THE BELLY DANCER AT THE WEDDING
Yahia Lababidi, aphorist, essayist and poet, is
the author of Signposts
to Elsewhere, selected for ‘Books
of the Year’ in 2008 by The Independent (UK).
love to dance. Their conceit is that belly dancing runs in their
veins and that even the amateur local is innately superior to
a professional foreigner. Upon the faintest prompting, women
of every shape, age and class will put this proposition to the
test. It is typical to see little girls wriggling at gatherings
in an astonishingly accomplished manner for hours at a time.
Equally common, to hear the coy protestations of a guest being
invited to dance one moment and to witness a creature possessed
the next. Forget about getting them to take their seat until
the shaking subsides.
The ubiquity and sheer joy of the dance, however, does not detract
from the perception of immorality associated with the dancing
profession. Egyptians are deeply conflicted about the respectability
of the art form. It is alright to perform this type of dance
in private, among friends or family, people argue, but to do
so before strangers and for money is unsavory. Islamic preachers
have gone so far as to proclaim that belly dancers cannot take
part in religious rites (i.e. feeding the poor during Ramadan,
or performing the Hajj/Pilgrimage). In short, professional belly
dancers are regarded as little more than purveyors of titillation
and the very embodiment of sin.
a time when more and more Egyptian women are donning the veil,
Cairo remains the world epicenter for those who wish to master
a dance that is only a slight variation on the theme of Salome’s
shedding her veils. And when, at seaside, the bulk of Egyptian
women are opting to wade in gallabiyyas (full length
traditional dresses) it is not unusual for a belly dancer to
perform at a public venue wearing little more than a glorified
bikini, like a beached mermaid in her glittering gauzy garb.
incident illustrating the paradoxically privileged position
belly dancers occupy in society occurred last year. A video
depicting one of Egypt’s top belly dancers in flagrante
delicto leaked onto the street and Internet, following
a police raid on the villa of a well known (and married) Egyptian
businessman. A lesser mortal would have perished beneath the
heat of such a scandal, especially a woman in a conservative
society. Yet, following a teary public apology and a short leave
of absence, the Uberdancer bounced back on stage. Moreover,
to add legislation to lore, a new law forbids foreign dancers
from practicing this lucrative local art, another example of
the almost unassailable status of the belly dancer in Egyptian
relationship for the belly dancer places her in a perceived
moral netherworld somewhere between actors and whores. Both
actors and dancers, whose testimony was once inadmissible in
court, are accorded the same morbid fascination and contempt.
Every twist and turn of their private lives is deemed newsworthy,
and a renewed source of censure. Hishik bishik, slang
for all things associated with belly dancing (and shorthand
for tsk-tsk) is actually onomatopoeia: the sound of
the shaking belly dancer, beads and all. It is also used figuratively
as a derogatory term for the shaking of values or the loosening
of the moral fabric associated with a dancer’s questionable
position in the public imagination. What does this say about
the people who heartily embrace the dance as a form of self-expression?
origins of Raqs Sharqi or Oriental Dancing (Egyptians
do not call it belly dancing) are ambiguous. Whether or not
it was born in Ancient Egypt, it is widely held that the dance
has its roots in fertility ceremonies meant to strengthen abdominal
muscles and ease childbirth. The dance itself is a kind of break
dance, only more fluid, exhibiting a variety of muscle isolation
techniques: rolling the belly, swiveling the hips or making
the upper and lower body appear as though they led independent
lives. In many ways, belly dancing is the anti-ballet. Whereas
the ballerina wears her pretty steel-tipped slippers, the belly
dancer is sensuously barefoot. While the ballerina strives for
the ethereal and seeks to resist gravity, the belly dancer’s
feet are firmly planted on the ground, tapping into a boundless
fund of earthy energy.
is the technique, but then there is the inspiration, the wordless
ecstasy communicated, the body eloquence. President Anwar Sadat
once described a celebrated Egyptian dancer of the 70s, Souhair
Zaki, as “the Oum Kolthoum of dance . . . As she sings
with her voice, you sing with your body.” he said to her.
Speaking of the same dancer, Geraldine Brooks put it slightly
differently in her book, Nine Parts of Desire:
she did with her body was what a woman’s body did -- the
natural movements of sex and childbirth. The dance drew the
eye to the very centre of the female body’s womanliness.
fact that weddings are hardly complete without a belly dancer
is revealing, given the function of marriage as sanctifying
the union between a man and a woman who is expected to be a
virgin. Costing the family of the bride or groom up to $3,000
for a 45-minute performance and widely considered the highlight
of the matrimonial event, the belly dancer’s entrance
is anticipated with baited breath. And what an entrance it is.
Some time past the witching hour, often draped in a sort of
a sparkling cape, she shimmies into the room with a manic enthusiasm,
heralded and accompanied by the wild beating of drums. Having
established her presence, and reveling in the power of an intensity
inhabited, the dancer sheds her mock modest veil to reveal herself
-- a half-naked, shimmering apparition. All anima and the daemonic,
she then proceeds to stomp on the hallowed ground of the wedding
This primeval emotional maelstrom is transmitted to the enthralled
general audience and the blushing bride in particular. Women
study her intently, but with a more guarded enthusiasm than
their drooling male counterparts. Having transfixed the audience
in a sort of reverse mesmerism -- where the snake charms those
who summoned it -- the dancer turns her attention to the bride.
Weaving and dipping in her vicinity, she initiates her into
the rites of uninhibited womanhood. See the effect I have on
the room (and your groom) she insinuates, brandishing her sexuality.
That power is yours, too. Your birthright. Celebrate it. And
she’s off, back with the crowd; challenging them to take
guilt-free pleasure in their bodies, snaking between them, dancing
with a deliciously self-absorbed exhibitionism.
in a wedding cake of a gown, the bride must fret, how can I
possibly compete with this woman invulnerable to taboo? Having
spent a lifetime shrewdly protecting her virtue and a small
fortune on the appearance of her dress, she is being upstaged
at her own wedding by a woman who seems to care for neither.
How can she possibly stand up to this dancer -- radiating sex
and naked confidence -- with her flamboyant disregard for the
fundamental commandments of Family and Society?
such a charged atmosphere belly dancing serves as a kind of
‘licensed murder.’ This is Bertrand Russell’s
definition of war, only the war declared here is on conventional
morality and its mind-forged manacles. The force of the belly
dance is a force of nature, perceived as unharnessed and disruptive,
hence the fear. The fear is an ancient one: of desire, of female
flesh. The belly dancer’s twisting sisters are many and
ruinous in mythology and the human imagination: Eve and the
Serpent, Medusa (Woman and Serpent fused), Salome (disastrous
desire), Kali (fierce transcendence), the Sirens (femme fatale),
the striptease (look don’t touch), and the lap dancer
(crude sensuality). All hint at a vision of woman engaged in
a frenzied dance of Life and Death, of passion careening out
of control, threatening to overwhelm and consume.
is not without significance that a 1920’s law forbade
the belly dancer from showing her navel. Later in the 1950s,
belly dancing was prohibited in Egypt altogether. The ban was
repealed following a public outcry on the condition that the
belly button be covered. Why the bellybutton? Given it is not
a sexual organ, one suspects the significance is symbolic. The
belly button is after all, where the umbilical cord was severed.
Is it the scene of the original crime from which people wish
to avert their gaze?
vagina has secret teeth, for the male exits as less than when
he entered." says Camille Paglia. Teeth that are razor
sharp in a patriarchal society. Vagina dentata, then,
denotes a fear of devouring origins, as may the offensive bellybutton.
(This, it appears, is what lurks behind the age-old anxiety
over female sensuality). Hence, trafficking as the belly dancer
does, in the heady cocktail of dance and womanhood, creation
and destruction, the object of desire becomes a repository of
fear and loathing. To accept their spontaneous joy in dance
without the attendant sense of sin, perhaps Egyptians might
take a cue from Nietzsche’s declaration: I could only
believe in a god who dances.