Culture and the body exist in a symbiotic embrace, continually exchanging the lead, each being transformed by their dance. Human bodies are not closed bio-physical systems. They live in time, in space, and in motion. Individual bodies live inside a social context; collective bodies are produced through our shared experiences within that context. Indeed, culture itself exists only within and through living, acting bodies. Individual experiences, then, are also communal ones.
Bodies in motion have the ability to reinforce established social codes or to subvert and challenge them. Through dancing, new or alternative personal values and collective sentiments can be produced and reincorporated into social life. Although not all dancing has individual or social change as its goal, dance has always been an effective idiom for such transformations.
As a bellydancer, I am contributing to the further emancipation of women’s bodies from ancient Puritan phobias and contemporary misogynist condemnations. For myself, this long process of liberation began with Billie Jean King’s “Battle of the Sexes” in 1973. In defeating a loud-mouthed sexist (Wimbledon champion, Bobbie Riggs), King put the country on notice that women were entering the field of sports, whether men liked it or not.
The social context of the 1970s included a host of physical limitations that placed on women. We were expected to remain in domestic spheres, to keep quiet, and to not take up space. Remember the phrase “You throw like a girl”? That was about space, about reaching out into the world around us in order to effectively throw a ball…or hit one. For King to physically reach out, leap out and in so doing defeat a man, was a key moment in the Women’s Liberation Movement.
But despite that, and despite a lifetime of dancing, I was taken by surprise when, in my first bellydance classes, I discovered how difficult it was for me to shake and shimmy. Social codes regarding the morality of my body parts—in particular my hips, stomach, and breasts—constrained my ability to move. I experienced a socially induced paralysis based on the sexual interpretation of the pelvic area and female breasts. I could not fully release my stomach muscles because public notions of beauty demand a flat belly. Since I am neither young nor tanned, it was even difficult to consider exposing the flesh of my belly by wearing a choli.
Under the guidance of my bellydance teachers and with the encouragement of my sister-dancers, I reinvented my experienced body. I began to accept my hips as a source of joyous dancing rather than as strictly sexual. I learned to shimmy my shoulders and if my breasts sway as I do, all the better. Today, I wear a choli as a sign of my acceptance of my own belly. As we continue to teach and encourage others in the art of bellydance, our social codes are changing as well. The individual is the communal.
I would be curious to know how specific my experiences are to my (baby boomer) generation. What do the post-Feminist generations experience regarding their female bodies? What forms of corporeal inhibitions have they struggled with? What are they learning—or re-learning—through bellydance? I am certain, also, that men who bellydance have their own stories of masculine liberations from socially restrictive body codes. I hope you will share them here so we may all benefit from your embodied knowledge of our world.