What makes a belly dancer beautiful?
I have been thinking a lot recently about what makes a belly dancer beautiful. Far too often I feel like we get sucked into the black hole of comparing ourselves to others. We look at the lithe legs, flawless bellies, luscious hair, great boobs, and think, “Why am I even bothering doing this? Just look at her!” The self-loathing can be a vicious cycle and I mean this article to be a message to the “Average Joe” belly dancer to remember why she practices this art form.
First let’s be honest with ourselves. We are never going to win the commercial beauty game. The reality is many clients want the movie star look. They buy into the fantasy of perfection and want the pretty face. Many of us will never have the type of “pretty privilege” that will land us the expensive gigs and opportunities. That is ok. This is about coming to terms with the fact that while mainstream beauty ideals still apply to this art form for certain marketing purposes; they do not define the true beauty of our art. The depth of beauty in the belly dance community is broader and richer than the surface of any Hollywood ideal.
I want to thank all of those belly dancers who might see themselves as average or unremarkable. Unbeknownst to you, you are the ones who have had the greatest impact on my dance career as a whole. I’m going to let you in on a secret. ALL of us spend most of the time focusing on our flaws and obsessing over shortcomings. In reality, most of our friends and colleagues in dance see the beauty shining through us when our toes hit the dance floor.
Beauty in Middle Eastern dance to me is the seasoned dancer who owns the stage with poise and grace. She may wake up in the morning and see the wear and tear that life has dealt her in the mirror…but I see a story. I see strength and power in the lines that tell how she fought to be where she is today. I see a woman whose footsteps I dream to follow in as she effortlessly harnesses an art we spend years attempting to perfect. She has paid her dues in sweat and tears and as her skirts swirl and as she spins into oblivion she doesn’t pretend to be anyone but herself; a true force of nature.
Beauty is the baby belly dancer during her first performance. Her footsteps are unsure as she steps out on stage, nervous about showing her belly for the first time in front of an audience. She worries about what people will think about the stretch marks left behind by the twins she labored to deliver years ago. She hopes she will remember all of the steps. When I see her onstage what I see is the newfound glow of a woman who is finding herself. She is empowered by the movements she would never have dreamed she could do before finding her teacher. She is supported by the love of her newfound sisters in dance. Her cheeks are flushed and her smile lights up the stage as the music plays and the muscle memory begins to take over. Yes. She can do this. She is a belly dancer.
Beauty to me is the troupe of women of all ages, sizes, and backgrounds. Some are tall, strong and acrobatic with muscles toned from many hours spent practicing gymnastics or yoga. Some are middle aged with softer bellies and strong wide hips that have spent many years spent carrying toddlers. Some are young and plump with a love for the luxuries of life, a devilish glint in their eye, and the confidence it takes other women years to come into. Others are short and small with a sweet coy smile and a shy personality that melts away when they are with their sisters. They are of course all rife with imperfections that each is ready to point out to the other…but ask any of their fellow dancers about a certain mark, roll or wrinkle and they will say “What are you talking about?! You are beautiful!” They can’t see anything but what makes the other an amazing woman.
I want to thank you all as belly dancers for enriching my life so much. Unbeknownst to you as you fret over whether or not you should have worn a bodystocking, I am marveling over the starry look you get in your eyes when the oud player begins to play you a particularly romantic taqsim. I see a woman who is like me with marks that show how she has fought, struggled and lived. That is what beauty is. While you worry about whether your steps are perfect, I am admiring the swell of your hips and the delicious roll of your midsection as you slink across the stage. As you panic over your veil getting stuck on your belt and struggle to keep it from showing, I see a dancer growing and evolving. When you fret that you are just too old to be doing this anymore remember that I see a woman whose grace and talent I can only dream of achieving. I see someone who has slayed her demons and uses that raw power to move a crowd to tears.
So often we get caught up in whether we fit mainstream aesthetics that we forget why we came to this dance form in the first place. Yes “pretty privilege” will always be there, but we are so much more than that. I implore you to take a few minutes in the near future to look at yourself through the eyes of your fellow dancers to see the beauty that is YOU. Forget the Photoshop. For once try to not have a running narrative of self-criticism. You are not average. You are not lacking. You are enough. You may touch others more than you realize…don’t ever stop dancing.