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A Trade Like Any Other' : Female Singers and Dancers in Egypt
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. Paperback - 226 pages 1st edition (September 1995)
Dimensions ( 0.64 x 8.95 x 6.00

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Mailbox Missives-
Serving Men Indeed! Harumph!
by Shira

Dear Shira:

I am having a hard time finding concrete information to prove my husband that belly dancing did not originate for serving men. He believes that it would be rationally impossible, if this dance originated in the Middle East, where women are known to be second to men, that the only possible reason for belly dancing would be to entice men, to seduce men, in order for women to get financial support. He even has made comparisions to stripping and other similar types related to stripping. My husband thinks it's impossible for it not to be a dance for men because the clothes belly dancers wear are so seductive. Is he right?

Dear Wife:

Your husband is one very confused male individual. Please tell him to pull his mind out of his pants! Here are some facts that should set him straight....

According to several articles written by Morocco, based on interviews and other research that she conducted, belly dancing originated as a sacred birth ritual. Women would gather around a woman in labor and do certain abdominal movements, encouraging her to do the same. These were movements that would ease the birth and create a sense of unity and common experience among them. For more details, see the article Roots on Morocco's web site. Over the centuries, changing society and the rise of patriarchal religion caused the use of these movements to lose their sacred connotations and become a social dance.

Traditionally, "belly dancing" among Muslim women has been mostly a social dance that was done in the company of other women. Just as we use social dancing as part of our celebration at wedding receptions and other happy occasions, so did people in the Middle East. In traditional Muslim households, women celebrated separately from men. For each special event, men had their party, and women had a separate one. Men danced with other men, and women danced with other women, all using the moves that today we think of as "belly dancing" moves.

In some areas, after feeding a large noon meal to their men, women would congregate in the homes of female friends, neighbors, and family members for socializing. Often, these gatherings would involve playing music and taking turns dancing for each other. In this way, eligible single women could make themselves known to the mothers and sisters of marriageable men. Older women could use these occasions to simply relax and enjoy the pleasure of other women's company.

In Sura XXIV, 31, the Koran says, "And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what must ordinarily appear. Therefore, they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands, their fathers, their husbands' fathers, their sons, their husbands' sons, their brothers or their brothers' sons, or their sisters' sons, or their women, or the slaves they possess, or male servants who are free of physical needs, or small children who have no sense of shame of sex."

For this reason, the professional entertainers of the Middle East typically came from groups outside the mainstream Muslim society: Jews, Ghawazee (Gypsies), divorced or widowed women who had no other source of financial support, etc. Professional entertainers were normally seen as being on the fringes of society, at the very bottom of the social ladder

. Singers and other musicians held slightly more prestige than dancers. Even today, "son of a dancer" is still a nasty insult in Egypt. These professionals would appear at saints day festivals, wedding celebrations, circumcisions, and other such events. They were also the performers that European travelers had access to seeing.

"Oriental dance," which is the stage presentation of the dance form that is known as "belly dancing" in the U.S., arose out of two phenomena that appeared in the Middle East at the dawn of the 20th century: 1) The appearance of nightclubs, and 2) The movie industry.

Historically, there was no special sexy dance "costume" resembling what dancers wear today. Just as we wear "nice" but mostly normal clothes to parties, so did the men and women of the Middle East. Even the professional dancers performed in clothing that was part of their typical wardrobe.

The notion of wearing a special costume for dancing arose in the 20th century and was inspired by the influence of the harem fantasy movies coming out of the U.S. These Hollywood costume designers, working with the Western notion of the exotic Orient, created the concept of a jewel-encrusted bra, bare midriff, and low-slung skirt to portray Cleopatra, Salome, and other notorious Oriental femme fatales.

Dancers appearing in the Arabic-language Egyptian movies of the 1930's picked up on these ideas and soon the beaded bra/belt/skirt uniform became standard garb.

Today, in many Middle Eastern countries men and women mingle in public life. Therefore, family celebrations are no longer separated into separate parties for men and women. When I was in Egypt in January 1999 I had the opportunity to attend two wedding celebrations. Neither one featured a professional Oriental dance artist. Instead, the paid entertainment for both consisted of troupes of young men. Men and women sat together at the same tables. But when the band started to play and people got up to dance socially, the women danced in one part of the room and the men in another.

And now, back to your husband's specific comments:

  • Origin Of The Dance. The dance was created by women, to celebrate the feminine experience. Admittedly, many a man will acknowledge that a beautiful woman who is celebrating her femininity is very sexy, even if she's not doing so for men's benefit. Just take a look at how many men fantasize about watching sex between two Lesbians. But at its heart, this remains a women's dance.
  • Male/Female Relations. He misunderstands the Middle Eastern view of male/female relations: a man's honor is deeply affected by the reputation of his women. Most Muslim men would rather support their wives, mothers, unmarried sisters, or daughters than be dishonored through letting their family women dance professionally. Therefore, only a small minority of women in the Middle East need to use the dance for financial support.
  • Garb.The sexy costume that dancers today wear were inspired by Hollywood costume designers in the early 20th century who were responding to the fantasy of the exotic beauties of the East. It does not represent any sort of traditional Middle Eastern dance attire.

Of course, I acknowledge that individual women have danced for their husbands in private as a tool of seduction over the ages. But that doesn't automatically mean the dance originated that way.

Women have also been known to cook wonderful meals for men as a tool of seduction, but most of us understand that seduction wasn't the sole purpose or origin of good cuisine.

For more historical fact on Oriental dance, you may find these sources helpful:

  • A Trade Like Any Other. A book by Karin van Nieuwkerk. Offers a solidly researched perspective on the role of professional dancers in Egyptian society.
  • The Belly Dance Book A book edited by Tazz Richards. The articles in the historical section are excellent.
  • Articles On Morocco's Web Site. Written by Morocco and Tark abd Malik. Several researched historical information on the history of the dance.
  • A Dance For The Whole Family.Another article I wrote on this subject.

It appears that your husband is letting his own erotic fantasies fueled by the 20th-century entertainment industry lead him to false conclusions. Good luck in helping him overcome his preconceived notions!


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