The Big “O”: Orientalism and Belly Dance

Disclaimer: This blog post is certainly not meant to stifle anyone’s creative process.  It is means to bring awareness to a complicated and difficult history, and to increase my readership’s knowledge and appreciation of the Middle East and the many lenses through which the West has viewed it.  I also apologize in advance for its rambling as well as the fact that there is no way one can explore the complexity of this topic in one blog entry.

This morning I searched Pinterest for “Vintage Belly Dance”, hoping to find images of dancers from the 1940s-1970s.  What I mostly found, however, was late 19th-century photographs of women in fantasy Middle Eastern costumes, such as Mata Hari and her contemporaries.  These images were labeled “Vintage Belly Dance”, but while they are indeed vintage, these women weren’t belly dancers.  They were playing dress-up for a camera, or, like Mata Hari, they might have been courtesans (a fancy term for a high-class sex worker).  Then I started thinking about the influences from which contemporary belly dancers, particularly those who associate with the tribal fusion stylization, pull for costuming and performance, and how to be informed practitioners of our art, that we could consider the context of these influences.

‘Berber Woman’ by Emile Vernet-Lecomte, French. Oil, 1870. A probably mostly accurate depiction.

There are two ways to interpret the term “Orientalism”.  The first is that of the art movement by European, mostly French, painters of the late 19th century, who specialized in “Oriental” (Eastern, mostly Ottoman, Middle Eastern, and North African) subjects.  European men painted the majority of these works, and while some painted mostly accurate scenes of what they observed on their travels, they also superimposed their idea of what the Middle East should or could be.  Sometimes they painted what they imagined to be true, such as the interiors of harems and female bath houses, which were and are realms from which men are forbidden.

The second, and more politically-charged interpretation is how the late scholar Edward Said used it in his seminal work Orientalism (1978).  He described orientalism as a “fundamentally… political doctrine willed over the Orient because the Orient was weaker than the West, which elided the Orient’s difference with its weakness.” (Orientalism, p. 204).  His argument is that by simplifying the Orient (for him, this meant mostly the Arab world), the imperialist western nations were able to exert political influence and label Arabs as “other”, uncivilized, and immoral.  We see vestiges of this sentiment in stereotypes about the Arab world in how male Arabs (and Muslims) are labelled either as violent terrorists and/or “backwards” and technically-challenged religious extremists, and female Arabs are depicted as nubile slaves and harem girls who lounge around in waiting for their sultan or as sultry femme fatales who use their exotic wiles to tempt unsuspecting Western men (such as in several James Bond movies). (Parenthetical aside: reference to Said’s book does not mean I agree wholeheartedly with the entirety of it.)

So what does this have to do with us?

“The Great Bath at Bursa, Turkey” Jean-Leon Gerome. 1885. Painted by a man, a man would not have been allowed into a harem or the women’s side of a bath house, so this image is partially the painter’s idea and fantasy.

Many belly dancers want to learn how to dance, perform in a beautiful costume, and feel good about their selves and their bodies, goals which I believe are positive and innocuous, at least on the surface.  However, belly dance is not just a movement vocabulary or a path to greater self-esteem.  It is a dance from a region with a gnarled and complicated history with Western Europe and the United States, and part of our education in this dance must include an awareness and, at the very least, basic knowledge about those relations. As non-Middle Eastern people performing a Middle Eastern dance, we have cultural responsibilities.

Here’s a very brief (and terribly simplified) snippet of history:  Many Westerners (the “West” for the sake of this blog post being Great Britain, France, most of western Europe, and the United States) at the turn of the 20th century from which orientalist paintings come and the many vintage photos I found on Pinterest viewed the Middle East as a culture that was technologically behind, inferior, and unable to rule itself.  This notion was not entirely unfounded, albeit exaggerated, as it was around this time that the Ottoman Empire was gasping its last breath and was known as the “Sick Old Man of Europe”. The Arab- and Muslim-ruled world had also gradually lost political, philosophical, military, and scientific influence beginning in the late 15th century as Western Europe ushered in the periods of the Renaissance and later the Enlightenment.  In the early 20th century, as the Ottoman Empire was increasingly unable to rule its vast territory, both Great Britain and France colonized the Middle East, taking control of North Africa, the Levant, and the Arabian Peninsula.  They arbitrarily divided the land between them (and Russia) under the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which lead to the current borders and countries.  (I highly recommend David Fromkin’s book A Peace to End All Peace for an accessible, yet in-depth, history of the creation of the modern Middle East.)

1900 or 2010? “Les Coquelicots” Leon Francois Comerre. Late 19th or early 20th century.

 Back to the photographs on Pinterest…

Now, personally, I don’t find anything wrong with finding inspiration in these paintings and photographs.  Many of them are beautiful, otherworldly, overflowing with costume and fabric ideas for our performances.  I mean, who wouldn’t want the belt medallions or headdress in Comerre’s “Les Coquelicots” (see painting on the right)?  What I wish for dancers to avoid, however, is taking inspiration from this era blindly, without giving thought or consideration to the political climate at that time, the growing tensions between the imperialist states and the Middle East, or the current tensions between the “West” and the Arab world.   We should strive to avoid cultural appropriation, educating ourselvses on the origins of these works of art and the world from which the painters and photographers came.

So, how do we avoid orientalism in belly dance?  I’m not sure we can, nor do I feel like I’m the one with an answer.  Belly dance, whether in its “cabaret” (or “oriental”) or tribal styles are inherently a melange of influences from both East and West, in different degrees.  Some scholars have accused Arab belly dancers themselves of self-orientalism.  The two-piece beaded costume so essential to oriental/cabaret belly dance is a Western invention that dancers and producers in the Middle East adopted and transformed as their own.  Tribal and fusion styles pick and choose what they like out of Middle Eastern and South Asian dance and costuming to create something inherently new, while, I think, leaving out the aspects of the dance and culture that could be inconvenient or troubling (like, say, dancing to and understanding Arabic music).  Practioners of belly dance both in the West and the Middle East have imposed their own fantasies and interpretations of the “orient” on this dance; we have been borrowing back and forth for so long now that it’s impossible to discern from whence each influence derives.  They have been imitating us imitating them for decades. These are traditions and aspects of our dance that are, to some extent, unavoidable.  What we can avoid is ignorance and insensitivity.


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Thank you very much for this though-provoking piece. I am a belly-dance learner, and I do feel sometimes that an important element of historical and cultural awareness is overlooked in the bellydance community. And it seems we share an appreciation of the Middle East, so I really liked reading and learning your point of view. I’ll follow your book recommendation as well.




Considering that the western relationship in the Middle East is *still* complicated, I’m not sure how people can overlook this issue.

Donna Mejia gave a really great lecture at TribalCon (2010?) that addressed this. Not sure if she’s published anything but it might be worth looking into.

I agree with you, but you can’t really judge by pins what people’s intentions are. As you laid out here, it’s totally possible to appreciate art or whatever else while still acknowledging it is in some way problematic. The community of dancers I am involved with is already aware of these complicated issues and is interested in the origins of costuming, etc. One of the delightful things about tribal dance is honoring the rich history of the middle east and beyond, and it’s worthwhile to navigate the complexities of what that means.

I sometimes see dancers wearing those Khalkhal anklets (the ones with the rectangular detail in the center) as upper arm bands. Is that offensive? Probably not, but that’s not how they are traditionally worn. Would it look goofy to someone who grew up seeing them as anklets? Maybe. Personally, I’d rather not risk it, and try to put things together in a way that makes sense.




    The Pinterest search just got me thinking. I’m sure most of the pins labeled “Vintage Belly Dance” that were not actually photos of belly dancers weren’t even originally pinned by belly dancers, but that doesn’t negate the fact that these photos are incorrectly labeled.

    It’s kind of a deep rabbit hole, too. One could get all wrapped up in her efforts to avoid being offensive, and then completely stifle her creative process. As an American, I see the amalgamation of textiles and jewelry and influences as something unique to my own culture, and to deny myself that creative license is denying my own heritage. Gah, this is all so complicated! :)

    Your example of the khalkhal could be applied to tassel belts (which I’m sure you know, but for anyone else reading the comments who doesn’t know). I do know that some people from the Middle East have looked at tassel belts on tribal style dancers and said, “Um, you know those are for camels, right?” At some point you just have to draw a personal line and be comfortable with it, and just continue to educate yourself and make decisions according to your conscience.




    And we all need to bug Donna to publish her stuff. 😉




Although I just noticed in my little avatar to the left, I’m wearing my Rajasthani right-thumb ring on my middle finger. Faux-pas! But I do use it to check my lipstick, which is still it’s designed intent ( ;




    See, but you KNOW what it is and what its purpose is. Personally I don’t think there’s anything wrong with wearing jewelry and costuming from other cultures if you educate yourself and respect the cultures from which these items come.




Thanks for this thoughtful post, and for maintaining the uncomfortable complexity of the issue… like it or not, this dance that we love (in its various permutations) comes with a lot of baggage, whether it’s Western Orientalism or contemporary attitudes towards public dancers in parts of the ME. (Another one of the posts on my facebook feed concerns Dina being turned away from a wedding where she had been hired to dance, because of Muslim Brotherhood attendees…) But I think you’re also right, Asharah, that we have to remember that dance, like art or any other cultural product, is also mutable, adaptable. Cabbage rolls don’t belong to any one country, neither does tango music, or Petrarchan sonnets, or raqs sharki, even if we do have clear geographic associations for each.




Thank you for this very important piece – an historian by training, a dancer by avocation and a Christian pastor by profession, I found this post vital in naming the fine line between appreciation for the gifts of many cultures and the appropriation of custom, heritage, and traditions without an understanding both of historical context and present practice.

Those of us in the West – the United States in particular, live in a context that exposes us if we choose to multiple ethnic and religious cultures. And I celebrate the opportunity that gives me to celebrate the diversity of the human experience and to “try on” ideas, costumes, dances and practices that are not within my own cultural heritage. But I am also aware that I must be respectful of what is not “mine” and to do my best to honor what has been shared with me,

Thank you for inviting us to think about what we dance and to respect and deconstruct the complicated cultures and perspectives that enrich our dancing.




Hi. I’m going to be the one ignorant voice on this subject as obviously the prior commenters are very knowledgeable about this subject. I’ve been a belly dance student for about 8 months; brand new to it but not to dance. I felt an enormous wave of nervousness reading the post, which I did find really interesting. But it left me with the question, can’t we just learn to dance and move in this magnificently gorgeous genre and work on developing technique and strength and beauty – and yes, build self-esteem)? Do we have to adopt all the “baggage” (someone else’s word) of the Middle East? And as genuine belly dancers, how long were you studying the dance before you did adopt these issues into your sense of responsibility?

I don’t want to cause damage to the genre; I just want to dance. Please forgive my ignorance and know that I am in no way trying to be disrespectful.

(I’m scheduled to take one of your workshops next month. Very excited … and nervous. I bought one of your DVDs and am concerned I’m too old to do some of the conditioning exercises and stretches that are on or near the floor – like the lunges with the body all the way down on the crossed leg. But I’ve always been adventurous. I’ll give it a really serious shot! Can’t wait to meet you.)




Sansa: I wouldn’t say you’re ignorant! You’ve been dancing for 8 months, which, when I look back at myself after having danced for 8 months, I realize how much I’ve learned since then. You’re not at all being disrespectful!

To answer your question (and this is totally my opinion): Yes, belly dancers do need to take cultural responsibility, but I don’t consider knowledge as “baggage”. I believe that the more you know about something, the more empowered you are. Not everyone views it like this. But, I do think there’s a disconnect in the US about belly dance: Since the 1960s, women have been using it as a means to feel empowered, physically, emotionally, and sexually, but in the Middle East, it is considered improper for a woman to perform belly dance in public, and some people consider performing for money as akin to prostitution. We are lucky that in the United States, we don’t encounter this viewpoint. The worst we’ll get is, “Huhhuh… is that like stripping?” (Not to say that isn’t annoying!)

And about my own sense of responsibility: I began belly dancing after I’d already been learning Arabic for 2 years, and I already knew about Orientalism. So, basically, I went into belly dance already realizing that there was a responsibility to understand the culture from which the dance comes. I’m pretty sure this is a little unusual.

I hope I haven’t scared you away! When I see you in the workshop, I’ll give you some modifications for the exercises on the DVD so that you can still stretch and tone without discomfort. :)




Thank you, Asharah! Yes, I’ve already had to inform some people about what belly dance is NOT. But I had no idea it was considered improper to perform it in public in some cultures. (That reminds me of something I learned from an African dance troupe – from Africa: that in order to “make it” they had to come to America because everyone dances in Africa. Why would they pay to watch someone else do it! Something I hadn’t thought about.) But again, thank you for the clarification. I’m looking forward to the workshop! See you then!




I have been a belly dance student for almost 16 years now. One thing that I realized some time ago is that what you are performing is going to be most effective and appreciated when it resonates well with your audience. So something to keep in mind…if you will be performing for a middle eastern audience, ATS (and those camel tassles)is not going to resonate well with them. They are likely to ignore the performance or even leave. If however you perform a Cairo style cabaret routine ala Dina or Fifi Abdo, for the same audience, you are much more likely to be well received as a performer.
There is so much to learn about belly dance which is one of the things that excites me about it. I think knowing your audience and their expectations of you as a performer is helpful.




My degree is in dietetics and food service administration. In food service, there’s a similar challenge when it comes to ethnic cuisine, and a similar challenge when it comes to how dishes are described. I think the way food service handles this is equally as effective for belly dance: Know what kind of dance you do, promote it honestly and accurately, and look for an audience that will respect and understand you. If you don’t know what kind of dance you’re doing, not sure how to promote it honestly and accurately, or aren’t sure what kind of audience is right for you, then you’re not quite ready to take your show on the road yet!




Thank you for your thoughtful, well-researched and respectful post on why bellydancers would benefit from thinking about the origins of our dance form. I’m so fortunate to have learned from Kashmir in New Zealand, a teacher who integrates the cultural background of raqs from the beginner classes up. While it is undoubtedly off-putting to some people who want to put on a “show” for people to see, and including any/all influences in their dance; for those who stay, it helps put gestures, nuances and respect for the culture from which raqs/bellydance emerged.
Please keep saying what you’ve said – out of learning about our dance form, maybe some respect and understanding of different ways of being in the world can be learned.




[…] some more reading on perceptions of belly dance, I recommend this post on Orientalism and Belly Dance by Asharah. Share this:TwitterFacebookPinterest Posted in […]




You’ve reduced Orientalism to just two definitions. There is at least one more — those who studied the “Orient” — by which we mean the Middle East and the Islamic World (as well as the Far East) in the academy.

While Said criticized the pursuits of some of those in this academic field, you cannot reduce his critique to the entire field. As correct as he was about the use of specialists in, for example, the Second World War, he himself was criticized because he lacked the specialized language and area training that others, scholars like Gustav van Grunebaum for example possessed. Many of these figures wouldn’t have minded being called Orientalists.

And so what in the end, are bellydancers but non-academic Orientalists, who copy and transmit the same materials containing Orientalist imagery as everyone else?

Not only can they not avoid Orientalism, their own pursuit of the dance is a form of Orientalism. There is no point regarding this in a knee-jerk pejorative fashion. Rather, the point is to see how their imaginary interacts with reality.




    I admit it’s definitely a simplification of the term, but this is by NO means meant to be an academic paper. I wonder, though, of the newer generation of academics who study the Middle East, how much of them would even call themselves “Orientalists.” Even calling the Middle East the “Orient” seems antiquated, but that might also be because for someone in the US, it is antiquated, whereas it might be a totally relevant term for someone in the UK, where the term is used without it being pejorative. My own observations, though, even having studied in a university with Bernard Lewis as a Professor Emeritus, that none of the grad students or younger scholars when I was there would dare call themselves “Orientalists”. As the times change, as well as our relation with the Middle East changes, I think that people’s perception and use of the word has changed. As a younger student of the region and of the dance, the term has quite a few negative connotations, and has been presented to me as such, as I would consider myself to be very much “Post-Said”.

    That said, I don’t think that my blog post was at all a “knee-jerk” reaction to how people pursue belly dance. Sure, the blog post itself was triggered by a search on the internet, but it’s an issue I have thought about for years. The post was meant to bring awareness to an issue that dancers in the tribal fusion communities (the source of much of my readership) might not have considered, and hopefully urge them to explore these issues for themselves, and explore, as you said, how their imagination interacts with reality.




Thank you for sharing all this. It is really important. But I happen to disagree a little. I feel that not everybody has the same reasons or motivation for doing bellydance, therefore, maybe is not in EVERY bellydancer interest to represent a culture, I’d feel very arrogant if I’d try to do that. I don’t believe that every ballet dancer knows exactly all the cultural and/or political background of their dance. Some people (like me) just do it for the joy we found in doing it. And I haven’t nor will have or attempt in any way to represent a culture so ancient, rich, and deep. How can we try to represent something we are not even a part of? It is important to know the history and meaning of our dancing. But representing it is too much. That’s my personal opinion. Thanks!




    Asharah, I have about a million things to say to you! I’m actually currently working on a paper at UC Berkeley about how belly dance, Orientalism, and the joy the belly dance brings so many dancers today in the US intersect. Talk about a can of worms…
    But to jump into this conversation: Alejandra, what you said really resonates with me, but one of the problems I’m facing (I’m a dancer myself) is that in belly dance, representing is not a choice. At some base level we ARE doing it; by displaying the cultural accouterments of the MIddle East, we are representing it. If we’re dancing to Middle Eastern music, wearing Middle Eastern clothing (even in a modern interpretation) and performing dance moves we call “The Egyptian,” “The Arabic,” etc, which are moves you can see today in basic Middle Eastern folk dancing and women’s dancing…aren’t we representing then, even if we don’t think about it? If so, then we must represent responsibly–or rename the dance!
    This kind of the part where my head explodes and I have to get up and talk a walk to clear my mind. Or dance :)




      Oh, really?! I’m applying to UC Berkeley’s Department of Theater, Dance, and Performance Studies PhD program for Fall 2013. What department are you in? This sort of stuff is what I want to explore and examine for sure!




Flissy turned me on to this discussion, and my only comment is that you and readers will surely be interested in the research trends in exploring “hidden collections” as archives & libraries and bring previously unacknowledged perspectives (herstory) to light. For instance, you would have surely enjoyed a talk ( I attended recently by Chella Vaidyanathan (, who has been studying the diaries of privileged Western women travelers who were allowed access to the harem. “Particularly male travelers portrayed the harems as places where groups of beautiful women reclined on couches near the baths, often waited on by their attendants. What did the real harems really look like? Did women travelers view the harems in the same way as men? ” Of course theirs were also limited views, but the primary source contents may be of interest to you as you pursue your studies! I asked about content on dance and she had noted some entries about sexuality, sensuality and visibility of movement as expressed in the layering of clothing, and the mutual expressions of amazement by “the other”, the ladies of the harem aghast at the restrictive corsets etc. Do contact her in future specific to your dance inquiries. I’m not sure if she is preparing this for publication, but she was very friendly about sharing her findings.




[…] the Middle East: Cultural Representations in the Middle East.  And Asharah has a thoughtful post on Orientalism and belly dance, a subject we touched on in our article about Sera Solstice and that we’d like to see […]




[…] some more reading on perceptions of belly dance, I recommend this post on Orientalism and Belly Dance by […]



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