Orientalism In Dancing: Belly Dancing

Liberation or objectification?

Is it too sexual or represent power?

When people think of the term belly dancing, they believe it originated in India, but it is said that the first known belly dancers originated from Egypt. Belly dancing was first seen as unique and the sole purpose was believed to be “celebration [for] women’s fertility” (Lo Iacono), and seen as powerful and magical, but it then turned into something more and different, it turned into people believing that it was too sexual.


“Music videos generally tend to sexually objectify women more explicitly and to depict them as objects to be consumed. When female artists, however, decide to sexualize themselves they have more autonomy over their role as the ‘gazed’ or the ‘gazer’. While sexual objectification can be harmful whether it be orchestrated by men or women, when a woman is performing, and is in the ‘instrumental’ role, explicitly controlling her own sexual image, it sends a more positive image to young girls than the sight of women as adding to a purely male hareem or ‘collection’” (Mewawalla). While this quote proves that this is now seen as a powerful move and letting women take over their own bodies, there are people who think otherwise.

There are people, moreso mothers, who believe that when these dancers are seen from their children, they are sending a bad message out “reinforcing the idea that women have to look-and behave- a certain way to be attractive” (Dove). 

Pictured above is Brittany Spears. She has no decent to this culture, but she is benefiting from it by using it in her music. She is someone who has had a huge platform. http://princessraqs.blogspot.com/2012/05/popular-western-songs-with-middle.html

I don’t believe the display of body movement is inherently sexulized but I do believe that that is the way it is gazed at. I believe this is the case because it didn’t start off that way, people just sexulized it in that way. While the origin of belly-dancing was said to be from Egypt and supposed to be seen as powerful and magical, it somehow turned into people believing that it was too sexual. The form of belly-dancing in these music videos are different from the original meaning. Even if these music videos were to have different meanings, people will still perceive it as too sexual. But these videos were also made to be sexy and show sex appeal.

A lot of people would misinterpret what Shakira, a known music artist and dancer, do but will fail to realize she is Arab-Latina. She does this because it’s a part of her identity but people, such as Americans, tend to sexualize her dancing. I believe that Shakira is misunderstood by some. The question then comes, who is her target audience? I think it comes down to no one in particular due to the fact that this is a part of her identity and is a tradition, but she also wants to show others that this is a part of who she is and shouldn’t be taken is a very sexual way.


People start to believe that it’s too sexual when in full transparency this is a form of power. In a way this is women taking over their own bodies. Even though people may say otherwise, these women feel powerful to have control over their own bodies. In a way you could say that they are expressing themselves in a different light. Belly dancing could be a form of celebration of freedom and expression.

It’s quoted that “most Bahrain’s women protestors were attired in long black robes, their heads covered” (Enloe). These women were seen in the world as “veiled and oppressed” (Bannourah), so when they finally did show their body they weren’t taken as serious. Women are veiled but then we see them not covered up and we can’t bring ourselves to understand it. We are known to not like change, so when these women/protestors were not in that attire but in less than, they were judged and not taken seriously. It was stated that “Middle Eastern and Arab women who belly dance were therefore fetishized and sexually objectified through the lens of Orientalism” (Bannourah).

People were appropriating this culture and giving off to others that these people from this place were doing it for sexual reasons more so than it being a part of their tradition. You wouldn’t see Middle Eastern women doing what’s traditional to them due to the fact that it was westernized and turned into being something sexual. It’s very crazy that women who aren’t a part of the culture get to paint the views of how other people’s culture are. 

Pictured here is Vanessa Hudgens appropriating the tradition of belly dancing. Many who weren’t apart of this culture praised her for this, but she also took a lot of heat because it was sexualizing a culture that was not hers.

When brought to America, belly-dancing was taken as sexual and when women from the middle east started bell-dancing they suffered the repercussions of it all. An Arab-American dancer spoke out about how she’s used to tourists coming and asking things from her due to the fact that she is a dancer. Her response to the author was that it’s business and she doesn’t take it personal because as stated it was a business. There are many who believe that when too much skin is showing, it is seen as sexual. People always associate too much body showing as a bad thing. With him being a tourist and not from there, he used what he saw where he was from and assumed that her dancing for sexual reasons more than it was seen as art. Even though she said it was her business, it’s her tradition.

What I learned

During this process I’ve learned the hardships of making a website and research, but I also learned what it’s like to work with others on a website. This was at first a little difficult for me because it was a lot towards the end but I got through with the help of my group. I really liked this class and the assignment, but I just wish we had more time so I could have did more and to have had a better understanding. But all in all, I was happy to do research on and give information about belly dancing. I learned a lot an dI hope everyone did too.


Bannourah, Alana. “Reclaiming Belly Dancing for Middle Eastern Women.” Medium. ProgressME Magazine, September 13, 2016. https://medium.com/progressme-magazine/reclaiming-belly-dancing-for-middle-eastern-women-5184d9f704b0

Enloe, Cynthia. “Nationalism and Masculinity.” 2014. https://moodle.drew.edu/pluginfile.php/256918/mod_resource/content/0/Section%20%2522Nationalism%20and%20the%20Veil%2522%20From%20Enloes%20Bananas%20Beaches%20and%20Bases.pdf

Lo Iacono, Valeria. “Belly Dance History and Origins, Turkey and Egypt. Raks Sharqi.,” May 7, 2019. https://www.worldbellydance.com/history/.

Tara Mewawalla, and By. “Sexualisation in Music: Liberation or Objectification?” Cherwell, January 27, 2019. https://cherwell.org/2019/01/27/sexualisation-in-music-liberation-or-objectification. 

“Women in Music Videos: Press Pause on Female Stereotypes.” Dove UK, August 24, 2020. https://www.dove.com/uk/dove-self-esteem-project/help-for-parents/media-and-celebrities/women-in-music-videos.html

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