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Belly dancing: a cultural contradiction in the Middle East?

Belly dancing (better called oriental dance) is one of the dance styles that most attracts people from all over the world. The sinuous movements of the hips and the sound of coins sewn to the skirts hypnotize any spectator who enjoys one of these shows. However, in the eyes of Westerners, doubt may arise about the origin of these dances that have conquered half the world and that for some are representatives of Arab culture which is generally related – not necessarily correctly – to conservatism and religious radicalism.

These apparent contradictions are the subject of debate from time to time, and even more so when events of global relevance occur such as the Soccer World Cupwhich is currently being disputed in Qatar.

Even before it began, the media and networks were filled with discussions and conversations about the convenience of celebrating it in that country, which is not exactly known for its respect for human rights. Thus, when the opening day arrived, all eyes were on that Al Bayt Stadium in Doha, whose construction has resulted in the deaths of thousands of people.

Qatar then showed off its power with an ambitious show full of music, dance and fireworks. International bands such as BTS or Black Eyed Peas attended the event, but many particularly paid attention to Dana Al-Fardan.

The Qatari singer, known for being the country’s first contemporary composer and the first Qatari woman to sing in English, was the only female artist to star in a performance. But what surprised thousands of spectators was not his voice or her song, but the clothing that covered her body and much of her face.

The singer Dana al-Fardan, with Morgan Freeman and Ghanim al Muftah at the opening ceremony of the Qatar 2022 World Cup.


Quickly, the networks were filled with comments judging her outfit and many highlighted the contradiction of a woman appearing covered, while in Tukoh Takathe official song of the FIFA Fan Festival, appeared women dancing oriental dance with suggestive clothing.

But how can a taste for oriental dance coexist with a culture that requires women to wear clothing that covers their bodies? Do all Arabs dance oriental dance? Does it have anything to do with religion? Is it simply machismo and hypocrisy or is there an explanation?

What is oriental dance

The answers to all this are complex, but the first thing that must be made clear is that, in reality, oriental dance or belly dance it does not exist as such.

“What is known as belly dance At a global level it would be a sum of dances that have details, movements and energies from everything that is the Arab world, specifically from North Africa, the Middle East and the Persian Gulf. It really is almost an orientalist construction of the dances of what we know as the Arab world,” he explains to magasIN. Patricia Alvarezdancer and graduate in Arabic Philology.

The dancer, philosopher and dance researcher, Fernando Lopezconfirms that “historically it has been a mix of many traditional dances to constitute a spectacle, both in cabaret and later in cinema films”.

“It is not a specific dance, but rather it mixes codes from many countries. Keep in mind that the East in general does not exist. There are specific countries like Tunisia, Lebanon, Egypt, Morocco and others, and each of them has their codes, their dances and their music. Oriental dance is almost an imaginary category that unites movements of different styles and that has become something very recognizable by the public due to the type of movements and the clothing that the women wear,” she emphasizes.

Where to dance

Although you can find oriental dance shows in any Arab country, the places where this type of dance is most typical are Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. Precisely, the singer who stars alongside Maluma and Nicki Minaj in the video clip for Tukoh Taka and yes he does oriental dance it is Myriam Faresa Lebanese artist.

“In that video we can see a mixture of oriental dance movements and what is called commercial dance, which is what you can find in a large part of pop music videos, reggaeton and others,” analyzes López.

And he adds: “In that case, I have only recognized a movement that appears at the beginning, which belongs to a traditional dance of the Gulf and which is called Al Nashaat. It is a movement they make with their right hand on their heart, moving their head from one side to another or their hair. “That’s the only traditional female Gulf dance there is.”

Both experts say that, although oriental dance shows can be found in Gulf countries like Qatar, it is not a typical dance of the area. For that reason There was no performance of that style by Qatari artists at the opening of the World Cup.

“In fact, the term dance, ‘raqs’ in Arabic (رقص), it has negative connotations and it is not used because it is associated precisely with the dances performed by women with a happy life or even prostitutes,” López confirms.

Therefore, “the ‘traditional’ dances practiced in the Gulf are not called raqsbut the name of each one of them is used in Arabic or we talk about performance. “The term dance will very rarely be used in these countries because it has negative connotations.”

Furthermore, Álvarez claims that, in her performance, Dana Al-Fardan wore a Bedouin costume. “She is not a woman in a niqab, that really is a religious position. So, we have to differentiate from when I am talking about a tradition and I don’t go into whether I like it or not. But there are clothes that are traditional.”

What there was at the inauguration were choreographies starring men, more typical of Qatar. “They are dances performed by groups of men and that generally simulate an atmosphere of war, of battle. Sometimes they are with swords or bamboo sticks. But the appearance of women is very rare,” highlights López.

In the case of women’s dances, the researcher argues that they are usually performed in private environments like, for example, a wedding. “The celebration of a wedding is also divided by gender. At the women’s party with the bride you can see this type of female dance, but not in public.”

Furthermore, when oriental dance performances are held in countries like Qatar, the dancers are almost always foreigners due to that negative connotation. “Although this type of dance is consumed, it is considered something that should not be performed, that is inferior or even sinful. Their women, who are respectable women, obviously the others are not, they cannot do it. But like the dancers They are not local and not Muslim, since they are considered to be other codes,” López highlights.

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