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Both feminism and belly dance enjoyed an upsurgence in the early 1970’s, suggesting that there is a community of interest between the two.  When “women’s liberation” was pushing for more job opportunities, more personal freedom, and more sexual freedom for women, belly dance offered freedoms that seemed to exemplify these goals.  

It encouraged self-expression, it freed women from constraint in their physical movement and it encouraged taking center stage – a liberating combination for women who had begun to see the demureness and agreeable blandness expected of them as restrictive and wrong. 

There is no doubt that the dance was liberating to women.  Those of us who taught in the 70’s saw it time and time again: women whose stiff, introverted body language showed lack of confidence were suddenly opening up, shaking their hips, performing, expressing. Going to belly dance class was, for some, a subversive act.  

Teaching in the South in the late 70’s, I knew several of my students lied about where they were going on Tuesday nights. I also knew of several women who danced themselves out of restrictive relationships.  Through belly dance, many women found a way to escape, for the class hour or on a wider scale, from societal bonds that restricted them from power, adventure, exploration of their own sensuality, and claiming a public voice.

Over the past thirty years, Western belly dancers have come to an interpretation of their art that builds on these early liberating self-discoveries.  While many individual philosophies of dance exist, and while there is often heated discussion about them within the community, on the whole dancers take a more or less feminist view of what they are doing.  Most dancers feel that they are dancing for themselves and for a wide audience, rather than to please and seduce men.   

Most dancers, while aware of sometimes unpleasant professional competition, have a sense of sisterhood with other dancers.  Most dancers feel that this dance is particularly feminine, that what it says is said best by women, and that it is a valuable form of self-expression for themselves and for women as a group. Dancers tend to discuss belly dance history in terms of goddess worship and childbirth rituals, though other myths (harems and slave dancers) still dominate the consciousness of non-dancers.  Dancers also tend to embrace archetypes that embody central issues of their own dancing: earth goddess, gypsy dancer, sensual queen, sweet young nymph.   

Through these images, dancers create feeling, move their audiences to new perceptions and ideas, express who they are, and open the door to something deep and powerful in themselves and in their audiences.  Dancers love this ability in themselves and rightly see it as a power, a gift, a voice.  On the whole, dancers’ experience tends to support the notion that this dance is good for women: it is valuable as self-expression, and it is at heart a woman’s dance, reflective of women’s essence, skills, power, sexuality, and spirituality.

Read more: uncw.edu 


Women's History Magazine

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