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The History of Male Belly Dancing
This type of dance, which for those who are curious and surprised are actually male belly dancers, has a curious history associated with culture, subjugation and the usual hatred and prejudice that we read about more often. Collecting documents on male belly dancing, as it stands, is sparse and tedious, as most is anecdotal and mostly current – although we do see ancient Egyptian tombs with paintings – examples here showing people in the postures commonly done in belly dancing (although we’re not sure , whether they are actually male).
However, theoretically speaking, we can always assume that the dance itself must have started in unrecorded time when people – old, young, men and women alike would gather together to celebrate events and even ordinary events in their lives. People then, like most of us today, could find a way to physically express their joy and other emotions that could very well be expressed in a more authentic way in dance. Feasts, with accompanying feasts, had to be continued periodically so that traditions could develop from them in time.
These traditions, including those of male belly dancing, continued to flourish for many, many years as everyone in society participated in the dance. We recognize here the origins of folk dance, one of whose roots is belly dance. People from the Middle East and Africa, where belly dancing originated, apparently don’t see much of a problem with men belly dancing in modern times, as long as they do it in a “folk” style.
And the existing documents show that the men do a belly dance that may come out of folk dances, or what is called in Arabic “Raqs Balad”. Men’s belly dancing is most historically known in Turkey. Throughout the long history of the Ottoman Empire, “rakkis” or belly dancers satisfied Ottoman men’s need to look at something visually artistic and pleasing – as women were generally not around in social and entertainment life. A raki can be a “kocek (or kocheks)” or a “self oghlan”, most of which, even to this day, can be seen during Ramadan.
Koceks, who usually wore women’s clothing and had long, flowing hair, were described as: “young boys who were sensitive, attractive, feminine, and carefully trained in music and dance. Their dance was sexually provocative and mirrored that of female dancers. It included a woman-like walk, finger tapping (a special two-handed finger snap), slow belly movements, suggestive gestures, acrobatics and playing wooden clappers called kalparas or, later, metal cymbals called zils. The boys danced as long as they stayed. He looked good and could hide his beard. .Boy dancers were an acceptable substitute for the banned female dancers.They fell into relative obscurity after they were officially banned in 1856.
Latan Olan (“Rabbit Boy”) usually wears “charming little hats” and “tight pants,” which historians note may have come from the islands of the Aegean and Marmara region. Most also worked as bartenders in meyhans (traditional restaurants serving hor d’oeuvres – meze – and the Turkish drink – raki -).
The presence of belly dancers in those historical periods reflects Turkish society when men and women were strictly segregated and where men dominated all aspects of life. Even celebrations, including weddings, have separate functions for men and women, so these belly dancers easily supplied what was missing and missed.
However, the records also show that male belly dancers did in fact enter the public consciousness in the US, although for one reason or another the press at the time largely ignored them. They were at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, where the Egyptian and Syrian pavilions featured male belly dancers – read this online article for more information about it, including a picture.
Turkish male belly dancers also had their counterparts in Egypt, where they remained until the mid-19th century. WE Lane’s Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians and Gustave Flaubert’s Travels in Egypt describe these dancers at length.
Art, fortunately, survived to some extent. Nowadays, male belly dancers are popular – you can even hire them for bridal showers – see here – because they can be relied upon to put on more tasteful, less intimidating, exotic-looking performances where women of all ages can join in. YouTube contains some interesting videos, apparently among the best in their art.
Secondary materials for this article were collected from:
1) “Belly Dance: It’s Not Just for Women (And Never Was)” by Tariq Sultan
3) Jasmine Halal’s “Male Belly Dance”
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