Fantasy or Empowerment

Erotic Fantasy or Female Empowerment?

Gender Issues in Oriental Dance

by Stavros Stavrou

This paper was presented at the Gender Research Symposium at the University of Calgary, Ontario, Canada, on March 12, 1999. The symposium was sponsored by the Faculty of Graduate Studies and the Graduate Women’s Network.

The time is approaching 8:30 in a crowded Greek restaurant in downtown Calgary. Bouzouki music screeches through small speakers mounted high up above the tables. The atmosphere is lively and redolent with the mingled smell of garlic, wine, and roasted meat. Suddenly and abruptly, the bouzouki is interrupted and replaced by a faintly audible hiss. Shyly yet eloquently the oud rises through the tape hiss and asserts its incongruous voice which is presently to be supported by the full orchestra as it bursts forth with an imposing baladi rhythm. Along with the orchestra I discern the dancer’s zills slicing the thick, noisy air as they interpret fluently the basic rhythm. From where I am seated I eagerly search for the dancer but cannot yet see her. Looking around I see some interested faces, although most of the crowd continues as if the change in music and volume have gone unnoticed.

Finally she reaches my section. She is dressed in a sumptuous long skirt slit on both sides; on her hips rests a large, colorful, glittering belt that registers and accentuates the complex hip movements. Her torso is covered by a transparent veil tucked into her belt and beaded top. She undulates gracefully. Some people appear disaffected. She gyrates her waist. One woman is gazing with interest mingled with curiosity. Before the table of a middle?aged couple the dancer shimmies her hips; the man looks rather annoyed, the woman adopts a bland look and glances sideways at the dancer as she chews. The piece slows down to a chiftetelli, and with undulations and chest slides the dancer speaks the rhythm with unfailing precision as she slowly removes her veil, dances with it, behind it, obscures and highlights her moves and slowly moves up to a male customer and gently places it around his neck and shoulders amid cheers and laughter from his friends. Reluctantly he stands up, wiggles his bum to even more applause and screams, and then relapses into a rock and roll dance rendition of Arabic music before he returns to his table.

I would like to pause at this moment of particular interest. For this apparently heterosexual man, this is a rare opportunity to perform those taboo moves associated with a gender other than his strictly masculine. He will be forgiven for this transgression, too. As far as the dance is concerned, he only needs parodic moves which are, inevitably, a poor approximation of the dancer’s. To be anything better than burlesque he would need to either be moved profoundly and romantically by the music, or to study under a good instructor for a considerable amount of time, devoting energy and passion in an art form that is not only aberrant for his sex but is also generally misunderstood and disparaged even among women. Both options are proscribed by his heterosexuality unless he is prepared to forgo an alternative social interpretation of his gender or suspend his masculinity, for in the West acceptable masculine poses do not include complex hip movements.

I see the apparent harmlessness in such a moment, yet I am also concerned with a history that I think exists behind it; a history that speaks of male interpretation of, male imposition on, and male interference with female art. Here lie the reasons why I wanted to present on this topic which for some is controversial and for others a non?topic, or in any case, unworthy of significant attention. All these attitudes are, by the way, very revealing of societal attitudes and need to be addressed. I believe that to understand why Oriental dance is not enjoying the artistic status and the fine reputation that it deserves in the West one has to examine the male attitude to the female dancing body. The common objections raised against the dance (that it is salacious, sleazy, obscene) are rooted in a certain male phobia surrounding the configuration of agency and sexuality in the moving female body. I do not mean to exaggerate the pervasiveness of this phobia by asserting that it marks every facet of male behavior. Moreover, I do not wish to down play the prevalent colonial attitude of Western white cultures that tend to deride certain cultural phenomena from the East, tolerating them only as watered?down, staged spectacles with no further agency or use. It does appear that what is perceived as outlandish in this hybrid art form is often attributed to its exotic roots. My main focus here, however, is to explore the gender dynamics unleashed by the dance as it is performed in the West. I would suggest that confronted with the female body engaged in Oriental dance the male gaze is confounded by a movement that it cannot map and an energy that it cannot fathom. Of course, not all men today share the same attitude towards this dance. Nevertheless, I do believe it is largely men’s disapproval inspired by fear of the feminine that has deprived this dance of the appreciation and even artistic recognition and status that it rightly deserves.

Let me explain further: during the dance, the geographical boundaries of the body shift constantly to the music in a series of complex ever-changing attitudes. The entire body is engaged in a sensual articulation of the accompanying music, whose flow is often given a kinesthetic interpretation of stunning precision. During the process, body parts that are ordered by cultural norms to remain subdued and covered suddenly acquire a voice and a privilege as they carry the beat and “speak” not only the rhythm but even the texture of the music. I am referring here to the hips, the chest, and the shoulders. As it carries the genitals, the hip region of the body has amassed great anxiety in the history of Western culture. Hip movements in dance are viewed as sexually suggestive and therefore classified as lascivious. Moreover, the anxiety they provoke in white Anglo-Saxon culture is racialized as these moves evoke the threat posed by African dances (among others) to white morality. To cope, white culture has deemed hip thrusts and hip rotations ineffable. Establishing taboos is one means of policing sexuality by inscribing codes of bodily movement.

Precise interpretations of Oriental dance movements have been attempted by many. Daniella Gioseff, in her book Earth Dancing; Mother Nature’s Oldest Rite, suggests that the shimmy is a metaphor for ecstasy, while the slower dramatic part of the dance is a histrionic reproduction of child birth. Furthermore, the chest rotates, lifts, and sinks. Especially as it heaves, it seems to signify erotic longing whose open expression our society interdicts in women but encourages in men. However, lack of proof (such as that supplied by archaeological or dance history research) condemns these interpretations to mere arbitrariness. Proof is difficult to obtain since the history of the dance is not linear and has been obscured by various circumstances. The greatest hindrance is that there is a dearth of written records from the East documenting the history of the dance, and in our Western culture, which does not rely on oral traditions and does not possess the talent to interpret them, reaching some conclusions from the scant evidence that exists is very difficult indeed. We must keep in mind, however, that, ironically, the very reactions against the dance are precisely what we can use to establish its sexual potency and, therefore, comprehend why and how some of the anxiety surrounding the dance is generated. If hip movements allude to sexual intercourse, and shimmies signify ecstasy, then a subconscious male anxiety is only to be expected in a society where a woman’s expression of sexual desire, sexual satisfaction, or autoerotic pleasure are severely censored and regulated. Moreover, in societal sexual traditions the man and not the woman is the one entitled to inspire and produce these feelings in his female partner. In moments when she enjoys ultimate control of her body, the female dancer lends expression to such feelings through movement. Consequently, her dance is formidable, an act of defiance to male authority that determines the rubric of female behavior.

Judith Lynne Hanna concludes a brief and general reference to Middle Eastern dance in her Dance, Sex and Gender, as follows:

Dancers feed a particular female image that many contemporary women reject—glamour, compliance, plaything, sexual object. Artist and audience may hold different views—the dancer seeing performance as artistic skill and work, the audience, the titillation of an erotic fantasy figure and femme fatale” (pg. 64).

In the first sentence of this quotation I read the objection that many feminists continue to voice against this particular kind of dance: woman as object feeding the male gaze with wild, suggestive images. This attitude is politically problematic as it fosters the exclusion of certain women from feminist concern, classifying them as enemies of the movement. Moreover, factors informing the audience/performer binary seem beyond Hanna’s scope. She does not acknowledge that her comments are made in the context of a culture that demands and constantly threatens women with objectification. The disapproving women she mentions need to resist male tactics and reclaim space for women. Wendy Buonaventura goes further and tells us of an early American feminist, Julia Ward Howe:

[She] reported a performance she saw as being “simply horrid, no touch of grace about it, only the most deforming movement of the whole abdominal and lumbar region.” The dance­—a potentially liberating experience—confronted her with her prejudices, as it has confronted Western women ever since. Like many, she did not rise to the challenge but preferred to acquiesce with patriarchal values concerning sensual expression and the female body. (pg. 102)

One wonders why similar objections are not often raised with dances such as flamenco or ballet. Perhaps the apparent roughness of flamenco, the austere, disciplined expression, and the powerful, albeit passionate, moves are an articulation associated with male rather than female expression, therefore rendering the dance more acceptable since it does not “ridicule” the performer with exaggerated feminine expression. Truly, with flamenco the viewer is invited to affront a contained femininity expressed by a comfortably clothed body whose intractability does not derive from sensual and sexual abandon but from a self?absorbed defiance. Furthermore, flamenco is often a dance of couples. In the audience’s eyes, masculine presence will control female anarchy. Similarly, in ballet the ballerina embodies an “illusive fragility,” moves to transcend her physical form as she is supported, admired, and yearned after by a male dancer (Foster, pg. 11). The Oriental dancer performs solo through choreographies that contravene the cultural expectations of her gender, gesturing to the body’s sensuality and desire.

In fact, I would argue that even the attire of the dancer is subversive. During performance the midriff is exposed and appears at once vulnerable and potent. Its vulnerability lies in its nakedness which social norms deem unseemly (except of course in places where it is allowed—e.g. the beach—or demanded—e.g. bikini bars). Paradoxically, this very exposure signifies its empowerment. Apart from the movements it executes, the potency of the midriff lies precisely in its courageous display of naked skin and its invocation of desire in an environment where everyone else is securely clothed and some of the women probably corsetted. Furthermore, the bra and the skirt or pants are lavishly decorated with beads, sequins, and fringes which accentuate the dancer’s moves as well as adorn the entire body. This sumptuousness affords the dancer a certain metamorphosis. Through the ritual dressing up and application of makeup the dancer exoticizes herself through a narcissistic process of transformation which constructs an alternative version of who she may become, not according to Western norms and standards, but to an exotic vision from the East. Thus, the dancer indulges in illicit autoerotic pleasure and illuminates pathways of desire whose directionality she has crafted.

In an essay published in 1961 entitled The Arab Dense du Ventre, Morroe Berger asks the question that to this day remains quite current: “If the dance is so magnificent and appealing, why is it not more popular in Europe and America?” (pg. 26) He traces the answer in our own stereotypes and ambivalence to which he says we have become victims:

We have associated the dance with sex, which we like but do not commonly rate as very artistic because to do so would be to dignify something that our religious tradition deems sinful. (pg. 26)

Certainly the millennia of Judeo?Christian tradition have affected greatly the formation of our cultural sensibility. Concerning the exaggerated sexual interpretation of Oriental dance, Berger concludes almost compulsively: “But certainly sex is not incompatible with beauty, and it constitutes a part of almost every form of dance from primitive to ballet” (pg. 17). I certainly agree with his conclusion although I think it must be a very sad society if it needs explaining that sex can indeed be beautiful.

And it is very unfortunate that when called to the witness stand Oriental dance is left with little to defend itself with. The patriarchal gynephobia, ubiquitous in Christian mythology, presents us with the dance of Salome and its macabre outcome: the head of John the Baptist as reward handed on a platter. The story reveals a profound psychological anxiety centered on the potency of the female body and its arcane powers. Interestingly, in his travel memoirs Flaubert alludes, unconsciously it would seem, to Salome’s dance when he describes the effect of a particular dance move. The date is March 9, 1850 in Aswan, and Aziza is dancing for him:

She begins. Her neck slides back and forth on her vertebrae, and more often sideways, as though her head were going to fall off: terrifying effect of decapitation. (Steegmuller, pg. 176?7)

There is another even more subtle Biblical connection that makes the dance into a culprit: the slow sideways and perpendicular serpentine undulations that provide the dance with its predominant characteristic. Imitating the serpent is for me the strongest evidence of the truly ancient origins of the dance and its feminist history. In many Middle Eastern religions of antiquity the snake is the symbol of fertility and figures in the worship of earth goddesses. In the Old Testament, Satan took the form of a serpent condemning this magnificent animal to perpetual abomination thereafter. The dancer’s serpentine moves evoke the paganism and even the pagan rituals of non?Christian cults that the fathers of Christianity fought vehemently for many centuries so that the new patriarchal religion could reign supreme. The war waged against these cults was so severe that even today we are bequeathed a suspicion and distrust of what our culture others.

Fifi Abdou with audience participant Ron Iverson at the Mena House, Cairo, Summer 1989.

Of course, one needs to acknowledge the fact that in a capitalist setting a dance performance more often involves an economic than a cultural exchange. And we live in no utopia. The dancer can, hopefully, negotiate her pay, yet often she needs to compromise her time, talent, and artistic skill. As I understand it, a dancer’s contract in a restaurant includes audience involvement. A common accusation against the dance is founded on the very nature of the places where it is performed. Restaurants are places where one eats and although entertainment is highly welcome and appropriate, the atmosphere is not conducive to artistic appreciation. I also share the concern that the venue might not do justice to this art form, but find this a rather poor excuse for dismissing the dance altogether as not “serious.” Here, in Calgary restaurants, I have had great opportunities to attend truly superb performances of Oriental dance. In my opening description I have tried to show how the dancer has a variable routine, a program that she follows made up of different parts. I can also see the necessity in performing in restaurants which support this dance, excluded as it is from the stages of the big theatres.

I return to my opening scene: the dancer now engages the gaze of a woman, and soon she is dancing with her, eliciting a very different reaction: no shouts, jeering, or laughter this time. These women’s dancing bodies revive a history of female communities where women care for and entertain each other. At this moment dance as text cites fragments of women’s uncorseted past and uncovers, perhaps, a subdued memory of primeval female communication. Birth rites and fertility rituals, both centered on the body, are the most popular origins for this dance. As a metaphor, it offers the utopian potential of liberation, sexual and cultural. Today we tend to think of the body as something inferior which needs to be de?emphasized, even apologized for (Buonaventura pg. 201). Berger claims that his purpose is not to vindicate the Oriental dance because, this “would require (. . .) a cultural crusade to achieve an aesthetic conversion of America” (pg. 67). Unlike Berger’s, my purpose is to vindicate this dance and examine why it has not even had the misfortune to be appropriated by upper classes in the ways Harlem jazz and Argentinian tango have (Desmond pg. 33). However, apart from the cultural crusade, which seems a daunting prospect, we also need a gender crusade to effect an aesthetic conversion of America. Achieving the dissemination and appreciation of this art form will also bring about a change in the social attitude to the body.

Sohair Zeki and audience member Shareen el Safy, Cairo Meridien, February 1989.

Furthermore, this is a good moment to distinguish between erotic dance and sexual exploitation. The public voices objections and adopts a disparaging attitude for any art form that it feels challenges established morals. Meanwhile, we all know that in cabaret dancing today producers all over the world, unfortunately, exploit the dancers by paying low wages and even pressing for services that are outside their contract. I do not wish to concentrate on the labor exploitation side of the issue, although I need to point out that in these establishments the stage is set for sexual excitement. The female performers (who might not even be great dancers) perform for the customers in a circumscribed environment. Here the dance is contained, defined by its commercial context and does not surprise the male viewer. In other words, if the woman is completely and utterly subject to male terms and performs under instructions to titillate and excite then she is not threatening.

One might object to my argument on the grounds that many men enjoy bikini bars and strip shows. Yet, these are very different forms of “entertainment.” In a bikini bar, the furthest reaches of female agency extend to carrying trays back and forth. A stripper’s show is confined by the demands of the boss and the customers and she acts purely to satisfy both sides. The music is incidental and the moment of climax is passive nudity. In Oriental Dance the body movements are in perfect harmony with the music, which is also enjoyed for its own sake during the performance and may, hopefully, move the observers. Furthermore, in striptease “attention is riveted on the dancer’s clothing and her manipulation of it” (Berger pg. 25); in Oriental dance the entire frame of the performer, the head, arms and shoulders are as important as those of the torso. Most importantly, however, Oriental dance offers the opportunity for a transcending vision, a fantasy that is enacted through motion. Forcing this rather uncomfortable discussion involving strip tease is necessitated by the widespread misconception that this dance is often a synonym with prostitution. Western travelers to nineteenth century Egypt tell us that dancers were also courtesans. In the West women are often forced to compromise their integrity in order to access a dancer’s post in a club (and here I am not referring merely to Oriental dancers). These unfortunate associations have left their stigma on the dance itself.


Berger, Morroe. “The Arab Dance du Ventre.” Dance Perspectives Magazine 10:(1961): 4-43.

Buonaventura, Wendy. Serpent of the Nile: Women and Dance in the Arab World. New York: Saqi Books, 1998.

Carlton, Donna. Looking for Little Egypt. Bloomington: IDD Books, 1994.

Desmond, Jane. “Embodying Difference: Issues in Dance.” Meaning in Motion; New Cultural Studies of Dance. Ed. Jane Desmond. Durham: Duke University Press, 1997.

Foster, Susan Leigh. “Choreographies of Gender.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 24.1 (1998): 1?33.

Gioseff, Daniella. Earth Dancing: Mother Nature’s Oldest Rite. Harrisburg, PA: Stack pole Books, 1980.

Hanna, Judith Lynn. Dance Sex and Gender; Signs of Identity, Dominance, Defiance and Desire. Chicago: U. of Chicago Press. 1988.

Steegmuller, Francis. Flaubert and Madame Bovary; A Double Portrait. NY: Vintage Books, 1957.


Stavros Stavrou was born and raised in Cyprus, and his permanent address is there. He graduated with a BA (Honours) from Trent University in Ontario, an MA in English from Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in English at the University of Calgary. His topic is Middle Eastern Dance in the Colonial Context. He acknowledges the support, encouragement, and help of Anne Flynn, Dean of Dance Studies at the University of Calgary, in writing this article.

Of his experience with Oriental dance, he writes: “I have loved this art form since childhood, but being a Christian Cypriot, it was proscribed because of its association with the Moslem community of the island (in the last century, tensions between the two communities led to war and division of the island)…It took me many years to bring these feelings out in the open and articulate them to others, especially on my island.” emails: or

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