Thursday, 22 May 2014

The Image of Belly Dance: The Performance and the Body

Zohra and Hadeeqa of TABLA had a performance for a group of social workers at ANU on Tuesday night. Planning to have one choreographed piece to open the show, each a solo, and the rest of the performance as improvisation, we were gearing up to be in our performer headspace. Having not had much experience in restaurant performances, I was a little unsure as to what to do. With coins on our hips, charcoal eye make-up, and a last costume check, we went on into the restaurant and performed our set list. The audience claimed, cheered, smiled, laughed, and some even got up to dance at the end. In my assigned week of blog posts, I'd like to explore the atmosphere belly dance brings; in particular, the divide between the performer and the audience member. I would also like to discuss a very important part of belly dance, and that is its broader transformative effect on the dancer.

The Performer and the Audience Member
            The division between performer and audience member depends on the space in which the performance is taking place. In my experience, a restaurant is different to a staged show at a festival, which is different again to paid show in a theatre. In a theatre, the audience in front of you is often family and friends; they have come to see you and they are only interested in you. Here, the performer comes on stage, lights are brightened, music comes on, and for 3 minutes, the performer is the focus and the audience stays quiet - often, in the dark. At a festival, it tends to be more casual; people drift in and out. They may stay, have a dance, ask you questions, or they may go to see what else is on offer at the festival. Here, the audience is fully visible, and the division between performer and audience member blurs as the performer feeds off the audience's behaviour and even invites audience members up on stage to join in.
            At a restaurant, it is different again; the performer is there as a prop. The audience is in full view, and even though you have been hired either by someone in the audience or by the restaurant itself, the audience member may choose to watch you, or to talk amongst themselves, eat, drink, or leave to use the bathroom or have a smoke. This is not in any way intended to critique the audience member or to grumble about not getting attention! This is merely the atmosphere belly dance creates within the restaurant. The performance itself, the music, and the sound of coin belts and other such signifiers of belly dance, is what changes the atmosphere of a restaurant, not the performer.    

The Professional Body
            Once considered grotesque and immoral by the West, traditional Middle Eastern belly dance was a signifier of the Other - "fetishised" as exotic (Keft-Kennedy, 2010). In many ways this idea still exists. By donning ourselves with dark eye make-up, elaborate costumes that are reminiscent of traditional dance, and signifiers such as coins, jewelery, and props, we as Western belly dancers transform ourselves into the exotic Other - an act labeled cultural appropriation. We transform into that fetish, the stereotype of a belly dancer. However, beneath the exterior, cosmetic transformation lies another transformation, literally - the body. And here is the division between the amateur and the professional, as we see the transformation at work.
            In the article, 'How Does She Do That?' Bellydance and the Horror of a Flexible Woman (2010), Keft-Kennedy discusses the transformation of the body within belly dance. Keft-Kennedy argues that key techniques in belly dance involving the isolation of various body parts creates a particular kind of flexible and muscular body - a body that may not be considered as such among other dancers and athletes. It is a body that may be considered grotesque in its abnormal skill, sensual in its focus on the hips, and exotic in itself. While many men around the world belly dance, it is often considered a female dance in the West, and I wonder whether this assumption is due to the particular display of the body - exoticness and sensuality are often associated with femininity. The professional belly dancer body becomes a signifier in itself; essentially, a body which is trained to do all these weird, strange, sensual, exotic, fun things... we see a body trained to perform all the hip slides, belly pops, undulations, and shimmies it wants! 
            To conclude, our restaurant performance went well despite nerves; it was a different experience, and it made me think just how atmosphere of belly dance is modified depending on the context, the space, and the audience. I found the article fascinating, and I encourage you to read more about belly dance from an anthropological perspective. I did not have time - or space - this week to go into other topics surrounding belly dance. Topics such as its feminist appeal (due to the female domain belly dance possesses), the various mental health benefits that have been found in belly dancers, and more thorough understandings of the exotic and the sensual, give a greater understanding as to why we love belly dance, and why we continue to do so.

Happy belly dancing!

Hadeeqa from TABLA


Keft-Kennedy, V. (2005). "'How does she do that?' Belly dancing and the horror of a flexible woman." Women's studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 34(3-4): 279-300.     

1 comment:

  1. The energy you can get from an audience can be the biggest natural high! You sum it up perfectly when you say "as the performer feeds off the audience's behaviour"

    I recall one very wet evening at a festival where people took refuge from the rain. They dragged their chairs up onto the edge of the stage so we could dance at the same level as the audience. There was such an electric feel in the atmosphere & the crowd became part of the performance.

    Looking forward to more of your articles Hester :)