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…


Comments: 6

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Wanted to mention an often-read book that you didn’t include here- “Grandmother’s Secrets”. It is an extremely interesting representation of “ecriture feminine” and an interesting insider female perspective on some of Middle Eastern Culture…. In fact, I might recommend it for reading after the more academic texts for some contrast. That book is more like oral/cultural tradition in written form, and I liked the way in which it tried to find cultural commonalities as well as differences with its Western woman-oriented readership. It’s interesting how that text straddles genre as cultural primary source, quasi-academic reflection and spirituality primer. Although a lot of the content of that book wasn’t to my personal taste, I think it’s absolutely fascinating as a cultural text. Al-Rawi shows a great willingness to generalize about both world femininity in general and Middle Eastern femininity, but at the same time I believe that she uses it as a literary device with other purposes.




Thank you thank you thank you! I have wanted a reading list like this for a long time.




This isn’t available in full (yet), but I also wanted to point out Molly Mitchell’s MA thesis, “American Tribal Style Belly Dance: Improvising a Feminine Subjectivity” (2009) which looks at ATS through a visual criticism lens, dealing with issues of exoticism, fetishism, and feminism. You can read the abstract and download an excerpt of it from her alma mater’s website:

[Disclaimer: Molly is a dear friend and former troupemate of mine, but she’s also freaking brilliant, articulate, and one of the hardest and most creative workers I know.]




Oops, one more I’d meant to mention in my earlier comment: Looking for Little Egypt by Donna Barbrick Carlton. ( It focuses on the introduction of bellydance to the U.S. through the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, and the myth of the dancer named Little Egypt. It’s a somewhat slight volume and not as rigorously scholarly as some of the others you’ve mentioned in terms of footnotes and methodological focus, but she did a great deal of archival research for it and includes a pretty decent bibliography, plus it’s beautifully illustrated with a ton of old photographs, political cartoons, and other documents.




Ann – Thank you for those! I admit I haven’t fully digested Looking for Little Egypt, although I intend to, soon. Another really awesome book on the Chicago World’s Fair is Devil in the White City, which isn’t just about Little Egypt, but does have a fair (ha – pun!) amount about how Sol Bloom brought Middle Easterners to the Midway.




Thank you, Asharah – there are so many books out there, and I have been wondering for awhile which ones were worth spending money on. I will be investing in several of these.

Ann – thank you for adding to the list. I just read the excerpt of Molly’s thesis included on the page you linked to. This is an excellent read, very valuable, and I look forward to the rest of it being available.



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