Chromosomes, justice, and art.

OK, people… this is a post I’ve been putting off for a while because I’ve been afraid of it and the reactions it might solicit.  I’m not a gender studies specialist. I am not trying to make enemies.  But, seeing as this blog has been a place for me to vent my frustrations about belly dance, and this topic is something that has frustrated me for a while, I should finally just write about it.  So, here we go…

When I was a figure skater, I entered local competitions in which boys and girls competed in the same categories, against each other.  It never failed that regardless of a boy’s skill, the judges would place him higher in the results than girls who were better skaters.  The judges wanted to encourage him, to make sure he didn’t quit skating, because there are often so few boy skaters and so many girls.  This phenomenon frustrated me.  And I think it would have frustrated me equally if the genders were reversed.  Skill is skill, regardless of gender, regardless of chromosomes (females having two X chromosomes and males having an X and a Y.  Other than that difference, male and female genetic make-up is fundamentally the same).  Why place someone higher in the results if they’re not actually worthy of that medal or if they have certain “bits” (as the Brits would say)?

Now, as a belly dancer, I’m seeing something similar.  We don’t have competitions in this dance (although sometimes I think mandatory competitions might be a good thing for this dance form, but I just don’t know how they’d be structured), so the question of “judgement” is left to the audience.  But it seems to me that male belly dancers, because of their rarity, are often put up on proverbial pedestals, with seas of screaming female audience members at their feet.  This is not to say that there aren’t male belly dancers who deserve such praise; Rashid from Bal Anat and John Compton of Hahbi’Ru being the first two who come to mind.

I think there are a few things at play.  (Again, I am not a gender studies specialist, and I know that many of you readers are more experienced in that field that I am, so please chime in.)

One is the encouragement of males in a female-dominated field.  Clearly, there just aren’t many men in belly dance right now.  It seems that we want to encourage the few men who do take a chance and try belly dance.  What’s wrong with that, you ask? My problem with this is that I feel like we should encourage anyone who wants to study this art form, regardless of chromosomes.  We shouldn’t be giving more praise and encouragement to one gender or kind of person over another.  It’s not just to give preference to one gender over another, not in belly dance, not in the workforce, not in art. Period.

The other is sexual repression on the part of the screaming women in the audience.  Have you seen the audience at a festival when a male belly dancer is performing?  I’m almost embarrassed for my gender at moments like these.  The screaming is so loud and fervent that it seems to verge on sexual abandon.  Maybe I’m sensitive, but I’m seeing this as akin to a group of men hooting and hollering at a female exotic dancer, telling her to “take it off”.  How would the women on stage feel if the men in the audience screamed with such abandon?  I have a feeling that many of the women would be offended, claiming, “this dance is an art and not for the sexual fulfillment of men!”  (We’ve all heard that line, yeah?)  Seriously.  Listen to the audience next time a male dancer is performing.  This is not to say that there’s anything wrong with sexuality or with male belly dancers, but take a moment, if you will, to reverse the roles. I’m just asking for a sense of awareness…. are you aware that the sentiment of the crowd changes when a human with an X and a Y chromosome takes the stage vice a human with two X chromosomes?  Or are you going along with the wave of excitement and screaming along without a moment of self-reflection?

Would you encourage that dancer the same way if he were a she? Or if she were a he?  Are you judging a dancer on his or her skills, not on the his or her gender, appearance, race, or ethnicity?  Are you aware of what your own personal evaluation of a dancer actually is?

I just want dancers to be evaluated on their skill, their presence, their technique, their emotional expression… not their gender.  Not their race.  Not their sexual orientation.  Not their ethnicity…  not their costume, not their music, not their gimmick.  Give me honesty. Give me dance. Give me art.

 

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Well written! For *me* personally, I do not like having men doing Belly dance. Can’t we have SOMETHING besides childbirth that is for women only that helps us with our bodies and self esteem?
I would NOT be among the hordes of women screaming with abandon, it actually really creeps me out.
This is MY opinion. Sorry if it offends anyone but it’s really how I feel.

 

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    Hi Pele… I respect your opinion, but I have to say that I, personally, don’t disapprove of men in belly dance. Historically, men have belly danced, particularly in the Ottoman Courts. I don’t find anything wrong with it. What bothers me is the reaction of the greater belly dance community to male dancers in general in that we tend to put them up on a pedestal because they are rare. At the end of the day, I love watching good dance, and to me it doesn’t matter what gender the dancer is.

     

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Yes. This.

If objectification of women is wrong (and I believe it is) — then so is the objectification of men. Period.

But it’s interesting that you’re seeing this rah-rah elevation of the male bellydancers in your circles. In my region (which is almost exclusively ATS, and I think it’s a factor), there’s the opposite sentiment:

“Bellydance is a women’s dance, about women’s power and women’s mysteries. Men have no place in our dances.”

“Men simply aren’t built for these moves. They don’t have the hips and curves that these moves were designed to accentuate and glorify. Men just look silly when they try.”

“In the countries where bellydance originates, these were women’s dances, that the men were sometimes not even allowed to watch. Male bellydancers are a modern fusion invention, and it’s offensive to those who know the true origins of the dances.”

“The purpose of the dance is to celebrate women, being women, among women. Men — even gay men — cannot understand what it’s like to be a woman, and they cannot join our sisterhood.” (really)

“Oh, I could never allow a male to join our troupe. That just wouldn’t be right.”

And so on. It’s pretty prevalent. (And stunningly misinformed, obviously.) And what BLOWS MY MIND is that some of the women who have said these things have met, and have taken classes from, John Compton.

 

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Well, my great gender-expression-in-bellydance odyssey begins at Pennsic in a few weeks. I’ll let you know how it goes. I’m extremely curious to see what happens.

Not the least of which is because of the issue Pele brings up; so many woman maintain that bellydance should be exclusively the domain of the woman. However, because of my perspective based upon the history of this dance and my (some would say extreme) love for parity, I opine often that this dance form should be for everyone: dis/abled or male or genderfluid, all shapes and sizes and ages and looks.

Which is why I always cringe when a dancer gets put on a pedestal for anything that’s not directly related to some type of quality, whether it be emotiveness or technical skill. The Beatlemania that happens when a male dancer is up on stage is doubly frustrating for me.

I’d be frustrated if I found out I was only receiving accolades because of something beyond my control, like my bits or my colour. I want to be judged on my quality, not my size or my costuming or my sex or my gender. And I strongly feel we should give everyone that chance, because it’s possible they do too.

 

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Ive been thinking about this issue a good bit lately. I bought the Legends of Bellydance DVD from John Compton recently and it spurred my thought process. There are a god many male legends of bellydance on this DVD, John Compton and Mahmoud Rheda alongside Jamila Salimpour. If this DVD were created of today’s legends, who would br on it? What male bellydance legends are we fostering in today’s bellydance? In thinking of this I kept coming back to FCBD’s and Bellydance Superstars exclusion of males in their presentations. Arguably, two of the biggest influences in modern day bellydance are anti males in bellydance. Could this over the top fanaticism be blowback to the emerging anti male culture in our field?

 

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    Yeah… there are definitely two things happening here: one being the specific exclusion of males and the other being the exaltation of males. Curiouser and curiouser…

     

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Yes, yes, and yes.
So essentially, yes.

 

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I’m gonna have to side with Pele on this one. My initial reaction to male bellydancers was “Geesh, can’t us ladies have ANYTHING to ourselves?!” but that was more with a wink and a nod. What actually bothers me so much about male bellydancers is the fact they remind me strongly of the “chai boys” I’ve seen while serving in the Middle East. For those not read on, a chai boy is a young 5-20 year old male who is basically a companion/servant/dancing boy/sex toy for an older, usually wealthy and powerful male. These boys are usually purchased from poorer families or handed over as a goodwill gesture, and do not seem to enjoy their lives from what I’ve seen. I won’t go into the revolting details of things I have seen/heard over there involving these poor mites, but the echoes of chai boys that I see in male bellydancers (especially their kit and theatrical make-up) is literally enough to drive me from the room.

 

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I like to see good dancers, whether female or male. I also cringe when I see a male dancer get screamed and hooted at for the fact that he is male.

The simple fact is that the origins of this dance are with entertainers who were sexually available, whether to their patrons or the highest bidder. Many of them were slaves. It’s only fairly recently in history that we’ve been able to separate the art of the dance from that. As free, modern women, we are able to elevate bellydance to a higher stature. Now we should give the men a chance to do this as well.

 

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“As free, modern women, we are able to elevate bellydance to a higher stature. Now we should give the men a chance to do this as well.”

Excellent point Christiane.

 

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As you’ve already mentioned, historically men also dance in Middle Eastern cultures – it cannot be accurately claimed that this dance has always been exclusively a women’s art form. From what I understand, as the nightclubs where modern Raks Sharqi was born were attracting more Western travelers, the male dancers were gradually weeded out in favor of exclusively female ones since that is what Westerners wanted and expected to see. I think this trend is gradually reversing though as I know there are now several prominent male Oriental dancers in Egypt and Turkey (Tito Serif comes to mind).

Personally I think it’s fascinating when men bellydance (if they’re decent dancers anyway). I do think bellydance does tend to be very feminine in its movements and beautifully suits the female form, but to deny men the ability to learn and perform just because they don’t have the right “bits” in my opinion would be as bad as denying a female dancer because she has no hips and is not well-endowed.

I have not experienced the reaction you describe to male bellydancers in my area, but I do agree that male bellydancers shouldn’t be elevated in status simply because they are male. Although I definitely do respect the fact that they are willing to face the stigma of being a male bellydancer when both within and outside of the bellydance community there is ridicule.

 

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Mahmoud Reda (my first teacher’s teacher, so males in bd always made sense to me)
Ibrahim Farrah – NYC
Mohamed Shahin – Egypt
Momo Kadous – Egypt
Tarik Sultan – NYC
TITO – Egypt
and of course
John Compton – California
Rashid – California
Asim – North Carolina (I think)
Julian Broughton/Jaffi – New York – a personal friend of mine who is also a wonderful dancer
Pierre Khoury/Amar from Montreal (who I met last weekend in NYC) AMAZING dancer with strong emotional connection and skillz, yo.

Those are all the names I can come up with off the top of my head without looking them up. Don’t people realize that this is NOT just a woman’s dance in the Middle East? Don’t people realize that in the Middle East, even though men and woman maintain separate rooms at celebrations, MEN ARE DANCING in the other room, often doing the *same moves* (in a masculine way) as the woman are doing. What about Lebanese Dabke? I’ve seen SO many videos of men doing that in line dancing form. Not so many women. What about Tahtib? A men’s martial/stick dance that women emulate and “make fun” of in cane dancing, which is very traditional.

What about folk dancing, folks? Morocco (the teacher in NYC) has a video of the Moroccan Marrakesh Folk Festival in which there are as many male dancers on stage as women, if not more!

And there are even teachers in my area who will not allow men into their classes because “it might make some of the women uncomfortable”. Could you imagine that in a ballet, jazz or modern class? What about the amazing male dancers on So You Think You Can Dance? Dance is NOT gender specific and it should never be so. Kabuki dancers in Japan also were strictly male in female drag.

The most important thing is that people need to educate themselves as to where this dance comes from and what it is truly about, before making these generalizations based on their fantasies and feelings that bellydance is a women’s only dance form. That just perpetuates the Orientalist Fantasy of the European explorers from the 1700’s and 1800’s who discovered the “exotic dancers” in North Africa and exploited them for pleasure and profit.

 

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“That just perpetuates the Orientalist Fantasy…”

Couldn’t agree more. I think this whole discussion comes back to this cultural phenomenon. In “the West,” pretty much every form of dancing is feminized, and men who dance are stigmatized and feminized as well. Thus we get hooting and hollering from the female audience as these men are subject to “the male gaze.” This is an unfortunate double-standard, as who among us women in bellydance haven’t struggled with and argued against objectification. But it’s self-perpetuating because men who don’t want to deal with the stigma (most of them) don’t dance, and the odd one who does becomes necessarily “exotic.”

I was at the NYC conference too, and Pierre Khoury received the biggest ovation for his performance. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a great dancer and was so entertaining, but when I heard the crowd cheer, I was a little upset that he got such a raucous response, when some other great dancers that night did not. Honestly, I attributed part of that response to him being (the only) male.

Dance, the arts, particularly the performing arts, these are the arenas in which cultures can safely play with gender and gender roles. Women screaming over a male dancer is part of that play in our male-female polarized society. (Not that I condone that kind of behavior, but I understand why it’s happening.) Welcoming every sex/gender/sexuality/whatever equally into the dance community further blurs those lines, and will hopefully one day enable our culture to think beyond them.

 

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[…] sables, o juzgamos a los artistas masculinos con otro criterio, como sugería en su día la fabulosa Bellydance Paladin. Realmente, la actuación fue buena, pero no al nivel de la reacción del […]

 

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