Musings on Feminism and Belly Dancing

Back in May, I was enrolled in an anthropology of gender class.  We were talking about situations of women expressing their sexuality for their own enjoyment and whether it challenged or upheld notions of female beauty. I brought up my belly dancing class because I find belly dancing classes to be rather unique spaces in terms of women and self-esteem. Here is a place where people (mostly women) of all shapes, sizes, and ages are encouraged to show off their abdomens, move their bodies, and feel powerful and sexy while doing it. When it came time for the local hafla (dance party. It’s pretty much a ballet recital for adults), our teacher left it up to us individually whether we wanted to show our bellies.  To my pleasant surprise, most women in the class took her up on the offer—women in their fifties, women with stretch-marks, women of all shapes and sizes were dancing exuberantly, their bellies revealed, and, you know, all of us had a wonderful time. It was incredibly empowering. My roommate and I, at the age of 21, were by far the youngest in our class, and it felt great to be surrounded by older women who still loved their bodies enough (perhaps not every day, perhaps not all the time) to show them off in this image-positive setting.

The other students in my anthropology class were impressed by my story, until I admitted that some (male) significant others of the women in my class (and their children) were in the audience at the hafla. One of my classmates raised her hand to say that this meant my fellow belly dancers were therefore performing for the benefit of their male significant others, and that this fact undermined anything feminist or challenging of norms about the whole experience. I was surprised by this reaction and it’s stuck with me in the months since. See, I’ve been wondering about the supposed tension between what nominally are feminist goals and the fact that most of us enjoy feeling sexy and exploring sexual dimensions of ourselves. I don’t think there necessarily needs to be a tension.

Nevertheless, there’s a gray area here.  With so much legitimate and vital concern about the objectification of women, sometimes it’s hard to say what’s objectifying and what is an empowering enjoyment of one’s sensuality. If the significant others (male or female) forced their partners to belly dance and perform, and/or the dancer felt that only by belly dancing could they be desirable and keep/get a mate, then there’d be relationship and self-esteem issues at work. But, as far as I could tell, the women in my dance class were dancing for themselves primarily; many of them were unsure whether their families would be able to make the performance or not and still wanted to perform anyhow.

I think that in the debate about female sexuality, we often get trapped into arguing between two rather unattractive options, that ultimately, I think none of us agree with: "no sexuality expressed unless its in the safe confines of a locked room with a (single) steady partner otherwise you’re being cheap, demeaning, and no one will take you seriously" or "The way to be a feminist is to walk around undressed and have sex with as many people as possible otherwise you’re not a feminist". As Levi says in her book Female Chauvinist Pigs, when we look at young women or teens trying to be explicitly sexual, the problem with their behavior is less about the fact that they’re pursuing sex but that they’re pursuing sex because they see it as being part of a popularity game they have to play with men if they want to be loved or be a real woman. I think the feminist approach should be about choosing how you want to express your sexuality (though I understand that freedom to make this choice is not readily available to everyone).

It was upsetting that the woman in my anthropology class dismissed the potential self-esteem-boosting aspects of belly dancing simply because there were men who potentially may have been aroused by the performance (never mind that there were also female significant others in the audience who may also have been aroused). For one thing, if the dancers want to dance for their significant others as a way of exploring their sexual side, I don’t see why this has to be a bad or demeaning thing. Also, I think it’s great that contemporary teachers of the art have by and large made classes places for women of all different body types and ages. I loved the community that developed in my class, and how positive it encouraged everyone to be. Since beginning to belly dance, I have certainly become more comfortable with my body. I am not claiming belly dancing to be an inherently feminist act, nor a class to inherently be a safe space. Like anything else, it’s not so much the act as the attitude infused in it.

Disclaimer: This post was written by a Feministing Community user and does not necessarily reflect the views of any Feministing columnist, editor, or executive director.

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