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The art of piercing with the art of Belly dance.

A famous scene from the movie called "A Man Called Horse." The character was suspended by piercings in his chest as part of a Native American ritual (?)

One of our favorite role models, Mona Said,
poses modestly

Rakkasah Festival 2006 highlights!
Suhaila's troupe above, Kaya & Sadie below, both performed on the raised stage for the general public.

Suhaila's 2002 rakkasah show
Gilded Serpent presents...
Weird Rituals and Beyond:
Exploring Current Controversies
in Middle Eastern Dance

by Barbara Grant

Illustrations chosen by Lynette

Two recent controversies covered by Gilded Serpent have raised significant commentary from dancers and readers of this publication. They are: the "Sashi-Kabob" piece written by Lynette and discussed on the Letters page by several dancers, and the “relationship” (if there is one) between Belly dance and Burlesque dancing. This comparison was prompted initially by Princess Farhana's article in 2005 and subsequently addressed in commentary on both that article and related material on other performances, such as those at the Rakassah, 2006 Festical featuring Suhaila's troupe and the duet of Kaya and Sadie. If you are like me, (I know that many are not) you first responded viscerally and negatively to both situations. Then, as the shock wore off, perhaps you tried to make sense of it all. In this piece I’m trying to do just that, from my point of view, of course. 

Warning notice: My judgments stated here are based fundamentally on Judeo-Christian ethical standards gleaned from my biblical Christian beliefs. Those who abhor such standards may not wish to read further.

Regarding first, the "piercing" dance (or whatever it was that Sashi called it):

She delivered a detailed introduction, attributing her performance as "inspired by the Tribal Hindu Thaipusam Festivals of Malaysia in which Kavadi frames, cheek and tongue spears are worn in trance-like states to honor Lord Muruga while seeking penance for themselves and their community" as noted by her student Justine Thorpe in her Letter to the Editor of Gilded Serpent.

Ms. Thorpe averred that witnessing Sashi's piercing was a "beautiful" experience, akin to helping Sashi give birth to a child, "but in this case the child was creativity."

The idea of piercing oneself for purposes of gaining "spiritual awareness" is not unique, of course, to the Hindu inhabitants of Malaysia. As Lynette’s original Sashi article noted, Sashi's boyfriend, Steve, routinely participates in piercing rituals, the description of which reminded me distinctly of the 1970 film "A Man Called Horse" in which Richard Harris' chest is pierced with hooks hanging from the top of a tent, from which he dangles during a Native American ritual. Those who participated in it thought that it promoted spirituality.

Here's my question: if "gods" or "goddesses" may be worshiped, and "spiritual enlightenment" achieved, by what is in no uncertain terms mutilation of the body, then where does it stop? Will our next performance treat be "spiritual enlightenment" arising from the practices of "cutting" or Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)? Should we expect to justify such body mutilations when they appear in the dual contexts of spirituality and dance performance?

As an American who is concerned about our youth, I find "cutting" particularly reprehensible! Its strongest adherents are female American teenagers. "I actually liked how the cuts looked," said "Jen," an American teenaged girl. (

"I felt kind of bad when they started to heal - and so I would 'freshen them up' by cutting again. Now I can see how crazy that sounds, but at the time, it seemed perfectly reasonable to me."

iron maiden, a torture device for witchesHow long before a practice like this one is associated with some spiritual tradition found somewhere among the many diverse cultures of the world, then subsequently promoted as legitimate "performance art" on a Belly dance stage? And what is the cost to the young and vulnerable? Being a teenaged girl in this country is not easy. If a girl can circumvent the "puking ritual," designed to conform her figure to what is considered ideal by the culture, might she next succumb to "cutting" as a means of gaining "empowerment" and "spiritual awareness"?

Extreme body mutilation has no place in Belly dance! However, after reading “Sashi-Kabob,” I've begun to wonder whether this community should even consider including the "Tribal dance" among its many and varied forms. What is "Tribal," anyway? It is an American invention, having nothing at all to do with the dance arts of the Middle East. That is not to say that American innovations in the dance are negative, but it seems to me after reading this article that "Tribal" as exemplified by Sashi and her ilk has absolutely nothing to do with the dance form I've studied as Belly dance over the past 15-plus years. If the Tribal community cannot effectively perform quality control over its dancers, perhaps the larger Belly dance community should consider whether or not Tribal performances and festivals are worthy of consideration in a publication such as this one.

Regarding the other controversy:
Recent Letters to the Editor of Gilded Serpent have decried the presence of what seem to be quasi-burlesque dancing routines performed at Rakassah and other venues. Princess Farhana, in her published piece, clearly draws the distinction between her Burlesque performances and her Belly dance performances. Frankly, I doubt whether she is the only burlesque performer who also Belly dances.

There are two points I want to make here, and the first has been clearly articulated by Miles Copeland: there is a "guilt by association" aspect between Burlesque dance and Belly dance, and the latter should attempt to stay far away from the former. From my perspective, it's a matter of taste and judgment: I don't want my dance to be associated with Burlesque because dancing in a Burlesque show does not comport with the ethical standards I've chosen to live by. If that characterizes me as a "prude" to some people, so be it!

From this perspective, I'm displeased to see routines such as the one Suhaila and her troupe performed at the recent Rakassah. What is the troupe trying to present? Is it Art? Is it, perhaps, a modern-day Madonna-esque interpretation of the Middle Eastern culture? (Our singer Madonna, of course, succeeded famously with her "crotch-grabbing" routine.) However, I ask again: what does this have to do with Belly dance? It has precious little in common with Belly dance, as far

as I can tell--about as much as Sashi and her "pierced wings" have to do with our art.

I doubt whether we will ever achieve agreement on a definition of "Belly dance" that satisfies everyone and encompasses the diverse spectrum of performers who call themselves Belly dancers. Yet I think it is also wise to carefully consider the manner in which fringe elements characterize our dance. Are we a group of eager "Body Pierced” dancers or "Burlesque dancers"? Some may wonder. However, if we consistently advise audiences that our dance efforts seek to promote a dance art form that emanated, in ancient times, from the Middle East, and has now been adapted to the Western stage, perhaps we'll win audiences who'll watch and listen with respect.

Have a comment? Send us a letter!
Check the "Letters to the Editor" for other possible viewpoints!

Ready for more?
5-26-06 Sashi - Kabob by Lynette, Warning, possibly disturbing graphics!
The punctures appear to go under the skin into the subcutaneous fat layer and not through muscle tissue.

5-23-06 The Photos of Saroya Ahlaam, March 2006, Rakkasah Festival, Richmond, Ca
...she was a replacement at Rakkasah for a no-show and did a great job! I was so impressed with the crystals on her costume. You could see them sparkle from the back of the auditorium.

6-6-06 The Bellydance Scene in Taiwan Toss Hair Dance by Eugenia
The women were much more skillful than I expected: just 3 years ago, nobody in Taiwan really knew anything about Bellydance.

6-5-06 Rhythm and Reason Series, Article 12 Moved by the Music by Mary Ellen Donald
I did all this because those sudden shifts in rhythm and tempo and the abrupt breaks in the music that were unfamiliar to me could have made me look like a fool...

6-2-06 Tribal Fest 2006, May 19 in Sebastopol photos by Susie Poulelis
Performances from Saturday late afternoon including: BlackSheep, Sashi, InFusion...

6-1-06 I Love Lucy: Confessions of a Dancer by Yosifah Rose
Lucy does not believe that one can properly perform Oriental dance with a set choreography.

5-30-06 Fresh Old Sounds by Charmaine Ortega Getz
Seeking fresh sounds in belly dance music? Consider a trip back to the 1950s up to the groovy ‘70s when a new style of music was bringing the East to the West.

5-29-06 Traveling to Tizi Ouzou by Linda Grondahl
When I was in high school, I was fascinated by some of the names I read about when studying world geography.


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