It Wasn’t Sexual Until White People Columbused It

Columbusing, or the art of [white people] “discovering” something [people of color do] that is not new, ought to be declared the term of 2014. It probably will in 2015, if it manages to get itself Columbused by next year. Something that did recently get Columbused is twerking. Those who only pay attention to mainstream white culture associate it with Miley Cyrus, erasing its long history among those of African descent.

As Christiana Mbakwe says in The Origins of Twerking: What It Is, What It Means, and How It Got Appropriated:

The roots of twerking are rich. Variants of the dance exist in most places where there’s a high concentration of people of African descent. Its current iteration is commonly associated with the New Orleans bounce scene, however growing up in London I immediately associate it with the Dancehall scene.

If people took the time to explore the root of what’s been dubbed as the “twerk,” they’d realise its origins lie in West Africa. It’s strikingly similar to the Mapouka dance from Côte d’Ivoire, a dance done by women that focuses on the buttocks. It’s existed for centuries.

The similarities between twerking and another dance of non-white origins gets downright eerie around here:

If we view twerking through a Western prism, we’ll interpret it as being sexual, scandalous and controversial. However when you place it in its original context you’ll realise it’s a cultural expression of joy, with its function being primarily celebratory rather than for sexual provocation. Growing up, I saw it most frequently performed during joyful occasions — family gatherings and weddings. There was nothing scandalous about it, it was simply dancing.

What happened to bellydancing is what is happening to twerking.

The origins of bellydancing can be found in women’s-only gatherings. Bellydancing and/or dancing that involves sinuous motion, with a focus on the hips and arms, is a common way that women celebrate among themselves in various Arab and Arab-influenced cultures. Its origins had little to do with titillation and everything to do with celebration.

These days, bellydancing has been so thoroughly Columbused that it’s nigh impossible to find a book or website on its history or origins that isn’t written by a white person. Most of the websites I found belonged to white women who have adopted female Arabic first names as their sole monikers.  I’d be complicit in Columbusing if I linked to any sources, so I haven’t.

That you can’t readily find an English-language history of bellydancing, i.e. about the dance when it existed outside of the knowledge of white people and was therefore the sole provenance of people of color, that is actually written by a person of color, is exactly the problem with cultural appropriation. The voices of the people whose culture originated the dance are drowned out by the blond-haired, blue-eyed “Leila”s vociferously defending their right to commodify others’ cultures for profit. That bellydancing is now widely considered an “exotic” crotch-stiffener for the male gaze is the rabbit-turd cherry adorning the steaming appropriation cow-pie.

Not helping are people like Annie Lennox, who express their disapproval of twerking by calling it “objectification.” Sexual objectification is a product of patriarchy and male privilege, not something that women bring upon themselves.

Hopefully, the pushback against the Columbusing and appropriation of twerking, as well those criticizing all the pearl-clutching over it, will ensure that its rightful history and origins don’t go the way of those of bellydancing.

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It Wasn’t Sexual Until White People Columbused It
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39 thoughts on “It Wasn’t Sexual Until White People Columbused It

  1. 2

    Speaking as a white American who is also a bellydancer, I’m guessing that you found Shira’s page (she’s the blondest I can think of among the dancers who run informative websites on their own). Shira is actually her given middle name, which she uses as a dance name. Yes, American dancers have a 40-year history of adopting a dance name: when your art so often gets confused with stripping, pseudonyms are part of protecting yourself.

    And yes, there’s a ton of fakelore out there. But the largest informative sites in English (bhuz.com and gildedserpent.com) dispel it rather than add to it. And those sites have content from many dancers, including a number who are either from the region where the dance originated, or are working there (or both). Some of our Leilas, Suhailas and Jamilas were given that name at birth: if you didn’t check their pictures, you might have missed that.

    I had to laugh at “vociferously defending their right to commodify others’ cultures for profit.” When Egyptian dancer and writer Randa Jarrar wrote her article in Salon “Why I hate white bellydancers”, the vociferous defense from American dancers was about our right to participate in an art form we find beautiful. Very few dancers in the US are making any profit. Most of us are “hobby dancers”, performing at student haflas and bellydance events for family, friends, and fellow dancers. A lot of the ethnic restaurants where American dancers performed in the 70’s are closed now. Their clientele of first-generation immigrants has aged out of circulation and the second generation has assimilated into the mainstream of US society.

    I actually agree with your statement “That bellydancing is now widely considered an “exotic” crotch-stiffener for the male gaze is the rabbit-turd cherry”. Unfortunately it’s a turd that dancers today inherited from the 1970’s, when US dancers were wearing coin-spangled bikinis and skirts slit up to the waist. Turkish dancers were wearing even less at that time though: there’s a famous publicity shot of Princess Banu in pasties, and Tulay Karaca performed in a fringe belt with no skirt at all. American dancers today argue with each other on Facebook about whether bellydance should even appear in burlesque variety shows, and there is widespread agreement that we don’t WANT people to think they are the same art. I have not seen one single dancer claim that their reason for dancing is to be that exotic crotch-stiffener, and many who go to considerable lengths to avoid that image. Check out American Tribal Style costuming for an example of going to the opposite extreme. And any video showing a dancer doing a big hip circle with her butt toward the audience is still going to draw at least one comment including the word sharmuta, even in a closed discussion group populated only by dancers.

    I’m amazed you didn’t mention that Middle Eastern men also dance, and use the same moves. There are dozens of Youtube videos from zeffas and street parties showing this, although most are labeled in Arabic. There are also men working as dancers and going to classes–not many, but the ones who are working get more pay and respect than the women. Some things don’t change much.

    Bellydancing in the US is trying to rescue its image from all the evils you mentioned. And we have hope that we can do it: hula managed it, through decades of patient work. Twerking can probably manage it too.

    1. 2.1

      Actually, I did look at the pictures in the hopes of finding an account written by a person of color and was confronted with lots of white women. I don’t remember any “Shira.”

      the vociferous defense from American dancers was about our right to participate in an art form we find beautiful.

      I find a lot of things beautiful but when they hail from a culture that’s marginalized as well as not mine, I tend to not do them. Instead, I promote those from within those cultures who do those things.

      As for men, that’s a separate issue. I was addressing the similarities between the histories and current stories of twerking and bellydancing, not giving an exhaustive overview of bellydancing past/present/future.

      I’m familiar with “American Tribal” and its name alone is problematic, not to mention everything else.

      Do you really think that hula has managed to become entirely or even mostly desexualized and decolonialized in the mainstream imagination? I don’t agree.

  2. 3

    Well, we could rehash the entire debate from Randa’s article: we have a good start on it already. It sounds like you’re saying nobody should dance with a hip scarf except people from the Middle East and North Africa. That was Randa’s position too. But even if history had played out that way, raqs sharqi would still have changed from private celebration to public paid entertainment and the sexualization we both dislike would have become part of it. Badia Masabni opened her casino and cabaret in Cairo in the 1920’s and brought this private celebratory dance to the stage with choreography and previously unseen glitz. Mahmoud Reda did the same with Egyptian folkloric dances. I assume you grant these Egyptian people the right to alter Egyptian dance?

    Your point about not stepping on a marginalized culture is a valuable one. It’s why every mention of “gypsy” in costuming and dance gets called out by actual Roma pointing out that almost nothing bearing the label gypsy resembles real Roma dance or life at all. And most American dancers do try to show respect in their dancing, whether you believe it or not. You won’t find people performing zar on a public stage, and although you can attend a workshop to learn the moves, you’ll also get the cultural context and WHY this isn’t for entertainment.

    But not every hair swing is zar. There are degrees of significance. Plenty of dancers in the Middle East are performing strictly for entertainment, and a minority is actually trolling for business (that sharmuta comment is sometimes true). Would you reserve the entire movement vocabulary of ME dance to blood descendants only? You’ll have to argue with the Tahitians then, who came up with hip 8’s independently. And I guess you’d have to take out the ummi/ami, since the Tahitians invented that and Egyptians adopted it.

    Belly dance is an evolving art form, and some of the innovations from American Cabaret style have been adopted by performers in the ME. Would you rule out sword balancing and veil wraps/reveals because they weren’t invented by Middle Easterners?

    1. 3.1

      Would you reserve the entire movement vocabulary of ME dance to blood descendants only?

      Nope. Let’s go back to something you said previously:

      Their clientele of first-generation immigrants has aged out of circulation and the second generation has assimilated into the mainstream of US society.

      Why do you think the children of immigrants assimilate? Because we are forced to lest we find ourselves in a really terrible position in society. Because when we do things that are from our heritage, we are mocked and derided and further Othered and alienated from society. White people who do those same things do not face the same treatment.

      That is ultimately my problem with appropriation, as detailed here: https://the-orbit.net/heinous/2014/08/19/cultural-appropriation/

      1. I read your article about appropriation, and I agree with you that taking up another culture’s regular life and treating it as fashion is ugly, and that treating it as a fad is worse. Nobody is well served when a cultural practice is used and discarded like Kleenex.

        I think where we differ is this: I’d like to think there is room for people to participate respectfully in the aspects of belly dance that are public and open in the Middle East. There is one dancer who is also an anthropologist doing actual ethnographic study in the region and publishing her research. I know women in the US who have spent 2 and 3 decades studying and performing. It’s not a fad for them, and they don’t wear sequined skirts to the grocery store. And as I mentioned above, these women are supporting dancers and costumers in the Middle East who would not be able to survive if the dance scene were limited to the region’s borders.

        Your view is obviously different. Thanks for taking the time to explain.

  3. 4

    Dang it, I forgot one more thing. I do think hula has become LESS colonialized and sexualized, and that this has been more successful in Hawaii than outside it. It’s a work in progress, as is the effort by American belly dancers to separate our image from strippers.

  4. 6

    Cultural appropriation is kind of a morass. It’s easy to get bogged down in details to the point of forfeiting any goal for or against much less any useful ideas along the way.

    I don’t know enough about dance to comment about that specific example so I’ll keep this general. I think the key difference with Columbusing something versus participating in it is attribution and sharing knowledge about it. This is largely the same as walking up on stage and performing a song that you pretend you wrote. This seems pretty clear to me. The gray areas pop up when you talk about cultures that don’t want any knowledge leaked to the outside world or don’t want anyone to participate in their culture who wasn’t born to it. That usually doesn’t say very good things about the culture but it also introduces the risk of the culture dying out at some point if a bigger culture engulfs it’s people. But perhaps I only see gray here due to ignorance: my culture does not have these concerns, it tends to get exported far and wide.

  5. 7

    I sold antiquarian books for a while, and one thing I still have stuck away somewhere is a scholarly book from 1909 or so published by some Ivy League professor about the “language of the hula dance.”
    I wonder how wrong it is.

  6. 10

    Seems to me we are trying to fix a point on a continuum that varies a lot among people. I think in a broad sense all dancing is sensual. Some dancing is sexual Seems to me the point of distinction would vary all over the place with some dancers feeling sensual and others feeling sexual in the very same dancing moves. Same with the viewers. As a male I have mixed feelings about viewing women dancing. At times it is simply beautiful to watch and I enjoy it. At other times uncomfortable yearning feelings arise so I look away.

    Maybe this is off topic and maybe it isn’t. I think I learned to ‘look away’ as an adolescent so as to avoid those feelings of frustration. Maybe most boys do. I don’t know any relevant research. We know that some boys react to those feelings in an aggressive manner. How do the others handle them, those who don’t take out their frustrations on the girls? Seems to me that would useful to know.

  7. 11

    Jafafa, I’d love to see that book. The date of its writing makes me think it might actually be fairly accurate, since the traditional sacred hula was still common then.

    Lanir’s point about cultures dying out is a good one. In the Middle East, the two groups with the most ancient attribution as the source of belly dance are the Ouled Nail and the Ghawazee. There are no more Ouled Nail now, and the Ghawazee are down to one lady, the last of the Banat Maazin. She’s past her sixties now and still teaching visiting foreign dancers, but she can’t perform because Egypt has become conservative to the point where nobody will hire her. If no foreigners were learning belly dance, she’d be living very badly indeed and the true Ghawazee dance would already have vanished from the world because she has no proteges in her own land–its’ not a viable business any more.

    In my comments above, zar is a trance ritual performed for spiritual reasons in small groups at home. It’s not a performance art, but some moves are also part of the dance vocabulary. Performing zar on a stage is as inappropriate as it would be to stage a Catholic mass for entertainment, but Middle Eastern dancers (including those FROM the ME) will sometimes use some of the moves.

  8. 12

    I appreciate this article and the point it makes about the problems with cultural appropriation. And I like the balance Ianir strikes in discussing the differences between participating in a cultural practice and appropriating or taking it over.

    But I think it needs to be pointed out that the title you chose for this article is incorrect. Twerking was sexualized by (some) African-Americans (as was Bouncing, to some degree) a decade before Miley Cyrus ever saw it. I’m not going to defend Miley Cyrus for a second, but it is a separate exercise in whitewashing (sorry, it fits) history to suggest that it was purely a religious or cultural activity until white people got a hold of it.

      1. Yeah, I think most activities that involve shaking your pelvis are going to be sexualized in American society pretty quickly. Perhaps that is our special contribution to the world of culture — converting everything into a sex act. 🙂

  9. 13

    I’m sorry, but I don’t understand the argument that because I’m white, I shouldn’t participate in bellydance, yoga, hula, (or anything that doesn’t have it’s roots in the USA) because it’s cultural appropriation and therefore degrading to, or taking something away from, the culture of origin.

    People can partipate in such activities without being disrespectful. There are plenty of people who love cultures that aren’t their own, and do all they can to learn about them so they can participate in an authentic and respectful way.

    When Katie Perry wore a “kimono” and did a “Japanese” dance, that was cultural appropriation because she had no freaking idea what she was doing, had no real interest in or understanding of Japanese culture, and did it solely because Japanese culture is becoming fashionable in the US. But when I put on my yukata and preform the bon-odori at my local bon matsuri, it’s for completely different reasons. I learned the bon odori from my MIL the first summer I came to Japan. It’s “natsukashii” to me, a precious memory. And yes, i do understand what each movement means, and the history behind it.

    Just because I’m white doesn’t mean that every time I do the bon odori, make hummus, practice belly dancing, or go to yoga class, I’m disrespecting someone else’s culture.

    I agree with calling people like Katie Perry and Mylie Cyrus out. What they are doing IS insulting, because they have no respect nor do they care about keeping the authentic style and meaning. But you can’t paint ALL white people with the same brush. Some of us are well aware of what cultural appropriation is, so give us some credit instead of declaring these things totally off-limits and telling us we are insulting you for wanting to get to know your culture.

    1. 13.1

      I didn’t declare anything off-limits to anyone. I didn’t say that white people doing anything from any other cultures is appropriation or taking something away from a culture. The issue with white people doing things from non-white culture is that they are hailed as innovators and praised for things that non-white people have been doing for centuries, if not millenia, as well as things for which non-white people are mocked and shamed while white people are praised. For a more fleshed-out version of this argument, see Madonna, Mount Everest, & Mehndi: On Cultural Appropriation.

      1. You write about how whites will appropriate things (an art form, method, style, or cultural artifact) originated by cultures outside their own; things that when used by the very members of the progenitor culture, will earn that member mockery and shame.

        What’s so painfully ironic here is that you Heina have appropriated the very same racist architecture originated by southern white male segregationists to fight against the “appropriation” of their regional customs by black Americans, “customs” such as a free public education.

        You are right about one thing though, you Heina can apparently not only get away with being a racist, but actually win praise for it from the public as an innovator. And what kind of reception would a white southern male garner should he attempt to “re-appropriate” your innovative mashup of old school racism? What term did you use…oh, yes, I think he’d be roundly mocked and shamed!

        Christian Hunter
        Austin, Texas

  10. 14

    As an adolescent, I was taught to avoid exotic videos that were crotch-stiffeners for the male gaze, because Jesus said it was a sin on par with adultery. But as an adult, I now have feminists instead of Calvinists telling me to be ashamed of my sexuality.

    Awesome.

      1. My fault, I suppose.

        I was under the mistaken impression that “rabbit-turd cherry” was meant to be a bad thing, in a moral sense. If you think it’s actually okay for males to gaze and enjoy, I’ve woefully misunderstood.

        1. To crassly quote myself (emphasis added):

          That bellydancing is now widely considered an “exotic” crotch-stiffener for the male gaze is the rabbit-turd cherry adorning the steaming appropriation cow-pie.

          The problem is not you, personally, Mr. Damion Reinhardt, being turned on. It’s not about any one person, man or other, really. The problem is that all bellydancing is considered is “sexy” even though it has its roots in a dance that, while sensual by all means, hardly exists merely to titillate men. This might be helpful to you in comprehending the difference between sexualization and objectification versus just desire: Feminism 101: Objectification & Sexualization vs. Sexual Desire

          1. After reading your earlier post, I’m even more confused, Heina.

            Nor is the problem that they expressed desire. Expressing desire in a way that treats the person like a full human being (or at the very least allows for the desired person to gracefully extricate themselves from the situation) is not objectification.

            It seems to me that quietly male gazing at a safe distance from the stage (even assuming a well-stiffened crotch) doesn’t fit the definition of objectification that you are using above.

            Every year the local Peace Festival has belly dancers on the stage. Some of them are sexually attractive to me (like my friend Kara) and some of them are not (like my friend Charles). Some are white, some are non-white, some are from Central Asia. The audience is a mix of men and women of all genders and orientations. No one hoots or catcalls, of course, since the Peace Festival is composed entirely of progressive activists and sympathisers.

            Now it sounds like you are saying that western belly dancing is wrong because some people find it titillating even though it was not originally intended as such. My main question here is, what’s so wrong with finding dancing titillating? Most any form of dancing can be arousing to the right audience or participants, that’s just part of human sexuality. Nothing to be ashamed about, right?

            A secondary question is whether we have to restrict ourselves to our own cultural offerings as human beings. As a Puerto Rican, I can presumably enjoy watching Evey Solara’s bailando sexy videos when the music is Reggaeton, but what if some white girl is dancing to German trance music? I’m not actually German (don’t let the adoptive name fool you) so maybe I should avert my eyes?

          2. “Earlier” post? I wrote it pretty much in response to you.

            Now it sounds like you are saying that western belly dancing is wrong because some people find it titillating even though it was not originally intended as such. My main question here is, what’s so wrong with finding dancing titillating? Most any form of dancing can be arousing to the right audience or participants, that’s just part of human sexuality. Nothing to be ashamed about, right?

            No, the problem is not with arousal. Say it again: Arousal. Is. Not. The. Problem. The problem is that people think of it solely as titillation for the hetero male gaze. The problem is that people think “ooh, that sexy thing that conventionally-attractive ladies do!” when they hear “bellydancing” to the exclusion of all the other things that make bellydancing what it is. The problem is not arousal, but the idea that something exists solely to arouse.

            It’s the same with sexualizing bellydancing as it is with objectifying individual people. If you treat someone like their primary or only reason for existing is to turn you on, you are objectifying them. If you treat bellydancing as if it merely exists as a crotch-stiffener, you are sexualizing it. Being aroused isn’t the problem. Predicating someone or something’s existence around their/its ability to arouse is the problem.

            Am I sufficiently clear now?

            And no, I don’t think people can’t enjoy things that aren’t part of their cultural heritage. That is a strawman of my argument. In my view, the trouble with appropriation is that white people get to be hailed as “innovators” for doing a thing that people of color have been doing since forever, things that people of color often can’t do lest their face racism. I wrote about it in detail in
            Madonna, Mount Everest, & Mehndi: On Cultural Appropriation.

    1. 16.1

      Tell me what you think it means in this sentence: “That bellydancing is now widely considered an “exotic” crotch-stiffener for the male gaze is the rabbit-turd cherry adorning the steaming appropriation cow-pie.”

      If it’s not about men looking at women, what is it about?

      Film criticism, perhaps?

      1. It’s about people thinking of bellydancing as nothing but women shaking it for the attention and approval of any men who are beholding it. It’s about more than individual men looking at women.

  11. 17

    “The problem is that people think of it solely as titillation for the hetero male gaze.”

    Seriously, who on Earth thinks that? I mean, did someone actually say that or write it down somewhere?

    I cannot think of *anything* (however sexualized) that appeals solely to heterosexual males. Even the most conventionally hetero pornography I’ve ever seen appeals to at least a few kinky bisexual females that I know well enough to enjoy frank and open discussion about what we find visually stimulating.

    Oh, and thanks for writing that post, by the way. Sorry, I missed the timestamp before, I was on my phone.

      1. It’s intended to appeal to the hetero male gaze. That’s what we think of it as.

        I’m very skeptical of this claim, not least because it doesn’t remotely comport with what I’ve heard from those who dance or my own lived experiences as a spectator.

        If we were talking about stripteases at topless bars, I’d simply concede the point, but we’re talking about something a fair bit more artful and significantly less erotic. If an unreconstructed dudebro like myself sees much more than mere tittilation in belly dancing, then surely society in general cannot be as monomaniacally sexual about it as you seem to believe.

      2. You’ve said that the problem is people thinking of bellydance solely as titillation. I agree that’s a problem. How would you like to see it resolved? I’m thinking educating the audience and the general public is a viable strategy, but I could easily be missing a better solution.

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