As a dance lacking a linear origin story that is constantly evolving new styles, belly dance is often misunderstood as an art form. From glitzy Hollywood films to mislabeled history, belly dance myths have circulated around the world for decades.
Shems, a professional belly dancer and instructor in the Baltimore area who has been belly dancing since 1996, said common historical myths tends to go in two different directions: one is the belief that belly dance began as a dance for women to seduce men in the harems of the Sultan. The other is the belief that belly dance was only ever done by women for other women and was based in fertility rituals.
“Both [ideas] have some aspect of truth, and both also are not completely true,” Shems said. “The truth is very much a broader story.”
MiaNaja, a professional belly dancer in the Baltimore area who has been dancing for over 14 years, said people often associate belly dancers with strippers or exotic dancers.
“I was asked to perform at a family reunion and [was asked] ‘do I need to pull the children out of the room?’” MiaNaja said. “And I said no, it’s family friendly.”
At one performance, Shems said the woman who introduced her troupe members to the audience gave an inaccurate description of their costumes.
“She said that the belly dancers would wear coin bras that they would shake at one another and that would be the dowry that they had earned from dancing in public,” she said. “It was completely ridiculous. The coin bra is a decorative piece, not a dowry.”
MiaNaja said another common stereotype is that all belly dancers are thin, young white women.
“There are people who don’t want to hire dancers of color,” she said.
MiaNaja said this is perpetuated by the restaurant owners who often prefer to hire dancers based on looks rather than experience.
“Part of the owner’s responsibility is to educate his audience about how important it is to see quality dancing, and quality dancing comes in different packages,” she said. “Some dancers defend it as ‘preference’. You can call it preference but it’s discrimination.”
Shems said in order to banish the myths of belly dance, people should keep an open mind and educate themselves about the dance.
“It’s a culturally-based art form and it’s important to reconnect to those cultures, to find out the dance’s place in those cultures and all the roots of this dance,” she said. “It’s not one dance and it’s not one place. It’s many, many dances that have come together in this strange amalgam that has created belly dance as it is today.”