Belly Dancer Weighs In

We received this letter from a professional belly dancer which gives more information about this dance form and ways in which the New Age has managed to infiltrate it.

Elizabeth Yarnell writes:

I was glad to see your distinction between belly dance and New Age influences.

I am a practicing Catholic and have been a belly dancer and belly dance teacher for 34 years. As stated in your response, authentic belly dance has it’s origins in the Middle East and has nothing to do with New Age philosophy or beliefs. Most of the cultures where belly dancing originates are Christian and/or Muslim. I have performed for Lebanese Americans at their Orthodox Christian church festival. Their priest performed after me, doing a dance with knives. It may be very likely that Jesus saws forms of what is now belly dance performed at weddings and local events.

Dance is celebrated in the Bible.

The prophetess Miriam, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand, while all the women went out after her with tambourines, dancing (Exodus 15:20)

While the abdomen may be exposed, most costuming is not very revealing. Many of us wear dresses or gowns. In Egypt, a belly dancer is forbidden to expose her abdomen, so she wears a belly cover. When in costume, many of us have on more clothing than we would have on wearing a bathing suit or iwearing shorts and tee shirt.

American Tribal belly dance is not always associated with New Age or earth mother religions. Original American Tribal dance fused costuming, folk dance and music from the various bedouin (tribal) music, dress and dance.

Gypsy style belly dance comes from the Romami peoples (aka gypsies), an ethnic group that originated in Asia and scattered across Europe. The Romani generally practice the religion of the country / culture where they reside – which is generally Roman Catholic, Orthodox Christian or Muslim in Europe or Roman Catholic or Protestant in the US. These are both beautiful styles of belly dance.

An authentic belly dancer is tasteful, gracious and elegant. Her performance is suitable for children, the parish priest, the scouts and grandma. In fact, men watch us and are bored. Women and children are fascinated.

We make an effort to understand and respect the cultures. There are certain gestures that mean nothing in American culture that are vulgar to certain Middle eastern cultures which we are careful to not do. We respect the music. We would not perform to thier religious music.

New Age has infiltrated some areas of belly dance creating the impression that belly dance and New Age are one and the same. There are offshoots of belly dance that embrace earth goddess, Wiccan, Pagan and other New Age ideologies. There is even a form of belly dance springing up that is called Gothic belly dance. They are influenced by belly dance. They are not authentic.

In the past 10 years, I have seen more of this negative influence in belly dance circles. Probably to the same extent as its influence in American culture in general. So, I would recommend checking to see if the teacher tends to embrace some of the New Age thinking. For the most part, classes taught through rec centers, community centers, colleges etc are likely not under this influence.

Middle Eastern audiences – Arabs, Lebanese, Turks – would be highly offended if they hired a belly dancer for one of thier events and she was costumed in goth or modern tribal and danced to any of the music offshoots of these New Age forms of belly dance. We have two local restaurants – one Lebanese and one Indian – where we perform. Management of both restaurants forbid anything other than authentic Middle Eastern belly dance. Anything else is offensive to them and thier customers and is disrespectful of thier culture and religion.

For me, belly dance has been a wonderful experience. It is a celebration of life, feminity(not sleazy sexuality).

I have met many lifelong friends over the years. Many of my dance friends were Catholic, Christian or Jewish. Belly dance was instrumental in helping me recover both physically and emotionally from breast cancer and a mastectomy. Belly dance is healing as any other form of art, dance or music can be healing. I have taught belly dance as fitness, as an art and as a source of healing for women recovering from cancer and other medical issues.

Thank you for letting me share this information.

Elizabeth Yarnell aka Elisheba (which is Hebrew for Elizabeth)

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