• by Zara Dance

Isn’t Bellydancing just like Pole dancing?!?!

I remember it clearly. I was a first year PhD physics student, at the time seriously struggling to be somehow accepted in my otherwise all male lab. Anyway, there I was sitting in the pub at a social drinks event organised by the department – I put the effort in and went along because at the time, I wanted to be accepted by the group, to fit in. There is a loud call from across the table and a silence falls in the hustling, bustling conversations of all the surrounding PhD students, postdocs and supervisors from both mine and neighboring labs.

“So Hey Zara, isn’t bellydance…isn’t that like the Arab version of pole dancing?”

It is one of my fellow first year students, a male, public school, smart arse. His tone is in jest with a know it all accent. You could say, we were all having a laugh and drink - but it’s not a joke (how much of bullying is hidden under the statement: it’s only a joke?) It is an attack on me, probably due to his own desperate attempt to be accepted by the boys club, survival …

It works, everyone around the table laughs – including my boyfriend at the time.

He’s caught me off guard. I’m scared. Everyone is looking at me. I am alone. What do I do? What do I say? Help!!! I try to look composed and come out with some weak mumbling argument – I can’t even remember exactly what I said, something along the lines of, it’s a cultural dance, sensual not sexual BLAH BLAH BLAH ….

People soon go back to their conversations – he, nor any of the others are really interested in Bellydance! It was just said to humiliate and shame me, not to learn anything about dance…. His mission was complete, he had the privilege of moving on.

For me it was a different story: How that one incident contributed to how I was treated and respected (consciously and sub consciously) in the group EVERY DAY for the following 4 years, we will never know. But I will say this - I know my PhD would have been a lot easier had I not been a bellydancer (but hey it would have been a lot easier too, had I not been a woman.)

Five Years On

We are now FIVE YEARS on from that incident and MANY times I have replayed that day in my head. You know I’m telling the truth: I am even writing about it now. I have often thought, “Damn wish I had said this...... Wish I had said that …...”

Through different stages of my life, my PhD and my dance journey the response I would have given during these replays has varied…. Some were deep more academic answers, talking about the history of bellydance, others were an attack on pole dance saying how it is nothing in comparison to bellydance, some talked about bellydance as an art…. All trying to prove something.

And Now….

But what would I say now? Who knows it may change in the future BUT RIGHT NOW WHAT WOULD I SAY??? I would say:

“Go f**K yourself”

in the coolest, calmest, non-emotional voice possible.

(Side note: truth be told now I don’t see how the replay could ever even happen. Now days I wouldn’t even bother to go to such a gathering. I hate pubs for a start – and I learnt from 4 horrible years I was NEVER going to be accepted regardless – I have a pussy, I’m a woman – on top of that I’m working class. I say “innit”. I am mixed race – part Arab; have a foreign name and oh no a Muslim ----- oh yer and I Bellydance HAHAHAH)

A change of perspective…..

I wouldn’t say this because I am insulted by what he said. Comparing me to a pole dancer does NOT insult me in the slightest. Back then it did. I would say this because he was purposely trying to insult me and disrespect me – nowadays I don’t take that! I refuse to be bullied, I refuse to be shamed!

My response has changed so much because now it is the attempt to shame me that insults - It originally was the comparing me to a pole dancer that upset me, to the extent I MISSED THE REAL ISSUE.

Am I any better than a pole dancer.......

Let me re-emphasize this: I no longer take offence to being compared to a pole dancer. I don’t even take offence to you comparing me to a stripper. I DO take offence to you trying to shame me.

I don’t think of myself, as a belly dancer, any better than a pole dancer BUT EQUALLY I don’t think of myself as any worse than a lawyer, house wife, librarian, rocket scientist, nurse or doctor (Hey I am a doctor).

Let’s first take discussion of the actual DANCE FORM aside: I think that pole dance and bellydance are incomparable as a DANCE / ART FORM. Bellydance for me is a far, far, faaaaaar deeper, more artistic dance. Like I said before it’s rooted in thousands of years of cultural traditions - hey it's the dance of my country maybe I am bias. To me NO dance compares. NONE! But it isn’t what is the better art we are discussing – it is me, working as an actual bellydancer we are talking about.

I haven’t walked in the shoes of a woman who works as a pole dancer or a stripper. Who am I to judge them? I have no right or desire to judge them?!?!? And as long as they are doing this through their own choice and are happy – I say go for it.

Guess what? To half of my own family, being a bellydancer IS equivalent to being a stripper! (Oh and just so you know to the majority of the world - West or Arab- including my academic colleagues it is tooo). Most of the women in my family are covered and wouldn’t dare to show any skin in public and definitely not to an audience. My own father has dis-owned me because I am a bellydancer and no amount of arguing that this is an art form is going to change that. How can I then go on to look down on others for the same reasons, implying I am in some way better? I would just be subjecting them to the same slut-shamming I am subject to - A HYPOCRITE in the biggest sense.

Haters are gonna hate

I no longer bother to look for approval from those who think less of me because I am a bellydancer. I concentrate on myself and those who love me regardless: my mum, friends and family who, regardless of their culture or religion, still accept me; the boyfriend who will stick up for me; those who helped me through my PhD and judged me on my actual capability to do physics…. etc.

If you think I am a SLUT…..

​​If you think I am a slut for being a bellydancer – I DON’T CARE – and I am definitely not going to waste my breath trying to convince you otherwise by telling you about the cultural/traditional/artistic context of it. That in itself insults the dance. Your mind is so closed I am sure you couldn’t comprehend it anyway. You’re definitely a slut shamer, almost certainly sexist and probably misogynistic (and if you are a woman on top of all that you are to an extent self-hating).

As for us as bellydancers…

To change the minds of people who think like this, it isn’t the art of belly dance you need to talk to them about – you’re wasting your breath! It is women as a whole and that taboo word: FEMINISM that these people need to be brought up to date on!

AND you definitely, do not need to feel that you have to CHANGE BELLYDANCE to accommodate for this slut shamming ignorance. STOP trying to make bellydance more “respectful” or “classy” by creating deluded concepts like Halal Bellydance or trying to make it more Westernized (because western art is so much more respectable)! EMBRACE YOUR ART – you love bellydance? Good for you. You are one of the enlightened ones!

(side note: do always act with respect as dancer - SELF RESPECT this is essential. And always represent the dance in the best manner. If you do this there is no need to change bellydance - it is classy and it is respectful. There is nothing to be ashamed of as a Bellydancer )

I LOVE being a bellydancer! It makes me feel great. It makes me feel good, empowered, confident and yes SEXY. Being a bellydancer has gifted me freedom, opportunity and the power to be an independent woman. If you want to somehow shame me about that, as I said before:

“Go f**k yourself”.

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