My Battle with the “B-Word”

February 3, 2012 31 Comments

Last week I was doing an informal talk on bellydance at a bookstore. A woman came in, not even knowing there was one scheduled. She heard the Pandora bellydance station playing on the store sound system and did a little dance to herself as she waited for the clerk. She dropped in to chat with me. It turns out that this woman, who was in her 60’s, used to dance with Anahid Sofian in New York City when she was in her 20’s. She shared many stories of the New York scene in its heyday when people like Morocco were headlining clubs, backed by fabulous bands.

When she first walked in, I didn’t know her background of course.  Thinking I was talking to a complete civilian, I told her we were going to talk about some popular ideas and misconceptions about belly dance. She replied, “like the word bellydance itself.” Oh yes! Myself, I’ve had a very ambivalent and reluctant relationship with the “B-word.”

When I started studying about 15 years ago, I didn’t think much about the word and accepted it on the face value of what I understood it to be in the general public at the time. For me, this was minus the stripper notions because I’d seen plenty of classy cabaret dancers growing up in the Philadelphia area. My parents loved live entertainment of all sorts and took us to tons of ethnic events and restaurants. It may have been a year or two into dancing that I even became aware of the unfortunate and uninformed association between the two.

After I’d been in the sparkly mix for about 5 years, I started to explore the folkloric roots and cultural information. At this point, I developed a distinct dislike for the world “bellydance” because even in its best general public definition, I felt it really didn’t convey the culture and tradition of this worthy dance style. At its worst, it did convey a lot of sexpot stereotypes.

When I began to teach and do more culturally oriented performances, I made a concerted effort to not use the word “bellydance” on my advertising, website or in conversations about what I personally was doing. I used terms like “Middle Eastern dance”, “raks sharqui” or “Egyptian dance” to try to get my message across. Face to face conversations usually went something like this:

Joe Public:  Oh, you perform! What do you do?

Me: I do Middle Eastern dance.

Joe Public: <blank stare>
(Maybe he’s not the brightest crayon in the box.. I wait for him to process this.)
<still staring>

Me:  You know, like bellydance. <grits teeth>

Joe Public: <lights up in recognition> Cool!

Me: <sigh>

I swam upstream with this for about 2 or 3 years. Yes, I am stubborn. Eventually I realized that right or wrong, this was really a losing battle – and one that was not very pragmatic from a business standpoint. So I reluctantly, and carefully began to include the word “bellydance” on my cards and in my conversations. There was definitely still some teeth gritting going on at first.

Perhaps I think too much, but for me I really needed a way to live and dance peacefully with the “B-word.”  In the bigger world at the time, Bellydance Superstars was becoming more visible on the pop culture scene.   I absolutely have some gripes with the project, but at least it wasn’t a stage full of scantily clad belly-bunnies.

My personal paradigm shift happened around year 12. I decided to accept the word “bellydance” and use it openly and with conviction. I decided that I would claim and wear the badge with integrity and be the best example I could be of the culture, grace and joy our dance has to share with the world. And if the masses want to call me a “bellydancer”…. well, I will do my part to help them redefine it.

Now the conversation goes more like this…

Joe Public: Oh, you perform? What do you do?

Me: I bellydance professionally. I teach and perform the dance styles of Egypt and around the Middle East – the ones you’ve probably seen as bellydance and the folkloric styles also.

Joe Public: <no blank stare!> Cool!

“BELLYDANCE” Do you love the word or loathe it? Have your feelings about being identified as a “bellydancer” changed over the years you have been involved?  

I know you’ve got opinions!  Tell us in the comments below…

Mahin (121 Posts)

Professional instructor and performer of Middle Eastern belly dance, ACSM Certified Personal Trainer and author or the “Daily Bellydance Quickies”. Belly Dance Artrepreneur, Workshop instructor, performer, event producer, and bellydance writer.

  1. suzanne norman
    February 3, 2012 at 7:26 am

    Well said Mahin… I feel exactly as you do. I teach in a remote area on a little island in the north Atlantic where some people are so backward in their thinking. I just decided to try to bust some of the myths with as much integrity and grace as I could. I too have made peace with the B word and use it with passion and conviction.

  2. A'isha Azar
    February 3, 2012 at 7:52 am

    Hi Mahin, I decided many yeas ago that there is not a single thing wrong with the term “belly dance”, that it is the very loose translation for Raqs Sharghi and Oriental Tanza and that there is no reason on earth why I should expect the average western person on the street to speak Arabic or Turkish. I do educate students and other audiences as to what the dances are called in native tongue when that applies, but in most situations, even those who do not like it end up having to use the term “belly dance” anyway.

  3. Di Shaw
    February 3, 2012 at 8:01 am

    It can be difficult. And these days there are so many variations of the dance – gothic, tribal, burlesque etc. that “bellydance” encompasses. I feel that if someone has a problem with understanding the context, well all we can do is explain where possible & ensure that we act & dance with integrity ourselves. It doesn’t do to get too precious about the term.

  4. Azraa
    February 3, 2012 at 8:10 am

    When I moved to a town where I would be the first MED teacher (to my knowledge), I really thought about making sure bellydance was not a word in my vocabulary. It was my husband that walked me through numerous conversations like your one above and pointed out that know one would know what I was talking about.
    I look at it this way – Bellydance gets them in the door and I make sure they leave with a whole new understanding and lexicon.

  5. Serena
    February 3, 2012 at 10:16 am

    Thank you so much for sharing these thoughts. I started dancing as a young (10 or 11) girl in a troupe with my mom and younger sister. I was so proud to be a bellydancer – I was sharing a very special dance with very special women, following in the footsteps of a wonderful, gentle, softspoken teacher who challenged us all not to BE beautiful, but to FEEL beautiful.

    Through a series of unfortunate events, I became ashamed of being a bellydancer because of the stereotypes and the labels I was given in a small town school. My shy, quiet inner being wasn’t strong enough to handle the relentless barrage of negative sexual focus. I quit dancing, and lived in a shell for almost a decade.

    Now, ten years later, I’ve blossomed into the bellydancer I hoped I could be. While I still don’t have the confidence to stand in the front row during a workshop or volunteer for solo gigs, I am feeling more accomplished everyday and am feeling accepted by the fantastic bellydance community I live in. And, while I dance, I feel beautiful.

    It’s all about having the right people around, and knowing that what you’re doing is very special.

  6. lori
    February 3, 2012 at 11:55 am

    When I first discovered bellydance, I had no idea about the controversy or the history of this dance form. I had a teacher who explained this to her students, which was very helpful. She stated that her group used the term “Middle Eastern Dance” because of the negative connotation with the term “bellydance” until 9/11, when the former term took on its own negative connotation in the US where she was dancing. I find it fascinating that contexts can change so much.

    I think no matter what term we use, the important thing is, as you and Suzanne (hi Suzanne!) have said, is to be respectful to our dance style by being professional in every sense of the word, and being willing to educate the public and students whenever we can.

  7. Joanne Marie Chaput
    February 3, 2012 at 12:27 pm

    I can relate. When I first started to dance I used the word “belly dance” but as I danced more and more I found that people would say (men mostly) if we did pole dancing and stripping ,,, so I started to say Middle Eastern dancing which if they didn’t know what that was then I would say like belly dancing. There seemed to be a different reaction. So I use both terms 🙂

  8. Emma
    February 3, 2012 at 1:29 pm

    there’s a bellydance station on pandora! cool, I have pandora, it comes in through the blueray player, do I just type in the station & it comes up? about the subject at hand, I’ve had more of a quandry about what I can call myself as an ametur bellydancer. When I took classes in a bigger city, the teacher didn’t have a problem with women saying they were bellydancers even after the 1st class or adopting stage names for fun. I’ve taken classes in a smaller city, one teacher was like the one I mentioned, another said only pros should take stage names & call themselves bellydancers. What’s the protocol here?

  9. Mieke
    February 3, 2012 at 2:19 pm

    Well yes, I know the feeling ;-( Somehow I always feel a bit ashamed when I use the word Bellydance, as if it was something I can not say out loud, as if it’s a dirty word… But why? Well, just look at the face of some men when you mention the B-word, their eyes start to shine with expectations of barely dressed women shaking there hips with only one purpose: to please the man.
    And that’s sooooo far of what it is all about….

  10. saphirenz
    February 3, 2012 at 4:29 pm

    Again we sing from the same song sheet on this one. In my opinion the B word conjures up erroneous ideas of salacious activity in the minds of the uninformed I don’t like it either. The word belittles the effort invested and the joy obtained by even the least proficient devotee of ME dance.

  11. Louise
    February 4, 2012 at 12:16 am

    I like Aazra’s comment, “I look at it this way – Bellydance gets them in the door and I make sure they leave with a whole new understanding and lexicon.”

    I am strictly amateur, and have several terms I use, depending on the person I am talking with, their gender, their attitudes, and my relationship to them. I say I go to dance classes, bellydance, Middle Eastern Dance, etc. They either ask further questions, or they don’t. I am cautious of offending, but if they ask, they will get the answer that tells them what I want them to know.

    In another part of my life I am training as a teacher of self-management (as opposed to surgical management) of pelvic organ prolapse (POP) and bladder incontinence through an organisation called Wholewoman Inc. You think bellydance is a loaded concept to drop on people? Try telling them that you help women to overcome pelvic organ prolapse and incontinence!

    In my Wholewoman work a woman *needs* to make friends with her belly because it is an important tool in this work. Bellydance is for me a way of making friends with my belly, and using it as a part of my physical self-expression. In addition, minimising and denying the belly is not good for a woman’s pelvic health. It is a very useful, and positive body part, which has no business being minimised. It needs to be celebrated.

    Strippers? Phooee!

    Erotic? Often.

    Sexual? Only in private, and on my terms.

    For women’s eyes? Always!

    For men’s eyes? Only with my permission.

    For children’s eyes? Usually

    For little girl’s bodies? Of course!

    For women’s bodies? Absolutely!!

    It *is* women’s dance, wherever its cultural origins.

  12. Jade
    February 4, 2012 at 10:30 am

    I embrace it, especially within the dance community. There are some styles within bellydance that have been so Americanized, I think belly dance is actually a more accurate term for them than some of the more traditional terms.

    That being said, I tell average people I’m a belly dancer, but I do fear the mixed reactions. I have sometimes used the term Middle Eastern dance when I think it will change the reactions to be more favorable, and often been surprised that sometimes I get the same undesireable reactions.

    I have decided to just proudly use the term bellydance, elaborate and educate if necessary, and if they have strange preconceived notions that make them judgmental, that’s their problem.

  13. Saniyah Raks
    February 4, 2012 at 12:51 pm

    Since everyone’s comments are so well articulated, my contribution will be that iHeart radio has a GREAT “BD” selection. I find they have a little more music than Pandora but I love them both! Enjoy.

    Thanks for sharing.

    1. mahinbellydance
      February 4, 2012 at 2:12 pm

      I’ve heard “iHeart radio” before but didn’t realize it was like Pandora. Hmmm, I’ll check it out. Thanks!

  14. AJ
    February 4, 2012 at 10:05 pm

    I don’t know what sort of charmed life I’m living, but somehow I’ve only encountered one person who got the wrong idea about my dancing… and it’s someone in my extended family.

    I use the term belly dance, because it’s the term that people are going to recognize. Besides, as Jade said, there really aren’t appropriate terms for the more American styles. ATS/ITS are not really raks sharqui or a Middle Eastern dance, despite borrowing moves from them.

    Finally, in my opinion, if we try to distance ourselves from the word “bellydance” and say that we do we’re NEVER going to clear up the misconceptions that some people have! If we want our dance to be respected, whether we perform the pure Middle Eastern version of it or the Americanized tribal version of it or some other version, we have to be open about who we are and gently correct mistaken assumptions.

  15. Sacha
    February 5, 2012 at 11:49 am

    I use the word bellydance so I can relate to non-bellydance people who wouldn’t know it by any other name. If I then get any negative response, I use it as an opportunity to re-educate them about our art form – they usually respect the dance form after that, especially if you make them try it out! The term ‘bellydance’ may only encapsulate a small part of the dance, but if we shun the label ourselves, we will never be able to take back the word and use it to as a force for good. I say I’m a Bellydancer and I’m proud of it!

  16. Morocco (or Aunt Rocky)
    February 10, 2012 at 8:14 am

    Amongst US I have no problem with it, just like gangsta rappers supposedly have no problem with the disgusting N word, saying that using it themselves diminishes the hate & disrespect it contains. I don’t buy that.

    Bear in mind that the B word came from the same racist/ colonialist mindset, from the Victorian era, when it WAS a dirty word. Read the “What’s in a Name” section of my book, esp. the caption that goes with that photo of the Egyptian Theater dancers from the 1893 world’s fair to see exactly what I mean.

    I have been in this biz for over 51 years & learned totally in culture. I have insisted on correct terminology *almost* from the get-go (as soon as I found out the truth about the MISnomer) & nobody can deny that I have been successful in this biz.

    Not to long ago, Raqs Sharqi was also called “hoochie-koochie” by the general, unimformed public (“bellY was considered waaay too vulgar a word back then!!!), as was Hula.

    Hawaiians insisted on & got the correct name back. Should we do any less??? Nowadays, in the interest of “political correctness”, it is even easier to do.

    Call it what you must, BUT *educate* the “civilians” while you do it!!!

    Onward & upward … 😎
    Yer Aunt Rocky

    1. mahinbellydance
      February 10, 2012 at 5:28 pm

      Somebody pinch me! Aunt Rocky commented on my blog! 🙂
      Yes, ma’am… I will do my very best!

      1. Morocco (or Aunt Rocky)
        February 10, 2012 at 5:54 pm

        Of course I commented as soon as i found out about it. I really like YOU, it’s a great discussion & basically, we all seem to agree.

        Mucho smoocho to all you dancers!

  17. Morocco (or Aunt Rocky)
    February 10, 2012 at 8:17 am

    Please excuse the typos – I deliberately did NOT learn to type in high school so they couldn’t force me to be a secretary, which was what they tried with most “uppity” (intelligent) women in that era.

    Go know that 50 years later, I’d be on the internet 24/7, trying to type. God has a very weird sense of humor …


  18. Jaimee
    February 12, 2012 at 3:20 am

    Thank you for writing this post. I live in a very Catholic, religious country so it’s a lot harder for people to understand what belly dancing is. Usually I get snickers when asked what I do on my free time, but it’s alright. I’m dancing for myself and for those who appreciate, and I like the mixed reactions I get because at the very least I made myself memorable at that moment.

  19. Tracy Ellison
    February 12, 2012 at 10:25 pm

    I think what I struggle with the B-word is the misconceptions of us all as husband stealing, pole dancing strippers. I am a court reporting student by day and I dance for fun and sometimes profit. *laughs*
    I have however, especially lately, been getting a lot of negative comments like, “Oh, that’s professional, or you belly dance?” With the stare that goes along with it, you know the one. (If you’re not a size 2 that is!)
    My reply is: Yes, I Bellydance. Yes, I have loads of fun doing it. No, I do not strip. No, I don’t want your husband. And yes, I am a professional, because I am a lady first and a dancer second.
    Happy dancing everyone!

    1. A'isha Azar
      February 13, 2012 at 8:20 am

      You know…I’m not sure why, but in 38 years of dancing, I have almost never gotten any of those kinds of comments….?????

      1. MOROCCO
        February 13, 2012 at 8:45 am

        Wish I could say the same. You must lead a semi-charmed dance life, my sweet friend.
        It’s a lot better in major metropolitan areas than it was 51 years ago *&* it’s always *before* they see me dance, BUT it still occurs way too often.
        XOXOX Rocky

    February 13, 2012 at 7:35 am

    The easiest way to diffuse the knee-jerk negativity re what is truly a racist MISnomer for our fab, folk/ social dance to begin with, is by:

    1. doing our usual classy, superior performances (Check! 😎 …)
    2. using the correct name (s) & gently correcting those who use the MISnomer, explaining that it’s a folk/ social dance of millions of people “Over There” .. (Do it! See what happens. I’ve been slowly opening eyes & minds for 51 years & still doing it …)

    Much love,

  21. A'isha Azar
    February 14, 2012 at 8:06 am

    Hi Mz.. M,
    ( And Happy Valentines Day to one of my favorite people!!) I think part of it is that I do not pretend that the dance is anything other than what it is.I have danced in small towns and large cities and I just have not run into that sleazy image problem more than a very few times, in which case, I let the dance do the talking. No matter what, some people find anything with even a hint of sexuality, especially sexuality that exudes the energy of strong femaleness, to be threatening, and they will work it into something negative no matter what. I do not deny its sexual inuendo, which is very obvious, but I am a person who believes in rejoicing in positive seuxality!! I also make it very clear that in dancing I make no promises other than that you will get to see a person dance her heart and soul. The dance and dancer are for observing and enjoying and NOT FOR TOUCHING. This means that I do not go out for tips. We train our audiences how to treat us and I think that going out for tips helps lend to that “she’s a stripper” attitude. On the other hand, I know women who only been able to put food on the table and feed their kids because they got good tips the night before. Very few club and restaurant owners seem to pay their dancers very well and half the time, when people tip in Arab fashion, the band get the $$ instead of the dancer.Yes, I believe in doing classy performances, but I never correct anyone who uses the term “belly dance” because that is what the dance is called in English. I have no problem with that. I also believe that in situations where it is possible to educate the general public, we should make it known what the dance is called in native tongues. I know we have a friendly disagreement on this point, but I see nothing at all wrong with the term “belly dance”, and in fact I think its a great term for it and fits the dance very well.
    But I am glad you keep on keeping on because I see the value in both approaches!! Education is a strong part of our job and I agree that we should let people know the native terms when the opportunities are right.
    Much love,

    1. MOROCCO
      February 14, 2012 at 8:23 am

      Dearest A2,
      NO argument with your choice & if everyone agreed about everything, I’d kill myself out of boredom. FWIW, if I get a headache, it ain’t because my halo is too tight …

      Happy Valentine’s Day, my treasured friend & colleague!!!
      Much love back atcha,
      Aunt Rocky

  22. Raquel Ashai
    February 19, 2012 at 5:32 pm

    Wow! I love this conversation!

    I did struggle with the term “Bellydance” in two phases – one, because I didn’t feel it honored it’s root influence, and two, well, I began to grow out of the community, yet wanted to maintain a connection to the movements.

    In the end, I separate Bellydance and Middle Eastern Dance/Raqs Sharqi [and all of the other titles named to this style folkloric dance].

    For ME, Bellydance is a creative expression of the folkloric dance named Middle Eastern Dance [I’ll refer to it using this acronym, MED, from here on out]. It is a fusion dance within itself; taken out of its Cultural context. Being out of its cultural context, we, as dancers, are recreating something, through our personal filters [yes, I’m a psychologist as well so this drove me crazy for a while], adding our very Personal feel and experience to the mix. Yes, there are some of us that dance to a live band [or drummer] during our performances; this aspect of it I see as a performance art – an expression of what goes on ‘back at home’ but done in a performance setting [theater, studio show, festivals, etc.]. Bellydancers dance to all genres of music, further developing this field as a fusion dance. IMO, I don’t even see dancing to recorded ME music as Raqs Sharqi; I still see it as a performance art in the box of Bellydance…or I’ll even stretch it to saying Interpretative ME Dance. Dancers infuse dance technique and stylization from other styles, and add a label to “Bellydance”, to further distinguish it from the larger umbrella of the creative expression of a folkloric dance [ie – Tribal Fusion BD, Gothic BD, etc…]. Some say music makes a dance, others say location, culture….what makes a dance is the people and how they desire to make it – what to wear, how to dance, when to dance it, what it’s for, how it came into being, and how the music is used.

    Then there are the dancers that use live bands ONLY – music strictly from the ME or Near ME that is directly related to this folkloric art form, with no western musical influence that would change its cultural essence. They call themselves ME dancers, or that they teach a folkloric art form called {what ever name suits you best}. Some ME dancers do wear the western inspired costumes, and others wear the ‘correct’ cultural representation of whatever region their performing.

    I see MED as a folkloric artform, and I see BD as a creative expression of MED. So when people ask me what kind of dance I do, I tell them Ballet, BD, MED, Argentine tango, salsa…I go through the entire list. I’ve had a few people ask me the difference between MED and BD and I’ve given them a more in-depth explanation of what I’ve said above. I get the same reaction “Wow, I’ve never heard it explained that way..” or their fascination with my diverse dance experience.

    Now we’re getting into the ‘Contemporary BD’ age. Like I posted on my FB page, I think transformation is great…it would be nice to see some settled hearts so that this field [ahem, Bellydance as a whole] can truly grow and prosper. That, of course, comes with honoring where it comes from or where its Influence comes from [doing some homework].

    What do I call myself now? Educator and Artist…dance is one of my many tools. Would I ever bellydance again? It would have to be a compelling collaboration or the music has to be composed right out of heaven. A MED performance? Same rule applies….I’d have to connect with the band on such a deep level, or the collaboration has to be compelling.

    Sorry, can’t separate my educational training and essential nature from what I do, so I’ve run off and analyzed everything.


  23. Tracy Ellison
    February 19, 2012 at 9:53 pm

    I absolutely love this discussion, for me it is invigorating to see everyone’s point of view in black and white. I love a good debate and discussion, so this for me is better than watching yet another t.v. show. I find merits in everyone’s opinion and I am taking away from this discussion much more than I contributed. Happy dancing all and see you at the next performance!

  24. Morocco
    February 20, 2012 at 8:31 am

    While I mostly agree with what Raquel writes, esp. amongst us dance-demented devotees, there is still the unfortunate fact of the negative connotations the misnomer carries with the majority of the general non-ME world population (& do not forget the even more negative connotations of dancing in public before non-mahram men in ME regions – esp. in these so called “conservative” times!).

    In a small section of my book I illustrate/ explain this in detail, esp. vis-a-vis jobs denied due simply to the misnomer or due to performances that cater to the lowest common denominator/ fantasy of that misnomer (& not just to/ from me!). This is fact, not opinion or personal choice.

    Using the term folklore/shaabi “Over There” & MED or Sharqi “Over Here” DOES go a long way to diffuse that negativity at the start, then our performances speak even louder for themselves without having to override those negative – & yes, racist epithet – barriers.

  25. Mosaic
    February 23, 2012 at 4:04 am

    I have to agree with Aunt Rocky on this Raqs Sharqi, Raqs Beledi etc, etc does not translate to belly dance and the sooner we dancers stop using the term the better IMO. Do we call a Rose a potato? Also “belly” is slang for abdomen. I understand it is difficult to change common usage, but if everyone made a point of doing so it would eventually happen:)


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