“Oriental dance.” The phrase transports us to a world of veils and musky perfumes and evokes an atmosphere of sensuality, languor, mystery. It calls forth the sound of the kanoun and the derbakke. It inspires thought on women’s bodies and has been framed as almost exclusively female in the oriental fantasy that persists until today. Men also practice this dance, but an aura of judgment, allure, or even disgust lingers around them as if they were committing a shocking moral transgression.
It is important to examine the place of men in so-called “oriental dance.” Considering interviews with numerous dancers, research on oriental dance, and personal experience as a dancer and spectator, I ask: How do these dancers position themselves in relation to a practice that is coded as feminine? How does their positioning intersect with questions of gender performance?
Over-inscribing the feminine and denigrating the masculine
The reception of men who dance in “the Orient” is complex and begs questions about their acceptance within general society. Arab encyclopaedist and polygrapher Mascûdî (c. 896–956) describes the necessary qualities for dancers without distinction of sex. Documents from the Ottoman courts (16th-19th C) discuss the presence of young men performing before generally male audiences: the koçeks in Turkey (from Turkish, “young dancers”) and the khawals (literally, “effeminate man” in Arabic) in the rest of the Middle East. These boys were even sought after and did not pose problems of cultural or gender ambiguity.
However, tolerance was not unanimous, and men, in particular, took issue with men’s dance. Egyptian jurist Ibn Hajr al-Haytamî (16th C) denounced male dancing and claimed it was an exclusively female practice. He reasoned that men could be caught in a state of sluggishness if they danced, and by extension a state of decadence. We do not know how widespread these sentiments were, unfortunately, because of the relative lack of writings on dance by people of the Middle East from this period through the 19th Century.
As for European writings, Chevalier Laurent d’Arvieux (consul of Aleppo, Algiers, Tripoli, and the Levant, 1635-1702) documented the presence of men who dance and confirmed their professional status, specifying that dance is identical for both sexes: it is centered on the upper body, based on improvisation, and faithful to the music. However, most European travelers thought that the male dancers were simply imitating women, showing the extent of heteronormativity in their thinking. This includes what orientalist translator Edward Lane said in his book on Egyptian customs. But the premises on which Europeans based their interpretations were erroneous, especially in relation to costumes. Joseph Boone explained that “In cultures where women wore trousers and men flowing robes, some Europeans simply misread sartorial norms, thereby envisioning violations of gender codes that were imaginary or that occurred outside a binaristic understanding of male and female.” Sadly, this vision persists for both Europeans and people of the region, and men who practice oriental dance today are often denigrated and compared to women. This is not only indicative of the toxic masculinity in both “the Orient” and “the Occident,” but also the negative perception of feminine attributes.
Travelers since the 19th century responded to the spectacle of men dancing oriental dance in various ways. Some were astonished by the vision of these dancers, shocked, or even in admiration; others expressed their repulsion and disgust. During his visit to the Emir of Lebanon, Alphonse de Lamartine wrote that “[They] performed the most bizarre and lascivious dances that the eye of these barbarians can bear. […] it was the horrible and disgusting depravity of public morals indicated by the movements of the dancers.” This type of reaction persists today: dancers still deal with reproaches and even insults or aggression because they practice oriental dance. Some are especially hostile towards the spectacle of men dancing baladi or sharqi, as these dancers do seem to relate to what can be seen as “masculine” and, by extension, “manly.” The reception of their art is much more positive today, evidence of the evolution of collective thinking about the body and gender.
In my interviews with contemporary dancers, many insisted that this is a “non-gender” dance, a dance wherein masculine or feminine do not play a role. As the Italian oriental dancer, Gennaro Festa articulated: “dance has no sex.” Most also believed that what matters in choreography is not gender but the movement. Gennaro said, “I don’t think I want to remain either male or female, I just dance.” He gives importance to the movements and steps, without worrying about the masculine or feminine aspects that can be attached to them. In a way, dance belongs to everyone and each brings their own personal touch and style. Another dancer, Alexander Paulikevitch, a Lebanese international baladi performer, corroborated Gennaro’s affirmation, saying that there are many forms of dance and “it is the movement that counts, not the body.” Negating the gendering of the body gives importance back to the dance itself, to the movement. Erasing the difference of the sexes as a parameter can give rise to as many interpretations as there are interpreters.
Dance and perceived homosexuality
As was the case for groups othered as both exotic and a threat by European travelers, men practicing oriental dance resisted the Western standards of morality and normality. Joseph Allan Boone claimed that “Within Western fantasies of the ‘Orient’ lies the potential for unexpected eruptions of sex between men that, however temporarily, disrupt European norms of masculinity and heterosexual priority.” Likewise, Stavros Stavrou Karayanni explained that travelers’ gendered expectations were challenged once and that their gender posed a much greater danger to European sexual ethics.
Oriental dance provoked paradoxical reactions from European travelers. Accustomed to the waltz or classical ballet, in which the hips, shoulders, and lumbar region are confined in a controlled manner, oriental dance was surprising if not shocking and held the potential to awaken a deep desire. Such is still the case, as we see when spectators feel insecure when viewing men dancing. This “anxiety and fear framed by desire” show the limits imposed by values of heteronormativity and a distancing from homosexuality. Encounters with male dancers push some male visitors into an uncomfortable space with respect to the dancer; they cannot simply remain voyeurs or possess the dancer without challenging their own moral pretensions. Encountering he who seems homosexual, even if this is imagined, “may precipitate unsettling anxieties of masculinity for male travelers and artists who find both their manhood and desires unexpectedly called into question.”
The dancer thus presents a disturbing middle zone for the European colonial and traveler of the 20th Century but continues today in perceptions of oriental dance. Ultimately, it is the dancer who, through their choreography, negotiates gender, sexuality, and standards of masculinity.
A dance that evolves
The term, “oriental dance,” has been refigured into something innately gendered, something exclusively female. But if gendering happens through socio-cultural processes, then it seems wrong to simply accept the distinguishing between a feminine or masculine dance. And, if the dance were, in fact, essentially feminine, then male dancers’ practice presents an important challenge to the cliches attached to it and forces spectators to move beyond whatever prejudices they might hold. Men’s place in this art necessarily pushes thought and representations to evolve.
The reality for male dancers working to take back oriental dance is not simple. Many are still stigmatized for being men practicing a female form. However, it seems that talented men who commit to this practice have an easier time making a name for themselves than women, for there are fewer who take on this role. This allows them greater power to contest how oriental dance is received and the place of men in dance more generally.
“Oriental dance” thus presents a social challenge; it presents a field of confrontation between different conceptions of the body, concepts of gender, and notions of hybridity. The work of the dancer mobilizes dance as a political and social tool, which can transform ideologies through embodiment. It can open the way to reflections and flexibility. There are as many ways of approaching dance as there are practitioners, and there should be openings for multiple interpretations of oriental dance and recognition of practitioners’ personalities and individuality.
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