Why belly dance is like Rodney Dangerfield

Here’s another excerpt from Midnight at the Crossroads!


Why belly dance is like Rodney Dangerfield

Rodney Dangerfield, the garrulous, pop-eyed comedian from the 80s, couldn’t get no respect, and neither can belly dance. Because of its outré associations with burlesque, stripping, and other louche pastimes, because it looks so easy and doesn’t conform to Western values, how can it possibly be an legitimate art? And those costumes! So much skin! So many spangles! Tacky, tacky, tacky. No self respecting ARTIST would whore herself out in a getup like that. They’re practically naked!

What. Ever. 

That costume came from the West

Big surprise, right? Western guys come to East, see beautiful dancing girls, want less clothes, wave big bills, get less clothes. Those guys had previously been to India and seen dancers in cholis. So they wanted more. They wanted naked, and they got that, too, but that’s another story. In addition to the client pressure, the folks in the East watched those films coming out of Hollywood. Intolerance, Son of the Sheik. Two-piece costumes. Give the customer what they want. And so what has become the de rigueur belly dance drag was born.

This did not help the reputation of the dance. At all. Anywhere. But there it is, and now people expect it. In Egypt, dancers will often do their first set in a two-piece costume (known in Arabic as bedlah which translates to suit or uniform), and then change into a more traditional dress for their second set.

The Victorian Hangover

Okay, so the West dictated the change in outfit, and then condemned the dancers for wearing it. Nice. Some of this is simple snobbery. But a lot of it is simple prudery. We’ve also seen how the dance was marketed upon its entry to the West, the spin-offs that thronged the vaudeville and burlesque circuits, and the generally risqué content of the burlesque shows in particular. The moving female body has long been associated with threatening sexuality. Women should be placid and prone. Dancers shaking their flesh on a stage are neither. Guilt by association has clouded the establishment view of the dance ever since.

Yasmina and the Bedouin Bullseye 

Yasmina Ramzy tells the story of trying to get her highly trained, super professional belly dance company into a prestigious Toronto dance festival. Year after year, she was rejected. Those costumes. That movement. Anything that fun couldn’t possibly be serious ART. One year, with no time to prepare, she threw together a simple folkloric choreography and draped her dancers in plain black Bedouin robes. Immediate acceptance. Accolades through the roof! Suddenly Yasmina had cachet, she was in the club. And just as suddenly, no one minded the glitzy bedlahs in which her company usually performed. They were now welcomed with open arms. One city down, a thousand to go.

 Who’s laughing now?

The really funny part of this is that it’s all come full circle.

  1. Plenty of dance genres wear much more revealing costumes than belly dancers (cheerleaders, for example. Hip-hop. And plenty of modern dancers. I’ve seen naked modern dance).
  2. Fitness classes routinely feature bare midriffs and shorts. Zumba has even stolen our hip scarves.
  3. Have you seen ballroom costumes lately? My goodness! Way less fabric, and just as much bling, if not more. Especially for the Latin divisions.

Yet these are perfectly legitimate, and belly dance is not. Why? 

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  1. Loved your excerpt! I’m not sure, but I wonder if the lack of acceptance has something to do with unfamiliar music, and that its from the Middle East. If it was in an all American pop song, maybe it would look different. Of course, it wouldn’t be The Dance that we love, because to me its all about the music. And that brings me to thinking about the interpretation aspect….so un American, especially Egyptian dance style.

    • Thank you, Irit! And I agree–about the fear of the ME and specialness of the music!

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