Most belly dancers are aware of the term “Orientalism” but are often not quite sure what it means. There’s a general sense that it’s something “bad” - maybe to do with sleazy stereotypes that most belly dancers now tend to avoid. Or wait, isn’t it to do with those gorgeous paintings of historical dancers? What’s wrong with them anyway? When a dancer is accused of being Orientalist, her reaction is usually pretty defensive one way or another. This is because many dancers don’t really understand what Orientalism means, and that’s a pity. One, because it’s important. And two, because we shouldn’t be afraid of addressing it.
Confusion about Orientalism stems from the fact it can refer to a number of things. Strictly speaking an Orientalist is somebody who studies “the Orient” – originally anywhere east of Europe, including China and India – usually with a focus on its languages, but also its cultures. So on that level alone, we as belly dancers are Orientalists. The term also gets used to refer to 19th and early 20th century fashions in painting, theatre and dance, fashion, advertising and interior design that drew on and represented “Oriental” themes. In a way, we belly dancers are often modern-day Orientalists on that level too.
Since the 1970s, however, the term “Orientalism” has mostly been used to describe a way of looking at the world that splits it into two: “us” (Westerners) and “them” (everybody else, but particularly people from the Middle East, North Africa, India, Persia…), with the West coming off as best. This idea of Orientalism as a way of thinking about things, that operates to serve Western interests, was most famously suggested by the Palestinian scholar Edward Said. Understanding this is really important for us as belly dancers.
Said’s 1978 book Orientalism goes into lengthy detail about how Western regimes – from Alexander the Great on – had good reasons for wanting control of the East and its valuable resources. A quick look at the world pages of your newspaper will reveal that little has changed! However, since you and I are (hopefully) not planning to invade Egypt any time soon, we’re certainly not consciously plotting ways to overthrow its present government and plunder its resources. Belly dancing would thus seem to have very little to do with this concept - but the truth is far more complex.
More important for us as belly dancers is what Said called “latent” Orientalism, which refers to the fantasies and ideas about Eastern countries that taught Western people to think of them as desirable, but better off conquered. It split the world into two imagined halves – East (Orient) and West. In Orientalism’s binary system, the West is all about the mind; the Orient, the senses. The West is rational, straightforward, masculine, intellectual, modern, “normal”, forward-thinking. The Orient is superstitious, sneaky, feminine, sexual, ancient, perverse, backward.
The figure of the Middle Eastern woman, either “repressed” by seclusion and veiling – the “black robed women” we see in news stories – or revealed half-naked in exotic garb, dancing in a sensual way that seems radically different to Western dancing – remains one of the most powerful symbols of the Orient. This is why the belly dancer so strongly represents both the Middle East and sex in most people’s minds. Orientalist thought and ideas that have circulated in our culture for centuries make us fascinated by the veiled woman, and obsessed with wanting to unveil her. The same fantasies and ideas underly Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt, the sexual appeal of the racially “other” person, and our interest both in “freeing” Muslim women from veiling and seclusion, and – let’s admit it – our desire, sometimes, to play at being exotic harem beauties dancing together away from male eyes.
Orientalism is a kind of “othering” which ties into both romanticising and stereotyping. When we romanticise, we make up fantasies often that belie the reality of the people we’ve fantasised about. Belly dancers often like to fantasise about being gypsies, and no wonder – the idea of gypsies as free-thinking travellers who pick up bits and pieces of culture as they move around is very appealing, especially to New Zealanders who travel so widely and are all, even Maori, immigrants somewhere along the way. But fantasies about being gypsies have little in common with the lives of real gypsy or Roma/Sinti people, who have been called the most oppressed people on earth. As soon as we start fantasising about being people who are real, we run up against harsh truths that don’t live up to our expectations. And in our globalised world, Roma and Egyptians and Africans and Irish people are frequently just a desk away.
Stereotypes, similarly, “other” people, often negatively – suggestions that “all Maori are lazy” or “Jews are tight with money” are obvious examples. One of the tricky things about stereotypes is that they are usually based on something that is common to a particular cultural group, but framed in a way that doesn’t take into account other factors. Maori “laziness” can more often be related to culturally-specific concepts of time, communal social responsibility and the need to deliberate on decisions, for instance. And of course everyone knows someone from a particular group who doesn’t fit a stereotype. The other bad thing about stereotypes is that they lump everyone in a particular group together. They don’t allow people in “those” groups to be seen as individuals, as well as members of a group.
So, maybe we know all this. We don’t do tacky “harem fantasy” belly dance shows any more and we would never present a fantasy skirt dance as a real gypsy performance. In fact, we only study with Egyptian masters and never do anything at all that is not a tried and proven Egyptian dance move. We read widely about cultural issues and politics in the countries where our dance comes from and eagerly work to enlighten people about the terrible pressures Middle Eastern women face under Islamist regimes. We’re off the Orientalist hook, right?
Unfortunately not. Remember how I said that studying the Orient is a form of Orientalism? This, too, ties into Said’s idea of the problematic racist aspects of Orientalism. Trying to be ultra-authentic, to “rescue” the dances from countries where they seem “under threat”, to know exactly how, when, where and why our dance takes the forms that it does are all just examples of us trying to get inside that harem, penetrate that veil, and know and thus control what is inside. This is why you can be performing and studying belly dance with all the good will in the world and still find yourself being accused of Orientalism by educated people from those long-colonised nations. It hurts. When you’re trying really hard to do it right, and you’ve worked so hard not to mock or misrepresent the dance and the cultures that you love, it is really painful to be reminded that as white westerners (which most of us are) we are ultimately highly privileged people, playing Lady Bountiful whether the objects of our interest want our involvement or not.
Who benefits most? The answer is always us because we are getting what we want out of belly dance. This answer holds true whether we strive to be as Middle Eastern as possible or if we reject the Middle East completely in our dance while still calling ourselves belly dancers – symbols of the Orient. Of course we as belly dancers know that this is not as simple as it seems. We know, because we have had the experiences, that sometimes our dancing makes migrants very happy, and helps them feel at home and respected here in New Zealand. We know that our interest in issues like female genital mutilation can help further the work that women in the Middle East and North Africa are doing to change practices they themselves do not like. But at the end of the day, we are belly dancing because we want to. Because it gives us pleasure – an escape, a healthier body, a chance to be glamorous, a chance to perform – and we don’t have anything that is quite the same in our own culture. So we take it.
So where does this leave us? What can we do about Orientalism? The short answer is nothing. There’s no escape, not while we and the rest of the world continue to think in binaries – us vs them, eastern vs western, sport vs culture and so on. All we can do is dance with knowledge, in the most personally ethical ways we can. For me, this means always acknowledging the Middle East as the turangawaewae of belly dance and its inhabitants as tangata whenua and tipuna of us as belly dancers. After that, it comes down to being aware of what you do and making choices accordingly. I draw on Orientalist imagery all the time – I love it – but I do so with knowledge. I am prepared to stand by my work and take on board criticism of my choices from those who I represent. It’s an ongoing process, something that will never be resolved – but it’s a wonderful journey.