Grandmother's Secrets : The Ancient Rituals and Healing Power of Belly Dancing by Rosina-Fawzia B. Al-Rawi, Monique Arav (Translator)
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Kid Dance
by Shira

Dear Shira:
I've been involved in a debate over whether belly dancing is a suitable activity for young girls.  The proponents say it's good for body image, exercise, etc.  Those opposed to it talk about its seductive aspect, the issue of stage mothers, the fear that perverts might stalk the girls if they perform in public, and the negative reactions of the public.

I'm torn.  At what age are girls taught how to belly dance in the Middle East?  Is belly dancing a good activity for girls here in our U.S. society?  What do YOU think?


Dear Torn,
It sounds like this debate is represented by the mothers/aunts and other mentors of belly dancing girls on one side, and those who know very little about it on the other. I personally believe that both sides have valid points, but I wouldn't want to support the extreme interpretation of either side!

First, A Look At The Middle East
In the Middle East, girls are never particularly "taught" how to belly dance.  They don't have belly dancing classes like those seen in the U.S., Europe, and Australia. In fact, the notion of being "taught" to dance is completely alien to them.  In a workshop taught by Leila Haddad, Leila commented that her family back in Tunisia think it's very, very strange that she can make a living teaching people to dance.  In their culture, girls simply learn to dance while growing up by spending time with their adult relatives at weddings, circumcisions, parties celebrating the birth of a new baby, gatherings of women, etc. and copying what they see the adults do.  It's not so different from how most of us learn the social dances of our own cultures--we accompany our parents or older siblings to festive events and copy what we see them doing. 

In a charming section of the book Grandmother's Secrets, the author describes the first time that her grandmother invited her to dance for an afternoon gathering of women from the family and neighborhood.  Not long before, her first period had arrived and she took on the attire and social status of an adult woman.  Her first dance performance was another ackno
wledgement of this coming of age.

But remember, knowing how to dance versus performing in public for an audience of strangers are two very different things.  In many parts of the Middle East, society accepts the idea that a man's honor is greatly defined by the behavior of his wife, mother, sisters, and daughter. A female who behaves shamefully brings dishonor on not only herself, but also on the men of her family.  And one of the most shameful professions a person of either profession can have is that of show business.  "Son of a dancer" is a profound insult.  The book A Trade Like Any Other by Karin Van Nieuwkerk explores this in great depth. 

For this reason, Middle Eastern parents certainly do not encourage their daughters to embrace careers in the performing arts.  In a respectable Muslim family, a girl can perform for female family members, friends, and neighbors, but not for men, and certainly not for strangers!  In a family where the adults make their living as musicians and dancers, a girl might aspire to be a dancer. But even then parents often hope their children will have a better life than they did, so if the family finances permit they'll probably try to steer her in a different direction.

So What About Western Society?
In contrast, in Western countries such as the United States many parents eagerly encourage their young girls to become involved in beauty pageants, cheerleading, tap dancing, ballet, gymnastics, ice skating, modeling, team sports, and acting.  Some parents even aggressively push their children into these pursuits despite the children's objections.

It wasn't always this way.  At the beginning of the 20th century, respectable women still wore corsets and floor-length skirts. Exposing even a shapely ankle was risque.  But American society changed over the next 2-3 decades, and soon movie actresses were viewed as glamorous people who often led scandalous lives of divorce, extramarital affairs, and remarriage.  After still more time, under the increasing influence of movies, radio, and television, the performing arts became admired, and young people of both genders aspired to become stars.

Today, a child who is skilled at any of the performing arts or sports is often a source of great pride to his or her parents. 

Is Belly Dancing Good For Girls?
Belly dancing can be a great activity for a girl, for many reasons:

  • Fun. It's fun to learn how to do things your friends can't do, like balance a glass of water on your head or roll your stomach. It's also fun to dress up in the wonderful costumes that belly dancers use.
  • Exercise Benefits.  Belly dance is a form of exercise, and exercise is very healthy for the human body.  Exercise promotes strong muscles, flexibility, and strong cardio-vascular health.  It also releases endorphins into the brain, which generate a feeling of well-being.  Done regularly, it helps prevent obesity.
  • Mental Well-Being.  Girls in American society, more than boys, are beaten from an early age into being dissatisfied with themselves: their bodies, their faces, etc. Girls, more than boys, are surrounded by magazine articles and advertisements that promote use of make-up, bust enlargement techniques, ever-changing fashions, hair color, and diet plans. The point of the constant barrage of ads is to make girls so dissatisfied with their current appearance that they'll go out and purchase these products to "fix" the problem. Belly dancing provides a girl with an environment that teaches appreciation for her own body, whatever it may look like.  It offers her a way to feel beautiful without dieting herself to malnutrition or enriching big corporations with her spending money.
  • Social Opportunities. Dance offers a girl another group of people to meet, outside the usual settings of school and church. A girl who feels shy and awkward in school may find that dance class provides a more comfortable place to meet people and make friends.
  • Cultural Awareness. Learning a dance from another country can bring new life to how she thinks about that culture. Instead of thinking about boring history books, terrorists, oil profits, or wars when she hears a country mentioned, she'll think of its music, clothing, and folk traditions.
  • Public Appearance. In the adult world, people who are skilled at public speaking have many great job opportunities open to them. Learning how to be comfortable in front of an audience as a child will equip a girl with a valuable job skill for her future.
But What About The Negatives?
It's true that there can be a dark side to encouraging a girl to belly dance. A smart parent will consider these issues, and exercise good judgment in making decisions:
  • That Seduction Thing. A good belly dance teacher will make sure her students realize that it did not originate as a dance of seduction. She will encourage them to use the dance to explore moods such as joy, introspection, cuteness, and fun. However, not all belly dance teachers are good teachers.  A parent may want to ask the teacher questions, watch her teach, or watch her perform to evaluate what kind of behavior the teacher encourages in her students before enrolling the child in the class.
  • Stage Mothers And Fathers. Stage parents are often adults who wish they could have been stars as children. Whether the activity is gymnastics, ballet, drill team, piano, cheerleading, team sports, tap dance, ice skating, beauty pageants, baton twirling, or any other pursuit, there will always be some parents who push their children too hard to excel. After too much of this, the child starts to hate the activity, and suddenly it's not fun any more. A parent needs to avoid putting pressure on the child to be "the best" or "the cutest", and just let her be a girl who is having fun learning something new. And if the child claims she would rather try a different activity instead of belly dancing, of course the parent should honor that.  There's no point in forcing a child to learn something she dislikes--it will only foster resentment.
  • Perverts. It's true there are sick adults who engage in twisted sexual fantasies about young girls. Children engaging in all public activities (even grocery shopping) are at risk of this, not just belly dancers. Some years ago, the news carried a story about a lawsuit brought by parents who discovered that a man had snapped close-up pictures of cheerleaders' crotches as they did leaps and poses during ball games at their school and was selling them to the late night crowd. There are also fetishists who fantasize about gymnasts, ice skaters, and even just plain ordinary young girls walking to school. Of course, parents should take care to keep their children safe from these people, but there's no need to make the girls prisoners in their own home. It's better to teach the girls sensible habits that will continue to keep them safe as adults.
  • Negative Reactions Of The Public. Many people who are not familiar with belly dancing assume it's some kind of strip show, and they may fiercely disapprove of having "that sort of thing" in their family-oriented community. One way to prevent this is to refer to the girl's dance as "Oriental" or "Middle Eastern" dance instead of the more provocative term "belly" dance.  Another is to select folkloric costumes for her with covered midriffs instead of the glitzy bead-and-sequin confections. Perhaps the girl could charm locals through a dance portraying a Biblical character such as the Virgin Mary, the queen Esther, Miriam the sister of Moses, etc.
In Conclusion
Belly dancing can be a great activity for a girl if her parents approach it with the right attitude and take sensible precautions to protect her from the bad behavior of adults (including her own parents!) A low-cost way to try it is to borrow a beginning-level video from the library or purchase a good-quality low-cost one such as Magical Motion and see if the girl still wants to pursue dance classes after learning what the video teaches. She may discover that this activity is one she'll enjoy for the rest of her life.


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