There is a surge in popularity of male belly dancing in parts of the world where the belly dance and the traditions of belly dance by females have only comparatively recently become accepted as a source of entertainment or exercise.
Also a resurgence of male dance is seen in Middle Eastern countries where the dance has its roots in ancient history. It is especially so in Turkey and also in Egypt, where its centuries old tradition of male belly dance is making a comeback after recent years of suppression by government and religious officials because of its connection, in some instances, to homosexuality, against the law in Egypt.
That is what is happening today. But contrary to some beliefs, in the Middle East, there is a long history of appreciation and enjoyment by the male population for male belly dancing. This is because for many centuries the segregation of men and women has been the custom, where, beyond the confines of the home, it was considered improper for women to entertain or dance in the presence of men. And so it was left instead to the female impersonators, men, who acted and danced in the ways that women would normally have done for the entertainment of a solely male audience
That in some ways is similar to Shakespearean times in England, and perhaps elsewhere, where women were banned from performing on the theatre stage, the result being that female parts in plays were acted by boys, while they still had their higher pitched voices.
Turkey has a long history of male dancers as entertainers in the courts of the Sultans during several hundred years of the Ottoman Empire. In other Middle Eastern countries there was also a tradition of men cross-dressing to pass as women, wearing female clothing and performing in female dance styles, in Arabia, Egypt, Persia, Syria, Turkey, where they were known variously as Qawaal, Hawaal, Batcha, Cengi, and Kojac. These, sometimes effeminate, dancers may have wanted to persuade their audiences that they really were females!
Some unusual tales have been told of life in the harems of the Ottoman Empire, mentioned above, where male eunuchs were there to guard the ladies of the harem , of which there were sometimes as many as several hundred in number. The eunuchs often cross-dressed as women and danced for the entertainment and pleasure of the harem ladies and it has been said that the eunuchs did engage in other “illicit” activities with the harem ladies – but that is another story.
There have been times during the Ottoman Empire when troupes of male dancers gained such great popularity and audience support that the actions of some overly vigorous supporters led to riotous behavior which eventually got so out-of-hand it became necessary to suspend all male belly dance performances. Finally, Turkey officially banned male belly dance activities in the mid 19th century.
There is a difference, of course, in male dancers who are cross-dressing and acting as females and the male dancers who dance as male dancers. As has been said by one male professional: “We are “Straight males who consider the belly dance as just another art form.”
The female body shape with its softer curves is more aesthetically pleasing than is that of the male body, requiring the latter to adopt a different approach to the dance.
The male dancers have developed their own styles and movements more suited to the male body construction and musculature, taking into account and projecting their masculinity, flexibility, physical strength, bringing a male athleticism to the traditional belly dance form. And the male dancers will often use props such as swords and batons/ sticks.
From some conservative voices there is objection and criticism of male belly dancing but society is becoming more tolerant with the result that belly dancing as a profession is actually expanding and in some areas, business is thriving, representing a reversal of the customary roles in the equality of the sexes.
Some interesting comments were expressed by Jamil, a professional belly dancer from Australia, saying that the life of a male belly dancer is not always easy, they have to put up with a lot of unpleasantness from some quarters. And there can be a lack of appreciation for their artistry when their own interpretations and expressions of passion and emotion do not match a viewer’s preconceived notion of the belly dance as a sensuous and erotic dance performed best by females.
But now the male belly dance is back and growing stronger every year, in the United States, in Latin America, in Egypt, in Turkey, in Australia, and elsewhere. With move less subtle and tender than the female dancers, the male belly dance evolves with routines more suited to the male body as its performers interpret, still gracefully, the music of the dance.