Belly Dancing Men

by Dr. Norman Stanfield ~ January 4th, 2013. Filed under: World Music Studies.

Lately I’ve rekindled my interest in frame drums. My first encounter was with the tambourine – a frame drum with some added tonal colour provided by miniature cymbals called jingles. Back then, I had decided to challenge myself by writing a high-brow academic paper about a seemingly trivial, low-brow music instrument, the tambourine. What a wonderful adventure that was. It may be trivial in the hands of Mr. Tambourine Man, but in the Middle East and the Mediterranean it is very sophisticated low tech. You can read about some of the results of this research in my blog entry entitled Ethnomusicology by and for Women.

A few weeks ago I encountered a frame drum that was new to me. It was massive – perhaps the bass drum of the frame drum world.  Although normally played while holding it in an upright manner, a brilliant frame drummer percussionist named Glenn Velez devised a new ergonomic model of playing with the drum resting on the knee. Regardless of the playing position, the frame drum, called daf, tar, deff, duff, shares the same musical vocabulary as the doumbek and other Middle Eastern drums (and even South Asian drums).

As I marvelled at the drum, I asked myself, “Where do the players play this drum?” That question led me to belly dance. Suddenly I had a perfect point of discussion and debate for my teaching module on ethnochoreology, presented in my course entitled Introduction to the Study of World Music.

Dance of the belly

“Belly” is a crude way of describing the muscles of the hips and intercostal muscles (i.e., the belly, aka the six-pack), that “dance” to the rhythmic beat, instead of the feet. Whereas many choreographies outline geometric patterns on a stage, ice rink, swimming pool or whatever, by travelling through space in a forward or backward motion, mobility in belly dance is virtually non-existent. It shares many of the same “hip” movements as hula dance, but the mimesis of the hands is very different. In hula, the fluid gestures tell a story; in belly dance they simply outline an arabesque around and above the body, enhancing the shimmer and beats of the hips and stomach. Oddly enough, belly dance seems to share some of the same body choreographies gestures as bhangra. And its relatively stationary dance location resembles hip hop!

The history of belly dance is fraught with Orientalism, as evidenced by the term, “belly” (actually derived from the French la danse du ventre). One has to look past the sometimes dark moments of Oriental Othering (while acknowledging that they happened) and see the modern hybrids and historical re-enactments that have arisen. There are roughly two camps of belly dance,  approximately categorized as Raqs Sharqi, the hypersexualized cabaret style originally from Egypt that eventually became the most prominent form of Western belly dance, and Raqs Baladi (or Beledi), the vernacular (aka folk) version that de-emphasizes the hypersexuality while maintaining the essence of the motions. Baladi  is fully participatory, with all dancers welcome on the dance floor, while Sharqi is strictly presentational. The prominent element of hypersexuality in Sharqi has been transformed by many women into an exploration and discovery of sexuality and sensuality, completely inverting the dominant male gaze into pro-active Third Wave Feminism. Some Westerners and Middle Eastern male dancers have created a hybrid of both styles, using the modest dress of Baladi with the presentational aspect of Sharqi.

What particularly interests me is the fact that Baladi is also the kind of belly dance that is the common to the Middle Eastern everyman, and everywoman, at celebrations like weddings and parties. In most Middle Eastern countries, the gender differences are highlighted because both genders rarely dance together, not because of any interest in hypersexuality. Men dance in the company of men; women ibid, even if the opposite sex is present, simply watching and admiring. This form of belly dance is difficult to research, no doubt because it is of limited interest to the West and its fascination with Sharqi.

Frame Drums

I discovered that frame drums are commonly used to accompany belly dance. They perform this unusual accompaniment role by utilizing the rich and complex vocabulary of Middle Eastern Rhythmic modes.  These modes consist of additive metres as long as 10 or more beats of sound and silence, consisting of smaller units of twos and threes that are made richer with breath-taking improvisation, even to the point of disguising the beats. The rhythm of the dancer and the drummer is a tour de force of unison and layered rhythms.  Imagine a familiar dance, such as waltz or salsa, with only the accompaniment of percussion? Perhaps a crazy idea, but I think very intriguing. That is not to say that melody instruments do not join in the fun of Belly Dance, only that they are equal partners, and even ancillary at times.

Dancing Male Bellies

So having determined that the frame drum accompanies belly dance, is a performer restricted to accompanying females? For some men that might seem like heaven, and for women players, it must seem liberating. But, the answer is “no”.

Male belly dance – the outermost region of acceptability for many heterosexual men. Homosexual males have a long history of belly dance in the Turkish courts, but after much poking around, one discovers that Middle Eastern heterosexual guys from every walk of life, from soldiers to taxi drivers, are also comfortable dancing with their hips and bellies. This casual, participatory style is in addition to the male versions of hypersexual Sarqi which is a major hit in some cabarets and restaurants (including Greek restaurants!) around the world and in Vancouver. Given the hybrid form of belly dance performed by both men and women, abroad and in the Middle East, the distinction between homosexual and heterosexual presentation is blurred to the point of unidentifiable.  A six-pack is a six-pack, regardless of gender preference.

Male versus Female Bellies

So the next question posed is this. Is there a mimesis of gestures that are distinctly male, in opposition to female gestures? The answer appears to be “yes”, as seen in the video instructional entitled Learn the Art of Male Belly Dance, by Wesley Gomes. Although the beat is still highlighted by the hips, the gestures are masculine, although subtly so.

Still, Mr. Gomes is in the business of presentation. Is there a male form of social Baladi that avoids hypersexuality? According to an un-named informant, there is.

YouTube Preview Image

So could a male Physical Education, sorry Human Kinetics instructor in a high school, introduce belly dance to a mixed class? Could there be a club at university devoted to convivial belly dance performed by both sexes. Given that the dance form does not involve couples, would it would resemble a typical free-for-all of a downtown club? Probably not in my lifetime.

This entire discussion does not take into account the wishes and needs of Muslims from the Middle East which is another, far more complicated and necessary investigation for another day.


Jennifer Fisher and Anthony Shay, editors (2009) When Men Dance: Choreographing masculinities across borders

Anthony Shay, Barbara Sellers-Young, editors (2005) Orientalism, transnationalism, and harem fantasy

Stavros Stavrou Karayanni (2004) Dancing Fear and Desire: Race, Sexuality, and Imperial Politics in Middle Eastern Dance

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