On Belly Dance and Cultural Appropriation

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!



I never intended to respond to Randa Jarrar’s article “Why I Hate White Belly Dancers,” but I did.  And now I’m going for round two.  This time, I want to unravel Jarrar’s whole argument by chipping away at her assumption that white women’s “appropriation of the art causes others harm.” Without that element of harm, her argument falls apart. White belly dancers (or black or Asian or Latina ones) cause no harm whatsoever to the people to whom this dance “belongs.” No bodily harm, no economic harm, no social harm. Quite the opposite really. The vast majority of Arab women and men appreciate non-Arabs learning and mastering their dance. At the very least, they fetishize us, similar to how some of us exoticize them.

Let’s dissect this a little bit. Of course the idea that one woman’s dancing causes another woman physical harm is ridiculous. So let’s put that aside. But how about economic harm? In order for Jarrar to suggest that the alleged “cultural appropriation” we’re engaging in is economically detrimental to Arab women, it would have to be true that white women are taking opportunities away from them. This is patently false. Due to a very unfortunate mentality that demonizes women, women’s bodies, and women’s independence, not too many Arab women aspire to become professional dancers (and this mentality has NOTHING to do with European imperialism. It’s much older than that.). The few who do take up the profession desperately need the money, and are brave and skillful enough to dodge the social stigma. However, most of them would rather die of starvation than dance for money. It’s therefore simply ignorant to state that white appropriation of the art is “harming” Arab women by taking away their opportunities. That’s like saying illegal immigrants are hurting Americans by taking away all of the toilet bowl cleaning jobs.

It’s no different when Arab women migrate to the West. They don’t suddenly and recklessly embrace their newfound freedoms and go running to the nearest hookah joint in a two piece costume. For a myriad of reasons, Arab immigrants are amongst the most resistant to integration into their host societies. They’re not exactly ditching their burkas for bedlahs.

What about socially? Is “white” belly dancing equivalent to blackface, as Jarrar states? Hardly. Blackface was a 19th century form of entertainment in which white American entertainers painted themselves black and portrayed black people as offensively as possible. Where’s the comparison with belly dance here? When non-Arab dancers dress up in their “Arab drag,” as Jarrar puts it, they’re not mocking anyone. Nor are they reinforcing stereotypes. We all know that the most prevalent stereotype about Arab women is that they are oppressed. Wearing belly dance costumes doesn’t perpetuate that stereotype (if anything, the costumes are a symbol of beauty, femininity and sexual liberation). And actually, that “drag” is professional stage wear, developed in the 20th century by Western belly dance aficionados.

The truth of the matter is that the phenomenon of white belly dancing has empowered Egyptian artists by giving them a source of livelihood they otherwise wouldn’t have had. None of the “star” belly dance teachers who travel the world would be nearly as successful it weren’t for us. We’re the ones who fill their pockets with thousands of dollars in classes, festivals, workshops, costumes and music. We’re the ones who pay for them to travel across the world to teach us a few moves.

And yet despite the fact that we’ve carved a niche for these artists in their own economy(!), the hand-full of us foreigners who are lucky enough to work in Egypt are discriminated against. By law, foreign dancers can only perform at one venue, whereas there is no limit to the amount of venues in which Egyptians can perform. Sure, we can dance at private functions, but we’re not permitted to dance at more than one hotel or boat. Our tax rate is also double that of the Egyptians, and we’re required to pay monthly fees to renew our residency cards.

Which brings me to my next point. There’s a fine line between crying cultural appropriation, on the one hand, and straight up racism and xenophobia, on the other. The laws currently in place vis-a-vis non-Egyptian dancers are the result of the latter. Circa 1993, a famous Egyptian dancer who shall remain nameless spearheaded a movement to completely ban foreigners from dancing in Egypt. And she got her way, until some foreign dancers fought back and changed the laws so that they could work again, even if only at one venue. That famous dancer, though a genius in her field, was hardly sophisticated enough to think in terms of “cultural appropriation.” Rather, she was vexed by the soaring popularity of foreign dancers, and by how an increasing number of venues were contracting them. Isn’t it a bit hypocritical that this same artist makes a fortune teaching belly dance around the world? Had her attempt to ban foreign dancers been rooted in genuine concerns about cultural appropriation, she would refuse the money that comes from teaching all those “appropriators” around the world.

The funny thing is that other than said famous dancer and Jarrar, I can guarantee you that most Arabs aren’t worried about white belly dancers, if they’re even aware of them at all. That’s because they have real problems to deal with. Like where their next meal will come from, raising and educating their kids, and perhaps dealing with oppressive family or health issues. They’re not thinking about the cultural appropriation of belly dance, or belly dance, period. They don’t have time for such non-issues.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting we completely dismiss all concerns of cultural appropriation. It can be a real problem. Especially in the US, where most of the (con)fusion masquerading as belly dance is reckless and ignorant. Yet this isn’t a problem of white belly dancers per se, but a problem of (sometimes willful) ignorance. And ignorance knows no color. This is where Jarrar goes wrong. Rather than creating a false and racist narrative of white dancers harming Arab dancers, she should have addressed the growing trend of disregard for Middle Eastern culture within the international belly dance community. But that’s something that would require a working knowledge of Middle Eastern dance history, as well as the history of the dance in the West, something Jarrar obviously lacks.

Jarrar also seems to lack appreciation for not-so-recent history. Long before white Europe could even think about conquering foreign lands, there was something called the Islamic Empire. That empire included the lands of the modern Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia, as well as parts of China, India, Sicily, the Iberian Peninsula, and the Pyrenees. AND, they had their hearts set on conquering the rest of the world, just like all other colonial powers in history. Many conveniently choose to forget this fact though, or else dismiss its significance by implying that the world embraced the Muslim conquerors with open arms. Not exactly, but that’s beyond the scope of this post. My point is that Arab and Muslim peoples were once at the forefront of a large imperialist project that not only resulted in the spread of Arab-Islamic culture, but that appropriated many aspects of the cultures it dominated. That doesn’t mean that the descendants of that empire don’t have a right to learn and teach martial arts, or flamenco, or Bollywood dancing.

We’re at the point where we are all from everywhere and are part of a world-wide culture. Arabic music and dance is part of that — in fact it’s one of the Arab world’s more positive contributions. Rather than berating white women for taking part in it, Jarrar and like-minded individuals should be encouraging them to respectfully explore this fascinating aspect of her culture, if for no other reason than that it’s often a vessel for people to learn about Middle Eastern culture and history.

I will leave you with one final thought. Why is it that the appropriation of religion by foreigners is actively encouraged by and not nearly as problematic for the “owners” of said religions? How come no one cries foul when white people convert?

This essay was originally published here.