Feminism and Belly Dance[1]


Andrea Deagon


Differing perspectives

        (p. 8)    When I was in graduate school in the early 1980’s, some friends and I presented a program on belly dance as part of their dormitory’s arts series.  During coffee and conversation afterwards, a member of the audience said to me,  “I consider myself a feminist, and I was offended by what you just did.  I was surprised we’d even have something like this in our arts series.”  I answered, “I consider myself a feminist too, and ‘what we just did’ is a dance by and for women and an expression of women’s power.”  For a moment we just looked at each other, surprised that two supposedly like-minded individuals could have such exactly opposite interpretations of what our dance had meant.

            In 1999, as a professor who teaches in a Women’s Studies program and a student of belly dance since the age of sixteen, I am still comfortable with a feminist interpretation of the dance.  I no longer describe it as “by and for women”; while it can be, this description is too simplistic for a dance so concerned with the centers of sex, birth and emotion.  I now have mixed feelings about the word “power” as well, since it contains ideas of dominance and coercion that are at odds with the dance as I understand it.  But I feel strongly that belly dance is empowering for women.  In performance, I find a voice that expresses my essentially feminine life experience, and I become a conduit through which my audiences can share my vision.  Through my teaching, I help others find their own voices.  This is womanly power, and I wholeheartedly believe that this dance is good for women. 

At the same time, I cannot ignore the fact that the dance as I know it sits awkwardly in Western culture, easily misread as exhibitionistic and intended primarily to arouse men. Some dancers, to be sure, perpetuate this reading of the dance, attracted to it because it offers opportunities to become the focus of sexually charged attention .  Yet even when this understandable desire[2]  was never the dancer’s main reason for dancing, or where it matured into a wiser understanding of the uses of the dance, Western audiences’ expectations are hard to bypass.  In my own experience as a performer, I have danced for many audiences where my art connected, and we all shared a spirit of sensual, joyful, deep togetherness.  I have also danced for audiences in which some people participated in this dynamic, while others, locked into their limited expectations, saw a come-on, a tease, a diminishment of the very respect for women I work so hard to represent.  My self-presentation and artistry did not change.  But dancing in America – or anywhere in the modern world – means dancing in a patriarchy, and conflicts between dancers’ and audiences’ perspectives invariably arise.

Belly dance exists at a point of conflict between women’s expressions of fundamental truths, and patriarchal interpretations of this expression. It is not an easy place to be.  Within the profession, dancers heatedly discuss issues of personal ethics, self-presentation, economics, and dealing with the public, which arise from this difficult merger of belly dance and patriarchy.  For me, these issues are illuminated by the work of feminists whose writings cast light on the cultural underpinnings of many of our conflicts.

(p. 9) Feminists and belly dancers are natural allies in many ways.  Feminists are particularly attuned to seeing women’s expression suppressed by patriarchal expectations.  Feminists, like belly dancers, are used to being misunderstood.  While belly dancers are often portrayed as being exhibitionistic or sexually immoral, feminists are often tagged as man-haters, lesbians, radicals, control freaks and prudes.  Feminists are particularly aware that public images of women can be misleading, and that often there is a different story behind the “story” society embraces.  Feminists are also attuned to the forms of women’s self-expression, and alert to the difficulties society has in hearing it. 

This article is a brief sampling of some of the ways in which feminist thought can contribute to the issues important to belly dancers.  In some ways feminist thought supports the path belly dance has taken in the Western world, for Western women.[3]  But it also has some hard questions to put to belly dancers – interrogations which ask them to consider whether this very womanly form of expression sometimes contributes to patriarchal dynamics that ultimately undermine its source of strength.

Feminism and Belly Dance

Feminism is, at its heart, a desire to move the world toward better treatment for women; it usually incorporates the idea that a world which is better for women will also be better for men. But feminists have widely differing views on the sources of our society’s gender inequities and how to remedy them.  While some feminists focus on economic and legal issues, others consider more theoretical issues such as how we define “masculine” and “feminine” and to what extent these ideas are natural as opposed to culturally encoded.  Like any intellectual or political movement, feminism is always growing and changing.  As the world changes, feminists continually reassess their ongoig mission to better women’s lives.  There are always new data, new ideas, and new perspectives. 

Feminism works by the often-disconcerting technique of challenging the comfortable.  Feminism has progressed -- as have other civil rights movements -- by the realization that accepted, comfortable ways of looking at things were not necessarily right, fair, or healthy.  Why should there be different restrooms for "white" and "colored"?  Why should women with college degrees be offered secretarial jobs, not management jobs?  Why should women have to keep different sexual standards from men?  Along with this interrogation of obvious unfairness came interrogation of things that seemed comfortable, but still pointed to underlying unfairnesses that could hold women back in the long run.  Why should it be common for men to pay for the date?  For men to hold open doors for women?  It was not that there was anything inherently bad about having a door held open or a meal paid for, and it was not hatred of men or desire to be free of them.  It was the perception that these smaller assumptions underlay a system which paid women less, caused them to be subjected to sexual harassment and domestic violence, and restricted their freedom of choice.  Feminism undertook to interrogate the whole system of assumptions about men’s and women's relationships, hoping to make the world a better place for both.

Both feminism and belly dance enjoyed an upsurgence in the early 1970’s, suggesting that there is a community of interest between the two.  When “women’s liberation” was pushing for more job opportunities, more personal freedom, and more sexual freedom for women, belly dance offered freedoms that seemed to exemplify these goals.  It encouraged self-expression, it freed women from constraint in their physical movement[4], and it encouraged taking center stage – a liberating combination for women who had begun to see the demureness and agreeable blandness expected of them as restrictive and wrong.  There is no doubt that the dance was liberating to women.  Those of us who taught in the 70’s saw it time and time again: women whose stiff, introverted body language showed lack of confidence were suddenly opening up, shaking their hips, performing, expressing.[5]  Going to belly dance class was, for some, a subversive act.  Teaching in the South in the late 70’s, I knew several of my students lied about where they were going on Tuesday nights. I also knew of several women who danced themselves out of restrictive relationships.  Through belly dance, many women found a way to escape, for the class hour or on a wider scale, from societal bonds that restricted them from power, adventure, exploration of their own sensuality, and claiming a public voice.

Over the past thirty years, Western belly dancers have come to an interpretation of their art that builds on these early liberating self-discoveries.  While many individual philosophies of dance exist, and while there is often heated discussion about them within the community, on the whole dancers take a more or less feminist view of what they are doing.  Most dancers feel that they are dancing for themselves and for a wide audience, rather than to please and seduce men.  Most dancers, while aware of sometimes unpleasant professional competition, have a sense of sisterhood with other dancers.  Most dancers feel that this dance is particularly feminine, that what it says is said best by women, and that it is a valuable form of self-expression for themselves and for women as a group.[6]  Dancers tend to discuss belly dance history in terms of goddess worship and childbirth rituals, though other myths (harems and slave dancers) still dominate the consciousness of non-dancers.  Dancers also tend to embrace archetypes that embody central issues of their own dancing: earth goddess, gypsy dancer[7], sensual queen, sweet young nymph.  Through these images, dancers create feeling, move their audiences to new perceptions and ideas, express who they are, and open the door to something deep and powerful in themselves and in their audiences.  Dancers love this ability in themselves and rightly see it as a power, a gift, a voice.  On the whole, dancers’ experience tends to support the notion that this dance is good for women: it is valuable as self-expression, and it is at heart a woman’s dance, reflective of women’s essence, skills, power, sexuality, and spirituality.

On the other hand, the view of the general public has not kept pace with the feminist bent of dancers’ images of their art.  Belly dance continues to be marginalized as an art form; a professional dancer may have a difficult time being taken seriously.  The chief venues for performance in the United States are parties (often requiring short “bellygrams” rather than full length performances) and restaurants.  The restaurant or social occasion is a very volatile venue for dance performance.  The dancer can play a powerful role, creating a deep sense of fellow-feeling and shared joy, or move individuals deeply, or create a memory that will be treasured forever.  Or – and sadly, more likely -- in a club or restaurant, she may appear to most patrons as “background” to their dinner, best when not too obtrusive.  She may appear as a mild source of amusement, a fun way to tease and humiliate the birthday boy.  She may appear as an intrusive source of sexual energy. Regardless of her own intent, she may not be able to break through the preconceptions of people who are inclined to see her multifaceted (p. 10) performance according to their own lights.  Consequently dancers experience varied and all too often negative public receptions.  Western society takes various distancing positions toward belly dance: ignoring, joking about, diminishing.

There is an essential failure of communication.  The dancer feels her self-expression through dance is positive and inclusive.  She is aware that self-expression and creating good feeling are the “work” of belly dance. But for the typical audience, the expectations of a patriarchal society rule.  The dancer is in violation of society’s norms: a woman who takes on a public voice, who speaks through her body rather than hiding it, who brings sensuality and complexity into their homes and restaurants.[8]  No wonder her audience so often fails to see what she is doing.

Dancers often complain bitterly about this breach, but accept it as inevitable.  But feminists, committed to questioning the status quo, have to pursue its implications.  At the turn of the millennium, we are in a different world from the early days of “women’s lib” and wholehearted, innocent “belly dance.”  Feminism now has moved on to question the perspectives and accomplishments of the 70’s: Did the liberation of the 70’s succeed if more women have careers now – but work for less pay than men?  What can be done to address the inequity?  Did the sexual liberation of the 70’s give women the freedom to explore their own sexuality, or did it simply make them more available to meet the sexual agendas of men? 

Similarly, a feminist observing a typical Western belly dance performance today could have many reasons to feel uncomfortable with it.  Dancers may believe that the personal freedom encouraged by belly dance is de facto empowering.  But if the societal conditions for dance performance are disempowering, how should the dance be read?

In the only type of belly dance performance that most people see in the West, few of the dancer’s audience understand what she is doing, and the atmosphere of her venue does not privilege her performance.  The dancer may feel she has a voice, but often she cannot “speak” so as to be heard. The feminist observer may well see a dancer dressed to express glamorous sensuality, performing sensual movements, whose audience ranges from amused to uncomfortable to delighted to disgusted, and whose “voice” is silenced by the clatter of plates and conversation. 

It is as if belly dance and belly dancers have stepped right into the disempowered place patriarchy has prepared for them: exposed but unheard.

It is not surprising that a feminist observer of dance in the West should have some hard questions. Is belly dance really empowering for women, or does it simply bring “women as sex objects” into a different range of venues than before?  By performing mainly as party surprises and background to dinner conversation, have belly dancers sold out their art to a patriarchal agenda?  And while these questions might seem misguided to dancers who recognize their own power in dance, they reflect issues often discussed within the profession: poor performing conditions, bad pay, quarrels with management over costuming and self-presentation. 

Feminist critique, based on a wealth of theoretical discussion, can help dancers resolve the breach between what they are striving for and how they are perceived.  In the rest of this article, I will discuss a few realms of feminist enquiry that are pertinent to belly dancers: “ownership” of women’s sexuality within patriarchy, acting in bad faith, and essentialism.  In each case, my discussion is only the tip of the iceberg, a thumbnail sketch of issues that are complex and resist easy solutions – as all real problems do.  It is my hope that dancers will pursue feminist ideas for insight into central issues in their dancing.

Living in Patriarchy

            Although patriarchy is often considered a pejorative term, it has a simple, straightforward meaning: a society in which the concerns and characteristics of men generally are held as more valuable than the concerns and characteristics of women.  Such societies tend to be hierarchical, with higher-status men controlling the majority of resources and dominating public expression.  In modern America and Europe, we live in a patriarchy, as have all “complex civilizations” since the Bronze Age.  Our society has egalitarian inclinations and we pride ourselves on achieving some level of equality between the sexes.  Yet none of us were raised in a culture in which male and female were considered equal, however egalitarian our families, schools, friends and employers may be.  Consequently, on very deep levels, our perceptions are still patriarchal.  Patriarchal thinking infuses our language (e.g. our tendency to use “he” and “his” as indefinites, and our tendency to say “his/her or “he/she” rather than “s/he” or “her/his” when we aim for egalitarian language).  It infuses our subconscious expectations (e.g. the association of “doctor” with a male role and “nurse” with a female role, even when many female doctors and male nurses exist). Our very defi(p. 11)nitions of what is “feminine” and “masculine” have been formed by patriarchy and do not necessarily reflect the gender expectations of non-patriarchal societies.  All of our assumptions were formed by a world in which women’s ways are not centralized – so much so that it may be difficult for us to know ourselves. 

            Because it is so hard to escape the influence of our patriarchal upbringing, we may fall into modes of thought that seem empowering but are ultimately patriarchal.  For example, the movie G I Jane shows a woman as tough as any man, a seemingly empowering portrayal.  But at the same time, it presents ideas associated with women (gentleness, compromise, cooperative rather than confrontive behavior) as inadequate or ineffective or less important than the confrontation and conflict associated with men.  By cheering on the heroine, we support a patriarchal vision that ultimately undermines women as a whole.[9]  Just as one can question G I Jane, one can question belly dancers’ acceptance of their venues.  Is a woman performing in a nightclub where she is perceived as a sex object by many patrons and underpaid by the management really pursuing a healthy agenda for women, or she is promoting the patriarchal expectations that undermine her self-expression through art?

Belly dancers often look to long-ago matriarchies as the source of belly dance.  But what is historically observable is that the form of belly dance now, including the specific ways in which women are privileged as its performers, has taken shape along patriarchal lines.  Consequently, the basic form of the dance, and our sense of the rightness of women dancing sensuously for an audience, were formed by patriarchy.

One of the central truths of patriarchy is that it reifies women’s sexuality (i.e. makes it an ownable, buyable thing).  This process is observable in early societies’ formal exchanges of women, disproportionate use of women as slaves, and articulation of bride prices and unequal property rights within marriage, as well as by the early development of prostitution in complex civilizations.[10]  Our own society maintains many of these inequities.  Consequently there is an undertone in gender relationships that while men own their own sexuality, women’s sexuality is “for men,” directed at fulfilling men’s desires rather than women’s own.  Women’s sexuality is available to men through prostitution, sexually explicit performance, and, on a milder level, in sensual performances by women such as belly dance.[11]

To be sure, women perform this dance for both men and women, and the women who perform it probably feel that they own their own sexuality.  All the same, in our society women are appropriate awakeners of sexuality for us, while men, whose sexuality is less comfortably reified, fulfill this role far less commonly.[12]  Consequently, it can be argued that sensual dancing by women – including belly dance – is a product of a culture that subjugates women sexually, and (poisoned fruit from a poisoned tree) supports the exploitation of women. When some feminists lump belly dance together with stripping and topless bars as degrading to women, it is the fundamental inequity they object to: women’s sensual dance arises from a perspective in which women’s sexuality is “owned by” men.

It is my own feeling that belly dance as performance is subversive.  It allows women to seem to conform to patriarchal expectations while at the same time challenging them through powerful self-expression.  But the problem with subversive intent and seeming conformity is that they play across a dangerous edge.  There is a threat to the dancer’s integrity implicit in working in a situation where the agendas of others are contrary to her own.  One is that she will be being dragged into compromise.  For example, the management wants a sultan act.  Although the dancer feels uncomfortable with it, she goes along.  Although she feels uncomfortable with receiving tips in her costume, she takes them, because that is the only way to make any money dancing in the local venues.

An even greater danger is that the dancer sells out without knowing it.  She forms an idea of what is acceptable (15 dollars a show, tips in her costume, last minute calls from the management, occasional sexual harassment from the patrons) based not on an image of truth for herself, but a degraded image of what a dancer is and does.  Because she accepts, she does not interrogate.  Or, she does not interrogate because she is afraid of losing something she has: the gratification of performing, even within a system that does not respect her. But in giving in without interrogating, she gives up something of herself. 

In her influential book The Second Sex[13], Simone de Beauvoir discusses the consequences of this kind of failure.  (p. 12) After discussing how our culture identifies men as “self” or subject and women as “other” or object, de Beauvoir builds on the existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre’s notion of “bad faith” (i.e. cultivating a deliberate blindness to pain-causing truths that ultimately makes us less than fully conscious).  She describes a situation in which a woman on a date reaches a moment in which she must either engage in a real flirtation that will lead to something more, or decide to end it.  In de Beauvoir’s narrative, this moment comes when the man takes her hand.  But in order to preserve her enjoyment of the situation as she imagines it – not as it really is – she leaves her hand in the man’s, and “does not notice that she is leaving it.”  In this moment of bad faith – where she abandons her responsibility to be true to herself – she loses something of herself.  By abandoning her responsibility to act, she lets herself become an object rather than a thinking, acting being.  An unconscious object cannot be a conscious subject.  By failing to face reality, she contributes to society’s inclination to diminish her.

When a belly dancer continues to work in difficult and unsupportive venues, is she acting in bad faith as de Beauvoir describes it?  Is she supporting the patriarchy that disrespects her?  Is she submitting to objectification by her failure to acknowledge the realities of her condition?  Or is she doing the right thing by continuing to speak where she may or may not be heard?  De Beauvoir’s argument has been much discussed and critiqued by modern feminists.  Yet the idea of responsibility to recognize unspoken dynamics is of undeniable importance in how dancers address their performance situations.  Here especially, the perspectives of de Beauvoir and her critics and supporters can provide perspective for dancers engaged in difficult discussions of working conditions and venues.


One of the tenets supporting a feminist interpretation of belly dance is that it is an essentially feminine form.  This notion is commonly expressed by dancers, and is also often heard among the more enlightened elements of the general public.  When dancers place the roots of belly dance in goddess worship or birth ritual, they express the idea that this dance receives its vital power from an ultimately feminine force.  They may even express the idea that feminine modes of thought and performance (e.g. sensual and emotional freedom, intuitive response, and community) are superior to the masculine modes which drive patriarchy.   

Those who privilege feminine ways of thinking and attributes over those perceived to be masculine are in an essentialist mindset. 

Essentialism – the belief that women and men are fundamentally different -- seems entirely justified by our culture, as does the idea of feminine values that are distinct from the dominant patriarchal values of our society.  However, other cultures have different ideas about what is male or female behavior; there is no real justification for our conviction that our beliefs about masculine and feminine behavior are “natural” or universal. Is this dance really feminine – or is it only feminine as patriarchy defines it?  By empowering the feminine, do we disrespect the universal because of our own adherence to patriarchal distinctions?

While our dance often privileges modes of expression we label “feminine,” essentialism itself is problematic.  Rosemarie Tong summarizes some objections to it:

Essentialist claims about what makes certain groups of people the way they are (for example, women, blacks, Jews), are the political-philosophical constructs of conservatism.  The history of essentialist argument is one of oppressors telling the oppressed to accept their lot in life because “that’s just the way it is.” . . . By agreeing that women are a priori nurturing and life giving . . . [we] are buying into the male-dictated dichotomies [we] are trying to avoid.[14]

The empowering, yet essentialist, interpretations of the feminine we see so often in belly dance are problematic because they reverse patriarchal valuations of women while reinforcing their essence.  If we believe women are a priori sensual, expressive, life-giving, and empowered to relieve pain through their dancing, do we limit women’s ability to express other emotions, other modes of being?  Do we diminish the rights of men to express these supposedly feminine ideas without giving up their masculine identity?  Does an essentialist view of belly dance as feminine ultimately (p. 13) empower or limit women in their artistic vision and self-exploration?  If you believe that essentialist views of feminine and masculine are natural, then privileging the feminine is a feminist act.  Yet if you believe that these views are encoded by patriarchy, then they must be questioned as potential limitations to both women and men.

Feminism and Belly Dance: Where Now?

Feminism is a rich, complex field, a rainbow of voices with only one thing in common: a desire to make the world a better place for women.  As such, like belly dance, feminism is essentially life-affirming.  For us – for any thinking being – to continue to grow and thrive, it is essential to question, to go beyond the comfortable into what stretches, challenges and revitalizes the mind.  This article has barely scratched the surface of feminist thought relevant to belly dance. I hope it will lead other dancers into their own investigation of feminist writings.  As we move into the new millennium, feminism, with its traditions of interrogation and breaking free of societal constraints, can help guide and deepen the processes at work in the art of belly dance.


[1] I use the term “belly dance” advisedly here, though I usually describe my own dance as “Middle Eastern dance” or raqs sharki.  I do this for several reasons.  One is to reclaim a term often intended pejoratively, much as the gay and lesbian community has reclaimed the term “queer.”  “Belly dance” seems to have originated in the Western world as a dismissive term, showing disregard for the skill in whole body movement and musical interpretation that the dance requires.  It was also meant to exclude the dance from polite society by naming it for an area of the body associated with base, animal, sexual desire rather than the supposedly loftier aspirations of Western dance.  But the belly is also, in our thought vocabulary, the seat of deep emotion, instinctive (“gut”) feelings, birth and desire.  I want to reclaim these associations and challenge the dismissive intent of the name “belly dance.”  Furthermore, “belly dance” is a very inclusive term, which is appropriate in this article.  As raqs sharki and the folk dances of the Middle East have made an impression in the West, they have inspired many stylistic departures.  There are many women and men whose interpretations of the form may not be either raqs sharki or “Middle Eastern” dance, who would be excluded by more specific terms for the dance we share. 

[2] It is understandable for anyone, male or female, in any culture, to want to be the focus of desire for those whom s/he desires. Our culture is particularly prone to validate women on the basis of their appearance and attractiveness to men, so women become even more conditioned to seek this kind of attention.

[3] This article is only concerned with the performance and presentation of the dance in the West.  Women’s experience of the dance within Eastern culture involves a different set of issues which cannot be addressed here.

[4] Belly dance offered physical freedom from the upright positions of ballet and spiritual freedom from the (already fading) conventions of social dance, so it was a very heady experience to be seeking new, wilder movement.  Of course, belly dance has its own “constraints” in that any dance form requires schooling the body away from its weaknesses and toward a stronger presentation of the dance.  In the 70’s, when a great many women experimented with the dance without proceeding to any level of expertise; what was most striking to them was the freedom of the dance rather than its discipline.

[5] This process continues today for many new students, of course, but in the 70’s images of sensuous dancing by ordinary women were less commonplace and the freedoms of belly dance more striking by comparison.

[6] Elsewhere I have called this “a dance for women and for men who privilege the feminine.”  Others argue that this dance is just as natural a form of expression for men as for women.  Yet in the West there is an assumption that women have a natural right to perform this dance, whereas men have to struggle to find an appropriate style and place.  There is no agreement within the (largely female) population of belly dancers about what that style or place should be.

[7] I include this image because it is so important to so many dancers, since it embodies freedom, fire, control, wildness, and friendly aggression in a combination particularly meaningful to Western women.  It is important, though, to be aware that our archetype is pinned on a real group.   We must be aware that our image does not reflect the lives of real Rom, and move toward redefining our reference for this archetype.

[8] See the discussion of Stavros Stavrou, “Erotic Fantasy or Female Empowerment? Gender Issues in Oriental Dance,” this issue.

[9] I am indebted to Dr. Janet Ellerby for this example.

[10] Gerda Lerner, The Creation of Patriarchy, Oxford University Press, 1986.

[11] These ideas are the subject of great debate among feminists.  The question of to what extent sexual behavior within our society can escape unequal power relationships is central to every one of us, as well as to issues such as sexual violence and pornography.  For more on this exchange, see Rosemarie Tong, Feminist Thought: A Comprehensive Introduction, Westview Press 1989, 109-123.

[12] Certainly male exotic dancers and male prostitutes exist in our culture, though primarily for the consumption of other men; male power over the sexuality of less powerful men is also an established feature of patriarchal cultures.  Where women are the consumers of male eroticism (as, for example, in  a Chippendale’s show) the dynamics of this interaction are very different from those of a male audience for female eroticism.

[13] Trans. H. M. Parshley.  New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1952; see also Tong 196-200.

[14] Tong 135.

This article was originally published in Habibi Magazine

Andrea Deagon received her Ph.D. in Classical Studies from Duke Unviersity in 1984.  Since then she has taught at Victoria University of Wellington (New Zealand) and at her undergraduate alma mater, Guilford College (Greensboro, NC) before coming to UNC-Wilmington, where she coordinates the Classical Studies Program and teaches in the Women's Studies Program.  She has studied oriental dance since age 17, and has had a wide range of performing experiences in the US and (opportunistically) overseas.  She periodically teaches local classes and regional seminars.  One of her goals over the past ten years has been the integration of her academic research and writing, with her goals and perceptions as a dancer.  These articles are a part of that process.

Copyright restrictions: This article is copyrighted material.  It is made available on the Internet for anyone who wants to read it.  If you want to copy it, please abide by the following conditions:

Thank you for complying with these rules.  I make them because I want to make sure my articles keep the form I worked so hard to finalize, and because I want people who are doing their own reading and research in the field to know the individual voices behind the words.  Best wishes and joy in dance.