The performance of belly dancing in the West embodies a central paradox: while invoking Orientalist tropes in its appropriation of Middle Eastern dances, it is cast as a celebratory form of women's empowerment that destabilizes Western patriarchy. Exploring these contradictory claims, the author situates the predicaments of gender and interculturalism that surface in discourses about Western belly dance.
Orientalism and La Danse Orientale
Edward Said warned against accepting Orientalist images of reclining odalisques, dancing harem girls, and mysteriously veiled women without interrogating the foundations of these images in Western intellectual formulations (1978:203-04). Though Orientalism has its limits as an analytical paradigm, adaptations of belly dancing in the West clearly engaged a system of representations grounded in those formulations.1 Barbara Sellers-Young and Anthony Shay (2005) have shown in detail how Western belly dancing's costumes, staged scenarios, aestheticized veiling, performance of sensuality, and associations with spirituality [End Page 52] and femininity draw on and sustain the fascination with a hidden, mysterious East that Said identified. The Orientalist fantasy of secluded, sensual women that in particular marked the East's alterity to European culture in the 19th century remains a foundation of belly dancing's appeal to Western practitioners and audiences today.2
Paradoxically, however, Western belly dancers themselves often interpret Orientalist images as a celebration of alternatives to Western patriarchy, materialism, and logocentrism (see Said 1978:207). If European colonial gazes saw in the harem and the veil repression, cultural backwardness, and frustrating secrecy, contemporary Western belly dancing transforms these same images into testaments to corporeality, the persistence of ancient wisdom in the modern world, and the uncontested value of open self-expression. Western belly dancing challenges the Orientalist frame in that it critiques Western culture by giving positive value to Orientalism's critiques of the East, but at the same time validates the Western ideologies and aesthetics at the very core of Orientalism.3
Othering the Middle East
As it has developed in the West, belly dance combines footwork, movements, costumes, and performance conventions from a wide range of Middle Eastern and North African social, folk, and ritual dances with those of professional Egyptian nightclub dancing (often referred to as "cabaret" dancing). Today, the common names "belly dance," "Oriental dance," "la danse Orientale," and "Middle Eastern dance" are all used to refer to this syncretic genre, with traditional Egyptian raks sharki as the most prominent stylistic component.
Belly dancing's history and popularity in the United States can be traced to the late 19th century.4 For the 1893 Chicago World's Fair Midway Plaisance, Sol Bloom promoted versions of Egyptian, Persian, Moroccan, and Tunisian dances, which gave rise to the then-scandalous danse du ventre performed in vaudeville houses, burlesque shows, and on film. By the 1920s, variations of Middle Eastern social and folk dances, with the addition of veils, had entered the private sphere of Western salons as a form of exotic artistry and self-expression, a vision reinforced by stage performers such as Ruth St. Denis and Maud Allan.5
In the 1960s and '70s, belly dancing reemerged out of feminist efforts to claim and express women's sexuality. The growing popularity of belly dance generated a pedagogical taxonomy of movements ("Tunisian hips," "Turkish backwalk," "basic Egyptian," "belly roll," etc.), which parsed Middle Eastern dances into individual movements for studio teaching and gave belly dance credibility as a legitimate dance form. "American tribal belly dance," a distinctive genre drawing on images of heavy drapes, pack animal tassels, and turbans associated with nomadic peoples, developed in California during the 1970s and is still popular. [End Page 53]
The construction of a Middle Eastern Other through this culturally eclectic dance varies with the venues that contextualize a performance. In Western cultures women can dance comfortably in venues ranging from gala studio shows and dance camps to arts...