Friday 20 May 2016

Bellydance - the art of femininity?

For a while I have been trying to wrap my head around the issue of bellydance and femininity.

I know many teachers advertise their classes using this term. "Try this beautiful, feminine artform". "Discover your femininity". And it gets me wondering what this means. Or whether it means to me the same as it means to the teacher, or the women who see the ad. Or indeed the men - because to me, there is plenty of scope for dancers of all genders in our artform.

And then I start to wonder if bellydance *is* a feminine artform, and if so, how. And what does that even mean?

When I typed "feminine" into my usual stock photo source, it gave me this, which is kind of apt for where I'm going now....

When I was a little girl, my mum insisted I kept my hair cut in a fairly short bob style. She told me that while I needed her help to wash, dry and style it, I would have to have a style that made this easy for her.

I hated this and often begged my mum to let me grow my hair out. Because girls have long hair, obviously. I also recall refusing to wear trousers in case people thought I was a boy. Being a girl was an important part of my identity and how I perceived myself. While a child's gender might arguably be an unnecessary consideration for those around them (does it really make a difference if a child you glance at in the street is male or female?), it does often matter to the child. I wasn't really a pink and princessy type of girl, though I "understood" that these were the girl things that girls liked and I should probably aspire to because I was a girl. I knew my own gender identity and wanted to express this in the manner I had learned was appropriate.

I was about 10 when my mum finally relented and let me grow my hair. As I've grown up I've done all sorts of things with my hair. It's been everything from very long to pixie cropped, I've shaved bits off, put dreadlocks in it and dyed it all the colours. This isn't because my understanding of my gender has changed, it is because I have discovered that there are many ways to express femininity beyond the Disney princess stereotypes. Women, and indeed femininity in those who don't identify as women, are complex and multifaceted, there's a lot more to women than being doe-eyed and conventionally "pretty".

So back to dance.

I recall a dancer I know posting on her Facebook page to say that she was painting her nails bright pink and how she loved bellydance because it was a great excuse to "be girly". That's great if that's your bag. I know plenty of dancers who love the prettiness of the costumes, who are light, elegant, bubbly and dance with maybe just a touch of coy flirtation. It suits them, because that is how they connect with themselves as women. Personally manicure duty is my least favourite part of preparing to perform - although I appreciate the aesthetic of well groomed hands (not pink polish mind....)

I've often witnessed ATS and other group Tribal style performers refer to each other as sisters and present a rich earthy aesthetic while dancing in a powerful style with the joy of togetherness. Undoubtedly feminine, but totally different. While a "cabaret" style dancer usually caters to a commercially acceptable aesthetic, other styles often ignore or shun the male gaze, or media-endorsed ideas of beauty.

One of my favoutite  dance friends recently prepared for a performance saying "I'm not going to do fancy make up, I'm doing ugly today" while applying fierce warpaint. But her performance was beautiful and touching - it gave me goosebumps. In fact when I look around my circles of dancing friends, I see all kinds of people, expressing themselves beautifully in unique and diverse ways. It's wonderful, but it doesn't really help in my quest to find out what it is about bellydance that is feminine.

Is it wearing floaty chiffon skirts and rhinestones? Is it push up bras and layers of hipscarves? Is it being comfortable enough in your natural woman's body to shun convention and dance with unshaven underarms? Is it baring your soul in a tender and emotional dance? Or is it showing strength, pride or sass? Is it flirty? Is it, as Ava says "sexy by accident"? Or is it not at all because being a woman isn't about what men think of you? Is is smooth, soft, gooey hips? Is it elegant lines? Is it explosive locks and isolations?

I think it's probably any, all and anything else you can think of.

I don't believe the dance itself is inherently feminine. Dance is a route to self expression, each dancer gets to choose how they wish to express themselves. We tell our own stories. We can choose to present a character, who might be fun or liberating to play. Or we can be raw and authentic. And maybe the audience never really knows which is which.

I don't doubt for a minute that many women discover bellydance as a safe space to find and express their femininity. Whether that means dressing up, or learning to feel good moving their body. I came to dance after an acute illness that left me feeling broken and out of sync with my body. Bellydance is accessible to women of all ages, body shapes and sizes, and so many find self acceptance through the realisation that their bodies can do amazing and beautiful things. Women coming through traumatic life events often find their joy and learn to express it through dance. I've spoken to a few trans-women who have found bellydance helped them discover how to move in their female identity, and I am not sure whether that is purely an act of physical instruction, or whether dancing and being accepted in a community of women is the perfect confidence boost.

Learning about ourselves through dance is an ongoing process. I always feel immensely privileged to hold space for dancers who come to my class, for reasons they might not tell, dealing with issues I may never hear about, then slowly but surely bloom, as their true self begins to surface and shine.

If you are interested in exploring your own ideas of authentic self and what femininity means to you, do check out my Dancing with the Red Goddess immersion, taking place on the 6th August.

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