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Guest Column: Sequins, Sisterhood and Belly Dancing


Dr. Angela Moe

Older women are learning to belly dance for the sheer joy and the health benefits.

In this issue, sociologist and belly dancer Angela Moe, from Western Michigan University (Kalamazoo, MI, U.S.A), looks at the origins of belly dancing, and discusses her research (Journal of Women & Aging, Jan.31, 2014).

What exactly is belly dance?

The phrase connotes scantily clad, long-haired, full-breasted women, sensually gyrating to exotic melodies in a dimly lit hooka bar.

It represents a modern and largely westernized adaptation of myriad dance forms from North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia.

In fact, belly dance has ancient roots as a respected tradition.

Archeological evidence from ancient Egypt and the lands lying on the eastern edge of the Mediterranean Sea suggests dancing was central to the region's cultures – in ritual, celebration and community-building – since at least 3400 BCE.

Temple drawings, pottery, stone sculptures, and bone carvings point to a veneration of the female form over several millennia.

It is only in the past 150 years or so that belly dance has gained a reputation as erotic entertainment, an attitude largely influenced by Western European colonialism.

In the writings and paintings of French orientalists for example, women were frequently depicted as well-endowed and partially nude performers within harem or outdoor slave markets, whose singular goal was to titillate men.

Based on little factual evidence, these spectacles were documented in the travelogues of writers like Gustave Flaubert, and stage productions such as Oscar Wilde's Salome.

During this period, too, the name "belly dance" became popular. Several theories explain how this came to be. One suggests the term is a mispronunciation of the Egyptian Arabic word for "dance of the country" – beledi.

Another points to salacious marketing during the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, where dancers were imported to perform the "hootchy kootchy".

Over the past decades, perceptions of belly dance have changed little – until now.

Today, women in North America and other regions of the world are adopting belly dance as a form of leisure, exercise and creative expression.

My article is based on a study of American women aged 50 and older. I interviewed them as part of a larger project on the health benefits of belly dance. The women came from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, abilities, educational levels and family structures.

Benefits abound

Their experiences suggest belly dancing in later life holds many benefits.

Mobility: Physical mobility can be a concern as one ages. The women spoke about how belly dance helped them move in comfortable and pain-free ways.

One 50-year-old woman noted, "Belly dance is very nurturing to your body … It is very forgiving. You can enter it at whatever place you are and use the tools at your disposal." Many felt that this form of movement, likely because it is fairly low-impact, is beneficial for warding off, or recovering from, physical debilities.

Visibility: Belly dance allows women to claim their right to remain visible in a world that often renders older women invisible.
As "Carmela," 58, explained:

Everybody wants you to conform … everything falls on you…. In our culture old is no good, young is good. Fat is no good, skinny is good. Gray is no good, colouring your hair is good. It makes no sense, like all of a sudden you're not even human. Belly dancing gives you that back. It empowers you and makes you feel better about being a woman.

Community: Belly dancing also helped women extend their personal networks and build social support. "You look forward to seeing those women every week [in dance class]," one 51-year-old woman remarked.

Classes are open to women of all sorts, shapes, sizes and abilities. In this way, according to my study, belly dance served as a forum for communal joy, an opportunity for a special kind of sharing.

Sensuality: The women in my study were well aware that belly dancing is predominantly seen as erotic and seductive. For the most part, they disagreed.

As "Jherico," 68, put it:

Women are enjoying their own bodies and celebrating their femaleness in a way that is counter to society's ideas, not really trying to get the attention of men. Most of the belly dancers I know are dancing for the sheer joy of it, for the pleasure of being in their dancing bodies…. Belly dance gives us permission to move our torso and so everybody thinks it's sexual…. It's okay to be a woman. It's lovely to celebrate being female. Why is it bad?

Can anybody belly dance?

I argue in my paper that yes, "every belly" can dance.

Unlike other codified forms of dance – ballet, jazz, tap – belly dance is a form of movement open to personal style and interpretation.

It's not surprising then, that women of all ages are turning to belly dance as a form of leisure and creative expression.

Further, for older women, belly dance provides a unique space to challenge and transcend society's expectations.