Recently I was fortunate enough to have a new student attend my belly dance class. In the nearly seven years that I have been teaching, it was only the second time that a male student had attended my class. I have taught demonstration workshops for various organizations or events where men participated, but only once before did a man attend one of my regular classes.
The first time was in Anchorage, and the "student" was a poor, unsuspecting fellow who had agreed to give his sister a ride to and from class. I told him that I don't allow spectators in class, so he would have to participate. As the studio was located in a strip mall where most of the shops were closed and there were no nearby restaurants to take refuge in, he was a good sport and took the class - hip scarf and all. He apparently had a good time and found portions of the class physically challenging, as do most people, but he never returned. Probably lost the address, I figured.
This time the student showed up voluntarily. Although there was no differential treatment given to him by me or the other students, I couldn't help but tell him at the end of class how unique it is to have a male student. Most men assume the dance is for women only, when in fact it is a universal dance - traditionally both sexes belly dance, and the movements are "body-friendly" enough that all ages and sizes can do it. One of Juneau's matron saints of belly dance is Morocco, who is over 60 and still outdances most of the students attending her workshops when she is in town!
Morocco's long-time dance partner is known by his performance name, Tarik Sultan. He is one of a handful of well-known American male belly dancers. Others include Jim Boz, Sharif, and Zorba. That most of these dancers live in California should perhaps come as no surprise! Tarik happens to be a dedicated New Yorker and has the sass and attitude to prove it. Decked out in all of the glitzy beadwork of cabaret-style costumes, his athleticism and approach to the dance is nevertheless very masculine - though he uses the same movements as a female dancer.
As with any style of dance, be it the casual styles done in a nightclub, or those with specific origins such as salsa, two-step, or even contra, the same movements executed by different genders take on very different looks. The same is true for belly dance, yet there is a stigma about men belly dancing in our culture. Search on YouTube for male belly dancers and you'll find several videos of Middle Eastern men performing. A look at dance documentaries such as "Latcho Drom" by Tony Gatlif or "Dances of North Africa" by Aisha Ali shows that men traditionally dance just as women do, though sometimes the sexes are segregated and at other times everyone dances together.
Many new students, as well as beginners who take workshops, comment on how much more strength and coordination belly dance requires than they had previously thought. Despite the unspoken taboo against men belly dancing in our culture, it might be more athletically challenging (and fun) than many assume. And just like at the night club, we ladies will continue to enjoy dancing with or without you!
Samia Savell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.