Chapter Five

Belly Dance, Matriarchy, and Patriarchy







Is belly dance a relic of matriarchy?  Did it arise in a period where women were in control, and survive in patriarchal cultures as a reminder of better times?

My instinctive response to this question is to say, unequivocally, “No.”  Belly dance as we know it took shape within the past hundred years, as the expression of women and men living in two very different industrialized patriarchies.  Furthermore, SIDTA’s native home is in countries known for their patriarchal attitudes.  It emerged in societies where patriarchal family structure dominates, women are supposed to obey their husbands, women’s proper territory is within the house, and the outer world is by definition masculine.  It developed and has found its highest form as a performance art in societies whose patriarchy is very deeply imbedded and supported in an entwined network of social custom, sacred ideas, and law.  For thousands of years, the cultures of the Middle East have developed this art, not as the pristine, preserved relic of a long-ago egalitarian society, but as the voice of both men and women – yet particularly women – within patriarchal society.

As a performance art, it has a problematic relationship with its society, and this has been the case for a very long time, certainly throughout its relationship with Islam.  But patriarchal society has nurtured this dance, including its performance aspect, even while rejecting it as suitable for the right-thinking man.

I am concerned that our tendency to look back to ancient matriarchies for the meaning of this dance undermines our ability to deal with the uses of this dance in our modern patriarchy.  By attributing the dance to matriarchy, we find a convenient way to cover up the possible failings of the dance we enjoy so much.  The story of belly dance’s origins in matriarchy may serve as a pleasant fiction that keeps us from dealing with the very real conflicts this dance now forces on the dancer, both in how she constructs her own identity as a dancer and how she conducts her professional life.  It’s my commitment to feminist ideals, not being a pawn of the patriarchy, that makes me wary of the matriarchy scenario.  For me, as for nearly everyone, this question is not only about the past.  It also has a “political” meaning in that it serves to define the role of belly dance in the modern world.

But history is history, even if it’s “herstory.”  As always, evidence has to be our focus in the matter of the matriarchal origins of belly dance.  And the whole issue of matriarchy is so charged with different standards of evidence, different interpretations of key terms, and different political aims, that it can be difficult to unravel the tangles. 


Matriarchal Belly Dance

Many of the Western women who began taking belly dance lessons since the 1970’s found in the dance a form of self-expression that they felt as inherently feminine and nurturing to a woman’s spirit.  Belly dance offered an exotic, feminine space where women could explore the pleasure of sensual movement.  For many women, then and now, belly dance class is a place where the demands of the male-centered workplace and the demands of husbands and families drift away and the focus of life becomes their own experience.  Because the act of coming to class is so clearly – for the vast majority of dancers who are women – a “woman thing,” and because it is something that honors the expressing, feeling side of ourselves that we think of as our “feminine” side, early matriarchy has seemed to many dancers to be the natural home for belly dance.  After all, dance class is a matriarchy of sorts, in that women and their experience are at least temporarily the center of the world.  It seems reasonable to assume that, although the Middle Eastern cultures in which the dance developed were all-too-obviously patriarchal, the dance nevertheless originated in a world that was more responsive to women’s needs and women’s feelings.

In the 1960’s and ‘70’s, New Age feminism developed a revised history – a “herstory” – in which an ancient benevolent matriarchy existed in the distant past, only to be overthrown (usually at the beginning of the Bronze Age) by violent, patriarchal usurpers, condemning women to their current role as an underclass.  The popular history of belly dance, formerly teeming with sultans and harem girls, was reconceived in alignment with the “herstory.”  To the extent that a good myth is better than a bad one, this was a positive sign of changing times, and in this era, women’s horizons, from employment to reproductive control, were on the upswing.

According to the new popular history, belly dance, the dance of uninhibited women who were strong enough to celebrate their womanhood, their sexuality, their independence, and their fertility, was the product of that ancient matriarchy.  It was a life-celebrating dance created by women.  It honored women’s fertility and sexuality in a holistic way that became impossible once patriarchy established its idea of male ownership of and control over women’s sexuality.  Perverted into sexual display by patriarchy, or restricted to women-only contexts, belly dance found only a dim afterlife in patriarchy, having lost its spiritual dimension and its power to encompass the united realms of fertility, sexuality, and spirituality.  Patriarchy had tried to suppress it, and had branded it with the reputation of a tawdry seduction.  But now (in the 1970’s), women were reclaiming its original meaning, and using it to break free of patriarchal bonds into self-expression and self-validation.

The idea of matriarchy is appealing to many women because it offers a pristine vision of a world where the values our society regards as feminine – cooperation, intuition, sensuality, and so on – are the values of the mainstream, and where women enjoyed high status and were encouraged to express themselves rather than attend to the needs of their men.  It seems an ideal home for belly dance, since for many women, the dance has had the role of involving them in “matriarchal” values, providing personal validation, a community of women, a positive body image, and so on.

But there are difficulties with the view of dance as a product of matriarchy.  The chief one is that the historical record of matriarchy is problematic, especially in its popular manifestation as a distant, homogenous paradise or as a “phase” replaced by patriarchy.  Another is that the customs and values attributed to ancient matriarchies reflect our society’s patriarchal views of what is feminine, tending to identify women as fertile, cooperative, intuitive, and so on – identities ascribed to women in our modern patriarchy, but not necessarily reflecting the roles of women in more egalitarian cultures.

A third is that the idea of “the defeated matriarchy” in popular history is to some extent a patriarchal idea, formed in the Victorian era and still insidiously affecting our views of women’s nature – and women’s destiny. 

My own theory is that belly dance evolved with urbanism, and therefore with patriarchy, in part as a celebratory dance for both men and women, but perhaps also with some special meanings for women: an expression of the fertile feminine that plays such a powerful role in patriarchal agricultural systems, and a site where the power structures of patriarchy were both subverted and reinforced. 


What is Matriarchy?

Patriarchy is easy to define.  Patriarchy is a social system in which men and the ideals and values associated with men are held in higher regard than women and the ideals and values associated with women.  Men tend to hold most positions of power; genealogy tends to be counted in the male line; and men tend to have rights over “their” women and children that women do not have over “their” men.  Patriarchies tend to be hierarchical, with high-status men holding power over women and low-status men.  Women may still have high status in patriarchies, especially in symbolic roles such as “priestess” or “queen.” 

“Patriarchy,” however, is a very general term, and one should think of a continuum of varying degrees of male dominance rather than an absolute standard.  Societies at one end of the continuum may be essentially egalitarian, but with women excluded from some positions of leadership, while at the oposite end, women may be disenfranchised, physically abused with impunity, and otherwise oppressed.  Also, “patriarchy” is only one scale on which the nature of a given culture may be measured – other cultural factors also matter in determining the systems that motivate any given society.

What is matriarchy? That is much harder to define.  It is not simply the opposite of patriarchy, “a social system in which women and their values are dominant over men and their values, with women holding the positions of power and having rights over their men.”  Apparently, from the observations of anthropologists and from what archeologists can determine about the social systems of antiquity, matriarchies like this do not exist and have probably never existed. 

One school of thought (and this is my view too) says that the real opposite of “patriarchal” is simply “egalitarian.”  The range of human social systems (so far, at least)[1] would then run from egalitarian societies in which men and women have separate but equal spheres, to patriarchies in which men dominate completely.  Another school of thought works toward redefining matriarchy[2] in terms that can be documented in anthropology: for example, societies that are matrilocal (people live with their mother’s household or clan after marriage) and/or matrilineal (lineage is counted through the female line), where women hold positions of leadership within the community.  They hope that by redefining matriarchy in more viable terms, and by associating these redefined matriarchies with characteristic styles of decision making, governance, religion, and art, they can establish historically valid alternatives to the present domination of patriarchy.

The popular culture view of matriarchy is something like “a society in which (a) women held high status; characterized by feminine values such as (b) cooperation, (c) communal identity, (d) peaceful relationships, (e) individual spiritual experience, (f) interconnection of spirit and body, (g) cyclical perceptions of time, and (h) awareness of the circle of life.”  Pop-culture matriarchy is therefore the opposite of the patriarchy in which we live today, where (a) women are disadvantaged in terms of status, (b) competition rather than cooperation is the typical modus operandi, (c) local communities lack strength, (d) warfare is constant, (e) male-centered organized religion dominates, (f) soul is separate from body and sex from spirituality, (g) we are on a headlong dash into a linear future, and (h) we are more aware of our own materialistic needs than of the ecological or metaphysical balance of life.

Was there ever a place like the popular vision of matriarchy?  Or did we create it as the antidote to the modern age?  Many of the world’s people tend to subconsciously organize their worlds in terms of opposites – male/female, hard/soft, easy/hard, peaceful/warlike, cooperative/ competitive – and range these opposites against each other.  We are no exception.  We have a pretty clear sense of what values we consider masculine and what we consider feminine.  These ideas come into play when we try to imagine matriarchal societies.  To our minds, a matriarchy would have to align on the “feminine” side of our own world’s opposing views of what constitutes masculine and feminine behavior.

But we should be cautious about accepting a general picture of matriarchy that conforms so clearly to our own culture’s system of opposing characteristics.  Real societies – tired of hearing this yet? – are more complex than that.

In the modern West, many women have a strong investment in the idea that the world once contained flourishing matriarchal societies, although now it doesn’t.  This is a comforting thought, because it means that the current patriarchal domination was not always the case.  If male domination is not the only way for society to be, then the future holds the possibility of a return to matriarchal ways.  The destruction of matriarchy in the past might be followed by the fall of patriarchy in the future. 


Matriarchy and the Goddess

The confusion about matriarchy is compounded by the association of matriarchy with a Great Goddess (and vice versa).  The spirituality of belly dance is often assumed to be “goddess spirituality,” and there is a substantial overlap[3] today between belly dancers and women for whom the idea of a Goddess is spiritually important, whether or not this importance extends to their own worship practices.  Over the past 30 years, I have heard many dancers speak of the origins of belly dance in “Goddess days” or refer to the Goddess as a central spiritual source in the historical experience of belly dance. 

I too find some element of power in the idea of the Goddess, and I find myself in spiritual alignment with many of the tenets of feminist thealogy,[4] such as the centrality of personal spiritual experience, seeing “feminine” qualities such as nurturance and peace-loving in the deity, the ideal of unity of body and spirit, the idea of divine immanence (divinity in all aspects of the living and material worlds), and so on.  Drawing on my experience as a dancer in the 21st century, I have spoken of my persona or essence in some dance performances as being “a manifestation of the Goddess.”  When I speak of “God” to my young daughter, I use the pronoun “she.”

I state my personal views on spirituality to make it clear that I do not intend what follows as a smear on the possibility of experiencing the divine as a feminine force.  But we should be very careful both about defining the spiritual experience of the people of the Paleolithic and Neolithic Middle East in terms of a monotheistic Goddess, and in associating belly dance with worship of that Goddess.  In my opinion, neither the monotheism nor the association of belly dance and Goddess worship is central in antiquity, though they are powerful elements in modern practice. 


Images of the Goddess

Some of the earliest human art appears to represent the sacred feminine.  Beginning in the Paleolithic era, as early as 28,000 BCE,[5] images of females were carved in stone, painted on cave walls, or pinched out of clay.  Across a broad swath of time ranging from the Upper Paleolithic through the Neolithic, female figurines far outnumber identifiably male.  Most of the scholars who study them accept them as having some ritual purpose, and they are popularly understood as representations of goddesses.  Many of these figurines (including those most often illustrated in goddes-related books) are “fat,” with pronounced buttocks and bellies, representing pregnancy or simply the abundance of flesh that is only possible when one regularly has more than enough to eat.  This implies that they are, loosely speaking, related to fertility.  Some figurines also have an evocatively phallic shape combined with the feminine features, also incorporating the male principle.

Can we use these figurines to explain the religions and societies of the people who presented them?  Not in any detail.  Many different religious beliefs and social structures can result in similar sorts of images.  For example, both the polytheistic ancient Egyptians and 20th century monotheistic Catholics revered images of a mother nursing a child, but their cultures and religions were vastly different.[6]  We cannot state with confidence that these female figurines mean that the cultures that produced them had a high status for their women or were matriarchies.

What we can say about the cultures of the Stone Age is that these feminine images were vital expressions of religious feeling or practice.  That in itself is reassuring and inspiring to women in cultures like our own which do not readily acknowledge the feminine face of God.  On the other hand, the beliefs and systems of social organization they represent were probably quite varied.  The period in which female figurines (and portrayal of women in rock paintings)[7] are produced begins in about 28,000 BCE, and lasts about 25,000 years, continuing into the early Bronze Age, around 3000 BCE.  The depictions range across a vast territory, from France and Spain into North Africa and the Middle East.  Terrains range from high steppes to fertile river valleys to rocky limestone soil to deserts to snowy mountains.  Means of production vary from foraging to nomadic pastoralism to farming.  In a world where groups that live a three-hour walk from one another can have different gods and different traditions, it is hard to come to any universal or detailed conclusions about what these figurines mean.[8]

Does ethnographic comparison help us interpret the figurines?  Not much.  For one thing, there are not any modern foraging or agricultural people who are making preponderantly female figurines of this sort, so producing figurines like this is a particular manifestation of history and not a human universal.  Figurines and other small objects often have a cult use, and some modern practices (such as ritually breaking and discarding a sacrificed object) may reflect on the uses of some ancient figurines.  What about the likelihood that they represent a goddess (of any sort)?  It’s a good guess but not the only option; not all modern figurines are of deities, though most “primitive” art does have a more or less religious purpose. 

What about the possibility that they represent a monotheistic goddess?  There the question becomes trickier.  Monotheism is an unusual stance in human societies as a whole.  Christianity, Judaism and Islam, all originating in the same Middle Eastern desert, are monotheistic, and Christianity and Islam are “evangelistic” in that one of their tenets is that everyone should follow their religion.  But apart from these religions, and a couple of interesting interludes in the Egyptian, Persian and Greco-Roman worlds[9], such structured monotheism remains a rarity.

The anthropologist ______ has described foraging peoples as having [QUOTE].  In other words, their idea of god was unstructured, and could contain both masculine and feminine elements.  The lack of specific definition was not troubling to them.  Their multi-faceted idea of the divine also included notions of sacred place and sacred essence in the living and non-living aspects of the natural world.  Since the people of the Paleolithic were also foragers, it would be reasonable to expect them to have a similar perspective.  While they might not have the sort of tightly-formulated concept of a “Mother-Goddess” that we have, they might well have a concept of the divine feminine (and the divine masculine) that took shape in various mythic characters and stories that are lost to us now, although figurines representing one aspect of the sacred have survived.  This is not the same as the dominance of a Mother-Goddess.  The figurines, which evoke the idea of a Goddess so strongly to us, were most likely only one element of a complex structure of myth and ritual practice that is now lost.  We can only hear the voice that remains to speak, but we should remain aware of those that have been silenced.

Judging from ethnographic comparisons and archeological remains, we should probably expect a more developed polytheistic pantheon from the agriculturalists of the region, especially since there is likely to be continuity between their beliefs and the polytheistic systems we find there in historical times.  And we should also expect that with the changes in means of production, and with the slow or sudden incursions of new people into the SIDTA area (or moving about of residents) there would be change in both belief and practice over time.

Why go into this in such detail about religion in a study of dance history?  Partly to establish the context for the spiritual beliefs that may apply in prehistoric dance.  But my main goal is to question some of the assumptions we tend to make about early “belly dance”: that is was a creation of matriarchy, or a ritual to a Goddess much like the monotheistic Goddess of modern women’s spirituality.  I think things were different.


Were Goddess-Worshipping Cultures Matriarchal?

There is no doubt that the modern monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, have suppressed the idea of the sacred feminine.  All are focused on deities usually spoken of as male, and all exclude women to a large extent from positions of religious leadership.  In a phenomenon that may or may not be related to their monotheism, both Christianity and Islam have a tradition of rejecting and repressing dance, and have largely eliminated dance as a form of spiritual expression.[10]

Because we live in this sort of cultural atmosphere, we tend to develop the erroneous idea that this is what it is like in “modern times,” and that the only alternatives to this state of affairs is to be found in antiquity.  This is not the case.  Most of the world’s people are not Christians, Jews or Muslims, but instead adherents of polytheistic religions like Hinduism and Buddhism, which do have female divinities: for example, the creative/destructive Kali of Hinduism, or Kuan Yin in Chinese Buddhism, who is arguably the most significant deity in the pantheon.[11] 

Many ancient historical cultures had goddesses who were crucial elements of the sacred world as imagined by their people.  The Sumerian Inanna, the Babylonian Ishtar, the Greek Demeter, Artemis, Athena, and so on, all had a key role as the numinous powers who oversaw the world’s divine processes.  These female powers were not all concerned only with things their cultures determined were “feminine.”  Some, like Athena and Inanna, oversaw masculine provinces like warfare.  Also, these goddesses were not necessarily “role models” for women.  Some, like Greek Hera, did function to define women’s proper roles, but others, like Inanna (again) or Greek Aphrodite and Artemis, were deities who modeled behaviors not expected of women,[12] such as hunting or committing adultery.  Goddesses were complex figures – any deity is – and it is mistaken to think that a goddess can be taken at “face value” and her place in her culture easily understood by outsiders.

It is an even bigger mistake to think that the fact that a culture has important goddesses means that women have a “high status” within that culture or that that culture is in some ways matriarchal.  If this were the case, then women would have high status in China and India, which have important female deities, yet we know that these cultures have longstanding traditions in which women are disadvantaged relative to men.  Ancient Greece arguably had more important goddesses than gods in day to day worship, but it was an entrenched patriarchy, in which women were regarded as physically and mentally inferior to men.  Goddesses do not make matriarchy.  Powerful, important goddesses do not even indicate equality for women in their cultures.  The interaction of sacred ideas and social realities is more complicated than that.


The “Defeat of the Goddess Tribes”   

One specific misconception that sometimes occurs in belly dance popular histories is the idea that the monotheistic Hebrews destroyed goddess-worshipping cultures to eliminate the sacred feminine at some time in history.  This is not the case.  The Hebrews were, for most of their history, a relatively minor political and military force in the Middle East.  They were surrounded by vital and powerful urban civilizations which were polytheistic, in which goddesses played a central role.  These civilizations were all patriarchies, and the goddess-worship was an integral part of them.  As we have seen, goddess worship does not make a society matriarchal.  In any case, during the period of recorded history, the goddess-worshipping civilizations of the Middle East were urban patriarchies, not roving egalitarian goddess-tribes.  The monotheistic Hebrews were not in a position to destroy any of them, though they may well have wanted to.

What did effectively end polytheism in Europe and the Middle East was the Roman Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in 312 CE.  He made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, and pagan cults were indeed eliminated, sometimes violently.  But the Jews didn’t do it.  And in fact, Judaism has its own traditions of the sacred feminine.  While these have been suppressed in the course of time, as has been the case in many mainstream religions including Christianity, the traditions and ideas are still there to be rediscovered and renewed.


The “Incursion” of Patriarchy

One thing that is essentially correct in the popular view of ancient matriarchy is that there has most likely been a worldwide trend in which more or less egalitarian societies developed into, or were replaced by, patriarchies.  Modern foraging societies whose means of production most resembles those of prehistory are often more or less egalitarian, and subsistence level agriculturalists tend not to have the level of patriarchy exhibited by urban civilization, while the industrialized world is full of patriarchies and very little else.  We assume that these modern trends would apply to the means of production in antiquity as well, showing a change from egalitarian foragers to patriarchal urban peoples over time.

How did patriarchy come to dominate so thoroughly?

Pop-culture histories tend toward simple explanations, and the simplest explanation is that a conquering horde of patriarchs overcame the egalitarian peoples.  But few archeologists see the process of culture change as so straightforward.  The archeological data is too complex to go into here, but most likely, the mechanism for cultural change in the Neolithic and Bronze Age SIDTA area was not the incursion of evil patriarchs[13] from one focal center of patriarchy, but processes that happened over time, and probably happened differently in different societies. 

Anthropologists are still trying to explain how gender inequality develops, or why it is so common that it is almost universal.  For example, feminist anthropologist Sherri Ortner[14] proposes that women are universally disadvantaged to men because their childbearing capability makes them understood as closer to “nature” than to the human construct of “culture.”  Historian Gerda Lerner[15] proposes a theory about the transition to patriarchy in the Middle East that stresses that men and women, forming culture together, made decisions about duties and practices that ultimately led to the development of patriarchy, though that was not anyone’s intent.  Both Ortner and Lerner have been thoroughly critiqued, and the controversies about these or any other ideas of gender inequality and culture change remain hot topics, both in academia and in popular culture.  They speak to the heart of two of our society’s key problems: tension between men and women, and the definition of gender roles.

Lerner’s theory about the development of patriarchy in the Middle East holds a middle ground between the general and the specific.  She argues that with the advent of agriculture, men and women made mutual choices (such as exogamy for women, and the division of labor of male/outside work and female/domestic work) that did not at the time seem to privilege men over women, but which led to male property ownership, women’s fertility becoming a male-controlled resource, and ultimately to the drop in women’s status that is observable in the early written records of the urban Middle East.  Lerner’s theory supports the idea that more egalitarian societies ultimately became patriarchal through specific historical processes, which might not apply in other parts of the world. 

Whatever the processes that led to the end result, the Middle East’s early and probably more egalitarian foraging societies eventually became patriarchies.  But where does belly dance fit into the picture?  If it emerges among hunter-gatherers, then it exists in societies that probably tend to the egalitarian side of the scale.  If it emerges with agriculture, then it probably comes into being at a time when the processes leading to patriarchy were already underway.  If it emerges later, then it comes into being at a time when patriarchy was already established.  In either case, patriarchy – and the patriarchal ideas about masculine and feminine experience specific to the Middle East  may have played a central role in the development of SIDTA.


Urban Origins?

The desire to put the origins of belly dance in matriarchal times – and “matriarchy” is the concept employed, not simply a “more egalitarian” world – is rooted in the conception of this dance as essentially a feminine experience.  But suppose you are trying to explain not the development of “belly dance” but the development of SIDTA?  Suppose that the key element of the dance is the aesthetic of solo-improvisation, rather than its role as a women’s dance?  If you reconceive the dance as “solo-improvised dance based on torso articulation,” a folkdance done by both men and women, the drive for a matrairchal explanation of the dance diminishes. 

While I believe that SIDTA does have a feminine range of uses and experiences that is in some ways distinct from the masculine, it is first of all a folk art with other aspects that are also important.  The centrality of the aesthetic of solo-improvisation, combined with the admitedly scant evidence of the Naqada dancers discussed in Chapter Three, leads me to this hypothesis:

The key factor leading to the development of SIDTA is urbanization, rather than any specifically feminine instinct.  With the beginnings of urban societies, new housing patterns and family definitions arise, and new kinds of social differentiation manifest.  These conditions give rise to solo-improvised dance.  The individual expressiveness of solo-improvised dancing would then play a key role in a differentiated society by asserting the individual’s identity as an acting and feeling person within a large community. 

The space used by the dance, not an organized circle or line but a mass of people dancing, reflects the urban spaces available for celebration: streets and small squares and domestic spaces.  These urban spaces were the location for both professional performances and public celebrations both in historical times and even to the present day.  They are more suited to solo-improvised dancing than to more structured forms.  Solo-improvisation serves to create a sense of communitas not by the structured equality of shoulder-to-shoulder dancing but by the looser action of communal expressive dancing. 

Perhaps with the beginnings of urban civilization in the SIDTA area, we see the development and expression of some lasting qualities of later Islamic music and dance: the appreciation of improvisation, the desire for “enchantment” and self-loss in the flow of communal celebration, and when solo performers dance, the valuation of emotional connection of artist and audience.  The entire communal dynamic in the new circumstances of the city, rather than anything specific to women’s or men’s experience, lead to the development of SIDTA.


Belly Dance and “The Feminine”

My method in constructing this history has been to work from the modern realities of SIDTA and to try to find this phenomenon in antiquity, though remaining alert to the fact that some elements of the modern “complex” may be absent in other manifestations.  One of the bottom line elements of SIDTA is that it is a social dance done by both men and women.  That does not mean, however, that it couldn’t have a special relevance or importance to women that does not directly align with its importance to men.  After all, men and women had different work even in the most egalitarian societies, and biological realities (such as the woman’s role as bearer and nurturer of children) mean that women’s lives differ from men’s in some central ways (such as conducting life while pregnant or usually having small children around).  To the extent that it is an expressive dance, SIDTA may have a somewhat different meaning for women than it would have for men.  Women danced as women, with women’s concerns and identity, while men danced as men.  Women’s dances would have reflected not only the universal aspects of their lives, but also those that are specific to women. 

With the development of agriculture and the beginnings of urbanism, new ideas about women and “the feminine” emerged.  Both comparative ethnographic research (a blunt tool but still a tool) and the historical SIDTA area offer us some suggestions about what it (or they, since we can expect variations) would have been.  In an agricultural system, women tend to be identified with the earth, giving birth to children as the earth births crops.  The female might begin to see herself symbolically as bearer rather than practically as gatherer of the earth’s bounty.  If her work became “inside and preserving” rather than “outside and gathering,” then the idea of the internal, hidden, and secret might well be a part of her self-perception and the perception about her.  Ideas of women as vessels or as nurturers and keepers would find validation in the life experience of agricultural people.  With patrilineal descent and the inheritance of property in the male line, control of women’s fertility and therefore sexuality becomes a key element of social order, so that women’s sexuality might be portrayed (and felt by both women and men) as a powerful, chaotic force.  Both men’s control of women’s sexuality, and the moral strength that enables a woman to subject her own sexuality to the patriarchal family, might become important ideas.  Opposite, frightening ideas – men’s lack of control over women, or women’s lack of moral strength or rejection of limitations on their sexuality, would also take shape.

With the development of agriculture and urban civilization in the SIDTA area, an idea of women developed in historical times that defined them as: fertile and nurturing; powerfully creative but capable of wrong sorts of creativity; emotionally and morally volatile; receptive vessels; close to nature; capable of moral grounding yet liable to moral slippage; sexual beings whose sexuality required control for civilization to flourish; and beings whose chaotic sexuality was a metaphor and an inspiration for both the good and the destruction in life.  This complex of ideas is not the only construction of women possible in patriarchy, but it is familiar to us today, because for the most part we share it.  These ideas of women (or similar ones) underlie women’s experience of dance in today’s patriarchies, and are likely to have done so in the past.



Belly Dance in Eastern Patriarchy

All of the belly dance that is done today is done in the context of patriarchy, because every society in which belly dance is done, including our own, is a patriarchy.  In the industrial world (and for the most part outside of it), patriarchy is the dominant – indeed the only – system of social organization.  We may not like it, but it is a fact of our lives. 

Yet living in a patriarchy does not mean that women must be passive victims of patriarchal forces.  Women in patriarchies may be very aware of the circumstances in which they have power and status.  They may be strong and admirable and have high self esteem.  Women do not turn into dishrags because their social system happens to be a patriarchy. 

What does it mean when a dance takes shape within a patriarchal system?  It means that it reflects the complexities of the patriarchy in which it exists.   

Whatever meanings belly dance has for individuals, it also has a social function, in playing out tensions or embodying contradictions or etablishing principles that enable the society as a whole to function.  This is true both for individuals’ dancing and for professional dance.  Recognizing the patriarchal dynamics at work in belly dance is central to understanding the role that dancing plays in its native cultures and in the West.

What follows is not meant to be exhaustive, but it is a brief indication of some of the ways in which belly dance can be seen to play out the dynamics of patriarchal society in the Arab world, reinforcing some aspects while challenging others.

Women in the modern Middle East, where belly dance (or whatever you call it) is a folk dance practiced by both sexes, nevertheless express the feeling that belly dance has a particular meaning to women.  They may feel that it reflects complexities that are only possible for women to understand, or that it offers them release from pressures that are particular to women.  They may feel that this embodied art is “feminine” because of cultural attitudes that regard women as more embodied (and less capable of escaping the limits embodiment imposes on the spirit) than men are.  They may simply be expressing their own experience, in which they may dance in all-women parties.  They may be acknowledging the reality that female dancers, professional or otherwise, play a role in some social rituals.  Women of the diaspora may also be reflecting the fact that the West identifies belly dance as an exclusively feminine activity.  In any case, women do find something in belly dance that has a particular feminine meaning, and it is possible that this was the case in antiquity as well.  Belly dance emerges in patriarchy as a mechanism through which women process their personal and social realities, and a mechanism through which the culture as a whole defines women’s roles and deals with the sexual and gender dynamics that incorporate women into patrairchal structures. 

One common format for women’s dance is an all-women party, possibly associated with a wedding or other major celebration, possibly a less formal event.  In some ways, a women’s dance party may serve to establish and reinforce conventional social relationships.  For example, Saudi women’s dance, with its hand movements and wrist turns, allows women to show off their gold jewelry, thus showing the status they have in terms of wealthy and in terms of how their husband holds them in esteem with his gifts. [16]  It may enforce generational roles, as older women encourage young women to dance, before they have their own turn (FIND).[17]  At a wedding or other celebration, in the kaf al-‘Arab,[18] a veiled young women may experience interplay with an enthusiastically clapping male chorus, allowing her a legitimate opportunity to earn appreciation for her youth and vitality, and signalling her marraigeablity.  In these and other ways, “belly dance” may reinforce the social dynamics of patriarchy. 

Dancing may also create release of a sort from the pressures of a woman’s circumscribed life.  Since dance creates a physically-enforced “high,” it can be an almost ecstatic experience, and dancing can offer a release from the mundane stresses of family and children, and an escape for sorts from a home-centered life, that patrairchy enforces on many women.  A number of Western dance instructors have noted that the dances of the Persian gulf, where women’s “outside” freedoms are particularly limited, display vigorous hair-tossing that can bring on ecstasy and self loss in the motion of the dance.  Some dance-like rituals, such as the North African Zar, also have the function of relieving social pressures on women.[19]

Ecstatic or even simply pleasurable dancing offers women an outlet to their feelings, a release from social pressures, and a place where they can indulge in a kind of openness of expression that is circumscribed in their public personae, where their propriety reflects on family honor.  This sort of outlet is a crucial element in the maintainance of the very propriety which it seems to overthrow.  Since it provides a limited place in which escape from propriety is allowed, it serves as a pressure valve that lets the pot keep cooking.  SIDTA as social dance is a subtle but vital element in the maintainance of the restrictions of patriarchal culture.[20]

Complex patriarchal dynamics are also to be found in the performance of professional dancers, whether male or female.  In a recent study of the shickat of Morocco, _____ describes a complex interaction.  {INCLUDE}

None of this, however, defines the meaning of the dance to the women who do it.  Karin van Nieuwkirk has shown that for the many women who dance professionally on the wedding circuit or in the lesser nightclubs of Egypt, their dance is “a trade like any other.”  For these women, the dance is a site on which their identity as good women must be constantly battled out, even while they struggle with their culture’s ideas of what a good woman is.  For the fictional heroine of Raja Amari’s 2002 film Satin Rouge, dance offers an escape from a barren, unfulfilling life.  This escape motif may reflect the role that dance plays among the women who enjoy it fiercely and embrace the escape it offers (but do not dare to perform it professionally). 

It should go without saying by now that within any given culture, there are many different relationships with dance possible.  Some women dance in front of the mirror and dream of bucking the family to become a star; others don’t really care to dance or think much about it.  For some who dance, for example, professional dancers in the lesser nightclubs who are expected to drink with customers, there is constant engagement in the negative aspects of patriarchal expectations of the dance.  For others, such as the young women who enjoy dancing at parties, or the big stars who are living the young girls’ fantasy, the dance may be empowering, emotional, and fun.  But in every case, the relationships of women to the dance are formed in patriarchy.


Belly Dance in Western Patriarchy

In the West, the patriarchal dynamic is an insidious thing. 

One point of difficulty is in the essentialized view of women and women’s art that is most commonly associated with belly dance.  By “essentialized,” I mean that it defines an “essential” way that women naturally are – a definition that is based on patriarchal ideas.

Patriarchal stereotypes of women paint them as weak, overly emotional, irrational, petty, nurturing, sexual, receptive, morally feeble, and so on.  Yet the negatives are balanced by positives, like two sides of a coin.  Women’s nurturing nature may be cited as an example of their unfittedness for rule – but women can alternately argue that nurturing is a positive characteristic that is needed on every level of our society.  Women may be criticized as being overly emotional; they may argue that instead, their broader emotional range, and their willingness to experience it, makes their lives richer and their perceptions more valid than those of men.  Women are not irrational, but intuitive.  Women are not indecisive, but able to seek compromise.  Women are not weak; their strength is simply a quieter sort.Yet all of these positives rely on an acceptance of the truth of the patriarchal assessment of how women “are.”

It is possible to construct a powerful image of “the feminine” from the stereotypes of patriarchal culture, and we often do this.  Many of these reversals have become involved with the experience and art of belly dance.  Women are emotional and sensitive: well, this is a dance of emotional experience, emotional involvement.  Women are receptive: so, a woman is able to draw in an audience so that they penetrate into her experience, rather than having to project out and penetrate them.  Women are multi-faceted, contradictory, and hard to pin down: all the better to express the many modes of the music they interpret.  Women are sensual and fertile: therein lies some of the power of their dance.  Women are vessels and bodies: all the better to carry meaning and embody it.

Belly dance can be vitally empowering to women in patriarchal cultures.  Of course!  It takes all the stereotypes of patriarchy, and it valorizes the positive in them.  But make no mistake, these are still the attitudes of a patriarchy: patriarchy in general, ours in particular. 

If we look at societies that fall outside the realm of urban patriarchies, we may find very different ideas of the “essential nature” of both women and men.  Our own view of the essential nature of women is not a universal human truth.  It applies to us, here, now, in our own time and place.  Many of the Western ideas of the male/female dichotomy are shared between the Middle East and the West, which makes it possible to generalize on some issues between the two cultures. 

But with the views of both the urbanized Middle East and the West of “the feminine,” including its relevance to belly dance, we are not on the grounds of universal human truths.  We are on the grounds of patriarchal truths.  We should be aware that men too can express the dynamics we regard as feminine, and that women may not fall into the categories we prepare for them. 

While it is sometimes aggravating to be essentialized – assumed to be one way or another based on the fact that you are a woman, an Arab, Irish, black, handicapped, or whatever – as far as Western belly dance is concerned, this may be a non-issue.  My impression is that most belly dancers embrace the valorized patriarchal view of “the feminine” rather than finding it restricting. 

What is restricting is the intrusion of patriarchal dynamics into nearly every aspect of Western belly dance.  The belly dance class and to some extent, the dance world, offers a “matriarchal” environment for the neophyte dancer.  She is encouraged to express herself – and to do so through a kind of movement that seems to verge on the forbidden territory of sex.  She is taught to love her body, however little it conforms to the unrealistic standards of our time.  She leaves behind her responsibilities, in which masculine concerns are likely to play a large role, and enters a feminine world.  She spends time with other women, in an atmosphere which tends to consciously exclude men.

On the other hand, if she persists in dancing, she will encounter patriarchal expectations at every turn.  If she wants to perform, that body-love she’s been taught will fly out the window, and she will face employers who insist that all good belly dancers are thin and young.  She will begin to notice that all the belly dancers she sees portrayed on CD covers and in popular culture are also thin and young – an exotic variety of partriarchal cheesecake.  She will find that people approve of her studying belly dance to “get in shape” – since it’s assumed that most of us are “out of shape” at any given moment – but that they are less understanding if she says she dances for enjoyment or self-expression or narcissism or other indulgent reasons. 

She will find that if she performs, she must present herself in accordance with patriarchal ideas of feminine beauty.  This may mean beads and sequins or piercings and tattoos, but it will not mean plain clothing and features not exoticized by makeup.  She will find that she is not likely to be paid well for her labor, and may learn to justify this by (consciously or not) dismissing its value.  She may find in herself a desire to perform that is less the need to create joy and communitas, and more a deeply inculcated desire to find (male, public) validation for her beauty and skill.  She will face audiences who interpret her as a sex object to be enjoyed, rather than author of a performance.  And all of these things may seem natural to her, such that she identifies herself (consciously or not) as light entertainment, a pleaser, pretty, and useless. 

And she may think of herself as doing the Goddess-dance of matriarchy the whole time.

The ideas of matriarchal origins and the empowering aspects of belly dance can be a medium through which the exact opposite of those things is justified.  The mantra “belly dance is all about women” or “belly dance is empowering” can be murmured by those who regularly perform the disempowerment of women, or at least regularly experience it.  The role of the belly dancer in the West has its own dynamics, not necessarily those of the East.  But in either case, the pure ideal of the “ancient matriarchy” can be used to create deception and worse, self-deception about the dynamics of patriarchy that are so much a part of how this dance is still conceived and played out in the real world. 

History – and especially mythic history – should not obscure the real issues involved in cultural dynamics that affect the modern world.  Those need to be taken on their own terms.  Whatever the “origin” of belly dance (not that it needs one), its current relationships, East and West, are with patriarchies, and this must be acknowledged if the dance is to become a true force for feminine empowerment rather than a pale image of it.


[1] One school of thought (and this is my view too) …  Gerda Lerner argues for this perspective in The Creation of Patriarchy ________.  Regarding the continuum of societies from egalitarian to patriarchal, the feminist anthropologist Sherri Ortner proposed in a controversial 1978 essay that all societies are male-dominated to some extent, even the most egalitarian having some realm in which the female is considered inferior to the male. _________.

[2] Another school of thought works toward redefining matriarchy …  For example, see the field work of ________________ (Modern Matriarchy) and the work on feminist aesthetics and the characteristics of matriarchy by Dutch feminist _______________  .

[3] All evidence of this is anecdotal, since (to my knowledge) no extensive surveys have been done.  This is probably more true of long-time dancers than neophytes.  On belly dancers’ spirituality, see Dox 2005.

[4] the tenets of feminist thealogy …  Perhaps the most complete statement of Goddess thealogy is expressed by Carol Christ in her Rebirth of the Godess.  I read this book with an increasing sense of connection, since she articulated so many beliefs that I personally held – only to be stopped short when she states that believing in ancient matriarchy is a must and not believing it means that you have succumbed to patriarchal propaganda.  Obviously I disagree – I don’t think a political reading of the past is necessary to shore up your spiritual beliefs.

[5] This is an approximate date for the “Venus of Willendorf,” perhaps the most famous of the “goddess” figurines, and it is also the date of some of the French cave paintings that are now so famous.  The cave at ____ in which figures of reclining women are carved into the cave walls, dates from _____ .

[6] both the polytheistic ancient Egyptians …  Isis and Horus, and Mary and Jesus. 

[7] Women were more often portrayed in Paleolithic cave paintings than men were, raising the possibility that women were at least symbolically more important in their cultures than were men, perhaps, as the scholar ___ proposes, because [QUOTE].  (Oddly enough, he doesn’t mention “selves” in the list of feminine functions, or consider the possibility that women might be more often depicted because women were the artists.)

[8] This is one of the objections that feminist archeologists raise to Marija Gimbutas’ interpretations of the figurines in her popular Language of the Goddess.  While this book has been important in women’s spirituality, both as history and as a work of spiritual insight, it has not been popular among archeologists.  This is not because archeologists are all tools of the patriarchy (though I have to admit that some of them are).  Gimbutas’ conclusions are not generally accepted only because archeology and anthropology, as disciplines, have pulled back from seeking universal patterns in diverse material, because experience has shown that such patterns do violence to understanding individual cultures.  See the comments of Conkey and Tringham, “Rethinking Figurines.” _____________ .

[9] The “interesting interludes” are the worship of Aten, the sun-disk, that the Pharaoh Ankhnaten tried to promulgate in the 18th dynasty, the Persian kings’ cult of Ahura-Mazda (which nevertheless included some of the traditional pantheon) and the Greco-Roman cult of Isis, in which Isis appeared as a universal deity who encompassed all of the other deities of the Greek and Egyptian worlds.  There are probably others, and monotheism shows up in other ways, for example the ancient Greek tendency to refer to Zeus, the king of their gods, simply as “god” at times.  But overall, structured monotheism is an aberration, occurring at times of political or social change – except for that fellow Yahweh, who made a success of it.

[10] Islam, of course, has its traditions of dervishes, but even they are somewhat marginalized.  [More] Christianity has successfully obliterated almost every trace of sacred dancing; liturgical dance is enjoying a very limited comeback in the present but is very much a marginalized thing in mainstream religion.  Judaism has not suppressed dance expression though it has faded somewhat from the days of the Old Testament, where women’s dance was a common form of communal expression of joy. 

[11] See Sherry Ortner --

[12] See Tivka --

[13] the incursion of evil patriarchs … And even if those evil patriarchs did invade the peace-loving matriarchies (or at least more egalitarian patriarchies), the more interesting question would be, what cultural tendencies caused those patriarchies to develop in the first place?  I’m not saying, by the way, “the evidence is too complex” as a hedge, but it really is very complex, and the reason is that it is different everywhere you look.  There are popular (i.e. non-archeologist) books that go into it as a whole, but the real work is going on in dozens if not hundreds of specific sites.  Although invasion theories were popular in the 19th and early part of the 20th century, they are less popular now, as the complex issues involved in social change have come clear.  But if you want popularly accessible sources, Marija Gimbutas argues for “Kurgan Invaders” in her ____, while Cynthia Eller marshalls some of the evidence against them in her ____ .

[14] Ortner paper ___________________.

[15] The Creation of Patriarchy.  Lerner has been criticized for buying into the patrairchal, essentialized view of women as essentially fertile beings, and there is some merit to these comments, but on the whole I think she holds a good middle ground between pop culture views and the specific work of feminist archeologists.  She at least presents her work as a theory rather than as fact.

[16] Kay Hardy Campbell on Saudi women’s dance parties.  Saudis, incidentally, regard “belly dance” as a foreign art, since their own dance does not focus on hip articulation.  But I include it here as essentially part of the same phenomenon, because it involves a fluid spine and shoulder articulations, and may be solo-improvised.  Generational roles: _____ (Shay / SY book)

[18] Saleh 1999, 488.

[19] In the zar, other dynamics (such as control of family resources) also play a role in the “politics” of the ritual.  _________ .

[20] Lewis, Zeitlin, Blundell.