Beyond “The Beauty Myth”
The Liberating Power of Oriental Dance
by Barbara Grant
Those of us who study Oriental dance have found our lives enriched in a variety of ways. Wherever we live, whatever our ethnic or cultural backgrounds, we embark on a voyage each time we move to the music and interpret the rhythms of this ancient art form. In addition, as the contributors to Habibi and other publications demonstrate, we are called to seek more in a variety of ways, to give new meaning to our experience and to add yet more to the enjoyment of our dance and its interpretation. For some, the dance has evoked an interest in ancient symbolism, a desire to connect with the primal roots of women’s spirituality; for others, it has been the jumping off point for an exploration of cultures of the Middle East and North Africa, with which our Western society still remains relatively unfamiliar. And for still others, the introduction to this dance form has motivated a desire to hone our skills and refine our technique, that we may one day make the jump from student to professional performer. All are wonderful benefits, additional blessings that we may not have foreseen when we enrolled in our first belly dance class at the local high school or parks and recreation department.
But there is another dynamic at work, something that many of us have acknowledged on some level, and about which not enough has been written. This dance offers us the power to increase our self esteem, to acknowledge freely our femininity, and to gain greater self confidence and body awareness as we master each new movement, each new undulation. Movements that we perceived as difficult or impossible when we first saw them are made tractable with increasing repetition, until finally they become our own. And in this process of movement and mastery, we realize that unique joy that comes from the knowledge that our bodies can really do these things.
This liberating power that Oriental dance can bestow should not be underestimated! We live in a culture in which media-generated images of women blare at us from television sets, movie screens, and newsstands. We see one form with many faces, the Ideal Woman that we are supposed to emulate. Although there are a few variations on this theme, the Ideal Woman is young and thin, with carefully sculpted features, a perfect complexion, and hair that never falls out of place—unless, of course, she is using a blow-dryer. In viewing this image, so prevalent everywhere, we are reminded of our own inadequacies: most of us are never quite thin enough, quite young enough, or quite pretty enough to measure up to the Ideal. The result, for many, is a devastating loss of self esteem, and the creation of an environment in which other women are viewed as threatening competitors. Yet regardless of where we feel we may rank in the “beauty hierarchy,” the mere fact of being placed in such a caste system directs our energies away from accomplishing our full potential as human beings, and this is the most tragic loss of all.
Naomi Wolf in The Beauty Myth has written compellingly of our culture’s preoccupation with enforcing a strict set of “beauty” criteria upon women as a way of maintaining a social order that relegates women to secondary status. During the past twenty years, as women completed college degrees and entered the job market in increasing numbers, the cultural emphasis on a rigid and often unattainable standard of female beauty increased. As women spent more time and energy trying to achieve this ideal, the gains that women’s new status had provided were left unconsolidated. The fulcrum of the beauty standard is a woman’s culturally-desirable weight: “a generation ago, the average model weighed 8 percent less than the average American woman,” says Wolf “whereas today she weighs 23 percent less,” and today’s “average model, dancer, or actress is thinner than 95 percent of the female population.” (Wolf, The Beauty Myth, 1991, pp. 184-185.)
Real women respond to these images by feeling inadequate, and by trying desperately to measure up. Wolf notes that a 1984 survey of 30,000 women aged eighteen to thirty-five indicated that 75 percent believed they were too fat, whereas only 25 percent were medically overweight. And on any given day, 25 percent of women are on diets, while 50 percent are beginning, completing, or breaking a diet. (Wolf, Ibid., p. 185.) We believe that we have won the battle when we lose a few pounds, but as we have been working toward the Ideal, she has become even thinner. The cycle begins anew, and as we drive toward attaining that sylphlike form, we often forget that female sexuality and reproductive ability are linked to body fat.
Oriental dance is a celebration of female sexuality. If we are driven to conform to a set of criteria that casts all women as mannequins, we have nothing left to celebrate. This does not mean that “thin is bad,” because thin is truly what some women are meant to be. It does not mean, either, that women ought not to diet or seek to achieve bodies with which we feel comfortable; but rather, that the comfort level be set from within rather than imposed from without, as it is different for each woman. By responding to the dictates of a culture whose one acceptable female “type” descends on us through mass-marketing, we are robbed of the opportunity to create our own beauty identity. By participating in this dance form, so closely allied to the roots of our femininity, we are given the chance to define this standard for ourselves.
The cultural bias linking a woman’s value to her youth is another rigid barrier imposed from without. The “wise woman,” a venerable older female figure valued for her knowledge and experience, is nearly invisible in contemporary Western culture, which places a high value on “wise men.” This double standard encourages us to believe that women’s importance to society diminishes as we acquire the wisdom to serve it. The barriers carry over into sexual stereotypes as well: men are seen as sexual well beyond the age of forty, but the popular image of woman as a sexual creature decreases with age.
“The prime of life,” notes Wolf (Ibid., p. 230) “the decades from forty to sixty—when many men but certainly most women are at the height of their powers—are cast as men’s peak and women’s decline (an especially sharp irony since those years represent women’s sexual peak and men’s sexual decline.)” Male actors continue to play romantic roles well into their sixties, and do not require cosmetic surgery to be seen as attractive or desirable. Actresses, on the other hand, must constantly subject themselves to the surgeon’s scalpel if they desire to grow old “gracefully” and continue to work. When this technique is no longer effective, they either disappear from the screen entirely or are relegated to character roles. This anxiety about aging permeates the general population: taking our cues from popular culture, we fear being marked as “over the hill” when we are beyond some landmark age, be it thirty, forty, or fifty, as if we, too, will gradually become invisible.
The pursuit of Oriental dance can help to mitigate some of this cultural condemnation. As we consider our most popular seminar instructors, the dancers and choreographers whose lifetimes of work continue to inspire and motivate us, we observe that with a few notable exceptions, most of these professionals are beyond the age of forty, and many, beyond fifty. We flock to classes and seminars taught by these individuals based on a consideration of what they have to offer, not on how many lines appear on their faces or whether their bodies still appear “youthful.” We consistently choose quality—and quality, we recognize, takes time to develop. In addition, we see many dancers at all levels who continue to perform and compete in contests long after they become mothers and grandmothers. Our zahgareets and shouts of encouragement are given wholeheartedly as we admire their skill, grace, and dignity. By their example, we are reminded that this dance can be a lifelong pursuit. In these ways, our community chooses to accept and to honor age in a manner that most of our society does not.
An objection may be raised here, and should be noted. Many can recall a story of a dancer who lost her nightclub job because she was deemed to be too old, or was not hired because she was thought to be too heavy. Indeed, as Nuria Tahan has indicated (“It’s Rough in the Gulf,” Habibi, vol. 14, no. 1), some performing venues seek out only the young and beautiful. It is definitely true that nightclub performers are chosen for a variety of reasons, and an owner’s perception of a dancer’s looks can be an important factor. Also important, however, are a dancer’s stage presence, her rapport with an audience, and her rapport with the club musicians. A dancer may win a job because her friends regularly patronize a restaurant, and will run up large tabs while she is dancing. She may lose a job when the owner’s girlfriend persuades him to hire someone else. She may be one of the lucky few who retain a job for a year or more in a restaurant whose owners go out of their way to promote this dance as an art. There is no set formula, no standard set of criteria that determines who will be hired in a nightclub and who will not. For the vast majority of dancers, who do not earn their livelihoods as professional performers, the benefits of being involved in this dance—an increased body awareness and the self esteem that reaches out into other areas of one’s life—far outweigh the disadvantages to be expected from a professional performing career.
The spread of Oriental dance to venues outside the nightclub is a current trend that can increase the visibility of this art and make it accessible to a greater variety of women. Many who see this dance performed for the first time in settings such as concert halls, galleries, or community festivals will find their preconceptions challenged by the reality of what they witness. Those who think that Oriental dancers are women who gyrate on the stage of a “males only” theater will be surprised to notice that the woman shimmying in the front row is their next door neighbor. Those who believe that this is a young woman’s dance will be shocked to learn that the woman whose graceful undulations they admire has two grown children. And those who think that dance is the province of ballerinas alone will be awed by the “big and beautiful” woman executing a perfect belly roll. By seeing performers who represent a wide variety of ages, sizes, and body types, more women will be encouraged to try this dance themselves. In the end, we will all benefit.
Real women come in all varieties, and this dance form, unlike many others, holds a place for each of us. As we become increasingly aware of what our bodies can do, and as we watch other women achieve their potential, we are both inspired and inspiring. In this effort, the cultural standards that classify and rank us, divide and separate us, and devalue and disempower us become less tangible. As we move with the rhythms of this ancient art form and gain a greater sense of feminine consciousness, we realize that elusive quality called “beauty,” and understand that it is whatever we define it to be. And in that realization, we move further toward what we may accomplish as human beings. That, in the end, is the greatest gift that any art can bestow.
Wolf, Naomi, The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty are Used Against Women, William Morrow & Company, Inc., New York, 1991.
Barbara Grant has studied Oriental dance for six years, and has performed in the San Francisco Bay Area and in Greece. She is a graduate of the University of Arizona and resides in Cupertino, California, where she is employed as a researcher into the environmental applications of electro-optical technology. email@example.com