The Belly Dancer’s Body

Editor’s note: Luna is an American belly dancer working in Cairo, Egypt. Her blog Kisses from Kairo is full of her musings and reactions to her life pursuing belly dance in the Middle East. She has generously allowed Stance on Dance to reprint two of her essays. Enjoy!



Back home, we have this notion that belly dance has a more accommodating aesthetic than other dances–that this art is for all sizes, shapes, colors and ages. And that may very well be the case, because, we insist on it being that way. And also because belly dance is not a mainstream form of entertainment there. The majority of high profile performances are unpaid and occur within the context of festivals, produced and attended by other dancers. It can therefore get away with having dancers whose bodies would be unsuited for traditional mainstream performing arts like ballet, hip-hop, music video, ballroom, etc. In the real world–and by that I mean the part of the world in which belly dance is a major pillar of mainstream entertainment–things are little bit different. OK, a lot different. In the Middle East, your numbers– inches and years–are just as important as they are for a ballet dancer in the US. There is an ideal standard of beauty held by a good majority of the people, and any deviation from that is less marketable. Now we don’t want to lump all the Arab countries together when it comes to this issue; the ideal aesthetic in Egypt is a bit different than what it is in Lebanon and in some Gulf countries. However within each of those countries, you’d be hard-pressed to find people who have an alternative vision of beauty.

That being said, fellow belly dancer and author Zaina Brown and I decided to share our experiences with body image, as we’ve both been working as professional dancers in the Arab world for years–Zaina in the UAE, Yemen, Bahrain, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Egypt, Turkey, Mali, and India, and myself in Egypt. By the way, you can follow Zaina on her own blog, “Where’s Zaina.” And if that’s not enough, you can purchase her book “Stories of a Travelling Belly Dancer” from Amazon. It’s a great read that documents her experiences working as a dancer in the Middle East. Zaina also just produced a documentary called “Traveling Belly Dancer in India,” which is currently screening in film festivals around the US. It will be available for public viewing by the end of 2015. In the meantime, Zaina is dancing in the New York / New Jersey area and is working on a new book about dancing in the Middle East.

Arabia – By Zaina

I’m a naturally slim person. Of course, lifestyle plays a big part–I’m a pretty healthy eater and I love exercise–but I definitely got skinny genes. This has been a blessing in my belly dance career. For the most part, people haven’t had complaints about the size of my anything.

In the Gulf, the beauty ideal for a belly dancer is very Western – think Victoria’s Secret model. You must have curves but no flab: big boobs, big butt, and a toned belly. The perfect skin tone for the Gulf market is the golden tan of the girl from Ipanema. It’s no wonder Brazilian, Argentinian and Mexican dancers do so well there. The clientele consists mostly of locals and other Arabs living in Dubai, especially Lebanese. Many have been going to the same restaurant every weekend for years. They’ve seen a hundred belly dancers and their mothers, so they have expectations of what the entertainment should look like.

When working in the Middle East, a dancer typically lives in the hotel where she’s performing. This can pose a dietary challenge. It ain’t the Jenny Craig menu over at Sheraton! What’s a girl to eat after work when the only items on the late night menu are Caesar salad, cheeseburger and steak sandwich? With options like these, many dancers struggle to maintain their figure. A little weight gain is not dangerous, a lot can lead to the cancellation of the contract.

Most of the time, I would order breakfast staples at night. Yoghurt, boiled eggs, bread, fruit, cheese. At first they’d give me the “No madam this is not available now” routine but in the end I always got my way. I would become known in the building as the weird lady who orders boiled eggs every night at 2AM, but my body thanked me.

In Dubai, a couple of restaurant owners actually told me to put on a few pounds. I simply ignored it, knowing how quickly the scales tip to “She’s fat.” I’m not keen on messing with my diet – the only way for me to gain weight while dancing every night, and going to the gym many times a week, would be to deliberately eat extra sugar and junk. Besides, I took the ‘advice’ with a grain of salt. Some people always find something to say – it’s in their nature. A performer on the stage is a magnet for criticism.

One Emirati customer really drove that point home. I was trying out a new skirt on the stage. The elastic on the waist was a little tight, but I wanted to see how the skirt felt on before altering it. The look was far from a muffin top, but this customer took note, and made a hand gesture to the drummer behind me to indicate that I was fat.

The feedback I’ve most often received is “You’re too much white.” In Bahrain, one restaurant manager admonished the Lebanese singer for too much tanning (“The people ask me where you get your singer, Sri Lanka?”), and me for lack of tanning (“Tomorrow I’ll take you to the beach!”). I tried to point out how ridiculous this quest for the ‘right’ skin tone was, but it all went to deaf ears. A Lebanese restaurant does not run by any sort of United Colors of Benetton philosophy.

If this seems like Arab racism towards South Asians, let’s take a God honest look at South Asia itself. There is plenty of racism – or should we call it colorism – to go around in that region. Just look at how pale the famous Bollywood actors are compared to the diverse Indian population. While working in Delhi I shot a scene for a Punjabi movie, playing the part of a foreign girl in a nightclub. When watching the finished product, I noticed that the only dark-skinned characters in the entire film were thieves at the police station.

In India, it’s common to hire white females in weddings and other events as ‘hostesses.’ Their jobs vary from greeting guests at the entrance to handing out cocktails. Having pale foreigners around brings prestige to the event. You can then imagine what a hot commodity a white belly dancer is on the Indian stages. The obsession with fair skin is overpowering. I’m no anthropologist, and I’m just skimming the surface here when I say colorism in India is a complex mix of British colonial legacy, the ancient caste system, the country’s recent rise in the global economy, and the basic human need to categorize and stereotype in order to make sense of the chaotic world and where you stand in it. Dancing in India, I sometimes felt like I was taking advantage of this unfortunate situation and making it worse for the local dancers. 

On a happier, healthier and saner note: North Africa is an easygoing place where many flowers can bloom. Never once did I receive criticism about how I looked, dressed or danced during a total of eight months in Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. It’s worth noting that these are countries where belly dance is not really mainstream entertainment as it is in Egypt, Bahrain and the Emirates. There aren’t that many clubs with belly dancers in Algeria and Morocco (I’m not taking into account some seedy places that may have a ‘dancer,’ but she’s not really there to dance). In Tunis the nightlife is mostly geared towards Libyans who come for the alcohol, which is not available back home. They come to have fun, not to nit-pick the lineup on the stage. In North Africa, a foreign dancer is accepted as she is, as long as she’s in reasonably good shape.

Egypt – By Luna

One of the things I simultaneously love and hate about Egypt is that I don’t need a scale here. I never have to weigh myself, because there is never a shortage of people telling me when my weight fluctuates. Part of me appreciates the honesty. We don’t always perceive ourselves accurately, so it’s good to know how others see us. (I’m only saying this because I’m an entertainer and people pay to watch me. If that weren’t the case, I wouldn’t give a fkc about their opinions.) Another part of me–the American PC part–wishes that people would just mind their own business. Not that I expect them not to notice my weight. I simply prefer them to keep their opinions to themselves. (Maybe because the truth hurts?) You see, in Egypt, one doesn’t merely say “you gained/lost weight,” which, though unsolicited, is a pretty neutral observational statement. They either say, “you got fat/skinny” or “you are fat/skinny.” And they say it straight to your face. (Unlike back home, where people either keep their opinions to themselves, or else say them from the protection of an anonymous Facebook account). What makes the words fat and skinny problematic for those to whom they’re directed is that they have connotations–an implicit value judgment, if you will. And most of us don’t like being judged. Duh? In the US and many parts of Europe, fat and varying degrees of fatness equals bad and ugly, whereas skinny and varying degrees of skinniness equals good, beautiful and sexy. In Egypt, it’s the opposite. Not to the extent that obesity is desirable, but that the ideal standard of feminine beauty is still very much about roundness. And a bit of flab. And it is very much indebted to the male sexual imagination. No shock there.

Before you start accusing me of perpetuating the Egyptian-men-love-fat-women stereotype, let me assure you that’s not where I’m going with this. Egyptians very much recognize obesity as a problem. And despite the fact that Egyptian women were found to be the fattest in the world, Egyptians are no strangers to ‘fat shaming.’ They don’t whitewash their words with terms like big-boned, thick, large, heavyset or underactive thyroid either.

I know from firsthand experience that fat shaming is very much a reality in Egypt. A couple of years ago, I reached a whopping 160 pounds (73 kilos). I’m 5’7″ (170 cm). I was beyond curvy. In fact I lost my curves as my waist expanded to meet my hip bones, and my stomach protruded as far out as my chest! A combination of bad diet, stress, and little rest was what did me in. The funny thing is that I hadn’t noticed it. Or maybe I noticed but just didn’t care. I was probably depressed too. Either way, I’ve never been one to fret about my weight, and at the time, I believed that in Egypt, the bigger the better. So I embraced my muffin top, puffed up face, double chin, and extra thick thighs as representing my initiation into Egyptian womanhood.

Until everyone started calling me the F word. Even really fat people were telling me I was fat! I was hearing it at work. I was hearing it from friends. And I was hearing it from fans who watched my clips on television. They would say things such as, “We like your dancing, but you are really fat.”

That being said, I still maintain that the preferred aesthetic is roundness with a little bit of flab. And proportions. T&A is very important, obviously. But so is having a curvy waistline. And fleshy thighs. Basically, an hourglass figure. And then some. Muscular abdomen and thighs aren’t appreciated. They are considered masculine. You can have muscle but it should be hidden under a layer of flab. Visible hip bones and rib cage are thought to be unattractive.

Last year, I got some pretty disturbing medical news. Without getting into details, I had quite a few things wrong with me. I would have to cut the sugar if I were to avoid scary complications. Completely. So I did. I stopped my daily glasses of Coke and Sprite. I quit the coffee and tea with however many spoons of sugar I used to consume. I ditched the macaroni, bread, rice and potatoes, and replaced them with whole foods. Fruits and vegetables. Lean meats. Lentils and nuts. Plain yoghurt and kefir. Fresh green juice that I would make with my new $1200 stainless steel juicer. I was scared. So I made the decision to eat my way back to good health. And I did. But with one unintended side effect: I’ve completely deflated. I’ve lost so much weight that a lot of my clothes don’t fit anymore. My costume skirts slide down my butt revealing crack, and the arm cuffs to many of my costumes fly off while I’m dancing. The good thing is that I’m healthy again. And I now have a waistline. But T&A has suffered. T is easy enough to fix with a larger cup and lots of padding. A, not so easy. I know they make padded underwear these days, but the thought of wearing them horrifies me. I imagine it would feel like I’m wearing a gigantic diaper!

The unfortunate thing is that, while here I am thinking I’m doing good for myself, I’m now subjected to a constant barrage of skinny shaming. From everyone. Everywhere. All the time. And it’s not enough for any given individual to say things once. No, he or she has to say it every time they see me. As though I may not have heard them the last time they said it. You got so skinny. You’re too skinny. You look shriveled up(!). You don’t look like a dancer anymore. Did you stop eating? What’s that shit you’re eating, that’s not food (referring to broccoli and other vegetables). Are you sick?

I’m not making any of this up. These are things I’ve heard from colleagues, friends, fans, costume designers, photographers, etc. Granted, there are a few people in the industry who appreciate the new me and praise me for losing my pot belly. They are the few who understand what a truly well-proportioned body in the entertainment industry is supposed to look like. But they are far and few between.

Bottom line, I can’t be fat anymore. As much as I would love to, it’s no longer a choice. Getting fat would require me to consume sugar, and that would be putting my health at risk. I will therefore continue to avoid sugar like the plague. No amount of criticism or lost opportunities will change my mind. What I’ve realized is that people just want to talk. If you’re fat, they’ll criticize you. If you’re skinny, they’ll tell you to gain weight. If you’re perfect, they’ll find some other ‘flaw’ to complain about, such as your hair color, your height, your dancing, your ethics or lack thereof. This is what happens in societies that haven’t undergone a PC revolution yet. People will just say things to your face regardless of whether they’re hurtful, or even whether they’re true. This is why you have to be very grounded to live in places like this.

And now let me take you on a minor tangent, which really isn’t much of a tangent at all. Fat and skinny aside, the one thing you absolutely must be in order to make it big here is fake. And not just a little fake. A LOT fake. Your fake boobs have to start at size E. Your fake butt should look like a shelf. Your eyes need to be any color but brown. You must have two thick straight lines tattooed in place of your natural eyebrows. Preferably running away from your face. Hair must look extremely processed. Super long hair extensions and/or wigs achieve that perfectly and are a must. Going on stage without a majority of these, uh, assets, is guaranteed to get you told that you don’t look like a dancer.  In all honesty, I think it’s ridiculous that the modern Egyptian belly dance aesthetic is full blown drag. Nothing against drag–I love drag. I just don’t think it has a place in Egyptian style belly dance, even if Egyptians are the ones doing it. And I see nothing wrong with innovation or sexiness in the dance, but why do so many Egyptian dancers feel the need to look like pornographic versions of themselves? Is this all they can rely on to get work? To become famous? Is maintaining this look easier than actually learning how to dance and perfecting your craft? How about the fact that Egyptian society has become very puritanical over the years? Does the resulting high level of sexual frustration create a demand for this look? Has the lack of access to female beauty in the public arena ruined people’s taste?

I’m thinking of Samia Gamal. Of Soheir Zaki, Fifi Abdo. Naima, Tahiyya, Nagwa, Zizi, Mona. Sahar Hamdi. I’m thinking of their athletic figures. Of their natural beauty. I’m thinking of Samia’s beautiful short wavy locks. Did anybody tell them they were too skinny or too fat? Did anybody criticize Samia’s short(er) hair? Or Naima Akef’s lean body? Would anyone dare criticize Fifi?

All of these women were beautiful. And all of them were real. Granted, plastic surgery wasn’t an option back then. I’m sure they had their own beauty secrets, but you can see how the idea was to transform them into the best versions of themselves, not into pornographic super heroes. Not into some unattainable standard of “beauty” that would be impossible for the rest of the female population to replicate.

The one thing I wish for Egypt–for everywhere, really–is that people think of beauty and weight in terms of health. Not according to standards set by the heterosexual male desire, or by the homosexual male fashion industry. There needs to be greater nutritional awareness. People need to learn what to eat and why, rather than worrying about whose ass is inflating or deflating. And finally, people need to be more accepting of diversity. Not everybody looks the same. Beauty comes in all different shapes, sizes and colors. Deviating from the ideal standard, whatever arbitrary criteria that’s based on, doesn’t make someone ugly or less beautiful than someone else. It just makes them who they are.

This essay was originally published here.