The Gilded Serpent presents...
The Myopic View
of Bellydancing
by Sadira         

"Myopia": ref: shortsightedness/dictionary.

As humans, we have the unique ability to use sight in many different contexts in our lives. We can use sight, literally, as in seeing images of what is in our view due to how light fractures and hits the retinas of our eyes. Our literal "seeing eyes." All species have this use of their eyes to view and perceive the world around them. That is sight at its most literal. We, as unique individuals, can then take the images we see and put them into a particular frame of reference that includes our feelings, thoughts, belief systems, superstitions, and social framework. There is also the mystical act of seeing, or having sight, whereby one perceives events, precognition, and sacred symbolism through the mind's eye, intuition or imagination.

When we view art, dance, or creative endeavors, each of us makes a personal judgment on what she is looking at, and this can be influenced by more then just personal likes or dislikes.

Many times we are influenced by popular culture, stereotyping, or misinterpretation. If you have ever seen the famous drawing where you are perceiving the image to be either a vase or two people facing each other; you have seen an example of how personal interpretation influences how we react and respond to a stimulus. As another example, there is the phrase "seeing through a glass darkly", or seeing through into Alice's Looking Glass world. Whether we want to admit it or not, we immediately view things through our own personal system of interpretation and suspension. Where does the interpretation come from?...that is the core of the matter.

When we watch someone performing the Middle Eastern art of dance, each of us "looks" at many layers and then relates all the factors to make the decision of whether we are pleased with what we are seeing, dislike it, or truly hate it. Some people are attracted at first to color and texture and form, so the costuming and composition is the first thing they look at in a dance. Others see the linear, tangential and structural, and are seeing the movements, techniques and patterning playing out before their eyes. Others actually "see" the music and the "feeling sight" of the body's interpretation and integration of the music and its symbology, the dancer's spirit and stage presence. The complete tableau is put together by using all of these elements in watching the dance unfold before us. Then the personal system of interpretation takes over, likes vs. dislikes, intimate and judgmental ideas of who the dancer is personally or about the style she uses.

This diversity is what makes the dance so individual and vibrant.

The tribal costuming and ambiance pulls a symbiotic response from those who attune to all its variety, just as beads and flash do for someone who prefers traditional Egyptian cabaret over folkloric beledi styling. Think of all the names of those professional dancers and "superstars" that you know of, and see your immediate reaction to the names: good, bad or indifferent. And what are your expectations once you have taken a dancer and put her on your pedestal of adoration? You may want to become as close to her in your own dance style as you can, in mentor fashion, and never stray into exploring other venues or your own inner style. Then there are those who reach a certain period in their own dance professionalism where they believe they are the best, and they continue to maintain that standard, sometimes in a negative way that turns into sabotaging other dancers, instructors and students. What the audience sees is a beautiful, mesmerizing performer with the highlights of enchantment. Again, through the glass darkly, at the core of this beauty can actually be a narcissistic, bitter woman, whose own myopic view of her world narrows further and further into herself.

What I find the most interesting aspect of the "myopic" vision of bellydancing is the morphing of body image into the central factor as to whether a dancer is truly accepted or not as a professional or even a viable performer. Let's be truly honest here: in our dance field there is a great prejudice against overweight dancers, older dancers, or average-looking dancers. This is not only a stigmatization that our own fellow dancers continue to perpetuate, but it is the main image demanded by the audiences. It is interesting to note that among dance fields that are culturally based, ours is one of the few that adhere to this stigma and prejudice. Indigenous dancers, folkloric dancers, dancers of particular cultural backgrounds do not suffer as much from these imposed rigid rules of how one must physically look, in order to be considered an excellent or star performer. Yes, there are many dancers who are accepted regardless of body size, structure, age or looks. We see them all the time, in troupes, dancing at events, seminars, festivals etc. Some of our most revered and honored dancers are still going at it, and are admired at ages that would be unheard of in venues such as ballet. But those who are still dancing and being asked to perform on a professional level or at clubs, restaurants or lavish show productions are, sadly, not in this particular category. I don't care how good and incredible a dancer you are, if you do not meet the criteria of proportional body size and looks and youth, you will not be able to continue your career as a professional - or even enter it!

I see younger and younger dancers resorting to Botox injections, face lifts, body surgery (some to gruesome extremes), to ensure the perpetual idea of what a "Belly Dancer" should look like.

We in this community unwittingly perpetuate this image as well as giving in to the popular culture and audience and restaurant owners' wishes to acceqt these guidelines for wider audience appeal. For example, when the Lollapalooza touring company was recruiting dancers for their circuit, they specifically required ages not over 25 years old, and they definitely wanted the "Shakira" and "Christina Aguillera" look-alikes to be the performers, whether or not they were really good belly dancers..did they fit the mold?

This is not to say that older dancers are not dancing in clubs, or that those with heavier body proportions do not perform and are loved and cheered by all who see them..just that there is a double standard when it comes to staying in the "professional arena".

In the hula and the South Pacific dances, age and weight are not an issue. Professional performers and professional dance companies encompass dancers of all sizes and ages. They are held in esteem due to the cultural vision that never developed the myopic lens through which our dance is beheld. African dance, Flamenco, Gypsy dancing - all revere the more developed woman's body, the woman of age and wisdom; all are dancers of equal radiance and acceptance..more so than the westernized image of dance. How many times at Greek and Armenian festivals do you see the grandmothers and aunties, little children, men, women of all shapes and looks moving on the dance floor and glowing with that inner glow of spirit transcending to connect with the dance.

With age comes wisdom and support for what the person has to show the younger generations.

That is the wisdom that follows most non-Western dance arenas. When you go to the old Romany cafes in Spain, the most revered and incredible dancers to see are the 70 - 80 year-old women, getting up in their print housedresses and demanding center stage. The fire jumps from their eyes as they connect with the music - the cantos, a deep wailing that comes from knowledge of life - and the enthusiasm of clapping and foot stomping is infectious.

They can be wrinkled, toothless, round as a woman of substance should be..and all this disappears as soon as they step onto the floor and are taken over by the passion of their dance and music.

They are all timeless, because true dance, music and enchantment never die; they do not change with a person's age or looks...they are endless and eternal. In Egypt, North Africa, the Persian Gulf..there is no distance between dancing and the criteria of external acceptance. It is the beat of Mother Earth, the connection that began when they were babies, rocked in their families' arms and taught that music, song and dance are the way to transcend all else in life. Women support each other, laugh together, dance into exhaustion and utter abandon without the trappings of self-consciousness.

Why and how have we developed such a limited view of what our dancers should look like to be truly accepted? We have given in to our own shortsighted view of what this dance truly is..we have become our own Hollywood B Movie Girls, versions of Cecil B. DeMille's Salome. We are living in Alice's Looking Glass and accepting the upside down world as real. Isadora Duncan was the first to fight against the myopic regime of dance of her time..will we as dancers come as far? Perhaps if we put new lenses on our glasses, we will no longer be constrained by shortsightedness. It would be entering the world view if dancers, no matter what their body structure and age, but only their quality of dance and spirit were regarded and allowed to perform in any venue, and through this they could educate and stir a whole new dimension of art for all to accept and respect.

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