Updated: Jan 5, 2021
As an Indian and a native of the “Orient” or the East, relating to culture and history of Egypt, another country of the Orient and drawing parallels with my culture and history has always been a natural and intuitive activity. This is logical as many periods of both civilizations share similar characters. I have always viewed Egypt during Pharaonic time as the “Sone ki Chidiya” (The Golden Bird) phase of Egyptian civilization. Both India and Egypt have shared a common past of Islamic and European invasion which is evidenced in the art and ideologies that took shape during this period and still continue to, more so in Egypt. I also like to believe that native of Orient grants me the natural sensitivity towards practices that some of the old western historians, artists and travelers have presented in a rather “Orientalist Fantasy” way.
In both civilizations, women have largely played the role of dancers while men have largely played the role of musicians. However, in both the cultures, there have also been times of female suppression where female performers were prohibited from performing and men have had to fill in their role, a phenomenon termed gynemimesis. Interestingly, this existed even in Western Shakespearean age. However, with advent of European colonial (and Russian as well in case of Egypt) principles and their imposition in India and Egypt and many other oriental countries, being an “dancing male in female dance” has become a taboo. For that matter many greats within the dancing industry of Egypt have defined, “there is a certain way men dance”. Quoting Sir Mahmoud Reda from one of his interviews, during Mahmoud Reda Cup Hong Kong 20101:
“I must say that around the world, only girls and women are interested in this type of dance. Some men dance like women. We don’t do like this in Egypt. In Egypt, men have different style, more masculine style.”
Being a “Dancing Male” in a female predominant art, in a society and time that has highly dichotomized what is male and female, I have developed curiosity towards this subject. Also, for same reason, I have faced a certain amount of negativity, though far less than many of my ‘dancing men’ peers, which has further increased my curiosity.
Through this article I would like share my views about the historically relevant and contemporary aspects of being the “Male belly dancer”.
However, a quick foreword before I set forth my ideas would be that I do not believe in a strict dichotomy of male and female that society has created, I rather view it as a spectrum and also believe in the right of an individual, male or female, to choose what idea(s) resonate with his or her personality unbidden by societal expectations, as art is best expressed in a way that resonates most with your personality.
The discussion of this topic has to open with “Khawals” (خول), the earliest well documented Egyptian male dancers who impersonated female Ghawazee “belly” dancers. The Ghawazee dancers were female public entertainment dancers who catered to the relatively middle and poorer sections in late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries; along with the Awalim who catered to the rich sections. Around the turn of 19th century there was increasing association of these public performers with prostitution, and under the increasing pressure of the pious Muslim elite, the then ruler, Muhammad Ali Pasha banned public performances of these “female” entertainment dancers in 1834.2 Following the ban, transvestite men and young boys took their place imitating them not just in the moves and clothing but also the manners of women in general life.3 A summary of Edward Lane’s description of the Khawals is as follows4:
“As they impersonate women, their dances are exactly of the same description as those of the Ghawazee [female dancers] ... Their general appearance ... is more feminine than masculine: they suffer the hair of the head to grow long, and generally braid it, in the manner of women ... they imitate the women also in applying kohl and henna to their eyes and hands like women. In the streets, when not engaged in dancing, they often veil their faces; not from shame, but merely to affect the manners of women.”
The Khawals were often preferred over Ghawazees even when the ban did not exist and would dance in front of the house or in its court, on occasion of marriage, child birth, circumcision and other public festivals.3 Some noted names of those days were Hasan el Belbeissi (who Gustave Flaubert has described to be better than Kuchek Hanem and Bambeh Kusher)5 and Hussein Foad. Some Khawals like Ahmed El Fakir even continued being dance teachers well into the late 20th century.3
Sexuality and sexual practice by default get entwined in such a situation almost in an unsaid destined pattern. Many Europeans travelers have accounted how this act of “a male impersonating a female”, was considered alluring by natives, which either fascinated or disgusted them, and also made them associate the East with a more “sexual, primitive” culture since it did not comply with the then European Worldview of male and female dichotomy.6 These Khawals were also considered available sexually as a passive agent.
A simultaneous culture that was existent in Ottoman Turkey were Köçek, the dancing boys. These were coming of the age boys (who hadn’t developed male sexual characters like facial hair). These boys were so desired that they were auctioned; with highest bidder getting opportunity to have the boy as his passive agent. Quoting from “Dancing Fear and Desire” by Stavros Stavrou Karayanni7:
“Many Istanbul meyhanes (nighttime taverns) hired köçeks. Before starting their performance, the köçek danced among the spectators, to make them more excited. In the audience, competition for their attention often caused commotions and altercations. Men would go wild, breaking their glasses, shouting themselves voiceless, or fighting and sometimes killing each other vying for the opportunity to rape, molest, or otherwise force the children into sexual servitude.”
Let’s take a huge leap to contemporary India and being a male belly dancer in terms of dance movement aesthetics, dressing, sex and sexuality, where you will observe reminiscence of above ideologies. There is a particular instance I would state, as two of my colleagues faced the same. A seemingly decent gentleman approached me with a desire to want to learn belly dance due to unavailability of teachers in his proclaimed small town. I did consider helping this supposedly helpless chap until he asked me for video of my dance with a close up of my navel or just photos of my navel. As you would expect the next task was cutting him off right away. My male peers have also received requests of sexual favors. But those numbers are nothing compared to the times of being called out publicly in video comments with words that imply a particular sex, sexuality or sexual preference. They are also called out for feminine dance aesthetics and female pattern dress like wearing skirts. However, on other hand these same feminine aesthetics and dressings are largely celebrated too in the comments. There are even instances where male dancers are preferred over female dancers.
Two issues which are not spoken about but I would like to highlight, as all my peers have faced it; is the negativity received from two communities the readers of this article would not have expected. In the gay community, masculinity is revered and certain significantly large group of individuals do not wish to be associated with male belly dancers because of their own personal insecurities of being ‘revealed’. Second is the dance community from where I have received unsolicited advises as to what to wear as a “male dancer” or certain male Egyptian Folklore teachers explaining that men dance a certain way.
Now that we have touched upon topics about hypermasculinity and folklore troupes, let’s discuss in at length. My experience with female folklore troupe dancer teachers and contemporary male folklore troupe dancers has been very pleasant with me having a great freedom in their classes. However, in the formative years of the troupe, there was a running theme of “developing a hypermasculine dance style”, as Dr Anthony Shay puts it in his very famous book, “When Men Dance”, a phenomenon that did not just exist in Egypt. Individual choreographers and government agencies made attempts to create “proper’ image for dancing male bodies which was catalyzed by pressures from colonial administrations and post-colonial Westernized elites and middle class. In Egypt, this was further channelized by the Soviet Influence (where homosexuality is a taboo and male/female dichotomy is strongly evident).8 However, within social dancing especially in Cairo the dichotomy is not so strong with a significant overlap especially the hip sways and other movements. These ideologies of “men dance a certain way”, till date permeates the Egyptian society. Though far less now with male dancers dancing the “way they want” in clothes they like, have started to become an occurrence at weddings,9 cabaret stages and hotels10.
To conclude being a dancing male is a huge subject of external interrogation and expectations, which one requires a strong will to overcome but once done you get to dance the way you want to express, and nothing is more important than that.
2. Heather D Ward (2018). Egyptian Belly Dance in Transition. p. 52-54.
3. Dr. Magda Saleh (1979). A documentation of the ethnic dance traditions of the Arab Republic of Egypt. PhD dissertation. p. 124-131.
4. Edward W. Lane (1836). Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians. p. 376-377.
5. Gustave Flaubert (1926). Oeuvres Completes, Notes de Voyages Italie-Egypte-Palestine-Rhodes.
6. Joseph A. Boone (2014). The Homoerotics of Orientalism. p. 188.
7. Stavros Stavrou Karayanni (2006). Dancing Fear & Desire: Race, Sexuality and Imperial Politics in Middle Eastern Dance. p. 78–83.
8. When Men Dance. Dr Anthony Shay; Jennifer Fisher (2009). p. 324-326.
- By Dr. Akshay Susvirkar
MBBS, Seth GS Medical College and KEM Hospital, Parel, Mumbai.
MD Dermatology and Venerology,
Topiwala National medical College and BYL
Nair Charitable Hospital,
Mumbai Central, Mumbai.