Race, Sex, and Belly Dance

Postcard of Morocco found on postcard-exchange.blogspot.com

Postcard of Morocco found on postcard-exchange.blogspot.com

Can you be racist toward Arabs and love to belly dance? According to Tiazza Rose, not only is it possible, but this paradox was highly prevalent in the U.S. after 9/11. She described how, as a Moroccan belly dancer moving to the States for the first time and setting herself up as an instructor, she came across this problem in her classes all the time. Her white students thought of Arabs as lower than dirt… and yet they respected Tiazza herself, and they loved to belly dance. When asked how they felt about her as a person, they would claim that she was fine, she was different. But those filthy Arabs over in the Middle East? Those people were the problem.

This anti-Arab sentiment is often called Orientalism in the scholarly literature, in fields like cultural anthropology. The word derives from the “Orient,” meaning the East. Depictions of Middle-Easterners as violent, hypersexual (or sexually repressed, depending), heathen deviants can be found in movies, on TV, in the news, or in any kind of media. This attitude can pervade popular thought, cultivating racist beliefs and assumptions in ordinary citizens.

Painting by Giulio Rosati

Painting by Giulio Rosati, representing orientalism

What I want to know is: Is orientalism still alive, 13 years after 9/11? Do belly dancers from Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey, Algeria, and Lebanon find themselves the targets of discrimination, misunderstanding, and hatred in the U.S.A.? How much have we progressed in that time, if at all?

I identify as white, and unfortunately it’s the dominant practice for whites to cherry-pick elements of other people’s cultures and make them their own. But when other cultures try to celebrate their own heritage, then some of us Americans get angry, and scared. We try to close our borders to the very people who make America so diverse and culturally rich.

Photo from jadebellydance.com

Photo from jadebellydance.com, representing sexuality

So how is belly dancing practiced in places like Morocco? It must be widely accepted and even prestigious there, right? Not exactly. Almost the opposite, according to Tiazza. She claims that when she lived in Morocco, her compatriots called her a whore and a slut. Belly dancing was thought of as so hypersexual that it was considered one small step from prostitution or stripping. So she hid her passion for belly dance until she came to America.

When Tiazza arrived in America, she found something totally unexpected. Belly dancing wasn’t shameful — it was performance art. You could practice it publicly and even become a professional! Belly dancing was celebrated on stage here, and it had class, prestige, and value.

Does the U.S.’s progressive attitude toward this sexy dance make up for its undercurrents of racism? Probably not — they seem like two separate issues. What I wonder is this: do other Middle Eastern belly dancers share Tiazza’s experience? Are they all discriminated against for their race but cherished for their cultural capital?

This is the original video that spurred all of these questions:

So, my readers. Thoughts?

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