Shimmering in Sequins: What It's Like To Be A Belly Dancer
As a little girl, my family frequented Pharaoh’s, a dumpy Egyptian restaurant located in a strip mall. Despite its outward appearance, Pharaoh’s had the best falafels this side of the Nile, and brought in belly dancers to perform every weekend. It was my father’s way of exposing my sister, Nadia, and I to our Egyptian roots, which was difficult to come by in Orange County, CA.
I speak roughly three words of Arabic, so I never understood what my baba was saying to the owner. What I did understand was the belly dancer. I wanted to be her. She wore a glittering scarlet costume adorned with sequins, and every inch of her shimmered. Her stomach was bare and her skin was golden. Her raven colored hair flowed down her back, and golden bangles swung from her wrists. In my eyes, she was a princess.
She would teach Nadia and I basic ways to shake our hips, and put the gold bangles on our wrists. She once folded a dollar bill with her stomach and gave it to Nadia. The belly dancer was always met with cheers, claps, and smiles--everyone loved her. I swore that one day, I would be rewarded with cheers, claps, and smiles, and wear a costume where every inch of me shined.
A few years ago, I traveled with my baba to visit Egypt, our original homeland. Our cousins set up a cruise along the Nile River for us, where our tour guide Ahmed educated us on faceless Gods, ancient burial methods, and hieroglyphics. None of which baba remembered and would have to be repeated to him every day. On our final day on the cruise, Ahmed informed us that we would be receiving a real treat: belly dancers.
This sent the other tourists into a tizzy. I presumed--based on their excited chatter--that most had never seen a belly dancer before. I wasn’t so much excited but curious, since I had fulfilled my dream and become a belly dancer. I wondered how a dancer in the homeland would differ from one in America.
Baba, Ahmed, and I took our seats around a cramped table while we waited for the show to begin..
“Have you seen belly dancers before, Yasmina?” Ahmed asked, motioning for a waiter to bring us some tea. My father grinned at the tourists, who were currently trying to belly dance.
“Yes, well I actually am one. I’m trained in Egyptian cabaret,” I replied.
“Oh?” Ahmed raised his eyebrows. “Does your baba know about this?”
“He does, and he’s not happy about it,” I replied, graciously accepting a cup of tea. I noticed out of the corner of my eye one of the tourists successfully managed a shimmy.
“Oh, well you know how Egyptian men are.” Ahmed squeezed a bit of lemon into his tea. “They love to watch belly dancers, but Allah forbid their own wives or daughters are one.”
“I find that ironic, considering Egyptians invented belly dancing.”
Ahmed nodded. “Well, Egypt is still a rather conservative country.”
From what I understand, belly dancing, aka raqs sharqi, originated in Egypt thousands of years ago. The term “belly dance” actually originates from French, danse du ventre, which means “dance of the stomach”. Although belly dancing is often associated with early pagan rituals for fertility, but there is no concrete evidence for this. In fact, it’s rather difficult to trace the history of belly dancing. However, belly dancing does help strengthen the muscles needed for childbirth.
The dance was not designed to arouse or entice men — women would perform the dance for other women, never in front of men. Many of the movements in belly dance appear to come from India (such as the sliding of the head) and traditional African dance.
As time went on, men began to belly dance as well (especially in Egypt). Their dance form was a bit different from the women’s, and frequently included canes and swords. During the 1800s, a group called ghawazi would perform outside of coffee shops and in streets. As more foreigners came to visit Egypt, the dance style itself changed. Since more Europeans traveled to Egypt, ballet and ballroom dance was incorporated. By the 1920s, numerous dance clubs hosted belly dancers, whose costumes had changed to match the motif--dancers began to wear glittery costumes that was far less traditional.
In 1893, belly dancing made its way to America. A dancer nicknamed “Little Egypt” made her debut at the Chicago World’s Fair, where her movements were interpreted to be rather vulgar. Thus belly dancing began to get confused with burlesque. However, during the 1970s and 80s, American women began to embrace belly dance as a more feminist movement. Despite this, the dance still frequently has sensual undertones associated with it, especially in America. Americans tend to be rather awkward around belly dancers. I have had quite a few men shy away when I danced close to them. They buried their heads into their phones, much like a gopher burrowing into a hole. This reaction is preferable to leers and jeers, which is never appropriate at a belly dancing show.
The first dancer took the stage. His skirts were made up of the Egyptian flag. I became dizzy as he spun and spun, ripping off each skirt to reveal another flag. The crowd roared with every spun.
“He’s a guy belly dancing!” Baba exclaimed, clapping along with the crowd.
“Apt observation,” I muttered. Ahmed hid a smirk.
“I’ve never seen a man belly dance,” Baba continued, still amazed.
“There are male belly dancers, I’ve danced with a few.”
“In America you have male belly dancers?” Ahmed is now surprised.
“Yes, well we have far more women. But I’ve met a few men who dance. There was a boy in my first dance class.”
“When did you first start dancing?”
“In college. I just really liked it.”
“Of course you were good at it,” Ahmed grins, “You’re Egyptian. It’s in your roots.” I can’t help but blush at this comment.
While I had always dreamed of being a belly dancer, it wasn’t something I had actively sought. It was difficult to find classes for girls, and my parents were adamantly against the idea. Baba wanted me to continue swimming, just I always had, and my mother did not have the money to pay for them.
When I got to college my academic advisor proclaimed that I needed an elective. He whipped through the course booklet, his eyes darting from course to course. He stamped his finger on one and let out a triumphant yell.
“Belly dancing! I’m going to sign you up for belly dancing!”
“Ah…” I didn’t want to say no. He was in control of my academic future, and I still wasn’t sure if he was capable of murder. “Okay.”
“You’re Egyptian! You’ll be great at it! Plus you need another outlet besides writing, writing can be quite draining.” He sprung to his feet and began to move his hips like a wounded hippo. “Look at how fun it is! You’ll love it!”
To my surprise, he was right. I was a natural at belly dancing. I had never taken a dance class before, yet belly dance felt as natural to me as walking. I quickly became one of the star performers and my teacher took me under her wing, grooming me into the dancer she wanted. From that moment on I was hooked, I was on my way to becoming the shining dancer I had always wanted to be.
The male belly dancer finished one last spin. The audience, now on its feet, was ready for the next dancer. A squatter Asian woman rounded the corner. Her pink costume twinkled under the lights. Her stomach was bare, revealing luminescent skin. Like any dancer, her face was caked in makeup. I was a bit disappointed by her costume. I knew that she wasn’t properly trained in Egypt. If she was, she would be wearing netting and a far more conservative costume.
“She’s a bit too fat to dance,” Baba blurted out. Ahmed buried his face in his hands. “Aren’t dancers usually skinny?”
“What? It’s true. She’s chubby.”
“Well, belly dancers come in all shapes and sizes. There isn’t a particular body type for it, that’s what makes it such an inclusive dance.”
“Huh. Well I think she’s too fat for that costume.”
“Just stop talking please.”
The crowd wasn’t as enthused with this dancer as they were with the first. I couldn’t blame them, her moves weren’t precise. She dropped her hips on the wrong beat, her feet were not pointed, her shimmies were not exaggerated. She had been trained, but not properly. I was surprised to realize that I was a better dancer than the one in Egypt.
“She’s off,” I muttered to Ahmed. “She’s not hitting the moves correctly.”
“You should get up there and show her how it’s done,” Ahmed teased. Baba was now looking at his phone.
“No, I’ve never danced in front of Baba. He might kill me.”
Ahmed laughed at this. I wasn’t joking. Baba was not keen on my choice of dance. Once he realized he couldn’t deter me from dance, he tried to sway me towards ballet. I have done a little ballet, but I find it to be far more difficult. This may have to do with the feet placement (in ballet your feet point out, whereas in belly dancing they point in) or due to the fact that a crowd at a ballet is simply not as spirited. I have also noted that not all body types are accepted in ballet, which is rather strange for me.
Our belly dancer was now pulling random tourists up to the stage, most of which were more than happy to oblige. Baba, Ahmed, and I snickered as they attempted to sway their hips as smoothly as she was, only to look like the hippos from Fantasia. This did not seem to bother them, as they laughed and tumbled into one another.
“Are you going to dance, Baba?” I teased. I’ve never seen Baba dance. Even at weddings, he shuffles in the background, staying close to the cake.
“No,” He grinned. “I prefer watching this. But I do know how to dance. I will dance with you at your wedding, you will see.”
Ahmed and I exchange a brief smirk. “How do Americans handle belly dancers?” Ahmed asked, as Baba resumed playing with his phone. “Do they like them?”
I didn’t want to reveal that my best audience in America was actually a group of pugs. For a while, I danced with a charity group called “Raqs for Paws,” where we danced to raise money for animal shelters. We were asked to perform at an event called “Pugtoberfest,” where every pug owner in the Orange County area dressed their pugs up and brought them out to socialize (the pugs even had a costume contest; Batpug won). As I twirled on stage, a rogue pug broke free from his owner and circled me. They barked their approval and tried to lick my toes. The pug eventually ran back to his owner, and I greeted my admirer when I finished dancing. They gave me a sloppy kiss on the cheek.
“Have you ever danced anywhere other than America?” Ahmed continues. The dance floor is getting crowded now. The tourists have stopped caring whether or not they look like hippos and are busting out their best moves, which seems to consist of shuffling side to side and dabbing.
“Yes, Australia. They are the opposite of Americans. They love belly dancers. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a crowd love belly dancing so much!”
During my stay in Australia, I joined a theater troupe. The one skill I had that no one else did was the ability to make a figure eight with my chest, a skill that wowed my troupe. They began to call me “Hollywood” and would frequently comment on how hot I was. I was amused by this, as no American had ever found my dancing to be this intriguing. When I finally danced at our theater showcase, the crowd was on their feet. They cheered, whistled, and clapped--not a single person shied away. The Aussies were living for my dance, and I wasn’t quite sure how to handle it. I smiled and swayed, hoping no one tried to swoop me up and carry me out. At the end of my number, they gave me a standing ovation. Flattered, but unsure of what to do with such attention, I ran backstage and hid.
“Oi!” One of our stage hands approached me. I was not hidden properly. “My mate thinks you’re hot. Wants ya numbah.”
“Oh! Well, I have a boyfriend.” This wasn’t a lie. I also wasn’t used to men being this direct.
“Thass alright, I’ll tell him to piss off then.” I peeped from the side door as the stage hand approached his friend, who was watching a number from Wicked.
“She’s got a boyfriend, so piss off then!” The stage hand smacked his friend’s head.
The dancing was beginning to wind down. The tourists had grown tired. They shuffled back to their seats, ready for some tea and baklava.
I sat back, remembering one last time I had danced. A group of little girls, dressed in pink tutus and crowns, oooh’ed at my own costume, a glittering scarlet costume adorned with sequins. Gold bracelets dangled from my wrists.
“Oooo look at her!” A chubby finger pointed at me. “She is beautiful!”
“She looks like a princess,” Another swayed from side to side.
“Are you a princess?”
I bend down to their level. The girls grab my skirt and run it through their fingers. I take off one of my bangles and slide it one of their wrists.
“No, I’m not a princess. I’m a belly dancer. If you keep dancing, you might get to become a belly dancer too.”
S.M. Mikesell is a writer living in Los Angeles. She has written for Huffington Post, HelloGiggles, and been a featured writer for Plume. She loves to travel and eat. Most of her travels are based on where she can eat delicious food.