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Contemporary Images of the Middle Eastern Dancer in the United States

By Laura Osweiler (Amara)

Presented at the 1999 University of California, Los Angeles Cultural Dance Studies Conference

I would like everyone here to take a moment and focus on the image in your mind when I say, "Belly Dancer."

In this paper I am examining the ways practitioners of Middle Eastern dance negotiate and interact with the American stereotype. Accordingly, I will draw on my experience, those of my colleagues including Halimeda, Zahra, Anaheed, Marguerite, and Aegela, and material from scholarly writings. My analysis is limited to contemporary observations and oral accounts as they offer access to the feelings, opinions, and positions of the dancers.

Halimeda, a Middle Eastern dancer in Tallahassee, Florida, remembers clearly when she first saw Middle Eastern dancers; it was May, 1979 at Busch Gardens. Her father-in-law suggested she watch the Belly dance show, "I said, 'There is no way, I am a liberated woman, I am not going to sit and watch stuff like that, because... my vision [was of] ...a young woman, with no brains, no talent and less cloth[ing] out to entrap a man.'"1 Many of you probably imagined a young, dark haired, dark eyed, and dark skinned woman, with big breasts, hips, and belly, wearing a skimpy outfit, and a jewel in the naval.2 Marguerite, a Los Angeles dancer for over twenty years described the stereotype as, "[being] over weight, but she won't get work if she really is, huge bosom,... skimpy skirt, but if she really dresses like that she won't get work... she's usually a prostitute, people hope she is, but won't get hired if she really is."3

The Middle Eastern dancers' representation also includes a setting: a dancer surrounded by men in a Sultan's hareem or a desert Sheik's tent. As Aegela, a Middle Eastern dancer in Atlanta for over twenty years, sarcastically said, "Anyone who can belly dance must have lived in the hareem."4 There are also behaviors associated with a Middle Eastern dancer: due to her loose virtue, her aim is to make money by sexually enticing male patrons through erotic, pelvic movements.

Before continuing the examination of the contemporary representation of Middle East dancers, one must have an understanding of the dance's history in the United States. Middle Eastern dancers were introduced into America as exotic, sexual, and primitive creatures in fair/carnival attractions like the 1893 Chicago's World's Columbian Exposition.5 At this expo., Sol Bloom, a white, American entrepreneur, brought over Middle Eastern men and women to create scenes from the Middle East for a mostly white, conservative audience. Soon after, Middle Eastern dancers from these attractions and copiers of the dance could be seen at Coney Island and in the vaudeville circuit.

In the first part of the 20th century, American dancers such as Ruth St. Denis and La Meri used materials and ideas from the Orient to create their own images. St. Denis used ancient symbols of the Middle East in such pieces as Egypta and Dance From an Egyptian Frieze, while La Meri would perform her stylized version on stage. Both of their creations impacted Middle Eastern dance. In one way, Middle Easterners did not have power over their culture's representation as Westerners were only interested in these sexualized, spiritualized, and romanticized portrayals. On the other hand, the birth of the solo, female dancer in the West paved ways for the traditional solo, female Middle Eastern dancer into American culture.

The contemporary American Middle Eastern dance scene reasserted and redefined itself in the 1970's. Part of this resurgence came from the women's equal rights movement in which Middle Eastern dancers were seen as a powerful females. Another reason, as Aegela said, was, "[W]e [American] do not have a dance form that's traditionally open to people after they are young."6 Middle Eastern dance is accepting of a variety of sizes, shapes, and ages. Additionally, there was a demand for American women dancers for several reasons. First, the new wave of Arab immigrants created an explosion of Middle Eastern clubs and restaurants. Secondly, many immigrant women did not dance as professionals as they came from the upper class who looked down upon dancers and American filled in the role.

Today, in the United States, there are many types of Middle Eastern dance genres and venues. The most common and popularized is the female soloist who performs in Middle Eastern clubs, restaurants, parties, and weddings. Another genre is the folkloric which also has several styles such as regional styles, staged folkloric, and American Tribal. All of these styles also overlap and can be found within the same performance and venue.

Coming back to Halimeda's first encounter with Middle Eastern dancers; she decided to watch them anyway. "The very first thing that struck me was their strength... and strong presence."7 She was impressed by their "well trained" technique and "... how professional they treated the male photographers who were drooling all over their lens...[They] took control of the situation [and where] way too professional for the image I had."8 Both these reactions tend to be stereotypical: Middle Eastern dancers condemned for turning its practitioners into objects of male desire, and praised or celebrated for specularizing women's control over men through the manipulation of their own bodies. Thus, Halimeda at first was too liberated a woman to even watch the dance is a typical reaction. Her later reaction is typical of those who maintain a life long interest in the dance.

Professionalism is an important device to break the Middle Eastern dancer representation. One thing all the interviewees agreed with was the need to come and leave a venue wearing good clothing, like a dress and heels, and to have one's makeup and hair finished. The professional measure also involved not linger off stage in the performing costume. Another tool, keeping one's distance from the audience and restaurant owners, had more variation among the dancers. For example, when Anaheed began dancing in Los Angeles during the 1970's, she had to continually prove her respectability; as dancers were occasionally propositioned for sex. She removed herself from the sexualized perception by driving her own car from the restaurant to a party rather than going with the band. This way Anaheed maintained her independence and showed she had no intention of fooling around with customers. Other dancers like Zahra, a Los Angeles dancer for almost thirty years, chose not to sit with or date people in the Middle Eastern dance scene as she felt it too showed that the dancer is "available." The majority of dancers, including myself, do not make a habit of sitting with customers, but will if they know the people or if they are engaged in discussing the dance or culture. They use these conversations as opportunities to educate and dispel the Middle Eastern dancer stereotype.9

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of professionalism within the dance community is the manner a dancer accepts tips; collecting it in a basket or plate, having it thrown over the dancer's head, or placed on the costume, which is the most common. Marguerite and Zahra discourage this type of tipping, while Halimeda and myself only allow tipping in the belt. Zahra said, "[t]ips perpetuate people touching [the dancer]"10 and it shows a sexual element could be gained. The majority of dancers do not want tipping to stop because it is a sign of admiration for the dancer and is a major source of income, especially since wages have dramatically fallen. The reduction in salaries is not due to the economy because everyone else's wages in the business have gone up. Instead, the low wages are due to the lack of care by the owners and dancers. Anaheed mentioned some owners do not care about return business, and so they hire the cheapest person to dance. Many of these dancers have had very little training and have not been taught professionalism and continue the image of the talentless dancer. They are often either pushed by teachers and, or are so desperate to dance they take the lower or no pay. Those who encourage amateur dancers believe the American audience will not care or notice. But as Anaheed said, "Cheap entertainment is going to show,"11 and the audience does notice.

Another reason for low wages is due to the fact that some experienced dancers take a lower wage to cut another dancer out of her job. Sometimes the reason for this is simply economics. But unfortunately some practitioners of Middle Eastern dance want to play dress up and therefore do not care how much they are paid. Aegela estimates 80% of the dancers do not care about the culture, the people, the music, or other dancers. Another reason good dancers take the lower pay is to protect the dance's image and visibility.12 Zahra mentioned that in one restaurant, originally the dancers quit when the pay went down, but returned when they discovered the owners had the inexperience barmaid dress up and dance. The low pay and lack of respect by the owners have deterred many older and good dancers from performing in these venues. This is a sad aspect as many Americans see their first live Middle Eastern dancer in a restaurant and the first impression has to be the best in order to counteract their preconceived ideas about the dance form. There have been union movements to control pay and working conditions, but they have been unable to maintain their cohesiveness long enough to follow the work through.

Men drooling, letting their hand linger on a dancer while tipping, putting money in their mouths, and trying to undue a dancer's bra all draw on the sexual elements perceived in the dance. Aegela complained, "If I get one more call... 'can you tell me how to do exotic dancing for my husband [or] boyfriend?'... it really irritates me."13

The mass media inspires much of the sexual quality associated with Middle Eastern dance. Movies14 and television depict Middle Eastern dancers in seductive and weak positions. For example, in the carton The Simpsons, the Belly dancer was first seen dancing at a bachelor party and latter in a strip club. The episode centers around the main male figure, Homer being caught by his wife, Marge, by a picture he took with the Belly dancer. The dancer was characterized in a highly, objectified, and sexualized manner. The local news also perpetuates the stereotype. When I first moved to Los Angeles, there was a short segment about Burger Continental, a local restaurant. The female newscaster had nice things to say about Middle Eastern dance until she emphasized its standard sexual representation by saying, "Even the men get a workout with their eyes." These dominant, mass media representations make it difficult for dancers to change Americans' preconceived ideas.

Dancers and connoisseurs of Middle Eastern dance often convey a confusion about the dance and sexuality. For example, Morroe Berger writes, "The dan se du ventre is sexual, of course, but it is so in a tension between display and modesty, exposure and concealment.... By combining modesty with display and by its flowing, undulating movements, danse du ventre,... has a seductive, pacifying quality which attenuates its sexual excitation."15 Berger contradicts himself when he discusses Middle Eastern dance as not being anymore sexual than other dance forms such as jazz.16 Leona Wood and Anthony Shay, Middle Eastern dancers for thirty years, depict sexuality as an "essential" element for Middle Eastern dance. They write, "It would be as much a mistake to under-rate the sexual attraction of the dancer as it would be to over-rate the sexual element in the dance.... It must be remembered however, that when performed by professional entertainers, these dances are intentionally seductive in character."17 Rather than viewing sex as a concept placed upon Middle Eastern dance by society, these promoters continue to support the idea of Middle Eastern dance as a sexual one.

Some of these sexual notions of American society can be seen in the discussion of costuming and movements. Instead of viewing the standard two piece outfit as designed to accentuate the dominating hips movements and the isolations between the upper and lower torso, it is often looked upon as a sexual expression. For example, Zahra said, "[you] don't have to do anything to make [the costumes] very sexy."18 The same idea can also be added to the discussion on movements. Though movements are neutral in meaning, American society adds sexual meanings to the hip movements and 'naughty' connotations to sexuality. Berger writes, "Though gyrations of torso and hips are sexually suggestive, beautiful arms and hands are equally important to the good dancer, and are sensual without being directly sexual."19 Thus by introducing the concept of 'sensuality' he attempts to cancel the negative associations attributed to sexuality. Specific Middle Eastern dance movements associated with sex in American culture include shoulder shimmies near an audience member's face and upward accented pelvic movements. Because of the many connotations movements may give to an audience, good dancers are constantly aware of posture and eyes and arms placement.

Femininity is another connection often made to Middle Eastern dance. In Vigier's interview of Anahid Sofian, a dancer in New York City, she writes,"The Middle Eastern dancers have such an enjoyment of their body and of being female. They project a femininity and a sexuality that it is not a come-on kind of thing."20 For Halimeda, who at the time she started dancing worked mostly with men, Middle Eastern dance increased the "confidence level in my own femininity." Elizabeth Buck writes women do this dance because they "may feel stripped of their femininity,"21 and it gives them an opportunity to explore sexuality and self-empowerment.22

In a society which places the mind and soul on a higher plane than the body, there is a sense of fear of the power of a group of women who are not only strong intellectually, spiritually, but also physically. Middle Eastern dancers can be viewed as a threat to the power of the patriarchal society. Therefore, the dominant society holds fast to its stereotype as a way to keep women as a co-cultural group. The concept of the co-cultural group is based upon Mark Orbe's co-culture theory: "The word co-culture us used... to avoid the negative or inferior connotations ... while... acknowledging the great diversity of influential cultures that simultaneously exist...."23 Bar-Tal writes, the functions of stereotypes are to serve a social group by differentiating itself from other social groups and to explain or justify a variety of social actions against the outgroup.24 The dominant powers want to suppress any form which could be a threat to their own way of life. "It is not surprising that this art form is stigmatized: It is the dance of women, rejoicing their bodies and sexuality."25 This romanticized, utopic view of the dance coexists with the fact that Middle Eastern dance is a way of making a living. American amateur dancers tend to forget the later, and professional dancers feed romantic views as a way of counter-attacking the association of their trade with prostitution.

In addition to behavior and movement, dancers utilize their interactions with the audience to dismantle the stereotype. Eye contact is an import aspect of this communication. "The [dancer] must solicit a look from the [audience] which becomes a mutual exchange of eye contact rather than the active/passive relationship of the 'male gaze'."26 To combat the 'male gaze,' many dancers like to interacting verbally, smile, look at the women, and saying something funny. Anaheed said, "[The audience members] would look you in the eye, instead of just at your body, and [then] both the men and women [will] see you as a person, not just a body... [Then] you can share your emotions through the music and through your dance." Humor is another tool used by dancers to dissociate27 themselves from being perceived as too sexual. It also helps to break the ice with the audience and to diffuse difficult situations. At a showcase, Marguerite and was told to liven up the crowd: "I feel an evil inclination to wake then up...[so] I dragged this guy out and told him to say 'Spank me mommy, call me naughty poodle.' [H]e couldn't deal with it.... I do a lot of real outrageous stuff sometimes when I am performing like that [I make] a burlesque of it.... It's so pushed over the top [there is] no way to take it seriously."28 If the audience is so intimidated, as this man was, do they see the exaggeration or just another reinforcement of the stereotype?

Audience participation breaks down the barrier between performer and audience, the spectacle and the gaze--safe and detached at a distance. Aegela said when she asks for a volunteer she picks either the youngest or the oldest person in the room because these two age groups are seen to be asexual. Another reason for audience participation is to show that it is not as easy a dance as many Americans think. "Not anyone can get up and shake their booty."29 By having an audience members follow the dancer's movements, they quickly realize that technique and training are involved. There are also draw backs to getting people to dance because the dancer can be seen as not being artistic. Some may also think she is just filling in time or that she is being flirtatious.

For the interviewees, a major way to counteract stereotypes is through their choice of venues. For example, almost all of them stated they do not dance at bachelor parties; mainly for the reason Zahra gave: "It "reinforces [that Middle Eastern dance is] something done for men."30 Therefore, they look for a mixed crowd. The decision to do a show depends on many factors including location, audience, purpose, money, and connections/advertising. Zahra for instance no longer performs at clubs, restaurants or parties. Instead, every year she produces a stage performance which gives her artistic satisfaction and adds another venue for dancers to perform in other types of Middle Eastern costumes and dance forms. Anaheed performs at clubs and restaurants in which she will occasionally take lower pay. As already discussed, though some dancers would not take the lower pay because it is seen as a sign of disrespect on the part of the owners, Anaheed said she uses those venues as a promotional spot, a place to get secondary income, and to reach a larger audience. Like Zahra, she also creates an alternative venue; a showcase which is opened to a variety of genres. Though it consists mostly of cabaret dancers, people like Marguerite can also sing and experiment with other forms and hybridizations. For Aegela her choice of venue depends on how she is treated. Out of all the places in Atlanta, she has only found two restaurants where the owners treated her with great respect. Marguerite is a versatile entertainer because she not only dances but also does characters, magic, fortune telling, and sings. She often combines her talents to create unique performances and break the stereotype. Halimeda and her Troupe Arabesque perform at several cultural, and arts and crafts festivals every year which are major sources of performance opportunities. These public venues are a way to give back to and educate the community and are a source of free advertisement.

Teaching is another important means to end the stereotype and to financially support oneself. None of the interviewees make a living at performing Middle Eastern dance alone. Anaheed, Aegela, Halimeda, Zahra, and myself, teach studio classes and workshops and present lectures and lecture demonstrations at universities, schools, and libraries.

All the interviewees agreed that the stereotype has not changed over the past twenty years. The idea that "stereotypes may not be based on fact at all, having simply been told to us by others or reinforced by the media."31 makes it difficult for a co-culture to change the perception. Though Americans in general maybe more aware of the Middle East region, fears propagated by the media, government, and religious leaders have created new stereotypes by Americans.

There is resistance to changing the representation as "Stereotypes arise when self-integration is threatened. They are therefore part of our way of dealing with the instabilities of our perception of the world...32 and we project that anxiety onto the Other, externalizing our loss of control.... These images are the product of history and of a culture that perpetuates them."33 There is repression against women who are comfortable with using their bodies as art and as a means to make a living.

Even if the Middle Eastern dancer believes she is not perpetuating the stereotype, she cannot completely control the perceptions of the dominant culture. Anaheed and Aegela beautifully stated, "The audience is still projecting onto you what ever feelings they have about their bodies'"33 and "[t]hey're dealing with an image in their mind, more so than the image in front of them."34 Some research shows "...that when people's behaviors are inconsistent with stereotyped-based expectations, they are liked less than when their behavior confirms the stereotype and ... that even as information that might counteract a stereotype is being encoded, other aspects of the stereotype are being strengthened."35 Our job as Middle Eastern dancers is to change one person at a time, knowing that many people will leave with the same ideas they entered with.

Individuality is one of the strongest opponents to the Middle Eastern dance representation, as "...women [are] seen as "all alike," [and] therefore largely substitutable for one another."36 Many dancers strategically distance37 themselves from the cookie cutter experience by creating alternatives to the standard image. But before we can change the representation, first we must be conscious of how we are perceived by the dominant, general public because "[w]e can not ignore stereotypes, but we can realize their potential abuses and use them more wisely."38 Secondly, we must also be informed about history, contemporary issues, and the consequences and benefits of our decisions. Thirdly, we need to break from essentialized notions of sexuality and femininity as they are a fraction of what the dance can express and represent.

As a community, because everyone shares the same problems and benefits, we need to exert our power within the dominant culture. Through performing and teaching in a variety of venues and supporting these venues, we can demonstrate individuality and solidarity. We must exemplify our strengths39 to each other and to the dominant culture through teaching, performing, and writing.

The issue of representing Middle Eastern dance is naturally a complex one. Each dancer moves between surviving as a person and surviving as an artist and accepting the stereotype and destroying it. There is a long history of Middle Eastern dance representation in the United States and the stance of the dominant culture towards it. With all of today's negative publicity and the "evil" qualities associated with the Middle East, the dancers' struggle to break the social stigma is made even more difficult.

1. Halimeda, personal interview, 1999.
2. These images of the dancer is an culmination of mine and the five dancers, Anaheed, Halimeda, Marguerite, Aegela, and Zahra, I interviewed.
3. See Donna Carlton's Looking for Little Egypt for more about the World's Columbian Exposition.
4. Aegela, personal interview, 1999.
5. Ibid., personal interview, 1999.
6. Halimeda, personal interview, 1999.
7. Ibid., personal interview, 1999.
8. Mark Orbe lists several terms which to describe the relationship between a dominant and co-cultural groups in his co-cultural theory. Dispelling stereotypes: "Myths of generalized group characteristics and behaviors are countered through the process of being oneself" 17.
9. Zahra, personal interview, 1999.
10. Anaheed, personal interview, 1999.
11. Orbe, 16. Increasing visibility: "Covertly, yes strategically, maintaining a co-cultural presence within the dominant structure."
12. Aegela, personal interview, 1999.
13. See Stone's UCLA thesis.
14. Berger, 25.
15. Ibid. 32.
16. Wood and Shay, 22.
17. Zahra, personal interview, 1999.
18. Berger, 22.
19. Vigier. 125.
20. Buck, 98.
21. Ibid., 63
22. Orbe, 1.
23. Bar-Tal, 5.
24. Buck, 118.
25. Dodds, 232.
26. Orbe, 16. Disassociate: "Making a concerted effort to elude any connection with behaviors typically associated with one's co-cultural group."
27. Marguerite, personal interview, 1999.
28. Aegela, personal interview, 1999.
29. Zahra, personal interview, 1999.
30. Matsumoto, 151.
31. Gilman, 18.
32. Ibid., 20
33. Anaheed, personal interview, 1999.
34. Aegela, personal interview, 1999.
35. Bar-Tal, 45.
36. Schur, 33.
37. Orbe, 16. Strategic distancing: "Avoiding any association with other co-cultural group members in attempts to be perceived as a distinct individual."
38. Matsumoto, 153.
39. Orbe, 17. Exemplifying strengths: "Promoting the recognition of co-cultural group strengths, past accomplishment, and contribution to society."


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