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I want my dance community to be as inclusive as possible, which to me means welcoming dancers from other genres, whether they’re dropping in or becoming life-long converts. But that doesn’t mean we should let those other dance genres dictate our image of success.

My troupe, Indy Tribal, performing. Photo by Paula Stapley.

In Part I of this post, I described my negative response to seeing instructors not go out of their way to make their classes as inclusive as possible. In this post, I continue to think about inclusivity, but on a broader scale (and I think I get kinda salty in this post too, so buckle up).

One of the reasons I believe belly dance classes should be accessible to most bodies at most times is that we are essentially practicing a form of folk dance. You don’t have to have trained in an elite, pricey studio since the age of 4 to become a proficient belly dancer, though starting early and practicing regularly can certainly help.

Viewing any dance form as more legitimate when it molds to our assumptions about of elite culture – rather than folk culture – is not ideal. This is why I take care to state that I’m a dancer, not a ballerina:

Conflating anything that looks like dance with ballet specifically is damaging to the diversity of dances out there, in my opinion. Implying that someone with excellent posture must be a ballerina of all the types of dancers out there is narrow-minded… and I suppose I can’t blame people for their lack of access to art education, given the state of education in the U.S., but it still rankles.

And here’s where I start to get a little salty. As my colleague Abigail Keyes writes in her excellent blog post, Beyond Bodily Beauty in Belly Dance:

The question of dance access for “all bodies” is also an issue that comes up in talks of equity in dance outside the belly dance world. I’ve heard from my colleagues in other dance communities, particularly Euro-American concert forms, that they have been subject to body-shaming, both explicit and implicit, from the time they were children to the present day.

But when we look at who the most popular performers in belly dance and related fusion interpretations (and keep in mind that my perspective is mostly that of a North American living in California) actually are, we’ll see that “all body types” aren’t necessarily represented.

For, as Keyes astutely points out, the bodies we see represented most commonly and frequently on the belly dance convention/tour circuit conform to very specific traits: they’re more likely to be skinny/fit, youthful, long-limbed, able-bodied, cisgender, white or white-passing, and so on.

And, I’ll add to the list that these bodies are frequently able to give the impression (if not the reality) of having training outside belly dance, in some classical or elite dance form such as ballet.

Now, I’m not hating on ballet. It’s beautiful to watch. It’s just a very different dance than belly dance, and I don’t believe that giving the appearance of doing ballet-like-things with one’s body should be a requirement (implicit or not) of stardom in belly dancing.

The problem, I think, is not with ballet itself, but rather with the worldview that associates elite dance forms with being more cultured and generally just better. This mindset creates a hierarchy, and trains our eyes to see something more ballet-like as inherently superior to dance forms that are different (not in a bad way, not in a way that implies they require less discipline or effort, just…different).

And I do think this circles back to the idea of inclusivity, not just in terms of body types but also in terms of our dance ideally being a welcoming space to all. I don’t want dancers from other genres to leave with the takeaway message that “belly dancers don’t want other dancers to come learn from/with them.” That is absolutely not true. I love it when other dancers come try out our classes and attend our performances! I think belly dance offers a number of benefits to other dancers, such as being gentle on the knees, when other dance forms might be harsher on the body and less sustainable over time as one ages, or recovers from injury. I’m fine with belly dance being a refuge for dancers coming from other backgrounds, and offering them a way to keep dancing. I just don’t want them to uncritically run with the assumptions from mainstream culture that having an elite dance background means you can waltz in and immediately become a rockstar at our dance form because it’s “less rigorous” or whatever.

As I’ve asserted in the past, if you love dance you love diversity. There’s simply no way to practice or appreciate a multicultural dance like belly dancing if you come from a monocultural assumption about how the world should work, and that includes examining your own assumptions about whether certain dance or performance styles are “better” than others because of the cultural prestige they hold.

Among the many points of overlap between belly dance and feminism is the assertion that women should get to do what they want with their bodies. Sometimes that adornment and those movement modes register as “sexy” and sometimes not, but I remain firmly in the belief that people who come to belly dance classes (who are not necessarily just women) should have a chance to feel good about their bodies. This includes not being held to unrealistically high beauty standards, since that happens damn near everywhere else in contemporary U.S. culture. And I worry that holding up elite dance forms as the ideal ruins that chance for many belly dance students, who only see a narrow sliver of body types on stage much of the time.

I’ll close with this suggestion from Keyes:

If we are not mindful when we watch dance, then we might very well be contributing to and reinforcing stereotypes and hegemonic power structures that dictate which bodies are “acceptable” dancing bodies and which are not at the expense of other dancers who are just as skilled and who have a wealth of knowledge to offer to our community.

And maybe ask yourself the next time you attend a festival or watch videos from the latest dance convention: Was I drawn to this dancer because they fit my idea of what a “dancer” should look like? How can we support equally or more skilled and experienced dancers who are not conventionally beautiful? 

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Jeana Jorgensen

FOXY FOLKORIST Studied folklore under Alan Dundes at the University of California, Berkeley, and went on to earn her PhD in folklore from Indiana University. She researches gender and sexuality in fairy...