Sensuality versus Sexuality

Sensuality versus Sexuality


    by Titanya Monique Dahlin

        Published in Zaghareet Magazine


“Confidence is one of the sexiest things a woman can have. It’s much sexier than any body part.”-Aimee Mullins


What is our belly dance art form coming to?  I was recently at an event where the “dance envelope” was bent so far that every performance was laden with blatant sexuality.  There was a bondage belly dance scene, a simulated strip number and a performance where two women were French-kissing on their hands and knees with swords on their heads.  I was sitting next to elderly people who were appalled and offended. It was their first exposure to belly dance and they made comments about how “belly dancing” was just like stripping. This is not the first time in my twenty years of being in the belly dance world that I’ve heard comments like these pertaining to our modern belly dance performances.  I just thought that things had finally changed and I didn’t think we needed to be “Belly Dance Warriors” anymore… educating others about Bellydance. I guess we still need to be.


I also believe that belly dance needs to evolve and not stay stuck in the past, and their has been new and innovative changes happening with Techno Tribal and Cabaret- Jazz belly dance, but these other performances of raw sexuality cross all boundaries that many teachers and educators have fought hard to change for decades. 


Since the 1960’s when belly dance became popular in America, men and women in the dance have been trying to educate the public that this is a true art form and not another dance of “bump and grind” form of seduction.  So this makes me sad that many of our modern belly dancers are trying to shock and titillate.


In the past few years, when searching the Internet for belly dance, pornographic material often pops up in the top-ten categories.  People are searching the Internet for “topless belly dancers” and “nude belly dancers” more than just “belly dancers” alone and your search will actually direct you to websites, some from entertainment agencies that supply this form of “talent”.  Entertainment agencies are adding stripping belly dancers to their list of entertainment specialties!  These agencies are popping up everywhere. In my hometown of Boulder, Colorado, the belly dancers were in an uproar when an article in the local newspaper was printed about a local strip club, The Bus Stop.  This article hailed a local stripper whose “unique talent” was belly dancing.  We, as local teachers, were shocked when we discovered that unbeknownst to us, she was in our classes a few times.   In my opinion she was just stealing a few “neat” undulating Middle Eastern moves and going back to the club with a new gimmick.  I’m also not opposed to exotic dancing as an art form, but call it exotic dancing- not bellydance!


In the past year, Playboy magazine has been propositioning dancers to strip for an upcoming pictorial on belly dancers.  If you were invited to be in the magazine, I really hope that the money and the “fame” of Playboy will not tempt you.  I hope that you can uphold the correct image of the belly dance art form that you belong to.   Because you will undoubtedly not be embraced by the belly dancing community that you thought you were a part of. On a side note, rumor has it that Miles Copeland, producer of The Bellydance Superstars turned down a lucrative offer to have the” Superstars” pose for this publication. How refreshing that the Bellydance Superstars and Miles Copeland are not giving into easy advertising and exploitation gimmicks. This is the right step to adhering to the true art form of this dance. Bravo!


I blame the American media for sexual bellydance images, and I am also blaming our own belly dance community and it’s teachers of the dance for not giving students the proper education.  Let's take a look at the media and see what has happened with a few of our Music Divas.


Shakira, our “rock and roll belly dancer” from Columbia made belly dancing popular in music videos with her Latin influenced hip movements.  Brittney Spears and Christina Aguillera and several rap groups have movements in their choreography borrowed from belly dance.  Being an MTV pop princess, your job is always to shock and outdo whatever your competition is doing.  It doesn’t always work.  Brittney’s sales are actually going down due to her scantily clad costumes in which she stimulates masturbation and writhes in orgies on stage with her back up dancers. It happened in the same way with Madonna back when her book, Sex, came out and recently with Christina Aguillera with her video and song, “Dirty”.  Recently, Christina has begun to clean up her act and has received a whole new following of fans for her realistically oriented stories in her videos.  One video features women and men of all ages and looks staring at themselves in mirrors and feeling ugly, while she sings that they “…. are beautiful in every single way. “


Couldn’t this also happen to belly dancers who might add suggestive sexuality into their dances?


If Bellydance is pushed beyond it's artistic implications, than it isn't mysterious anymore and it just becomes another erotic dance that exploits sexuality. Remember when your teacher said to you..."less is more?" This is where it applies.


Young women look up to their pop music princesses and try to copy and emulate their image.  These young women also have been flooding into belly dance classes

Recently, and in some cases have become overnight belly dancers without paying any dues of time and study. Gone are the days of studying for years before your teacher says you are ready to perform. No, these girls can be overnight sensations, because they are simply young and beautiful.  The nightclub owners youth and will hire them for $15 or free and many of them will jump at the opportunity.  Dancers have been trying to raise the pay scale since the 60’s. But the effort is going down the tubes. What happened to the standard $75 of the 1970’s?  Why is the pay less in 2005? Thirty years later!  The rates for teaching classes has not changed either… but the rents sure have.  Dancing for less than the going rate not only harms the local professional dancers, but says something about your integrity and makes you look cheap!

There is a fine line between sexuality and sensuality.  Too many cross these lines with their choice of dance costumes.  It is a true art form to wear a belly dance costume and keep your audience feeling comfortable. We are half naked already and then we add  undulations resembling a snake …not to mention floor work. Floor work is often seen as resembling strippers in America, and loose and lower class women in parts of the Middle East. In the Middle East, there is a residue of belly dancers being involved with prostitution.  At one time in history, belly dancers danced to ensure their own dowries, and throughout all of history more money could be made if women gave sexual favors to men along with their dancing. Many Middle Eastern people remember these stories and connect the dance with prostitution.  What do you think when they see an overly sexual American belly dancer undulating before them? It propagates the whole image of prostitution once more.  America is a very sexual culture and compared to the Middle East, we American women are very sexual and openly affectionate compared to Middle Eastern women, who because of strict rules and religion are more reserved.


Make sure you study the culture, as well as the dance. This is a Middle Eastern dance and most of us are not native. Respect the culture, and you will gain a respect from the Middle Eastern communities that you perform for.


The dance is quickly becoming “Americanized”. I do not think there is anything wrong with this, but much of the true culture is being lost today. I love the new Techno Tribal Dancing, but just realize that this is weighing towards being American hip- hop/street dance if not more than belly dance alone. This American dance form alone is changing the face of belly dance, as we know it.


So now you ask, how can we dance without the dance crossing the line into sexuality? Whenever possible, educate your audience.  It will make them ease naturally into your dance and enjoy it.   Do not advertise the emotions of sex on your face.  You can do a move like a “rib cage pop” or “drop” (subtle is best with these moves) without tilting your head back and opening up your mouth or thrusting your bust into a clients face. It is about the rib cage not your breasts! A “shoulder shimmy” should be done with grace and modesty. It is very easy to use the breasts as momentum. Don’t! Get proper upper body technique from a good teacher. The same idea goes for the “hip thrusts” and “pumps”, less is more.  Do not keep focus on the boyfriends of the women in the audience.  It is threatening to most women in your audience. Many will already feel threatened the moment you dance into the room. If you are a teacher, it is your responsibility to educate your students about the morals and culture and history of this dance.


Don’t we owe it to our young women to own a different message about their bodies than simply expressing “I am a sexy woman … therefore I am powerful”?

We need to empower our students and young women in our dance. We need to show that it is a respectful dance, not one to make audiences think that it is a dance to seduce. Sensuality is about giving to your audience, but not giving it all away. It is about being able to express this sensuality without the loss of dignity.  It is about celebrating yourself as woman in all your personality. It is about honoring and celebrating each of your sister women with all their unique strengths.

What sets the sensually confident woman apart from the average suggestive sexual dancer is that she is relaxed and confident when she dances.  She is not sexually aggressive in her movements or on her face.  She doesn’t need to prove anything.


She doesn’t need to add padding to her cleavage or get breast implants to get a tip. She doesn’t need to shock with a cutout costume or the how-low-can-you-go belt. Sensual Confidence is not about having a great body or flaunting cleavage.  It is about dancing from your spirit, expressing that you are a powerful woman despite your size or age. It is about exuding your love of the dance to your audience. It is about making people feel comfortable so that they can enter into your dance and enjoy it. So now ask yourself, what does your dance say about you?


What I’ve been finding is that most of our more experienced legends of the dance are the dancers who emit this confidence more than the newer or younger dancers who, let’s face it, are not experienced. They may have drop-dead gorgeous bodies and can also be great dancers, but they go through the technique without the seasoning of time.  In my opinion, some of the more polished dancers I can name who exude this sensual confidence are Sahra Saheeda, Suzanna Del Vecchio, Sakti Rinek, Cassandra, Shireen Al Safy, to name only a few.  We look up to them because they know the actions they take, the images they reflect in their dance set the stage for the future of Belly Dance.

Bellydance popularity is currently exploding! We are reaching the public in ways we hadn't before.  As much as dancers have mixed feelings about this boom, The BellyDance Superstars notoriety is helping to professionally pormote Belly Dance.  And now even Habibi magazine is on the shelves of wellknown bookstores like Barnes and Noble.


 For so long, we’ve wanted belly dance to be accepted as a true art form next to Ballet and Jazz and Modern Dance, but how can it, when it keeps getting compared to strip tease entertainment?  So now I ask you, what does your dancing say about you? Does it say, ”elegant…classy…powerful…mysterious…beautiful…skilled?”  Or does it say, “sexual…sleezy…raw…offensive….nasty…stripper.?”


What does your dancing say about you…how will you be remembered and do you even care?