strong cultural ties between their performances and the dances cultures of origin. Even at this level of professionalism, however, dancers began to acknowledge that cultural difference, rather than universality or cross-cultural good will, defined belly dance. Amid reevaluations of the relationship between modern Arab cultures and Western values in political and social thought, several dancers issued perspectives, justifications, and apologias that dealt with the purpose and function of popular belly dance in the United States. Contradictions emerged between some dancers efforts to sustain a cross-cultural mission for Western belly dance and competing claims that belly dance has become so Westernized that it has little association with its Eastern origins. Laurel Victoria Gray, Artistic Director of the Silk Road Dance Company and awardwinning choreographer based in Washington, DC, for example, called for dancers to stand against the growing tide of racism which threatens to sweep our nation (2001:1). At the same time, she suggested ways dancers could assert their American identities in a dance predicated on masquerading as the Eastern Other. She advocated subverting the dances associations with the Middle East or Islam by using American or fusion music; basing dances on spiritual rituals such as the Guedra, Zaar, and Sufi whirling; designing costumes with gypsy, Greek, or medieval themes; and using the red, white, and blue of the American flag in costume color schemes. Gray reminds us that while belly dancers might be targets for antiArab anger, womens dances were also sites for attack from Islamic Fundamentalists (2). In a culture where few restrictions curtail womens performance, belly dance should be done without fear as a demonstration of the Western values of openness and freedom, and each individual must decide which action is appropriate for her personal value system (2). Morocco, founder and director of New Yorks award-winning Casbah Dance Experience, raised a plea for historical perspective, emphasizing the responsibility of American dancers to act as mediators in the impending and serious cultural conflict brought into the open by the terrorist attacks. It is very important, she wrote in mid-September 2001, that we continue to educate and, hopefully, stop those, who would immediately jump to mass hatred and retaliate against innocent Mideastern civilians here, and make sure that our Mideastern/North African friends, the innocent 99.9% of the populations of all those countries, whose culture has given us so much to be thankful for, know of our support. (1)


Dancing Around Orientalism

Moroccos stance was pointed and opposed to Grays in its demand that dancers not only keep dancing, but also call [the dance] by its right name and celebrate Middle Eastern cultural forms (1). Elizabeth (Artemis) Mourat described belly dancers as participants in a foreign art form and, as such, builders of bridges between cultures (2001). Cassandra Shore (known simply as Cassandra), Artistic Director of the internationally known Jawaahir Dance Company based in Minneapolis, echoed the cross-cultural mission of the American Middle Eastern dance community in her annual newsletter. Cassandras letter expressed concern for the arts in the shadow of recent events and distress at the continued harassment of our Arab-American friends. In these troubled times, she wrote, the companys crosscultural mission remains vital: For thousands of years, Middle Eastern dances have been a source of joy for performers and audiences alike. Jawaahirs mission has Figure 4. Morocco and partner Tarik Sultan in Raks Sharki always been to share that joy, Duet, at Rakkassah East, New Jersey, October 2001. (Photo by and in so doing we hope to Bob Wynn) help promote greater understanding of Middle Eastern culture and greater tolerance between the Middle East and the West. (2002:1) Jawaahirs gala performance in Minneapolis in the spring of 2002, Dancing to Byzantium, invoked an historical time when the now-distinct nations and cultures of the Middle East could be brought together under the image of the Byzantine Empire, perhaps putting some distance between the dance and contemporary events.23 A year and a half later, however, the Companys full-scale, theatrical performance, Leylet al Torab (Night of Enchantment; July 2003) emphasized cross-cultural understanding in a celebration of traditional and contemporary Middle Eastern dances.
Donnalee Dox

23. For an analysis of Orientalism in the fine arts, and the fine arts connections to politics, social conditions, and imperialism (including an acknowledgment of Saids bias toward elite art forms over popular culture), see MacKenzie (1995:xivxvii).


In its first issue after the attacks, the popular magazine Habibi carried an editorial by editor Shareen el Safy that also appealed to the arts as neutral territory situated among economic, cultural, and political conflicts: By playing our intermediary role between cultures as self-appointed ambassadors, we can cultivate a growing Western audience appreciative of the intricate and expressive beauty of Middle Eastern arts []. I am heartened by recent communications from across the U.S. that Middle Eastern dance classes are enjoying larger than usual enrollment, and music and dance concerts are being well attended. (2002:7) Another piece in the same issue of Habibi, however, observed that belly dance was not neutral territory at all. Virginia McCrum-Bendoud, surveying the dance community in the Los Angeles area in the fall of 2001, saw a severe decline in attendance at classes, workshops, performances, and festivals, including cancelled performances and withdrawn financial support out of fears of an anti-Arab backlash (2002:53). McCrum-Bendouds interviews with vendors, producers, and teachers specifically raise the issue of the relationship between American belly dance and contemporary cultural conflicts (2002:55). Despite a surge of fairly serious considerations of belly dance, its cultural referents, and its signifying value in the West in 2001/02, there has been little change in the practice or discourse nationwide. The number of dance tours to Figure 5. Jawaahir Company performs Dancing to Byzantium at Egypt, Lebanon, Turkey, and the Southern Theatre, Minneapolis, Minnesota, February 2002. Morocco has dropped since late From left: Risha, Zulaika, Anna (hidden), Toha, Monique, 2001, but festivals, workshops, Cassandra, and Zana. (Photo by Hung Russell) and retreats continue to be well attended across the U.S. Colombian pop star Shakiras belly dancing onstage and in music videos put the form into mainstream entertainment in 2002 and generated a spike in dance-class enrollments among younger women in the United States. By 2003, that interest had tapered off somewhat, though belly dancing had made its way into club dancing through its de-exoticized presence in pop culture. Allowing for some fluctuation in response to an uncertain economy, popular interest in belly dance (including sales of imported and domestically produced beaded costumes, veils, jewelry, and recordings) has remained fairly steady. Journalistic, editorial, and scholarly attention on Western imperialism and the Middle East notwithstanding, the mythos that sustains Western belly dancing as culturally rooted in the Middle East, and universal in its appeal as a womens dance, remains largely unaffected. If anything, the gap between Western belly dance and knowledge of the cultural practices of Middle Eastern countries has widened in popular perceptions.


Dancing Around Orientalism

Follow-up interviews and conversations with U.S.-based belly dancers in the spring and summer of 2003 indicate little, if any, change in perceptions of the dance in the wake of global events since September 2001. Concerns, when expressed at all, focus on a faltering economys effect on venues, such as restaurants and for-profit arts events, and on belly dancings potential to counter the effects of racial, ethnic, national, and religious prejudice in the United States. Responding to the question posed by dancers as to whether remaining involved in Oriental dance means were celebrating the culture of people who would like to kill us, belly dancer Anne Maclean readily acknowledged that the dance is indeed a simulacrummore Western than Oriental after all: Oriental dance may have originated as a performing art over there, but the dance has taken on a life of its own in the United States where I now live. Im sure the same could be said of Canada, Australia, Europe, Brazil, and other places where this dance has taken root. Wherever we live, many of us make our own costumes, dance to the music played by local musicians, and invent our own dance moves. [B]allet may have originated in France, but today people who perform or even just watch this art form dont think of themselves as celebrating French culture. [B]allet is just dance, and we dont link it to guillotines, Napoleon, or Joan of Arc. (2001:2)

Not Just Dance

Western belly dance is clearly not just dance. Its affirming narratives of the body and self are deeply invested in the imperialist images and tropes that construct the Middle Easts alterity to Western culture. For many practitioners, belly dance gives womens bodies an expressive identity not available elsewhere. The aesthetics of the dance become a form of resistance against the alienation from the body perceived to be a function of Western modernization. Out of Orientalisms frustrations with backward societies, belly dancing recoups notions of ancient spiritualities, woman-centered environments, access to hidden knowledge, and the universality of womens experience. In a reversal of Orientalisms value hierarchy, these ideas become a foundation on which women can construct alternative ways of moving and being seen within Western culture. However, Western belly dance often stands in for a real Middle East. A redefined, Othered eroticism sustains an aura of cultural authenticity at the same time that cultural alterity opens a door to a kind of celebratory self-awareness for performers. But the reordering of Orientalist attitudes reveals the subject of that experience to be, finally, Western. Under critical scrutiny, then, Western belly dancing could be reduced to a performance of Western self-objectification masquerading as the display of a romanticized, exotic, primitive Other. Popular discourse on Western belly dancing makes few claims to social or political change in its emphasis on transcultural understanding, even as the dance evokes contested ideologies and attitudes that reject the public display of womens bodies. Emphasis on the aesthetics and artistry of the dance suppresses difficult questions of representation and Othering. The quest for authenticity in belly dance encounters challenging reactions from the Middle Eastern diaspora: laughter that women would pay money to take classes, amusement at the elevation of common social dances or low-class club performance to an art form, awareness of shallow theatricality, surprise that Western women would want to preserve the ritual dances of modernizing Middle Eastern cultures, and curiosity that belly dance has migrated to the West at all. Even so, the revisions of body and self that Western belly dance offers cannot rest quietly like an odalisque in an Orientalist frame. During a spiritual belly dance workshop at a Sufi center in upstate New York where I gave a talk in 2002, I was struck by the comment of a middle-aged Iranian woman. I had inquired

Donnalee Dox 66

about issues of cultural appropriation. She responded that she had grown up dancing socially with other women at parties and weddings and had never thought about what she was doing or why. Only when she came to the United States did she discover that the dances had history and meaning. The history and meaning that she found was grounded in Western formulations. But encountering belly dance in its guise of a Western Other allowed her to invest the danceand perhaps her own cultural identitywith new meaning, however it may have been constructed out of Orientalism and through Western aesthetic and ideological formulations. Fred Dallmayr suggested in 1996 that cross-cultural understanding need not begin with logocentric thought grounded in European traditions and that an exit from Orientalism might be possible (116). Western belly dancing certainly purports to challenge aspects of Western culture, not the least of which is logocentrism, but there is no dancing ones way out of Orientalism through Western belly dance. But neither is belly dance a wholesale appropriation of an Othered cultures traditions. The costume veil alone highlights how the Western rhetoric of modernization and Muslim religious fundamentalism structures cultural difference, how economic imperialism is often couched in languages of gender equality, and how legislating womens freedom from enforced veiling overrides the choice to veil. At this historical moment, the representational paradoxes in Western belly dance reflect deeper complexities in Western thought. Even as Western belly dance relies on and constructs the cultural alterity of the East, it avoids evoking an Other that is specifically Arab or Muslim. At the same time, the Occidentalist impulse in popular discourse constructs a fantasy of the East in resistance to aspects of Western culture, making the West the Other. In its representational contradictions and paradoxes, Western belly dancing ought to provoke serious consideration of the intellectual formulations that are reconstructing Western culture in relation to the Middle East, Arab and Muslim identity, and womens bodies across cultures in the beginning of the 21st century.
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