The state of male Belly Dance in the United Kingdom
By Mike Waldie
As published in Taqasim Magazine.
I don't think anybody would deny that bellydancing is a female-dominated activity. But by and large, as in any other dance form, if a man genuinely wants to learn then he'll find himself welcomed. Or at least he will in most parts of the world.
However, here in the UK for some reason the MED community seems to have made the step from female-dominated to women-only. Here there really is a significant minority who wish we would just go away and leave them in their safe "little girl's ghettoes" (quote); who think that it is wrong that a man should even wish to learn this dance (I've had the lectures).
When I first thought to learn this dance it took me well over a month to find a teacher willing to have me in her classroom. Some of those I contacted tried to be helpful, others were rude, but most were just confused that I should even want to learn this "women's dance" in the first place. And for a long time, because I was male, the door remained firmly closed.
But once I'd finally started learning with one teacher I naturally wanted to expand myself by going to other workshops. But even if I could persuade the promoter that I was already learning, I'd still be refused at least half the time. Believe me, in this country there are even women-only haflas !!!!
And then there is the issues of the larger national events. In this essay you'll find a reference to MAJMA, which is probably the major ME dance festival in the UK in terms of having significant international teachers visiting. Due to their attitude towards male dancers I've never yet managed to attend this event.
You'll also find a reference to Bristol Day of Dance, a smaller affair where I was simultaneously entertained and exasperated by the circular logic that the ME modules should be women-only because only women practiced ME dance.
I have complained about discrimination and prejudice to teachers and organisers. I've written articles and letters to MED magazines. And up to now I've got absolutely nothing for my pains.
However this article may be my final whinge. It has pricked some consciences and finally a group of teachers are going to start questioning these entrenched atitudes. Enjoy it and, if you're male, thank the Goddess you're learning somewhere else.
Maybe soon it will be seen as an interesting historical piece, harking back to unimaginable bad old days. But as I keep saying to people, I'm not holding my breath.
Since this article was written in 2005, I'm given to understand that the situation in the UK with regards to male Belly Dancers has improved significantly - and the below referenced MAJMA now accepts men.
Let's hope it continues to improve! Returning the reader to Mike's article...
The state of male Belly Dance in the United Kingdom
Imagine one day that you had set your heart on attending some sports training session but, upon applying you received an answer like this;-
Sorry this has taken some time to get back to you. We had a meeting the other day, and the issue of female attenders at Century21Sport was discussed. After consulting with teachers, participant feedback from previous years etc we made the decision that, due to the nature of the event being very much aimed at men, we could only open the workshops to men.
I am sorry if this seems unfair. Indeed we are reliably informed that some men attend because they enjoy the fact that workshops remain men only.
I hope this is not too disappointing.
You'd be pretty miffed I expect. Aside from anything else it would seem like a message from a bygone age. You'd probably complain to other associated organisations to embarrass this group. You might even shop their sexist attitudes to the national press. But you'd be pretty unlikely to let it pass. Why should you be discriminated against so casually ? Such stupidity should no longer go unchallenged in the 21st century.
Well two years ago, with minor changes, I received that very email from MAJMA, refusing me because I'm male. Whilst I was genuinely disappointed, I could hardly say that I was surprised. Ever since I realised I wanted to learn this dance I have been on the receiving end of quite alarming levels of gender prejudice. I had no idea how hard it would be to find classes, no idea how easily some people would erect barriers of entry against me they themselves would never tolerate.
I could detail these difficulties. But I'm more interested in why ME dance is considered to be so different from any other dance form ? Everywhere else men, not normally in the west the most enthusiastic dancers, are encouraged. But within ME dance there is a significant minority who are determined that males have no place and the silent majority just seem to accept that.
And yet in the Middle East men are very enthusiastic dancers (check the essay on Morocco's website Oriental dance, it's not just for women (and never was)) And how do they dance ? In the style indigenous to their local culture of course. Yea, that's right, guys from the Middle East dance in the Middle Eastern style. Crazy huh ?!?!
The problem in the west meanwhile seems to be restricted to allowing students into classes. Nobody has problems with dancers such as Khaled Mahmoud. Nobody has reservations about teachers such as Mahmoud Rehda or Yousri Sharif. Having live musicians in a classroom is considered a bonus, even if they are male.
So why the problem with students ? Well it shouldn't be that the traditions of the dance are feminine, because we are talking about classes here. The great Morocco herself points out that dance classes to teach ME dance are a specifically US phenomenon, exported to Europe and the Far East, but which have yet to have much impact in the Middle East. Classes as we know them are almost non-existent over there. Raqia Hassan, probably the most famous Egyptian teacher, set her school up almost exclusively for Westerners.
So we have western women attending a class invented in the west to learn a dance style from another part of the world. Yet they have created a myth that men should be discouraged because the originating culture of that dance is quite sexist, even though both men and women dance in largely the same way within that culture. Doesn't make sense really, does it ?
After all, at various times in history in Egypt and Turkey, female dancers have been banned and young men took over. Then male dancers were banned and women reclaimed their status. It was only the deeply repressed Victorian British who, during the colonisation of Egypt, made their distaste for male dancing so plain that it died out as a valid public entertainment simply for commercial reasons. There was no cultural tradition that banned the practice.
So just like everything else in life, you can pick and choose your history to support the prejudices that you had beforehand. My view of the history of our dance is no more valid than anybody else's. However, I feel sure that in allegedly enlightened western countries where sexist behaviour is frowned upon and often illegal, the amazing levels of gender prejudice men experience should be an issue of shame for the whole MED community.
We males, that insignificant minority, can't change anything. I have been complaining about the situation for over two years now and frankly I'm getting nowhere. I've still not managed to be able to attend MAJMA. Bristol Day of Dance is shamelessly women-only. There is not one teacher who has refused me who has changed her opinion. And I've finally realised that standing on the outside screaming "It's not fair" will never achieve anything.
Increasingly I realise that it's down to the silent majority who barely notice we aren't there to make plain that this behaviour isn't how you want to see yourselves being represented. I've had women, who believing that the community is open, warm and welcoming , confess to being deeply shocked when I tell them some of the things that have been said to me. In this article I'm holding up a mirror to the Community's attitudes, do you like what you see ?
The thing is when that when I first saw an ME dancer I knew that I had to do this. It spoke to a part deep within me that was barely acknowledged, let alone expressed. Yet at that moment I felt transformed, knowing that this was what I had been yearning for all my life. I was instantly in love with the dance, and still am. Truly I am never happier than when I am dancing.
Now I don't know what part of me that is, call it my emotional aspect, my feminine side or whatever you like, it is as much a real part of me as the aspect within your own being that resonates to the dance. It wasn't my fault I was born with a Y chromosome and I don't see why the ME community should want to punish me for that "crime" by denying me access to something that gives me such profound happiness.
That isn't to say that I don't know that there are some weird guys out there doing this for reasons that are not entirely wholesome and savoury. I've met a couple of them and know how uncomfortable they make my fellow classmates feel. And they annoy me because each of them potentially alienates teachers and students from the possibility of allowing a male entry to classes. To be blunt, they're p*ssing in my pool. But it's still quite an over-reaction to ban every male simply because weirdoes exist.
But I get the feeling that this is an excuse. I've said on numerous occasions, if the willingness to include men exists, a way will be found. But all too often in the MED community that willingness is absent.