Male Belly Dancers - Are We Feminine? =OR= Avoiding the Trap of "Masculinity"!
As I have had quite a bit of feedback on my Gender Rant article, and such questions fascinate me as an "armchair philosopher", I present the following for your consideration:
A common question is, "How does a man's Belly Dance differ from a woman's?", or words to that effect. As I state in my Belly Dance FAQ, ask 10 male Belly Dancers this question, you'll probably get at least 11 different answers!
A search on the internet on the topic does little to help; a kind of canned response about male dancers found on many Belly Dance websites reads:
Can men Belly Dance?
Yes. Although Belly Dance is often considered a feminine art form (because of it's flowing circular lines and emphasis on the belly/childbirth aspects), there are masculine styles of the dance and costuming for men. There are a number of excellent male belly dancers that teach and perform these styles.
This text apparently originated on the med-dance newsgroup. Nothing wrong with it as far as it goes, but I daresay that a little more can be said on the subject!
It does however, seem to state that there are as many male Belly Dancers as there are female. Although there are more males than ever getting involved with Belly Dance, I don't think that their numbers will ever even approach a 100 to 1 female/male ratio in the foreseeable future. Most males are way too insecure for this to realistically happen.
It also suggests that males are doing an entirely different dance from the ladies. Not so fast...
Meanwhile, other articles insist that Belly Dancing is strictly "feminine", and that male dancers must become female to the greatest extent possible in order to perform. Hmmm. Really?
I've even heard tell of an Egyptian man saying that if a man gets up to Belly Dance, he is considered a woman for the duration of his performance! Fascinating, I'll have to do an anatomy check on myself next time I'm on stage...
Others claim there are no differences between "masculine" and "feminine" styles - "A ribcage circle is a ribcage circle is a ribcage circle!". Yes, but...
So what is reality? Are male dancers trying to be "feminine" in joining our sisters in the dance? All the wrangling on this subject is fundamentally asking "What is the difference between males and females?" So let's examine some of the issues.
A standard disclaimer: Herein is presented my opinion, and what works for me. Do feel free to disagree if you like. If you are a male dancer and I express disagreement with your choices, that's all it is; disagreement with your choices. Everyone should feel free to make his/her own choices. I respect those who choices differ from mine - their choices work for them, and mine work for me!
Intelligently presented rebuttals (and agreements) are welcomed and even solicited!
Ok, what I'll present is the shocking idea that most differences between "masculine" and "feminine" are cultural in nature. Not all, but most. We all know there are biological differences between little boys and little girls, and that males and females are "wired differently" (Exceptions exist), and have (generally speaking, again, exceptions exist) differing strengths and weaknesses.
So what does this have to do with "masculine style" vs. "feminine style" in Belly Dance? One of those differing strengths is that females are graceful and males are clumsy. Having done some (Greek Dance) teaching myself, and gone through (and continue to go through) the learning curve with Belly Dance, I can attest to this stereotype's general applicability (Yes, I've seen exceptions, both ways!). But why is the typical male clumsy and the typical female graceful? Is it because of a fundamental body difference? Is it how males vs. females are "wired"? Or is it simply that females are encouraged, from an early age, to be graceful and "pretty" and males are not - or even encouraged in the opposite direction?
I don't pretend to have all the answers - I think the true answer is probably "all of the above". Males (generally) have more "power", they are bigger and stronger than most females. This means they have to exercise more control to be graceful - something that is discouraged culturally. The "wiring" theory has some merit also - in test after test, very young, presumably unconditioned, children are given choices to do "girl things" or "boy things". Most boys will do the "boy things", most girls will do the "girl things".
So, if this is true, males have the body difference (greater strength), a "wiring" difference, and probably most importantly, a cultural difference.
Body difference will impact how males and females perform the dance. The male's greater strength will take him longer to learn how to control. The different structure of the hips means that certain moves will look different. My Maias (downward vertical hip figure-8s), for instance, just look different from my instructor's. No question, a Maia is a Maia is a Maia - yet it comes out different on a male body. The movement is the same, it uses the exact same muscles in the same way - yet the narrower hip structure makes it more subtle. Some males will enhance their hips with various costume tricks such as hip tassels or trailing veil ends in an effort to make hip work more visible - I'm one of them. Many of the gals do the same thing.
Males obviously also don't have (to use a quaint term) bussoms. This is far less a challenge to the male dancer, as they play little role in the actual dance - although they certainly do in the visual presentation. As I am a male (for better or worse!), I don't worry about it.
So, if you accept the premise that boys tend to do "boy things", and girls tend to do "girl things", what does that have to do with Belly Dancing? Possibly nothing - the male who is determined to be a Belly Dancer will become one. Possibly quite a bit - if indeed our biological "wiring" tends to make women graceful dancers, and men clumsy bumblers - well then that is a uniquely male challenge that we must overcome.
Goddess knows my own personal fight against my own clumsiness was, is, and no doubt will continue to be, the greatest single obstacle to my desire to be a great Belly Dancer! I've started jokingly calling my clumsy incidences "Male Moments"!
This is, in my mind, the greatest single difference between males and females in all walks of life. Being cultural, it is very much indeed arbitrary & artificial, yet nevertheless very powerful. Only the oddballs like me will think of challenging it!
One of my dance sisters once told me that she really liked the fact that I was learning Belly Dance, but was frankly "confused as to what role a male Belly Dancer plays"!
Hmmm - what role? To my mind I'm a Belly Dancer first, and a male second - my role is the same as her's, a dancer.
But her confusion underscores the significance cultural conditioning and expectations play. Everyone, myself included, follow culturally accepted guidelines on how to conduct oneself, how to dress, and what activities to pursue. But, some of us rebel against guidelines that make no sense, or are outdated, or just don't apply to a given person or situation.
I certainly do not dress by cultural guidelines accepted by most of society (see my Gender Rant page), yet the fact I wear skirts, long hair, earrings, and even bindis on special occasions, doesn't mean I totally ignore these cultural pseudo values either. My skirts are generally a "masculine" variant (A kilt or a Foustanella), my long hair is in a "masculine" style, and I won't wear just any old pair of earrings out there!
Like most males, I like machinery and technology and love to yak with the boys about cars, hot-rods, turbo-charged engines, warp drive Pentium computers, etc. But then I'll go join the gals in the kitchen and talk about clothes, fabrics, Belly Dance, cooking , and even men, and women's relations with same (which is fascinating to hear from the woman's point of view).
I have just as much fun joining the hen party! So am I expressing my "feminine" side by doing this? Maybe. If I am, what's wrong with that? Or, as I believe, am I just a more fully rounded male? Maybe. If I am, isn't that good?
The Belly Dance Sub-Culture
Certainly in the case of Belly Dancing; all partitioners of this artform, male or female, have encountered the "Belly Dancing is sexy" or "Belly Dancing is stripping", or whatever other misconceptions the general public holds dear. However, some such ideas are even well entrenched in our own Belly Dance sub-culture. "Be Sexy" I was told by a sister dancer before performing my solo, "That lady over there is getting married in 2 weeks!". I replied "Well, I'll try my best, I just do what I do - the interpretation is up to the audience."
Afterwards, the sister dancer said that I indeed had been "sexy". Ok, I'm glad I made her day - I, on the other hand, don't view my dancing this way. In fact, I'm probably one of the few males on the planet who doesn't view belly dancing as sexy!
Not that there's anything wrong with males being sexy, it just isn't my thing. I like the grace, the power, the exoticness, the spirituality, the "oneness" with the music, and even the sensuality of the dance. I don't know whether or not the lady in question (apparently also a dance sister) liked my dancing or not, or thought I was "sexy". If she thought I was sexy - that's OK. If not, that's OK too - but I do hope she enjoyed my dance - that's what it's all about!
Update: The "lady in question" turns out to be a dance sister indeed, and she really enjoyed my dance - to the point of wanting her new husband to take up Belly Dancing!
Many male dancers have whole rulebooks about costuming, and who am I to criticize them for it? They feel that their interpretation is "masculine"; and to do certain things costume wise results in a "feminine" look. For myself, finding such rules to be arbitrary as most cultural rules are; to a large extent I reject such thinking - I don't want to be limited.
Some males, for instance, won't expose the belly, that's "feminine". Ok - to them I guess it is, and I won't knock them for this - it works for them. Myself - people expect a Belly Dancer to look like a Belly Dancer - and that usually means an exposed midriff. Plus the exposed midriff helps in appreciation of the dance - the audience can see what you're doing! I get frustrated with males who dance in shirts, it makes it so much harder to see what is going on! So exposed it is.
Others dance topless. Well, people don't expect a Belly Dancer to be a topless dancer even if the dancer happens to be male and cultural norms accept topless males. Besides, there is just too much fun costuming wise to be had if a top of some kind is worn. The top frames you - the audience can see your torso working against the top as you do hip work. So a top it is!
So I can play the cultural expectations game against itself.
I had several male dancers tell me, when the subject of earrings came up, that studs or small hoops were fine, but to leave the large dangles to the women. Nuts. I have long hair, long dangles look good on me, even by the admission of several who don't like earrings on males - and I wear them all the time in my mundane life. Earrings enhance the dance, I'll keep my options open, thank you!
"No hanging fringe over bare skin - that's 'feminine!'" No it isn't, it's cultural perhaps. As if "feminine" is something bad anyways. If the costume works better with fringe over bare skin - let it hang, let it hang!
For the longest time, I wouldn't perform in a skirt as I figured it would fry the brains of the audience who might have a hard time with a male dancer in the first place. I'd do skirtwork in classes and workshops (in fact I was best at skirtwork in an Alexandra King Gypsy workshop, she had me demonstrating for the class!), but not to perform.
But then Janette decided to do a Gypsy Skirt choreography - and I had a decision to make. An earlier routine we do regularly, the "Story Dance" also had skirtwork - but the skirtwork was optional, we've even performed it where some of the gals didn't wear skirts. But a Gypsy Skirt dance is ALL about the skirt - I didn't want to miss out on all the fun, so I now will wear skirts "when the situation calls for it". So far, the audiences seem to love it!
I figure that a full beard and mustache can de-"feminize" darn near anything. Most people would consider a skirt to be the very heart of "femininity". I do not (the bra is). As a skirt has nothing to do with female anatomy, I figure I'm just as entitled to wear one if I want...
The end point is a given dancer needs to feel good about his/her costume. Does it look good, does it make you beautiful, does it make you feel good about yourself? In my case, my dance sisters like my costuming, I like it, the audiences seem to like it, my wife likes it. Works for me!
Presentation and styling.
Now we come to the crux of the matter, what is the difference between male and female styling?
"Some teachers allow some degree of angularity to the male stance", "Males should stay well grounded, and not dance on tiptoe very much", "Males should look fierce and warlike", "Males should never show vulnerability", "Males should minimize wrist suppleness", "Females dance on the diagonal, males dance on the square". "Males shouldn't do this", "Males should do that", Etc., etc., etc.
I ignore ALL of this - if my dance sisters curve their arms gracefully, so do I! If they are on tiptoe, so am I! Fierce and warlike? That isn't me, and it isn't this dance form! Vulnerability? If you're not displaying vulnerability at least part of the time, you're not opening yourself up to the dance. Wrist suppleness? I love beautiful armwork! Dance on the diagonal? You bet - this is how many moves are best presented, the audience can see what you're doing.
Almost all female Belly Dancers like a male dancer, yet at the same time they almost universally detest a male who dances "froopy" or "feminine". I've been told by multiple female dancers that I present very "masculine" - yet I ignore most of the "rules"! One dancer told me that she was flabbergasted by my veilwork - she considered veilwork to be the most "feminine" thing imaginable, yet she said I looked "masculine" doing it. To my mind, this underscores once again that the differences between "feminine" and "masculine" are largely non-existent - these differences mostly exist only in our minds.
Here is what I think it is: it's all in the attitude. We males can be just as graceful, dance just the same as our dance sisters, yet come across as males if we perceive ourselves as males. As I state in my Gender Rant, I neither seek to look like a woman, nor to be one; as I am not, yet at the same time I want to be beautiful too - in a "masculine" way. My "masculine" way, not someone else's.
In my humble opinion (Ok, maybe my NOT so humble opinion ), what this means is male dancers absolutely, positively should NOT attempt to "masculinize" the dance - this is artificial. Clenched fists, or "manly" stances, or looking fierce, or whatever isn't what this dance is about and isn't what we should be doing (traditional men's folkloric dances not withstanding). We should be doing the same moves as the ladies the same way and in the same style (At least, as far as our bodies will permit)! I am a FERVENT believer in this!
I see so many male Belly Dancers become so pre-occupied with their masculinity and what is "masculine" in their dance that they lose sight of the dance itself - which is graceful, flowing and beautiful. This is what I call the "Trap of 'Masculinity'". Indeed, I see some male dancers do stage tricks and prancing about on stage trying to look "masculine", rather than actually doing much real dancing
Any dancer MUST dance true to hirself (to use a clumsy feminist word). If you feel smooth and graceful, dance that way! Don't change how you dance because of someone else's preconceived and canned concept of what is masculine or feminine. Decide this for yourself. If graceful floaty veilwork is part of you and your masculinity (or femininity), DO IT; and don't let anyone detract from your dreams!
On the other hand, if you're genuinely uncomfortable with veilwork (or anything else), it doesn't fit you or your sense of self, DON'T do it; but don't deny others the right to THEIR self-determination.
There are short dancers and tall dancers. Skinny dancers, and large dancers. Male dancers and female dancers. Short dancers dance a little different from tall ones due to their body shape. Same for skinny vs. large. And the same should be true for male vs. female. The skinny/large and short/tall dancers don't worry about it, why should male/female dancers? We don't have "Skinny style" vs. "Large style"; "Tall style" vs. "Short style"; although these types of dancers do dance a bit differently. So why all this emphasis everywhere on "Masculine style" vs. "Feminine style"? I just don't buy it.
As one male dancer says "What's 'masculine' about Belly Dance? Nothing, when a woman is doing it!". To this I'll add "What's 'feminine' about Belly Dance? Nothing, when a man is doing it!". I keep on ignoring the "rules", and embrace the freedom this dance offers me!
Many of these limitations come from us males ourselves, but not all. Although most women are VERY MUCH accepting of male Belly Dancers (Far more so than most men are of women in traditionally "masculine" roles), some try to impose limits. I had a female teacher tell me that males shouldn't do undulations, shouldn't do snake arms (of all things!) and most definitely shouldn't do veilwork. PUH-LEASE!! Remind me to do my "Veil-1" routine if she's ever in the audience. The one where I do kneeling undulations while opening my veil, and later do snake arms. Yea, that one... Goddess only knows what she'd think of my Maias...
There's a lot of baggage here about "masculine" having more societal value than "feminine" (See any feminist writings) which ties into women having more perceived freedom to "cross the line" into "masculine" roles than men do into "feminine" roles (See my Gender Rant). I claim I'm a "masculinist", and will claim these freedoms for myself. True masculinism, like true feminism, is about truly EQUAL gender rights - and thusly really are the same thing. Therefore, if someone wants to think/perceive my dance as "feminine" (as I don't follow the 'rules' and refuse artificial masculinizations in my dance), that's their prerogative - it doesn't hurt my feelings and I won't be offended by it. Yet at the same time, it is not my perception.
I view Belly Dance as human beings dancing, nothing more and nothing less! A male can do a delicate, floaty, very graceful veil routine with a soft, chiffon veil - and still look "masculine" if he doesn't forget he's male! A woman could do the exact same veil routine, and be the heart of "femininity" for the same reason, she doesn't forget she's female!
In other words, any move I do is a "masculine" move as I am a male and I'm the one doing it! If my sweet wife does the same thing, hey it's "feminine" all the way! As a result, I will fear NO move!
What is probably the most powerful thing about this dance is exactly what causes so many, both men and women, to be very scared of it. That is the fact that this dance is all about you (Enter the vulnerability factor.)!! You bare your soul to the world. You can't hide it from the audience, and you can't hide it from yourself.
I believe the difference between male and female Belly Dancing are:
1) Differing body structure makes some moves appear subtly different.
2) Attitude, attitude, attitude!!
3) The rest is a matter of definitions, culture, and what you're comfortable with.
So whether or not male Belly Dancers are "feminine", is up to each individual to decide; both audience and dancers. So forget the "rules", do what is comfortable for you and follow your heart! This dance is very empowering and liberating for women, should we men expect any less from it? As always, the only obstacles are ourselves.
I came across This Article from the "Sisters of the Silver Branch" which I found an interesting validation of my thoughts on the subject.