Gothic Belly Dance: Tattoos, Piercings, and the Female Ideal

Posted by Kelly Gardner on December 22, 2010 in Blog tagged with , , ,

The origins of Belly Dance are debatable, with many cultures claiming it as their own.  It is widely agreed that regardless of country, the dance emerged as a celebration of femininity and fertility.  The dance was used primarily as preparation for childbirth; the undulating torso movements and muscle control of the abdominals and pelvic floor were used to strengthen the reproductive organs of the dancers. Performed by women, for women, Belly Dance originated as a dance form that celebrated the natural movements of a woman’s body, and her ability to produce life. It was a symbolic gesture towards the ultimate Goddess Mother and thus first appeared as a form of worship.

Symbolic meaning and the worshipping of femininity are a far cry from entertainment that Belly Dance has become today. This is not normally due to abilities of the performers, but rather the expectations of the audience.  What the audience want is entertainment, sexy women in sparkling costumes and a lot of body shaking. Belly Dance has moved away from the celebration of femininity and has ultimately become a form of male profanation.

It is at this divergence that we see the form of Gothic Belly Dance emerging. Gothic Belly Dance, or GBD, is a response to the overly sexualized, modern interpretation of Belly Dance and attempts to re-imbue Belly Dance with symbolic meaning. The emergence of GBD is a return to the story telling aspect of Belly Dance and ultimately a return to the celebration of Femininity and worship of the Divine Goddess.

GBD falls into the “fusion” category of Belly Dance and can be differentiated from more original forms by its style of costuming, musical arrangements and most importantly, the intention of the dancer. GBD, much the same as the Gothic subculture, appeals to those individuals bordering the peripheries of society. The dance style offers the chance for women who do not fit the expected Belly Dancer ideal, the opportunity to learn and perform in an environment that welcomes them and celebrates their alternative individuality. While most Belly Dancing studios advertise their dance form as being one that embraces all types of women, those intending to pursue a professional career as a performer will have to fit a certain mould in order to acquire frequent performance opportunities.  GBD can be described as an insurgence against this sexualized ideal and is therefore an attractive form of self-expression for the dancers that find themselves on the margins of the belly dance community. The awkward, the plumper, the tattooed, the strange and the unaccepted are ultimately drawn to GBD, as it becomes a rebellion against what would be traditionally expected as Belly Dance.

Gothic belly dancers do not fit the mould of the aesthetically appealing belly dancer; they are no longer appealing to male desire, but rather to their own need of self-acceptance. This new subgenre of Belly Dance accepts all dancers as possible performers of the art. Stick thin girls and overweight women who were once overlooked and sidelined by the curvaceous and sexier, are now given a stage of their own.

GBD has received wide spread criticism from loyalists to the traditional dance form.  A particular example was a performance by a well-known Gothic Belly Dancer named Sashi. At a yearly dancing festival that celebrates predominantly Gothic and Tribal Belly Dance, Sashi performed a “Pierced Wings” dance, inspired by the Tribal Hindu Thaipusam Festivals of Malaysia. As she describes in the description of her YouTube documented performance, “Kavadi frames, cheek and tongue spears are worn in trance-like states to honour Lord Muruga while seeking penance for themselves and their community”. Prior to the performance, Sashi endured twelve 12-gauge needles being pierced into the skin on her upper back and connected to a steel wing framework. Her six and a half minute dance routine sees her expertly performing a GBD piece while the pierced frame, held in place by a sturdy neck piece, moves gracefully with her throughout her movements.

The reaction to this piece was divided between those who understood Sashi’s concept and those who blatantly misunderstood. Belly Dance forums were rife with critical commentary with many disregarding it as purely “shock-value”. The Gilded Serpent, an online resource for Middle Eastern Dance, featured various articles entitled, “Sashi-kabob” and “Weird and Beyond”, criticising Sashi’s performance and many were left questioning the connection made between body modification and Belly Dance. In response to these criticisms, Sashi posted an article in which she attempted to justify her performance stating, “because our Tribal Fusion Belly dance community is so heavily influenced by the aspects of “Tribalism”, which includes a strong identity to the ideals of open, egalitarian and cooperative community, I felt that my piece would be appropriately understood within the paradigm of our Tribal community.” Following this, Sashi asserts that her performance was never meant to be perceived in a Cabaret capacity and that it was supposed to demonstrate the appropriation of Tribal and cultural elements into today’s modernized form of “Tribal” Belly Dance. The pierced wings were intended to represent the burdens or “kavadi” that individuals bear when showing devotion to Lord Muruga, a Hindu deity. One needs to take into consideration Sashi’s intention before criticizing the dance piece. She has sacrificed elegant dancing with the bearing of her burden and presents the audience with a true representation of The Tribal Hindu Thaipusam Festival in Belly Dance format. Sashi’s controversial performance is only one example of the highly criticized Gothic Belly Dance emergence, which despite widespread criticism, had been developing and growing steadily for the past ten years.

Belly Dance puritans might never accept Gothic Belly Dance as part of the grander Belly Dance scheme and society, but their own exclusivity inspired the emergence of it as a subculture and the trend shows no sign of fading any time soon.

Gothic Belly Dance, a response to today’s overly sexualized objectification of women, or an expressive “Shock-Value” outlet for the beautiful freaks?

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