Bellydance, also known as raqs sharqi, danse orientale, that dance Shakira does. It is almost the only dance form populated with dancers in a variety of shapes and sizes, right up to professional levels. I personally believe that bellydance can be the catalyst for transformative, positive and vital changes in self-esteem and body perception, and I know I’m not alone in this belief.

However, there can be an underlying hypocrisy to this experience. Sadly, all body types are not accepted in bellydance, but rather, all simultaneously accepted and criticized (much like any other dance form). Curvy women are celebrated for their curves and rather patronizingly, often too their ‘bravery’. Thinner women are more likely to be hired, complimented, find costumes that fit, or successfully audition for the only company which pays a proper salary to its dancers,  Bellydance Superstars.

Yet there is also an odd assumption by some members of the Australian general public that bellydancers must be “fat and old”. This concept of a larger and older dancer is notable because it upsets the standard status quo of Hollywood-grade women in the performance industries, but simultaneously denigrates the dance form as something inherently easier and less technical, if ‘less-than-perfect’ bodies can manage it. There is something very patronizing too in assigning a dance form to the realm of women who cannot fit into the other categories, or something they ‘need’ in order to feel good about themselves, the assumption very clearly being that they couldn’t possibly feel good about themselves already.

In bellydance classes I noticed this complex celebration and loathing of our collective bodies. Mothers were embarrassed by their stretch marks or C-Section scars, wobbly bits, breasts less perky after breastfeeding children. Those bodies unburdened by the weight of motherhood and childbirth were considered more suitable for performing, even though the very point of bellydance was supposed to be that we were all equal, and for some, celebrating the specific aspects of our bodies which make us female.

This is not just an issue with bellydance. All dance forms in our culture carry the heavy burden of being an art form which pushes physicality to its limits and participates in and perpetuates the thriving tradition of sexualized dance performance expectations. Bellydance body issues are complicated by all of these forces just like classical ballet or ballroom, except that bellydance carries the weight of exoticism too.

Bellydance is partly over-sexualized because the Western movement vocabulary is typically based on a stable torso and dynamic limb movements. Manipulation of the torso is generally uncommon in most Western dance styles, and certainly rhythmical manipulation of the torso is very rare, and only occurs in the Western dance corpus when it’s associated with a ‘sexier’ dance form like Salsa. There is a general inability to view any movement in the hips as not automatically indicative of sexual intercourse. This is not helped by the costumes, and the many films depicting harem girls dancing.

This sexualisation and overperformance of femininity is considered intrinsic to the dance form even by the dancers. No contemporary or ballet dancer would ever spend more time on their hair and costume than they would in class and rehearsal, yet bellydancers in Australia regularly perform underpolished material with costumes that have taken significant investment of time and money. Why does every bellydancer auditioning for So You Think You Can Dance? audition in full costume, whereas every other dancer is in trackpants and tshirts? Rarely does a bellydancer perform without the pseudo-Oriental persona, as if it is of equal value to the movement quality itself.

It seems that this is because bellydance is about performing femininity by Othering femininity. In Othering the femininity by connecting it to exotic far-away lands and rooting it in a history of goddesses, childbirth rituals, and other such pseudo-histories of the dance form one can symbolically connect the modern bellydancer dancing a panEgyptianTurkishGypsyCabaret style to a long history of the experience of being female and thus justify it and the sensuality or sexuality possible within it. It’s okay, it’s not actually stripping or poledancing, it is the classy harem girl version of sexy dancing for a hen’s party. It is okay because it is outside of our culture, an import and thus exotic.

And unfortunately, this is what it does hypocritically. Due to a complete lack of footage or historical proof about the origins of bellydance, it is very easy to get caught up in the mythologies of an ancient female dance form before realizing that what we perform now in the average bellydance performance in Australia bears as much resemblance to Middle Eastern folk dances of two thousand years ago as Character Dance interpretations of European folk dance in Classical Ballet do to traditional European folk dances of even two hundred years ago. In fact, probably it bears significantly less relation.

Bellydance as we see and understand it, with the bedlah of Didem and Fifi Abdou and Sadie, the snakes and the zills and the drum solos and the veils and the swords and the grand orchestral arrangements is still a relatively modern beast, much like any other modern dance form, and to maintain a supposed connection with the bellydancers of today with a postulated historical bellydancer even five hundred years ago is dubious at best. Particularly in the West, where we are dancing an interpretation of another culture that we often have little genuine connection to.