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Are We Losing Our Essence to the Mainstream?

by Taaj

When I first started dancing nine years ago, there weren't many places to find costumes. Workshops were a rare and special treat. Videos were available but high priced. Shows were virtually non-existent and the audience was almost solely populated by other dancers. Most people I knew had never seen a belly dancer. Those who wanted it had to seek it out.

Belly dance attracted so many women to it because you didn't have to start as a child to be accomplished at it. You didn't have to be wafer thin to look good doing it. It had the power to enhance self-esteem. It helped dancers connect to their inner feelings, their femininity and each other. It could be a bonding experience and a celebration of real womanhood, not some unattainable ideal. As we reach the mainstream, all that seems to have taken a back seat.

Now people flock to it to learn how to shake it like Shakira. Hakim and Belly Dance Super Stars have brought the dance to the masses and now it's rare to meet someone who has not at least seen a belly dancer on tv. Multiple restaurants have dancing. The audience is mainly the general public. Instructional videos can be bought at Walmart for $19.99, and classes can be routinely found in dance studios, YWCAs, recreation centers, and yoga studios. It's a booming business, but there are some drawbacks. I see the commercialization and mainstreaming of belly dance eroding away some of what attracts women to the dance.

As a teacher, my job is to provide technical, cultural and historical instruction. I nurture the student so that she feels comfortable expressing her art and feelings in the style that fits her. As a talent agent, my job is to provide the client with the type of entertainment that she desires. This is where the conflict begins.

More and more I get calls where the client asks three things: how old is the dancer, is she pretty, and how much does she weigh? There is no getting around it. The market wants young, thin, attractive talent. If she looks Middle Eastern, that's even better. They never ask, "Is she a good dancer?"

I understand the reality of business, but how am I supposed to go back to my student and say, "Sorry sister. You can't dance with us this time because you're too fat, not pretty enough or are too old"? That flies in the face of all we are taught to believe about belly dance being good for the soul. I like that there is a place in the world where women can go without fear of being judged for their looks, age, or ability. The mainstreaming of belly dance has opened a lot of doors, but I hope that being popular never means that we sacrifice our acceptance and respect for womanhood in all its glory. What a shame that would be.

Taaj started dancing in 1996 and teaching and dancing professionally in 1997. During that time, her troupe performed at every major festival in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia. In 2000, Taaj was offered a chance to dance in Egypt and accepted. When she returned, she dedicated herself full time to developing her students as soloists and they started competing.

From 2002 to 2007, her students won 46 trophies from competitions in 4 states. In 2007, Taaj took the knowledge gained from coaching those students and turned it into the Belly Dance Trainer Certification Program so that she could share her award-winning techniques with others.