BELLY DANCERS: 🐍luts, Priestesses, H😱🤩chies & G😈ddesses
If you've been around here for awhile, then you know how much my world is divided up into five natural Elements that culminate into ALCHEMY. So far in these memoir adventures, we’ve covered a lot of EARTH (Dance) and have started diving into METAL (Martial Arts). We’ve also opened up the box of WATER (Storytelling), and AIR is everywhere in this blog (Music, Magic and the inspiration of the Muse.) FIRE is everywhere, too, when it comes to my passionate nature, my phoenixing feats, and the expression of emotion.
But in my Elements System, Fire is also sex. (And yes, those horns holding up the Fire Sign's halo.) Let’s dive into that a little more intimately, shall we, particularly where it relates to Dance. Why? Because I’m a belly dancer, yo.
Okay, okay. I’m ALSO a belly dancer, and if you spend any time in this camp, invariably you're going to have to deal with the intersection of dance and sex.
When Earth met Fire around the campfires of the SCA, something magical happened inside me beyond the transformation of my dancing. It was the sublimation of what I had always suspected that sex could be. Just a couple years earlier, I had read an article that introduced me to this thing called Tantra, and what I had experienced with Kyle had shown me that the article was spot-on: sex could be a soul-deep thing. It could transform two people into One, and explode minds open to the cosmos.
Belly dancing had shown me another aspect of that through its sensual movements drawing infinite shapes. Circles and infinities...snakes and prayer hands...poses, moves, and gestures of that Divine Feminine long banished to the shadows.
You remember that my first teacher had been shunned by our Greek restaurant on account of being “not family-friendly” - in other words “too sexy,” right? In contrast, I was a nineteen year-old, Midwestern, small-town "good girl" who had barely started to let her long-hidden horns peek through her skull. (That super-poof 80s hair was good for something.)
I also didn't understand the depth of all the cultural, racial, and religious prejudices running amok in my homeland. So although I was a newly Recovering Catholic in search of a spirituality that worked for me, I hadn’t remotely shed those old mindsets yet.
Belly dance began shattering them left and right. Then I discovered medieval reenactment in the Society for Creative Anachronism. While repeating these powerful, life-changing moves to that ancient music, played live out in the natural elements with my bare feet on the ground and the bonfire blazing across my skin…and while simultaneously learning to be a Shield-Maiden of Northshield?
The already tenuous hold that religious and cultural shackles had on me didn’t stand a chance against the SCA.
The evolution of a belly dance style that was just starting to make its way inland from the campfires on the coasts. (4) This is what it felt like. This is what called to me:
That is what kept wooing me back over and over to those campfires. It's what lured me away from the battlefield in the middle of the afternoon. To be among confident, earthy, more experienced women, learning how they moved, stepping where they stepped. Together, we paid homage to nature--that which surrounded us and that which bloomed within. They gave me my first taste of something I had never been exposed to before: a tribe of Sisters.
Of course, just like with blood sisterhood, SCA dancing had its unique issues, heavily influenced by the region, hometown, and lineage from which each dancer hailed.
Up there in the north woods, we were surrounded by a sea of, “Belly dancing? We’ll have none of that here!” due to the conservative prejudices and ignorant assumptions I had been swimming against since birth.
In those first two years while I performed at the Greek restaurant every weekend, I had become quite skilled at disarming people with a certain kind of smile designed to assure them that, no, I wasn’t about to fling off my top to shake my boobies in anybody’s face, or hump somebody's leg while I danced. Not because I think these things are hideous. I don’t. It’s because that’s a different dance form in a different environment for a different intention.
My exposure to the cabaret scene of belly dance had booted my timid squirminess about showing my skin in public out the door, along with any hesitancy about circling my hips, making my butt and thighs quiver and quake, or executing moves that called attention to my shoulders and ribcage—i.e. my breasts that were showcased in fringed bras and coin-laden bustiers.
But it was the SCA that introduced me to the world of Sister Circles. Sacred Sensuality. The Divine Feminine. Thus far, I had only read about this phenomenon in that book I'd borrowed from the Minneapolis library: Serpent of the Nile. A bunch of my new dance mentors had come out of or been trained by instructors who hailed from the 1970s Goddess Revival. (3) By the time they introduced me to Her in the early 90s, their Goddess had a new motto.
She Is Powerful and Sensual.
Because sexual was "degrading."
Where I grew up, belly dance was one of the only avid feminist communities that existed. There were two main versions of feminism. In one version, we were allowed to show our skin, claim sexual attention, be sexually assertive and powerfully erotic. We had been liberated from being proper church mice. RAWR!
In the other camp, we did not have to show our skin and shake our tits & asses in order to be powerful, beautiful, or valuable. We certainly didn't have to degrade our sexuality. That was something sacred and very private. Our bodies, our adornments, our movements, our sensuality--these were not designed for the male gaze and they absolutely were not for male titillation. These were for us. We danced in celebration of Life and to entertain our fellow sisters. RAWR!
You notice I said "our" about both of these extremes, right? Because I was caught between them. Alas, in many ways a lot of the women in these two camps hated everything that the other stood for. Those who loved both sides were few and far between. Although I was one of them, I was really young and had no idea how to comfortably straddle this polarity.
I’d already experienced being branded a slut without having all the fun of it. Since I'm demisexual, I take no pleasure in hookups. I wanted a lasting partner with whom to explore all the wild, cosmic, erotic activities I was curious about. Sex that isn’t based on multifaceted connection (emotional, physical, mental, spiritual) and the desire to develop it into something intimate and meaningful can be deeply damaging to me.
That’s not my internal or sexual makeup, so to have my sensuality and sexual offerings treated in a shallow, debased way simply because I was a belly dancer--read: "a hoochie slut"--well, I wanted to at least make sure that nobody mistook me for one of those.
No, no, let me assure you that, once I discovered the SCA, I was learning to be a “true, authentic, genuine, quality” dancer. Specifically, what my mentors called a “Middle Eastern Dancer," NOT a belly dancer.
No matter that so much of what I was learning around the campfires was a fusion of styles all mashed together into a Renaissance Faire fantasy that wasn’t even purely Middle Eastern. There was Turkish style in there, and influences from North Africa. There were bits of Indian dances smashed into Persian mixed with Flamenco and slathered with a whole bunch of circus flair.
I loved it! To this day, it remains one of my favorite styles I've ever learned, but it is NOT traditional Middle Eastern Dance.
Unfortunately, “bellydance” was a dirty word around certain dance camps of the early 90s. In many dancers' eyes, belly dancers were THOSE dancers--"sluts" or "traitorous, failed feminists who paraded for male attention." Belly dancing was THAT STYLE our forebears had adopted as part of their liberation from corsets, pearls, and 1950s pinafores.
It was better, but it wasn't feminist enough. It wasn’t powerful enough. It was still too degrading--still for the male gaze, as hailed by that Orientalist Harem Fantasy. You know: the smoke-den “Seduce Your Sultan” vibe while sprawling across cushions and carpets with bedroom eyes and porn-star mouths a-pout, on the verge of opening into the perfect dick-sucking shape. (2, 3)
And “true feminists” did NOT do that.
I have a lot to say about “true" feminists. It can be summed up thusly: I believe feminism exists to provide The Feminine (in whatever form She exists) the freedom to express Herself in any way She damn well chooses. Sometimes She likes corsets. Sometimes She likes heels, pinafores and pearls. Sometimes She likes lopping off heads with Her bloody tongue hanging down to Her chin, Her foot grinding down on a corpse, and a necklace of skulls adorning Her bare breasts. And sometimes She likes sucking dick on her knees with her makeup smeared and her eyes all a-glaze in worshipful adoration of The Masculine.
But I was a naive, sheltered, conservatively raised twenty-two-year-old Midwestern girl, so I had no idea what feminism meant to me yet.
I knew I wanted my most intimate and soul-deep sexual offerings to stop being demeaned and conned out of me by liars, manipulators, and abusers.
I wanted to stop being sexually harassed, molested, threatened, and assaulted.
I wanted to stop being attacked because I wasn’t enough of a “good girl.” A good Catholic or at least a good Christian girl. A nice girl, subservient to an eventual husband while bearing as many children as he wanted. At my Confirmation, these are the types of things I had to promise through my lying teeth while having an intimate wink-wink-nudge-nudge with the Divine to prevent a familial explosion. If I would have opened my mouth unrestrained, probably an excommunication.
Of course, since this was the 90s, not the 50s, I was expected to counterbalance these promises by putting my kids in daycare and being a simultaneous power-bitch in my recently discarded shoulder pads because as a “proper feminist” of that era, I had to also make sure my honorary Dick Card was just as big as any man’s.
But by choosing belly dance as my profession, this meant that my power and my rights to respect and dignity were not based upon either of those extremes: the churchy house-mouse or the (fe)male in a power-suit. I could obtain my power in a very different way.
“The Ancient Way.”
The Way of the Goddess. On this path, I would be Priestess. Queen. Authentic Dancer. Genuine Artist. And that meant a very serious study. I was more than okay with that. I've always been deeply serious about anything I commit my mind and heart to studying.
But there was something I could never reconcile in my hyper-logical, over-thinker's brain. The Way of the Divine Feminine also meant no bedroom eyes or seducing anybody while I was dancing. In the SCA it meant covering up my skin--and not only because cabaret costumes and the new American Tribal Style bra & tassel belt were not period. (4)
Nope, for all that feminist shouting and fist-raising, for all the supposed liberation of female sexuality, our flesh and the seductive invitations to our beds were still hailed as “bad” by countless feminists I met. Our male supporters doubled down on this notion.
It was very, VERY confusing to me. But my older, wiser mentors knew better than I did, right?
Evolution: As close to ATS/FatChance costuming as I ever got, but never at SCA events. At my second SCA event that had belly dancing (Pennsic), I purchased my first vest from Merchant's Row. But only jingle-bunnies bared their midriffs, so after that I started putting a chemise under my vests. (With my inner jingle-bunny fantasies peeking through...) And then I became obsessed with--I mean discovered Hahbi'Ru. (4)
This anti-sex conservatism was so staunchly indoctrinated into me that I eventually started wearing my SCA costumes at the Greek restaurant. I’d heard that in big venues, famous dancers did one cabaret set and then closed the night with a folkloric set. So that’s what I started doing, too. (Even though my dance style and the costumes themselves were a big SCAdian fusion mashup, not one of the folkloric styles from which this tradition hailed.)
But I didn’t know that yet, because my knowledge about such things was delivered via firehose with a side-dish of voracious sponging, all crammed into a few hours over one or two weekends a month. (Or less during the winter--no campfires at the indoor events.) Much of this instruction didn’t come from dance historians or their direct descendants. It came from hobbyists and the special, rare treat: professional American dancers who also taught in the SCA. Alas, even the native Middle Eastern, Turkish, or Romany dancers and musicians disagreed about what “proper was.”
One of the biggest rivalries happened between “classy, elegant, tasteful Egyptian style" vs. “those Turkish sluts.” (2) Now anybody who knows my dancing even a little knows how much I adore Turkish style. It suits me 1001 times better for the exact same reason why I suck as a ballet dancer. That’s not my type of grace and expression.
However, it was made exceedingly clear to me that if I didn’t want to be lambasted as the equivalent of a stripper or prostitute, I needed to steer clear of Turkish style. THOSE dancers touched themselves! Eeeeek! They did floor work! Nooooo. They wore the most revealing costumes and faced their crotches toward their audiences while down there humping the floor tiles.
(Kinda sounded like fun to me, but I kept my big gob shut. Why? Satyr, Theo, Jake, Trent, Ray, Martin... I'd learned the hard way not to let anybody know how much I liked humping anything.)
Well, for all that hating on the Turkish style, old school American Cabaret sure had a ton of its influence. (2) But I didn't know that, because I rarely met anybody who separated it out into pure styles back then. It was usually just…belly dance. Or in the SCA, it was "Middle Eastern Dance" in contrast to the courtly European dances we did in the barn, ballroom, or gym.
Considering how far and wide I traveled in my SCA days, opinions on what I should and should not be doing around the campfires were contradictory at best. At its cattiest, it was a polarized war with multiple factions that were even splintered within their own camps.
“Middle Eastern dancers" vs. “belly dancers."
“Real dancers” vs. those who "only wore a coin belt to wiggle around the fire."
a.k.a. "The stuck up bitches" vs. "the fun dancers."
"Authentic artists" vs. “drunk hoochies shaking it in the hopes of getting laid.” (They were the glittery, nighttime equivalent of we female fighters who "only put on armor to get up close and sweaty with the guys.")
“Sluts” vs. “Priestesses of the Divine Feminine.”
a.k.a. "Proud sluts & sexy bitches" vs. "prudes."
“Jingle-bunnies” vs. "Period Nazis" or "Period Police." --Sub-faction: there was also a war between those in period garb who wore Ghawazee coats cut under the bustline vs. those whose coats were cut above it.)
Below vs. Above
The Ghawazee Coat Issue:
Some people argued that period Ghawazee coats did NOT dip below the bust.
Some also added that to wear it this way was "slutty" in addition to being non-period.
Some didn't care and just wanted to be more comfortable.
Some liked how much better the lower cut showed off the moves.
Some liked to show off their sexy bozooms.
Some argued that the term “Ghawazee coat” itself wasn’t period.
Some of us just used the under-bust pattern of a more experienced dancer before we realized there was a war, and then felt awkward about wearing it because as an SCA newb, we really wanted to do it "right." Therefore, some of us promptly made all our future coats the "right and proper" way (while eternally yearning for the less constrictive and sexier version that showed off the moves better, but really, really yearning to stop getting called a "slut" and being sexually assaulted and harassed for it).
Some of us also acquired ginormous middle-finger foamies in our later years and altered our coats to any darn necklines we pleased once we were out of the SCA.
But as a newb in the Society, much to the History Major's consternation, I could never find sources about all these arguments to determine what was the truth for myself. (Remember, this was the early 90s in Northern Minnesota. I had only just acquired internet access in my home and that clunky dialup behemoth wasn't good for much of anything beyond displaying my dust and opening this new thing I'd just gotten: email. Ooooooh...)
Since I couldn’t figure out exactly who was the proper authority to believe and emulate—each lineage had credible roots—I quickly became exasperated with all the infighting, name-calling, arguing, and pecking-order pressures designed to provoke social anxiety.
With me there always comes a point in these situations where I lose patience with trying to navigate the Sea of Social Bullshit and Reindeer Game River. Once that happens, my neurodivergent straight-and-narrow, anal-retentive, rule-follower proclivities collapse and my inner Princess Leia takes over.
And yeah. It usually gets me berated from all the sides in question.
I Really. Don't. Care.
I mean, I do. It always hurts. Point in fact, it usually breaks my heart along with my connection to whatever group I'm in.
My move to Colorado (in the Kingdom of the Outlands) and the immediate kerfuffle that arose over my 3/16-inch silver headband that a friend had made to commemorate my Award of Arms was my last straw with all this "trying to do it right and properly" stuff.
In Northshield, I was allowed to wear a metal circlet as a Lady, whereas in the Outlands, I was told that one had to be an Honorable Lady to do so. Here's the deal. Mine wasn't even a fully-enclosed circlet. It had a bloody leather closure at the back, making it technically a headband or diadem, and I only ever wore it to keep my veil in place.
The peck-peck-pecking hens in towering shiny hats descended in a flapping flock to inform the uncouth interloper that she was transgressing, and that this was intolerable. People all around me were literally arguing and shouting at each other on the road about this tiny piece of bejeweled metal-and-leather. They dug into my hair to examine it. They pulled out a tape measure.
I shit you not.
This is how I know that it wasn't quite 1/4 inch wide--the supposed measurement for transgression. They bellowed regulations at each other until they were red and puffy-faced out there in the desert sun. My detractors squawked about what it "looked" like I was being allowed to do from a distance--something Theeeeey had gotten in trouble for doing when They were a mere Lady.
Funny thing: according to this article, the flippin' Outlands doesn't even have any official sumptuary laws. No surprise there: "Sorry. Outlands." (Not a bit sorry.) In other words, mean girls will be mean.
🖕 The Intolerable Izzy.🖕
Yeaaaaah, that was it for me. I didn't realize it that day, but this incident broke the 'Beastie's back. In that moment, I lost all interest in playing by their rules because, whether or not I did, I still got attacked by "My Betters." So I gradually, more and more, started playing my own knights-and-ladies game. As I'm sure you know, this cannot be allowed, so that headband was the beginning of a two-year plummet to the end of my days in the SCA.
The reasons for my abrupt exit all revolved around one of two things: this malicious, petty, pecking-order crap and fucking sex-shame bullshit. A toxic cocktail of these two elements would produce the incident at Crown Tournament that catapulted me out of the Society once and for all.
Well. I guess it's only fitting that everything came full-circlet. After all, it was a siege engine that had lobbed me into the SCA to begin with.
So no shit, there I was. A twenty-two-year-old Northshield newb trying to find my place in this sprawling society of a gazillion personalities and thrice as many conflicting "rules." With dance, I finally decided to sponge everything I could while going the Bruce Lee route: I absorbed what was useful to my personal mode of expression, I discarded what was not, and I added in my own unique flair.
And yes. Sometimes that flavor includes 🔥HEAT.🔥
On the floor.
Looking directly at you with THOSE eyes. (Noooo, not that!)
CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE
--UP NEXT: NEVER DANCE TO THIS SONG! - It's About A Prostitute.
--OR: Some vlogging about this huge dance project I did in my old SCA coats.
--OR: All my writing about BEING A HACK-BASTARDIZER (I mean being an innovative creator)
--OR: *ALSO* A Belly Dancer - the gazillion influences that have MAKE MY DANCING
--THE NAVIGATION TABLE OF CONTENTS
2) Belly Dance in the US: '60s - '90s
--"Middle Eastern Dance" Mixmash performed to "Amerabic" music with--gasp! nooo...yes!--a hefty Turkish influence.
--The 70s - Dance of the Mother Goddess, the seeds of Tribal, the disparagement of Turkish in favor of Arabic styles, the rise of workout belly dance and its backlash efforts to promote deep knowledge and respect for the traditional dance forms.
--Coasts Apart - the divergence of sparkly, glitzy American Cabaret & earthy American Tribal that fought to banish objectification from belly dance
--The 80s & 90s - West Coast women-for-women, East Coast Arabic takeover that welcomed men, and we middle children. The shift from "Arabic" preference to "Egyptian" but still with those old school Am. Cab. hangovers.
3) Belly Dance: Sex, Sacredness, Tradition, & Fantasy
--Time Machine: Being a belly dance star in the 60s & 70s, including that classic belly dance conundrum: "I love belly dancers! I would never let my daughter be one."
--Time Machine 2: A European belly dance star in 1980s Dubai - Sex, Performance, and the Private Desires of the Very Rich
--Sultan's Harem Girl Fantasies: What is Orientalism?
--Belly Dance: Orientalism, Exoticism, Self-Exoticism
--Why Arabs & Muslims Aren't Exotic
--Orientalist Dreams: My journey with Ruth St. Denis & the Orientalist sides of Modern Dance
--Mata Hari: My intro to being a Femme Fatale in encrusted glitz
--Salome: My intro to being a Stripper Femme Fatale--I mean a belly dancer with veils
--Goddess: Feminist Art & Spirituality of the 1970s
--PowerBitch: Shoulder pads of the 1980s - and wartime.
--Shira's review of Serpent of the Nile - where many theories I was exposed to in the 90s about belly dance history came from
4) The Tribal Side of Things
--Dance of the Mother Goddess - The Salimpour School: Bal Anat
--ATS: FatChanceBellyDance Style - formerly American Tribal Style - "Fat chance you can have a private show!"
--ITS: Improvisational Team Synchronization - formerly Improvisational Tribal Style
5) SCA Garb ideas for the Middle Eastern, Turkish & Persian persona
--How to make a Persian outer caftan
--Harem Pants: A Most Interesting and Scandalous History