Pom-poms to Tassels

Pom-poms to Tassels

A Personal Journey from Hands to Hips

by Linda Swanson

Recently a friend and I were discussing the “American” in American Tribal Style Bellydance (an amateur activity of mine), and my friend likened the group formation and gesturing to that all?American institution, cheerleading. At first I was horrified. What did I have in common with the Dallas Cowgirls! I had long ago renounced my high school cheerleading past (and kept it hidden during my art student days when it certainly would have discredited my attempts to be avant?garde and antiestablishment). I wanted to dismiss the comment, but it kept nagging at me. Did Carolena and Karen and Nadia and Anne and Demetra (FatChanceBellyDance, 1999) indeed have something In common with Linda and Sandy and Nancy and Cathy and Barb (NCHS varsity squad, 1968)?

Linda and Sandy and Nancy and Cathy and Barb

To begin with, we liked each other. We weren’t all in the same “clique” of friends, but we were drawn together by a common physical activity about which we were passionate. We shared ideas for cheers, taught each other jumps and leaps, decided as a group which outfits we would wear to each game. Personal life often intervened, and we would console each other about love, talk about an assignment, anticipate a party. We practiced twice a week, working hard to be precisely in unison, and we “performed” twice a week at games. As public representatives of our school, cheerleading also informed our conduct and belief system. We were a “tribe.”

Linda (lower right) and Sandy and Nancy and Cathy and Barb, North Central High School Cheerleaders, Indianapolis.

Cheerleading was the only high school athletics available to women in the 1960’s. There were no teams, and if you wanted to move, especially as a group, cheerleading was your chance. Of course, it was a small chance, as there were probably only a dozen cheerleaders (including both varsity and reserve) in a school of any size (2500 at North Central in Indianapolis). One could, of course, serve as “back up” in the Pep Club, but unlike being in an ATS chorus, one was anonymous in a sea of white gloves, red sweaters and Peter Pan collars. We cheerleaders were “on stage” at the football or basketball game, marginalized by our location just off the court or field (literally “out?of bounds”), in a ritualized performance supporting the main even—the game—but we harbored the secret belief that people were there to watch us.

To watch us

We cartwheeled and flipped and jumped and shouted and did the splits and cried and leapt—all to support the team and to draw attention to ourselves. Our motives were to be seen in a culture in which we were invisible. Our desire was to become the object of looking. The irony we didn’t grasp at age 17 is that to become the object (the one looked at, rather than the one doing the looking) is to be on the receiving end, to be passive no matter how many cartwheels and jumps. Conversely, to maintain subjectivity is to remain active no matter how rooted to spot.

FatChanceBellyDance: (clockwise from right front) Carolena Nericio, Rina Rall, Karen Gehrman, Suzanne Dante, and Kathy Stahlman.

This shift between subject and object is subtle yet significant. Cheerleaders are the object of desire. Their appearance/performance invites being looked at, but they are sidelined to the real subject/initiator of action, the team. American Tribal Style bellydancers are the subject of desire. They actively project their own fantasy of power, movement and beauty. (No guy would invent a costume like that!)

For a woman to allow her beauty visibility, let alone to enhance it, is to direct the gaze towards herself and to invite relationship. How that relationship is then negotiated is informed by cultural cues and personal awareness. In assessing the historical representation of gender differences in the visual arts (i.e., painting, sculpture etc.), critic John Berger summarizes, “Men act, women appear.”1 That is to say, in these works men are the subject of experience (they initiate and control action), women are the object (they receive attention from outside). He succinctly illustrates his point with two Greek sculptures: an athletic male figure engaged in intensely focused action; an attractive female figure holding her skirt to the side to better reveal her shapely legs. (Suddenly I’m back at the basketball game, twirling so fast as to show my underpants.) In my field, art, women artists in the 1960’s and 1970’s struggled to reclaim the female body from this objectification of the “male gaze” that had been transmitted through centuries of sculptures and paintings of nude female models (passively posing) made by dressed male artists (actively creating).

Of course in dance, women both appear and act. When dancers, male and female, leap through space and are dressed identically, the sexually charged duality between subject and object is mitigated. Dynamic bodies in space make elusive targets for the audience’s projections. But, when the female dancers “stay put” and “dress up” (as in bellydance) subjecthood is more vulnerable. In Egyptian dance, muscular containment and economy keep the centered power actively engaged. (Take a workshop with Shareen El Safy and find out what it is to maintain control of the subject/object opposition while wearing beads!)

Strategies in American Tribal Style, which superficially mimics cheerleading, also provide antidotes to the cultural invitation of a woman’s beauty. The tribal dancer’s body is layered (yards of opaque fabric, tattoos, makeup, reflective coins, tassels) rather than revealingly costumed. Movement originates from center, not the margins (either in the sense of stage space or the dancer’s body).2 This tribe, unlike that of cheerleaders, is the main event and defers to nothing outside of itself. The focused physical dialogue is between dancers and only obliquely with the audience. The audience is permitted to witness this flow of energy, but their expectations cannot disrupt it. This tribe has made themselves extremely visible, self?sufficient, and has no need to be validated by the audience. Twirls don’t tease (spinning, to the disappointment of sports fans, only gets to the next layer—bulbous pantaloons). Bodies stay grounded and solid, never dematerializing into someone else’s fantasy. All of that and American Tribal Style bellydancers get to do all the moves completely forbidden to a seventeen-year-old high school cheerleader. Hips and chests are released from social control and communicate without all the verbal props of cheers. As cheerleaders, the pom-poms we waved so enthusiastically at arm’s length drew attention away from our teenage torsos even as we implored attention towards them, revealing our understandable ambivalence about our bodies and our energies in that particular society. Thirty years later those pom-poms have dropped to their unapologetic place at hips. Call them tassel belts.

I do suspect that Carolena and Karen and Nadia and Anne and Demetra have a lot in common with Linda and Sandy and Nancy and Cathy and Barb. We all believe(d) that we could use the movement of our bodies to direct and focus energy. As cheerleaders, we channelled that energy for the “higher good”—the winning of the game by the guys—but we did touch the power. In American Tribal Style, the focused energy serves the tribe—so generously, in fact, that it spills out into the audience. What we experience in a troupe’s precise improvisation is the magnification of that energy through repetition. As cheerleaders, we naively bounced that energy around, afraid to ask where it came from (deep inside) and never quite sure where to direct it (to the fans, to each other to the team?) The fact we were willing to manifest it at all speaks to our intuition about the power of our bodies. The fact that our vehicle (cheerleading) had so many constraints, speaks to the power of culture to shape even our most personal views. Changes come slowly, but once they happen, and you tie those pom-poms to your hips, just think of all that you can do to change the world with both hands free!


1. John Berger, Ways of Seeing. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1972

2. Linda Swanson, “Carolena Nericcio Dancer at Center,” Habibi, Vol. 17 No.2

Linda Swanson, M.F.A., is a visual artist and professor of studio art and art history (specializing in feminist art history) at the Santa Fe University of Art and Design, where she is chair of the Art Department. Her own work takes the form of painting, prints, and installations and deals with the connections between gender/identity and exotic/domestic. Her work has been shown extensively in the New York metropolitan area and appears in the collections of major museums. Email: Linda.Swanson@santafeuniversity.edu.

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