Is belly dance really body positive?
In the #MeToo era (finally!), it is time to reexamine the place of belly dance costuming. I’ve been taught, and I continue to teach, that belly dance is a body positive, accepting form of dance. I believe it is - except when it comes to bust size. Why are belly dance costume bras excessively padded to push the breasts outside the costume? Why did Didem and Dina get bust enlargements? We know the answer to those questions. It is certainly disappointing that already successful dancers felt they needed to enhance their bust size in order to enhance their careers as dancers. To me, being successful in dance means polished technique and the ability to spread joy, not bust size, or how much of a dancer’s bust spills out of her costume.
How much does the emphasis on large breasts affect the overall reputation of belly dancing? What can be done to change the reputation of belly dance from “exotic” to “respectable” for the general public? I was once introduced as an “exotic” dancer! On another occasion, when I revealed to a date that I was a belly dancer, he replied, “So you shake it for men?” Another equated me with a stripper. As belly dancers, we are all responsible for its reputation. How do you want to represent belly dancing to friends, peers, the general public, and those potential love interests? With padded push-up bras?
In a Facebook post from May 25, 2017, Tamalyn Dallal urged dancers to reconsider costuming. She wrote: “If Hollywood-dominated images hadn’t influenced Egyptian film, and if Egyptian film fashions hadn’t set the tone for night clubs in America, how would todays [sic] dancers dress? Or would belly dancing have gained popularity? Would this dance have become a global phenomenon sweeping the world if we had been wearing caftans all along?” Consider what we teach our students about belly dancing as being thousands of years old by women for women wearing loose garments with hip scarves.
Tamalyn Dallal reposted (June 6, 2016) Morocco’s list of suggestions for improving the reputation of belly dance, and part of that involved costuming. Morocco stated: “As much as possible, avoid wearing the two-piece costume, also known as “bedlah” (especially only with the bra-skirt combination without any arm accessories), because that type of outfit in itself is too strongly sexual suggestive. Wearing costumes which are more reserved, yet performing the same dance movements, will result with a completely different effect.” I recently attended an event where roughly half the performers, both folkloric and cabaret style, wore long dresses rather than bras and belts. The effect is indeed different, and the dancing is just as beautiful. Personally, I like the bras and belts, as some stomach and hip articulations would be difficult to see if the stomach were covered. However, costuming should be a choice, but those of us who want the bras should not have, as the only option, bras with more padding than room for breasts.
If we are still married to bedlah (and I’m not ready to let mine go yet), it is at least time to let go of the push-up bra and bikini-inspired Hollywood costuming. Even the Miss America Pageant has (finally!) eliminated its swimsuit competition. If belly dancing is truly body positive, it will embrace women of all sizes, bust included.
Laska is a performer and teacher based in Hartford, CT. She trained as a cabaret dancer in New York with Taghrid, Sandra Catena, Ranya Renée, and Shahrazad; in Boston with Melina; and in Hartford with Elisheva. In addition, she has studied Afro-Caribbean, jazz, modern, flamenco, and Isadora Duncan dance. She spent five years dancing with the ATS troupe Lynchburg Tribal in Virginia before moving to Hartford. Visit her on Facebook.