Last night, I attended Project Shimmy at the Broach Theater in downtown Greensboro to benefit Triad Health Project, a non-profit AIDS education and HIV prevention organization. The event was a world dance display from North Carolina dance troupes. Belly dancers dominated the evening, and most participants were professional or semiprofessional performers.
It was refreshing to see very normal-sized women; meaning, fleshy, rubenesque ladies – some in their mid 40s or older – gloriously owning the stage and the moment. No offense to the skinnier performers, but small girls did not captivate like the plump ones. To be a good belly dancer necessitates a well-endowed woman. The required movements beg for hips, bum, and breasts, although it is not about sex. It is a celebration of pure sensuality (there is a difference between that and sex). The art form is an acknowledgment of the female shape. Of course, there was Xavier, the not-so-skinny male performer, who wiggled with the best of them. He embodied the magic of belly dancing – it is about owning the power of your body.
I know a few things about belly dancing having lived in the Arab world, although I cannot profess particular grace with my own shimmy. Traditional belly dancing varies by region, and the scantily clad dancer is a recent, westernized representation (recent meaning it emerged with Western colonialism, and the I Dream of Jeannie version has gone global). One can see bikinied dancers in the Arab world, but the more traditional dancers rarely show that much skin. In addition, they are rarely skinny.
American dance studios are offering more Middle Eastern, Indian and African oriented classes (although Indian and African dance forms are distinct and not related to belly dancing in their pure form). Gyms occasionally have belly dancing fitness programs. Many women who adopt the wiggle use it as a way to tap into their sensuality and embrace a new comfort level with their bodies. It is intriguing that American women seek out an art form from a culture that many perceive as having no sensuality, and one where women’s bodies are subjected to the Western gaze because of the veil.
However, let me reassure you, veiled women can dance, and they do so from a young age and in the privacy of women’s spaces. Belly dancing is a celebratory endeavor that occurs at weddings, engagements, parties, and any social occasion celebrating femalehood. Girls mimic the moves from a very young age –some do it well – and sensuality abounds in these sacred spaces of the shimmy. Despite stereotypes that Muslim women are sexless and oppressed, those who master belly dancing may know more about female power than their half-naked American counterparts.
The Westernized, airbrushed woman is sadly becoming the global standard of beauty. The desire to be thin, fair, and flawless is apparent by skin lightening creams on Indian store shelves, and in the increase of plastic surgery in the Middle East (from hymen replacement to nose jobs). The female body is literally diminished and reconstructed within the popular perceptions of sensuality, attractiveness, and self-worth. To be smaller, thinner, and frail is considered beautiful. How is that powerful? What good are our hips if contorted not to be womanly at all?
Thinness is rhetoric many American women find tiring, and I am one of them. Mad Men’s voluptuous Christine Hendrix is providing a more vivacious and obtainable idea of female measurements. She is rumored to be a size 12 or 14, and had a hard time finding an outfit for the Emmy awards because designers primarily loan out size 0 or size 2 dresses. That did not stop Esquire from voting her the 2010 Sexiest Woman in the World (making it all about men rather than her acting talent, but still an accomplishment for rotund women everywhere).
Then, there was last night, where I saw a group of beautiful women gloriously owning their size 14 and size 16 hips with unapologetic vigor and power. It was stunning and the way women are supposed to look. You know what? Real women do not look bad at all. Women who celebrate their authentic bodies are queens bees, for has not the weight of the world always rested upon the beautiful slope of a well-proportioned hip?
So, get up girls, and shake that booty.