Recommended Reading: Belly Dance
I’ve been asked quite a bit for recommendations of books about belly dance and women in the Middle East. So… here’s a start. This post will be part one of a series… The other posts will recommend books on general Middle Eastern history and culture, creativity, and the physiology and anatomy of dance… and anything else that I think that belly dancers should know. These lists are far from comprehensive, but they include books that I have read and enjoyed.
Personally, I try to avoid the books on belly dance that urge women to “get in touch with their inner goddess” and prefer more scholarly works on the dance. I’m also a little suspicious of research without footnotes. That said, there really aren’t many works on belly dance that stand up to academic scrutiny because the history of this dance is so convoluted, and the first Western writings on the dance were mostly by European men who commented more on the “erotic gyrations” of the dancers than, say, where the dancers came from, the specific movements they performed, or why they danced at all.
By far, the best and most academic book is Belly Dance: Orientalism, Transnationalism, And Harem Fantasy by Anthony Shay and Barbara Sellers-Young. This book is a collection of articles about the various aspects of belly dance: dancers and social stigma in the Middle East, the inherent orientalism of the “Arabian Dance” in The Nutcracker, and the meaning of American Tribal Style. I highly recommend this one.
Another wonderful work of research is “A Trade like Any Other”: Female Singers and Dancers in Egypt by Karin van Nieuwkerk. Van Nieuwkerk explores the stigmas and stereotypes that female performers in Egypt face in order to make a living. An excellent work that looks past the glitter and glam of dance “over there” and gets into the nitty gritty of what life is truly like as a female performer in Egypt.
Although her research is a bit lacking in parts (footnotes/endnotes are also lacking), Serpent of the Nile: Women and Dance in the Arab World by Wendy Buonaventura has become required reading for every belly dancer. I would take the history in it with a grain of salt, but this lavishly illustrated book is a great introduction to belly dance for the new student.
Of course, The Tribal Bible, Exploring The Phenomenon That Is American Tribal Style Bellydance by Kajira Djoumahna is geared more towards dancers of the tribal persuasion, but it has some wonderful interviews with Masha Archer, Carolena Nericcio, Suhaila Salimpour and other innovators in the wider world of American belly dance. Unfortunately, this book is difficult to find these days, and it is a little out-of-date as it does not address the more recent phenomenon of tribal fusion belly dance as performed by Rachel Brice and the like over the past five years. That said, If you can borrow this book from a friend, it’s well worth a read.
Bellydance: A Guide to Middle Eastern Dance, Its Music, Its Culture and Costume by Keti Sharif is a lovely and beautiful little book that contains lots of information on the different subgenres of belly dance and the various steps and costuming specific to each. It’s beautifully illustrated as well. It’s certainly not a heavy academic work, but a good introduction to the various kinds of belly dance and Middle Eastern folkdance.
I hope that you find these books as edifying and interesting as I have.
Next up: Tools for creativity…