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A man's insight on belly dance

Pete and Erika
Pete and Erika
Courtesy of Pete Elliott

In Middle Eastern belly dance, the focus is on the performer. Yet, behind many dancers is their most ardent supporter, their significant other.

Some are supportive and some are not. For some men, being married to a belly dancer is unacceptable, particularly in the Middle East where cultural and religious views are conservative. Even in the United States, there are men who prefer that their girlfriends or wives not dance. I have heard of divorces taking place over this.

The men who support dancers are often in the background.
Before I married, I informed my fiancé that I was not giving up belly dance and he accepted it. Through the years, he has been my driver, bodyguard and assistant.

Other husbands are also supportive of their dancer wives. In Northeast Ohio, Pete Elliott is well known as an emcee at belly dance events and as the husband of dancer Erika Elliott. He is also a litigation attorney with a major law firm. Pete is also charming, as you will soon discover!

I had the pleasure of interviewing Pete on this topic. He graciously offers some insight into being the husband of a belly dancer.

Me: In Arabic culture, particularly Muslim culture, a woman dancing in mixed company is unacceptable. In many cultures, women who belly dance professionally are seen as prostitutes and are shunned from their families and from relationships with the opposite sex. This is the United States and, yet, I hear many of the same biases ... from American men. Why do you think this is so? Jealousy? Competition? Any insight is appreciated.

Pete: Prejudice has been always fueled by ignorance and fear of the unfamiliar. Belly dance is no different. Anyone who expresses the views you reference has not been exposed to the art of belly dance. Or, perhaps they have seen a show or two, at best. That is not enough to change, much less educate, someone’s mind. Once a man or woman has seen enough of this art form to begin to notice the obvious and subtle differences in music, costuming, techniques or expression among performers, and then begins to see the joy and freedom that this dance brings to both the dancers and the audience, only then will the barriers and prejudices begin to be broken. Yet, it may take generations to overcome imbedded prejudice and bias.

Me: Personally, I prefer the term Middle Eastern dance to belly dance, as it eludes to the culture and is less tawdry sounding. When were you introduced to this art form? What was your initial reaction? How did you view the dance at that time versus how you view it now? If you changed your opinion, what did it? Was is an "aha" moment?

Pete: I respectfully disagree. Belly dance owes no apologies to anyone, and it should not try to change its name by playing the role of chameleon to hide its beautiful colors. I admit that it took me at least three years of watching belly dance at shows, video and on line before I recognized it as true art. The “aha” moment is not well defined in any particular moment in time. But, two things happened that brought me on-board as a fan of belly dance. First, I saw my wife (who, in truth, was previously a bit uncoordinated) dance in calculated, accentuated and expressive ways. I watched in awe as she moved at least three different parts of her body in three different, but complimentary ways. (I now know this to be called “layering.”) Second, I began to experience an involuntary sense of emotion from belly dance. The kind of emotion that struck me previously only when watching one of my many favorite war-time documentaries. So, it was not so much of an “aha” moment as it was a “wow” moment.

Me: I know that people have a perfection of the dance. When my husband tells people that I dance, the women look at me as if I'm a hooker while the men smile and tell my husband how lucky he is. Of course, they think that our sex lives must be hot when you have a dancer as a partner! It's interesting, if we were ballet dancers, modern dancers or the like, this wouldn't be an issue or would it? Have you and Erika experienced this reaction? How do you deal with it? Any crazy stories?

Pete: Unfortunately, the world remains vastly ignorant. I recall that my wife and I were attending a scholarship banquet, which was a coat and tie affair. I was a Partner in my law firm and one of my Associates and his wife were seated at our table. The Associate had been made previously aware by me that my wife was a belly dancer. When I introduced my wife to the Associate and his wife, the Associate reached into his pocket and tossed a few dollar bills on the table toward my wife. I returned the money promptly. The next day, I explained to the Associate that what he had done was a great insult. I proceeded to educate him about the history of the dance and the barriers that these dancers have been overcoming in society. Unknown to me at the time, the Associate (presumably out of respect and not out of fear for his job) called my wife at her work that day and apologized profusely. He has since attended one of my wife’s performances. We remain good friends.

Me: Though family-friendly, too many people don't get this. Yes, the dance is sensual but not sexual. How do you address this? I had a girlfriend who couldn't dance in public for fear of losing her corporate day job. Has this ever been an issue? If so, how do you deal with it? Has choice of costuming been an issue? Has a bias against things Arabic by many people been an issue? I had a best girlfriend drop me for being too Muslim (ie: terrorist) -friendly! What do your families think of this? Reactions? Do they approve?

Pete: I may be more fortunate than most. I have a liberal arts background from college and learned to love literature, film, music, opera, art and dance, while majoring in Political Science. Also, I am of Greek national origin and many of my friends have been Lebanese. I am proud to be an “ethnic” and encourage everyone to celebrate their origins, as they help define our identity. As a young man, my father (who is a medical doctor) took our family to Lebanese restaurants where we sat on the floor to eat and watch the belly dancer entertain the audience. In that forum, placing currency in her belt or purse was appreciated, it was by no means sexual. This was a family setting and people behaved in a civil manner. Belly dance is no more “sexual” than Miss American wearing a bathing suit. If some men or women cannot deal with Miss America in a bathing suit, then those same men and women need to find true love and become more secure in themselves. This is America and we pride ourselves in strength through diversity, not hateful prejudice, in ANY form.

Me: Was Erika dancing before you were married and was this part of the deal? If not, what was your reaction after? How did you feel initially when she wanted to perform in public? Are there restrictions on where/when you prefer to see her perform? My husband, for example, has fit if I dare mention dancing in a restaurant or hookah bar.

Pete: Erika starting dancing after we were married. I admit to jealousy early on, and maybe some still today. No man really wants another man to see his wife’s beauty, either on the inside via her emotional beauty, or on the outside via her physical beauty. Initially, I went to the shows to make sure my wife would not be accosted. That was part jealousy and part ignorance. While I had some early apprehensions about my wife performing publicly, I found a higher calling; namely, the love I have for my wife. She was spending nights and hours at the studio drilling and training. (My paranoia and insecurity made me fear for where she “may really be at such an hour?” And why she did not want to spend all of her spare time with me. ) She traveled to California to train with Suhaila and Jamila Salimpour. Alas, if belly dance was something that was important in her life, and if I wanted to express a sense of caring for what was important to her, then my course was clear. If my wife was all-in for belly dance, then I was too. I live my married life by one credo: “Keep Love Alive!” A man’s failure to do so can be extremely expensive, both financially and emotionally. Ask me. I know.

I trust Erika’s judgment to dance in an appropriate forum. I have gone to the hookah bar once where she danced. I did not go the second time because I could not tolerate the smoke.

Me: How do you support your wife's dancing? Not so much financially but morally and being supportive and encouraging?

Pete: All right, I will say it…most women are critical about their appearance and about the quality of their dance, no matter what they look like or how well they perform. I am a 24/7 motivational coach for my wife. However, since I have become more educated and know I can identify when my wife gave an excellent performance, or a lackluster one, I do express my honest opinion (in a kind and tactful manner) as to her dance, when asked, as well as her makeup, hair and costuming. She knows that she can trust my opinion to be educated, constructive and honest.

Me: What advice do you have for men who are contemplating marrying or have a wife who is a Middle Eastern dancer? What can they do to accept it and be a part of the dance scene?

Pete: Keep love alive! For goodness sake, come to the shows. Watch the beauty your wife, or girlfriend, displays. Clap loud, even yelp! You will fall in love with her all over again. And, better yet, she will fall in love with you, again. You may want to take a video of your wife’s/girlfriend’s performance. While she will always see the purported flaws, you can express your excitement for her performance. This video tape should have nothing to do with sex. Instead, it provides an excellent tool from which she can improve or modify her dance in the future. Belly dance calls for a constant state of learning.

Me: Actually, I see that many dancers have husbands or significant others who do not attend their performances or agree with the dancer's career choice. I also see many dancers who are divorced because of this? Others have rocky relationships? Any advice on how to make this work?

Pete: Many may not like my response, which is: If he does not love you for who you are, drop the bum. Women are not chattel and are not to be leashed or kept. Nor are men. That is a wedding ring. It represents the eternal bond of love. It is not a one-link chain. If you have good lines of communication, express how much belly dance means to you and how you want him to appreciate the things you enjoy. Remind him that you go to those “guy” events and always do so in a supportive and friendly manner. You are just looking for the same.

Me: Being Greek, dance is part of your culture. Has this influenced you? Hey, do you dance? ;-))

Pete: I line dance but, not very well. My two sons are expert Greek dancers and have danced with our church group for years. My wife and I always arrive early to the summer Greek festival to stake out the best table from which to run video of their performances. We always bring guests to sit with us and drink Mavrodaphne wine and eat the classic Greek food cooked by the wonderful grandmothers from the Church. It is a fun ritual. Opa!

Me: Is there anything that you'd like to add that I may have skipped?

Pete: It is my extreme pleasure to have been adopted by the belly dance community as a Master of Ceremonies for several dance shows, especially as “The Voice of Tribal Fire.” Two other men , Adam Rhodes (who runs the audio and compiles and operates the music), and Rich Johnston (who regularly runs video of the performances and many other tasks to get these shows running smoothly) also generously give their time. We do this out of love for our wives/girlfriend and out of respect and appreciation for the art form that is belly dance.

Lastly, I am struck by the selfless and giving nature of these dancers. Their performances are frequently done to benefit charities, such as the Akron Children’s Hospital and Autism Speaks. Belly dance just makes the world a better place.