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It's Hard Out Here for a Male Belly Dancer

Men who have the urge to sashay around in colorful dresses while shaking their bellies and balls on stage are in for an uphill battle.

Photo courtesy of Zorba, "the Veiled Male"

A few years back, a young man walked into a dance studio in the northern Chinese city of Taiyuan and started offering belly dancing lessons to women. The turnout was respectable, but the reaction from some of the town’s other residents was chillier. Male belly dancers are rare in China—as in the rest of the world—and word spread about the man with the sexy dance in Taiyuan all the way to the offices of the People’s Daily in Beijing, which last year sent a photographer to shoot a spread on the nameless instructor. The photos lingered on the man’s bare, toned midriff, his shirt tied above his ribs, and his pants sagging down to reveal the ‘V’ of his upper crotch region. Although the captions were positive and praised the dancer’s elegance and joy, the underlying message was loud and clear: This is odd. This deserves to be photographed, because this is not just a man doing some general activity that’s traditionally feminine—it’s a man doing a dance specifically designed for women.

Andrus Ramir

That’s the traditional way of thinking, at least. When most people think of belly dancing they think of hippy, busty women with dangling jewelry shimmying and sashaying. To the layman’s basic and tired understanding, says Miami-based male belly dancer Andrus Ramir, “It’s made for women who are beautiful and have great bodies.” So it would be illogical—or at least physically impractical—for men to participate. Even within the dance community, there are many who see belly dancing as a sphere that should belong solely to women. Some believe it stems from ancient birthing rituals (without much evidence), some believe it requires an inherent feminine energy that the essentially warlike and less sensitive average man does not possess, and some just believe that it’s necessary to have creative spaces and art forms where women can interact and collaborate strictly with other women. No boys allowed.

Yet there are male belly dancers in this world. There have been for quite some time, and there are more and more of them experimenting with their first hip thrust every day. And according to Tarik Sultan, New York City’s own and only professional performing male belly dancer, if anyone thinks otherwise, it’s because the kind of belly dancing that was popularized all over the world was an especially limited and objectifying sort. “The version we know comes from the 1920s and 30s nightclubs of Cairo,” says Sultan. “They had a mostly male clientele, and so they naturally wanted to see women.” As the nightclub dance spread, it carried with it the expectation of and demand for solely female dancers and helped create a field more dominated by women than might have been the norm if audiences had been introduced to another tradition.

Even as the world of belly dancing has evolved—incorporating new styles, interacting with and learning from dancers coming from vastly different cultures and histories, and inventing a bit of its own Western tradition—the belief that it’s a woman’s realm never faded. The belly dancing forums on sites like bhuz.com are filled with tales of surprise, confusion, and frustration from women encountering male dancers and men trying and failing to break into the world. The men talk about their fear of being pegged as feminine when they want to retain their masculine identities. They talk about the snickering and shaming of audiences who assume they’re some kind of joke. One male dancer going by the handle “Zorba” writes of feeling like he was invading some kind of feminine refuge, where not even the trained and professional teachers felt comfortable with him.

For Ramir, when he was just starting out a decade ago, this meant he was turned away by the instructors and the registrar when he tried to sign up for a belly-dancing class at his local community college. They felt his presence would be too uncomfortable for all the women in the class. He was rejected from several other introductory classes before he finally found a studio that was willing to entertain the thought of his hips moving alongside theirs.

Photo of Zorba by Carl Sermon

To Ramir, Sultan, and others this feels like being locked out of something that should be accessible to everyone. In Sultan’s interpretation, belly dancing started as a social dance in which men and women alike participated for the love of music and the expression of pure joy. That’s how Ramir got into belly dancing as well—during high school, he got swept up in it and decided to pursue the dance out of simple fascination and passion. It was only by chance that he discovered other men were doing the same thing.

Physically, there’s nothing stopping a man from learning to dance alongside women and performing publicly with equal skill and talent. The variations in the male body mean that certain motions will look different—narrower hips are better for pelvic thrusts than hip tucks. And in actively trying to strip away any hint of femininity from the dance, some male dancers choose to focus more on the abdominal strength, agility, and flexibility of slow, isolated movements.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Historically, there’s precedent for male belly dancers. The diehards try to argue that hieroglyphs on ancient Egyptian monuments show men shaking their hips, but the stylized and androgynous figures are ultimately unclear. The first clear evidence of male belly dancers is from the Ottoman Empire, where strict gender divisions led men to hire male dancers for their social gatherings. Koceks, as the most common of the dancers were called, worked hard to look feminine. They sometimes wore drag, grew their hair long, and were often selected from a crop of boys for their inherent androgyny and trained in what European observers viewed as highly sexualized dances from a young age. When the first bit of stubble came in they were booted out of the troupes, and in 1856 the Turks banned the male dancers entirely. Still, similar men appeared in the works of Gustave Flaubert and W.E. Lane in Egypt, and at the 1893 Chicago World Fair in the Egyptian and Syrian pavilions.

The historical examples of male belly dancers often feed into the impression that there is something definitively genderqueer about the whole affair. Writers have interpreted male belly dancing as the realm of androgyny, suppressed homosexual urges, castration, and niches for transgendered people in societies with harsh gender norms and barriers. But most of those impressions are fueled by the wide-eyed ramblings of chubby 19th-century white, elite intellectuals riding the back of colonial exoticism. So while there probably has been a good deal of overlap between belly dance and non-binary or fluid sexual identities, the notion that that’s the only way men have ever participated ought to be taken with a grain of salt.

Accept it or not, though, that’s the perception that’s trickled down to many modern-day audiences in the West and elsewhere. Hence cases like that of Mousbah Baalbaki, Lebanon’s premier male belly dancer, whose parents tried to stop him from pursuing the dance because it was seen as something not just feminine but whorish and unacceptable. And even in outwardly, self-projecting liberal cities like New York, Sultan says, “When a man comes into it, there’s a lot of anxiety amongst certain people. I guess there’s no way to sugarcoat it… there’s a lot of homophobia whenever a man enters a female-dominated field.”

Although some men want to put on a drag show and bring out the feminine aspects of themselves, many seem to find success by making sure to present themselves as masculine, straight, and dominant. A few forum writers try to justify the very existence of male belly dancers historically as patriarchal protectors who fiercely watched over the safety and purity of female dancers on stage. A number of dancers in Turkey and Egypt, where male belly dancing seems to be increasingly common, give off this sense of control. Others, like Ramir, don’t want to give the impression of masculinity or femininity. “I include many feminine moves like the shimmy,” he says, “but it’s not feminine-feminine or masculine-masculine. I think for me it’s just a style, and people get that.”

Within the American dance community, male dancers have always been present, if only in pockets and rarely in the visible foreground of public performance. As far back as the 1960s, some of the first teachers were men, like Ibrahim Farrar, an American of Lebanese descent, whose male co-teacher helped to spread the dance around. The familiarity of the dance community with men in New York and elsewhere means that, as the internet and YouTube have helped spread awareness of male belly dance, there have been clusters of studios willing to take them in. Over the past decade, that’s led to a greater presence of men as teachers, in seminars, and at festivals around the world. International awareness of male belly dancers in the Middle East and America is also softening some biases and opening up spaces like the London dance community to men.  

Photo courtesy of Zorba

But in the end, whatever openness there is within the community, male belly dancers probably account for only about one percent of dancers in America. Despite the size of the entertainment markets in Miami and New York, Ramir and Sultan don’t know of any other professional male dancers performing publicly in southern Florida or the Tri-State area. Mainstream venues like clubs, restaurants, and party planners, have been slow to pick up male dancers, meaning that unless one’s really looking, they’ll never see the few male instructors, choreographers, and hobbyists taking a class or two and performing for family and friends.

There are still a number of practical barriers on men making it as professional performers. Mainly, says Sultan, it’s just that people don’t know men can or do belly-dance. When they hear of it, he says, “they think it’s going to be a tasteless spectacle.” For a man wanting to get involved, that’s a big barrier to surmount—it took him years of networking and self-promotion to secure a niche in New York. Ramir still makes most of his money teaching rather than professionally dancing (and had to sink almost all of his free time and income into learning to dance just to reach that barrier) just because people don’t think to look for men to hire and it’s often a hard sell to club owners. And men often have to go it alone as well, since many female-dominated troupes worry about including a male dancer as any weakness in his style will draw the most attention or, some fear, confuse audiences.

Of the pool of men willing to put in the time and effort to develop their craft and aggressively market themselves to a confused and disinterested public, there’s still the barrier of self-regulation within the community on anything that’s not outwardly straight, masculine, and comfortable for mass audiences. Sultan “can count on one hand the number of negative experiences” he’s had with audiences or within the dancing community, but that’s in part because his act is all about carrying himself in an expressly masculine way and avoiding any traditionally feminine props and trappings. But anyone who wants to express more femininity, or even has a neutral style that incorporates traditionally feminine movements, is in for an uphill battle.

“Instructors do it to help you out and they try not to do it maliciously,” says Ramir, “but they do tell you to try to dress more masculine.” They also crack down on limp wrists and other traditionally homosexual or feminine movements. “You have to make sure that your image contradicts the fears a lot of people have,” says Sultan. “If you want to act gay, that’s fine, but the backlash is going to put people off.” He cautions that an overly stereotypical and feminine persona was what caused "E" and "R," New York’s one-time other male belly dancers, to fail and go home. Sultan says he once lost work at a club in the Bronx just because men felt uncomfortable with R's androgyny, and so the owner booted Sultan out as well just to avoid any future discomfort for his patrons. Needless to say, Sultan’s got an interest in perpetuating masculinity among male belly dancers within the community as well.  

For the men who want to wear their straightness and/or masculinity on their sleeves, feel confident in their ability to project masculinity while using traditionally feminine movements or props, or perform in a gender-neutral style, it’s a decent moment to get into belly dancing. The women in the dance community, say Ramir and Sultan, do their best to talk up a strong dancer and get their clients to consider taking them on. And an established dancer can pick and choose in the sparsely populated world of male belly dancing these days, and even establishing a niche within one community can be enough to sustain you. But for those who want to show some degree of femininity, genderqueer identity, or even just stress traditionally feminine moves with no other intention, it’s still next to impossible to get over the historical baggage and assumptions about belly dancing that many of people have. “They just want beautiful and tall,” says Ramir of the female stereotype people want to consume. “And I am not that.”