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That night 'Abdi Jan's troupe had been called so that the harem occupants could watch the show. Of course, you remember 'Abdi well. Let me, nonetheless, give you a description of his looks. He was a lad of about twelve or thirteen, with large black eyes, languid and incredibly beautiful and attractive. His face was tanned and good-looking, his lips crimson, and his hair black and thick. Renowned throughout the town, the boy had a thousand adoring lovers. Being a dancer, however, he was unworthy of being anyone's beloved. (Taj Al-Sultana 1993: 163)


Taraninii, "Male Dancer" 470 BC
Tomb of the Triclinium
  Within this quotation the reader may find a rich description of the historical, and even the contemporary, Middle Eastern attitude toward dance and male dancers in particular, one of the few actually penned from a native point of view. 1 This essay will address that attitude, but more importantly in this article I directly challenge several cherished, long-held assumptions and theoretical stances expressed by many individuals from native elites and Westerners interested in Middle Eastern dance and dancers. First, I specifically address the attitude that raqs sharqi, belly dancing and other forms of Middle Eastern dance such as solo improvised dance in the Iranian world,

Turkey, and Central Asia constitute an exclusively, or even primarily, a female form of cultural expression. 2 Rather, I will attempt to recuperate raqs sharqi/solo improvised dance/raqs baladi (dance of the people or dance of countryside) as a dance genre per se, a genre that is danced by everyone in a variety of performances, amateur and professional, by boys and girls, women and men.

Secondly, I will challenge the romantic views that many gay men hold that the presence of male dancers and the sexual interest expressed toward them by Middle Eastern men somehow constitutes evidence for an environment accepting of homosexuality and a utopian gay paradise, where the possibility of unbridled sexual congress with handsome, passionately out-of-control Arabs, Persians, and Turks exists. Thus, they crucially confuse gay or homosexual identity with homosexual activity or behavior. Because of this confusion, I will use an important aspect of queer theory that counters "the monolithic alternative of liberationist gay politics" (Bleys 1995:7) to look at the phenomenon of professional male dancers in a somewhat grittier, more realistic light.

Indian Male Dancer
  Third, I will also challenge the oft-expressed viewpoint that these male dancers were imitating or parodying women. This latter notion is proffered by some Middle Eastern and Western writers and observers who either wish to explain away a topic that embarrasses them or one that they imperfectly understand because of its supposed connection with homosexuality. The result is that most reprehensible and fundamental scholarly error of those writing on historical topics: analyzing historical values through a contemporary lens and projecting them backward on other times and ethnocentrically on other places.

The presence of male dancers, both professional and non-professional, in both public and private space requires a (re)evaluation of the meaning of these male bodies; who they were, what they did, how they presented themselves, what they wore, who their audiences were and what the prevailing attitudes toward them were. One of the problems that the scholar interested in this gendered topic faces is addressing contemporary Western notions of proper masculine and feminine behavior that several popular and scholarly writers have anachronistically projected on to the historical past, as well as on to non-Western societies, in their various writings. (See for example Hanna 1988, 57-59 and 62-64; Jonas 1992, 113-115.)

Male dancers have been attested in the historical records of the Middle East prior to Islam. Bagoas was a male eunuch/concubine who was famous for his dancing skills. First he was a concubine of the last Aechamenian king, Darius III, and, upon his defeat, Bagoas passed as war booty into the possession of Alexander the Great, with whom he remained until Alexander's untimely death in 323 B.C. 3 Statues, miniatures, photographs and other abundant iconic evidence demonstrate that the male dancer was a fixture of Middle Eastern society both in urban centers (See for example And: 1959: 26,29, 36; 1976: figures 17, 32-36, 60, 64, 74, 82, 83, 90; Naumkin 1993, Jacket cover; Rezvani: Plates XIV – XVI), and as itinerant performers in the countryside (See "Dances of Egypt"; "Afghan Village"; Michaud 1980: 70; Mortensen 1993: 366-367). Male dancers began to disappear after the First World War in some cities such as Cairo and Bukhara where they were forced out due to the Victorian era prudery and severe disapproval of colonial powers such as the Russians, English, and French, and the post colonial elites who had absorbed those Western colonial values. Male dancers were commonplace in our lifetime in rural Turkey, Egypt, Iran, and Afghanistan, among other locations, and during the holidays around Iranian New Year they even ventured into the cities. Shay observed them in both in Iran in the 1950s and 1970s and Afghanistan in the 1970s.

Homosexuality and the Male Dancer

Like their female counterparts, professional male dancers were widely and correctly perceived as sexually available. This, of course, brings up the issue of homosexuality. Homosexuality is always, as with all gendered constructs, situationally constituted in time and place. "It is now believed that sexuality is thoroughly defined by culture, that is: by people's symbolic structuring of desire" (Bleys 1995: 6).

Attitudes in the Middle East, as in the West, toward homosexuality, whether as an identity or a set of activities and behaviors, is dynamic, and most recently attitudes in the Middle East, particularly among westernized elites, are to some extent becoming influenced by Western attitudes. In the West, in the beginning of the 21st century, homosexual is considered an identity. An individual harboring homosexual desires, even if they do not participate in homosexual activity, can be regarded as homosexual, or gay and lesbian if they are self-identified. In other parts of the world men, particularly those in active sex roles are often not considered as homosexual. Thus, the category of "homosexual" or "gay" is a dynamic, culturally constituted identity.

In the Middle East (and other parts of the world like Latin America) homosexuality, and indeed sex in general, can be avidly discussed among close-knit, generally small same-age, same-sex groups of friends when they are young. Young men in Iran and Turkey, for example, frequently call each other by derogative terms for homosexuals as a joke. Sex in all of its forms constitutes a constant staple of humor in performances of the traditional theatre (see Lansdell 1887 (1978): 304-305; Shay 1999: 152-156). However, sex is not a topic that is discussed in the open way that now obtains in the West that ranges from serious psychological works to popular culture media such as television talk shows. Rather, in the Middle East homosexuality was tolerated precisely because it was not discussed. To be openly accused of passive homosexuality brings about the most shameful opprobrium in Middle Eastern societies; thus, every attempt is made to keep silent regarding homosexual activity. Stephen O. Murray discusses this phenomenon of silence in detail in his essay, "The Will Not to Know" (1997: 14-54).

Western (Christian) perceptions of the Islamic Middle East as a hotbed of homosexual activity allowed Europeans to position themselves as culturally and morally superior to the "debauched and degenerate" Middle Easterners in the construction of the Orientalist discourse that was formed from the years that Islam posed a threat to European hegemony, beginning with the Crusades, right up to modern times. (See especially Bleys 1995.). Because of this positioning, European travelers frequently commented on Middle Eastern men in the most negative of terms, and invariably detailed homosexual activities that they witnessed or, more often heard through rumors, in their memoirs, books, and other writings. Many of them described, with a delighted and delicious frisson, the professional male dancers, their dances and their enthusiastic male audiences, which had become a trope of degenerate Middle Eastern homosexuality. Many educated Middle Easterners, familiar with Western attitudes of disapproval, are sensitive to the discussion of dancing boys and male dancers. Turkish dance historian Metin And remarks,

Turkish sources offer little information with regard to dancing boys and dancing girls. This is because dancing was regarded by many writers of the past as an improper and wicked sport, especially when indulged in by professional women and boys. On the other hand, foreign travellers have given much attention to this topic in their books and, although they emphasize the slack morality and obscene character of the dancing, they cannot hide from their descriptions the breathless interest they took in these performances. (1959: 24)

A small sampling of comments of European travelers will convey the heavy burden of ethnocentric disapproval that attached to their performances. A French artist accompanying Napoleon stated, "The performers, all of them of the male sex, presented, in the most indecent way, scenes which love has reserved for the two sexes in the silent mystery of the night" (quoted in Berger 1961: 30-31). Schuyler observed that, "here boys and youths specially trained take the place of the dancing-girls of other countries. The moral tone of the society of Central Asia is scarcely improved by the change" (!966: 70). He found the dances, "were by no means indecent, though they were often very lascivious" (1966: 72).

By contrast most of the Orientalist scholars attempting to glorify Eastern cultures maintained a strict silence regarding homosexuality, which precluded any scholarly discussion of male dancers. Many willfully refused to translate poetry with homoerotic references or changed the sex of the beloved to female. To this day, the majority of both the originals and the translations of the raunchy poetry of the bawdy bard, Obeid-e Zakani (d. 1370) either bowdlerize or omit the "naughty" words with coy little dashes to indicate the lacunae which the knowledgeable reader may furnish by inference. (See Sprachman 1995, and as an example, Ashtiani 1995)

In their excellent collection, Islamic Homosexualities, editors Stephen O. Murray and Will Roscoe (1997) have quite correctly characterized Middle Eastern homosexuality in the plural. 4 They have identified several aspects of homosexuality in the Muslim world that directly relate to our discussion of male dancers because the professional male dancers were widely perceived of as passive sexual partners. In Egypt the current word for a passive homosexual, khawal, was the term used for the professional male dancers that plied their trade in Cairo as late as the end of the 19th century.

The first important point is that while an ideal of older men as active sexual participants and young boys and youths as passive partners in homosexual activities is widely celebrated in Persian and Turkish poetry through the depiction of the ideal beloved as a beautiful youth, the reality was, and is, in fact much more varied. (See Crompton 142-147; Hillmann 1990: 78; Murray 1997: 14-54 and 132-141 ; Wafer 1997: 107-131). Same-age partners and partners exchanging sex roles was, and is, much more widespread than the ideal depicting rigid categories would suggest. Several of these variations are made explicit in the limited amount of natively created erotic and pornographic illustrations that have been published. (Murray and Roscoe, Rawson, Surieu) The professional male dancer, in many ways, was, and is, an embodiment of the Persian and Turkish poetic ideal and these dancers were referred to as "boys." (See Hillmann 1990, 77-84 and Southgate 1984, 428-431) Persian historian, Ehsan Yar-Shater notes:

As a rule, the beloved is not a woman, but a young man. In the early centuries of Islam, the raids into Central Asia produced many young slaves. Slaves were also bought or received as gifts. They were made to serve as pages at court or in the households of the affluent, or as soldiers and body-guards. Young men, slaves or not, also, served wine at banquets and receptions, and the more gifted among them could play music and maintain a cultivated conversation. It was love toward young pages, soldiers, or novices in trades and professions which was the subject of lyrical introductions to panegyrics from the beginning of Persian poetry, and of the ghazal. (1986, 973-974)

In fact, among the many words for male dancers, bacheh, the term used in parts of Central Asia means "child" (either male or female), and köcek, one of the terms used in Turkey, means "little" and would seem to indicate that the majority of male dancers were young and began their careers at an early age. However, they often danced much later than the literature indicates, some into old age. Like Western actors, dancers with attractive and vivacious personalities were able to transcend the physical beauty that carried them through their youth, and became popular entertainers due to their wit and personality (Personal observation). This is still true of both male and female performers in the Iranian community of Southern California as well as the Middle East and Central Asia.

Who Were These Dancers?

Male Ballet Dancer
  Who were these dancers? The professional entertainer occupies one of the lowest rungs of Muslim Middle Eastern society. Bosworth notes that entertainers, which included those who danced, were included among the criminal classes in Arab descriptions of the mediaeval underworld (1976:1).

Historically, most professional dancers

came from the very lowest layers of society. Such a despised occupation was avoided by all but the most desperate. Ethnically they were often Gypsies, or Jewish or Christian minority children, Greeks and Armenians in Turkey and Egypt, and Armenians and Jews in Iran. Elsewhere, in Central Asia, and Afghanistan they were Muslims, occasionally Jews. They were generally from very poverty stricken backgrounds, sometimes orphans. As Berger describes for their female counterparts in Egypt, "it is still an avenue to fame and material success for a few girls of poor families who would otherwise wind up as the wives of underpaid factory or farm laborers or minor clerks and raise five or six children for them in dirt, poverty and ill health" (1961: 36). Many, if not most, of them were born into the tradition and belonged to families of entertainers, constituting almost a caste since intermarriage with them was repugnant to most members of society.

We even know some of their names. Rezvani describes a well-known dancer named Hossein-Djan (1962: 210). Henni-Chebra mentions a famous Cairene dancer, Hassan el-Bilbesi (1996: 34). In Turkey Metin And notes that many dancers had stage names: Altintop (Golden Ball), Kanarya (Canary),

Tazefidan (Young Sapling), Tilki (Fox), and Kivicik (Curly) were among some of the names. He observes that a famous Turkish poet, Enderunlu Fazil Vehbi in his Daftari Ashk (Notebook of Love) penned 170 couplets praising the skill and beauty of a celebrated dancing boy, Cingene Ismail. (1959:30).

When they grew older and most had their own children, they would serve as musicians for the younger performers, and themselves often become the leader of the performing unit. The leader of the troupe was generally the lead instrumentalist and from that position he directed the performances. (And 1959: 27; Rezvani 1962: 209) The young dancers were always under the direction of older individuals, sometimes their fathers, but in several cities such as Tehran, Cairo and Istanbul, they were members of well-organized troupes that plied their trade in specific districts of the city. Schuyler notes that in Bukhara an "entrepreneur takes care of them and always accompanies them. He dresses them for the different dances, wraps them up when they have finished, and looks after them as well as any duenna" (1966: 71).

Because their sexual activities were often a source of lucrative income, they had no choice but to participate in those activities, whatever their sexual inclinations may have been. In some areas, such as Afghanistan, castration of dancers used to be common. Writing in 1972, Dupree, who filmed and observed dancing boys in Afghanistan, observes: "Generations ago many dancing boys were eunuchs, but castration is infrequent today (1976: 16). Although we have no records, what I am suggesting is that these young men led gritty, difficult, sometimes painful lives and in late 20th century parlance would be considered as abused children. But such a concept would be an anachronism in historical periods.

European traveler, Eugene Schuyler describes the lives of the professional male dancers of Bukhara in 1876:

The batchas practice their profession from a very early age until sometimes so late as twenty or twenty-five, or at all events until it is impossible to conceal their beards. The life which they have led hardly fits them for independent existence thereafter. So long as they are young and pretty they have their own way in everything; every command is obeyed by their adorers, every purse is at their disposition, and they fall into a life of caprice, extravagance, and dissipation. Rarely do they lay up any money, and more rarely still are they able to profit by it afterwards. Frequently a batcha is set up as a keeper of a tea-house by his admirers, where he will always have a good clientele, and sometimes he is started as a small merchant. Occasionally one succeeds, and becomes a prosperous man, though the remembrance of his past life will frequently place the then odious affix, batcha, to his name. I have known one or two men, now rich and respected citizens, who began life in this way. In the old days it was much easier, for a handsome dancer might easily become Kushbegi, or Grand Vizier. 5 More often a batcha takes to smoking opium or drinking kukhnar, and soon dies of dissipation. (1966: 71)

Schuyler's description referred to the highest level of dancing boys, the less fortunate boys dancing in public places were "under police supervision" (ibid), again connecting them to the gritty underworld.

A second, more pervasive and misleading notion in the West is that homosexuality refers to an identity. In the Middle East homosexuality is not an identity, but an activity or behavior. Exclusively homosexual individuals were and are rare, and, like the vast majority of men, male dancers were expected to marry and have children. 6

What Did They Do?

What did they do? Male dancers, like female dancers, and entertainers in the West, had to be highly talented and capable performers, and generally they were described as handsome or beautiful, a sine qua non, for a public performer. Of course, they were skilled dancers and performed solo improvised dancing in the stylistic framework of the specific area in which they worked. As Metin And comments, while today "what is left is the cifetetelli, improvised dancing" (1959:24), in the past several names existed for the dances which refer to objects they carried or balanced, items of clothing emphasized during the dance, or characteristic movements (And ibid; Khaleqi 1980: 470-486). What is clear is that dancing, at least until World War I, was much more athletic and spectacular than the tamer dancing seen in today's cabarets or in the watered down versions performed by state sponsored folk dance companies such as those found in Egypt, Tunis, and Turkey. Gone are the athletic elements and skills and the bawdy humor that made a few of these historical dancers star performers to their large and admiring audiences.

It is worth stressing that the most highly paid and popular dancers put in long hours of rehearsal detailed by And (ibid: 26). This was important because the competition to dance in the best homes and palaces was stiff. One dance master placed his young charges in large baskets depended from the ceiling and whirled them in order to "prevent the dancers' becoming giddy while performing turns" (And 1959: 26). The acrobatic feats and special skills such as balancing a heavy candelabra, cups filled with hot tea, swords or batons also required hours of training.

Many of the movements of these dances were extremely sensual, at least to their audiences, a fact much commented on by Europeans. Moreover, like entertainers in the West, they strove to make their dance performances unique and different for as And (1959, 1976), Rezvani (1962), and Khaleqi (1974) 7 make very clear, the competition between the groups (called kol in Turkey, dasteh-ye motreb in Iran) was very keen. In order to compete, the dancers performed athletic feats like somersaults, back flips, hand stands, they danced balanced on knives, wrote a patron's name in rice flour on the floor with their foot as they danced, among multiple other skills. The dancers all played castanets or finger cymbals, wooden spoons, or even smooth stones used as castanets, to accompany the rhythms of their dances. Many of them learned to sing and play musical instruments. They learned to balance objects on their heads or in their hands, like glasses of hot tea, candles and candelabra, sticks and canes, swords and other items. They incorporated acting and mime, for example, two dancers might act like a pair of lovers quarrelling and making up (qahr va ashti) or a boy wooing a girl. These little plays provided the opportunity to introduce bawdy sexual references, both in movement and song, in their performances that their audiences often found hilarious. In his description of dancers in the Safavid period in Iran (1500-1722), Beiza'i describes how four dancers had themselves carried into the performance area in boxes, large versions of those used for the dancing puppets that itinerant entertainers (lo'bat-baz) manipulated. As each dancer emerged, he (or she) was dressed in the color of his box and did a dance like a puppet. (1965:169) Thus, these performers had a large repertoire of skills that they brought to their performances.

The sexual and sensual elements of the performances were often commented on by European travelers who, without either sufficient linguistic or cultural skills, seemed unable to realize that these references in song and movement, more often than not, had a comical side and were rarely serious attempts to portray lovemaking. The native Iranian theatre (siyah-bazi; ru-howzi), based on dance movements and performances and full of sexual references, is a satirical comic theatre. (See Shay 1999: 152-156).

Belly dance as a male and female choreographic form

Belly dance has been largely staked out by a certain element of the feminist movement in the Western nations as a means of sexual liberation and feminist expression, concomitantly marginalizing the male presence in the belly dance community (Sellers-Young 1992, 141-152). In the introduction of this volume, I stressed the idea that this dance tradition is neither male nor female, but a dance that is participated in by everyone. In one of the earliest, serious writings on belly dance, and after describing other forms of dance in the Arab Middle East, Morroe Berger states: "Finally there is the danse du ventre. It has a folk quality, for it is danced by boys and girls, men and women in some Arab villages; there it is sexual but only moderately so. The belly dance of the entertainer is, of course, more passionate and sexual than the folk version" (1961:17). Having made this one statement concerning the universal participation of both males and females in this dance tradition, Berger addresses the topic of belly dance, in an otherwise commendable essay, as if it were performed exclusively by female performers, through both the text and the accompanying photographs and illustrations. This dance tradition does not have direct links with homosexual activity, most of those who perform it in social settings lead largely heterosexual lives.

Feminists who have adopted belly dance as an emblem of the female sexual revolution in the 1970s, often revel in romanticized descriptions of belly dance as a female form of cultural expression:

My own experience of Egyptian baladi goes back some twelve years. The first time I saw it, it struck me as something rare and magical. I thought then, and still think, that it is the most eloquent of female dances, with its haunting lyricism, its fire, its endlessly shifting kaleidoscope of sensual movement. (Buonaventura: 1989:10)

Following such statements and adhering to orientalist attitudes that male bodies make only certain types of movements in some universal cross-cultural masculine matrix, for example not articulating shoulders or torsos. Fifi Abdo, one of the leading belly dancers in Egypt, declared: "It's impossible for a man to dance real belly dancing. The phrase itself describes the part from the hips to the waist and a man lacks the energy that a woman has." (New York Times May 6 2000: f2). Fifi’s inaccurate statement underscores Morroe Berger's assessment of belly dancers in Egypt: whatever skills and talents these dancers might have, dance history is not one of them (Berger 1966: 48). I will extend Berger’s assessment to include Abdo’s power’s of observation of the contemporary dance scene as well.

Several writers that purport to be writing in a scholarly or semi-scholarly vein make irresponsible and unsupported statements such as the following:

There is no masculine equivalent to the dance that Muslim women practice among themselves. In the countryside, following traditions that may be older than Islam itself, men in many Muslim countries take part in dances that emphasize athletic prowess and often employ warlike props such as swords, daggers, and rifles. But in the cities, dance for Muslim men is more of a spectator sport. At parties in private homes or in public rooms hired for the purpose or in hotel nightclubs, groups of men gather to watch female entertainers sing and dance; in form the dancing of these professionals closely resembles the spirited movements of the amateurs at all female parties and celebrations. Despite the fact that this dance is indissolubly associated with women, some male spectators will get up and dance along briefly with the entertainers. These men undulate their shoulders and hips in what looks like a self-mocking parody of traditional gender roles, combined with a sheer delight in rhythmic physical movement." (Emphasis mine, Jonas 1992: 115-116)

This last statement merits some attention. Jonas' text accompanies the popular PBS series, "Dancing," and as such, this volume was a widely distributed work and read by many students and therefore the misinformation contained becomes problematic for the understanding of solo improvised dance as a form of cultural expression. Jonas assumed that the dancing seen on the video was a female dance form with "no masculine equivalent." In addition, a caption accompanying a photograph of a man dancing in Egypt states: "Perhaps because dancing in Arab countries tends to be segregated by gender, there is an undercurrent of male dancing that parodies the social dancing of women. The male dancers (below) impersonating women in Luxor, Egypt (1992: 113). In fact, the photograph shows a man dancing in male clothes and he sports a moustache. Clearly Jonas, without further investigation, watched the video in the section on Morocco (in Program 3, "Sex and Social Dance,") and listened to the comments made by upper class Moroccan commentators, and believed what the commentators had to say. In the dialogue, Mohammad Chtatou, a sociologist, claims that dance is "womanly, not manly"; that it is essentially a female activity, only marginally performed by men ("Dancing," Video 3). Jonas should have at least been suspicious that his statements were misleading because the footage accompanying Chtatou's questionable observations, heard in a voiceover, showed a large group of men dancing with great enjoyment, the very dancing he described in the quotation above. They neither imitate nor parody women, they only dance (see Shay 2002, 126-162). As Berger states

The latest evidence of official and elitist embarrassment over belly dance is the government's encouragement and the public's enthusiastic reception of a troupe of Cairo students (the Reda Troupe) who combine certain cautious gestures in the direction of the traditional Oriental dance with a greater emphasis on modern techniques drawing upon folk material. I do not mean to belittle them when I say that part of their popularity stems from the fact that they provide a native Egyptian dance form that need not be identified with the disreputable (though appreciated) danse du ventre. (1961: 7).

Even such a trained anthropologist as Louis Dupree comments about Afghan male dancers: "The absence of women performers long ago led to female impersonation (1976:15). In this he follows the Western tradition of assuming that the dancers were female impersonators, but close inspection of the performance of the dancer, with his short hair, is not impersonating a woman, but is clearly marked by his admiring audience as male. His clothing, consisting of both male and female garments, is intended to mark him as a professional dancer.

Not only does the discourse surrounding this dance tradition encompass the issue of male and female performers, but the appropriateness of participation in solo improvised dancing is further complicated by a class element that determines that upper class elite men, and less often women, do not dance, at least in public view (Shay 1999, 131-132).

Metin And notes that a Turkish ambassador to France was shocked to see aristocratic men dancing in a ballroom and inquired, "When he is so rich, this gentleman gives himself the trouble to dance? Why doesn't he hire someone to do it for him?" (1959: 9, footnote 4). In our own time, in 1996 the pretender to the Iranian throne danced at his cousin's wedding, a private affair. The propriety of his dancing formed a raging controversy in the Persian language radio, Radio Seda-ye Iran.

How Did Male Dancers Present Themselves?

The foregoing discussion leads us to the next question: how did the professional male dancers present themselves? I will combine the discussion of how male dancers presented themselves with what they wore since these two issues are inextricably woven together. These are important issues, for they directly challenge two misconceptions: first, that male dancers were performing a parody, or that they were imitating women. The most important element of their self-presentation is that they presented themselves as males. They did not imitate or parody women, except as part of the occasional play-acting, because they attracted large male audiences and patrons precisely because they were popular as male performers.

The traditional Iranian theatre, which, like the Commedia del'arte, features stereotyped roles such as the clown, the venal old man, and the daughter (played by a male) whom he is trying to marry to a rich old man. The latter role is known as zan-push (literally “dressed as a woman”). Western readers should not confuse this role with female impersonation as seen in Western night clubs. There is no attempt at verisimilitude. The actor, often a heterosexual, is clearly male, and the wearing of items of women's clothing is designed for comedic effect and his female role-playing, like the boys in Shakespeare's plays, follows Islamic proscriptions against men and women appearing in public together. 8

Professional Egyptian belly dancer, Djamila Henni-Chebra states, "Regarding the question of homosexual dancers. The latter (the male dancers) according to all appearances imitated females" (1996: 34). In her observation, Henni-Chebra is unquestioningly following all of the shocked and ethnocentric evaluations of European observers, and assumes, in an essentializing gesture, that the male dancers were all homosexuals. The European observers came to the Middle East bearing orientalist opinions concerning depraved Muslim morals and looked to have them validated. A closer analysis reveals that male dancers were almost always discernable from females in the iconographic sources. They did not specifically wear female garb, but rather special clothing and costumes suitable to show off their movements and to make them unique and attractive as dancers and entertainers. The clothing of these dancers is frequently described as effeminate, only occasionally as specifically female. Performers in the Iranian theatre invariably wore exotic and flamboyant clothing, as rich as possible, with which to dramatize their appearances as entertainers, not unlike Elton John or Sting. Utilizing elements of both male and female clothing, they above all wished to appear attractive to their male audiences and patrons, as males. The reader should also not confuse drag queens and female impersonators in the West, who are attempting to pass themselves off or give the illusion that they are women, with male dancers in the Middle East. "As Lorius argues in her paper, 'Desire and the Gaze: Spectacular Bodies in Cairene Elite Weddings' (1996), while a bride's clothed body is the designated repository of sexuality during a wedding, so too, is a dancer's body such a location while she is performing an eastern dance at a wedding" (Quoted in Lindisfarne-Tapper and Ingham (1997: 21). We argue that the male dancer, too, was a "designated repository of sexuality" and therefore the clothing, often described in detail by observers, was as exotic, flamboyant, rich, and attractive as the dancers and their handlers could afford. We know only of the costumes they wore for their performances; we know nothing of their daily clothing.

Who Were There Audiences?

Who were their audiences and patrons? All of the sources describe the popularity of the performances of male dancers. In some areas, such as Central Asia, and at historical periods, as when the female dancers were driven from Cairo to Esneh, some five hundred miles away, male dancers were the only entertainers, but almost always both male and female dancers were available and the audiences who attended the performances of male performers did so because they wanted to see the entertainment that these male performers provided.

Virtually all of the European travelers' accounts wonderingly describe their popularity among their male audiences. Women would only have only observed them when they were dancing if they could observe them unseen from the women's quarters.

These batchas, or dancing boys, are a recognized institution throughout the whole of the settled portions of Central Asia, though they are most in vogue in Bukhara, and the neighboring Samarkand. Batchas are as much respected as the greatest singers and artistes are with us. Every movement they make is followed and applauded, and I have never seen such breathless interest as they excite, for the who crowd seems to devour them with their eyes, while their hands beat time to every step. . .it is as much the custom for a Bokhariot gentleman to keep one as it was in the Middle Ages for each knight to have his squire. In fact no establishment of a man of rank or position would be complete without one, and men of small means club together to keep one among them, to amuse them in their hours of rest and recreation. Schuyler 1966: 70-71)

Performances were often held in the royal palaces and homes of the rich in cities like Tehran, Cairo, Bukhara, and Istanbul. Middle class audiences might see performances at coffee houses and other public sites. Everyone attempted to hire professional entertainers for weddings, circumcision ceremonies, and other special occasions. Since the troupes of dancers were able to charge according to their skills, quality, and reputation, the top groups naturally successfully plied their trade in the palaces and aristocratic manors, while those lower on the scale were hired by those who could afford to pay less.

Metin And notes that the dancing boys were so popular that their appearances threatened the public order and in Istanbul things could get out of hand:

In the taverns the people became so intense in their appreciation of the dances that, not infrequently, they were carried away into an ecstasy of obscene and blasphemous words, yells and shouts, glass breaking, sword and dagger brandishing, and even quarrels among themselves. The popularity of the dancing boys led to so much trouble and quarrelling among the Janissaries that, finally, to preserve order in his army, Sultan Mahmud forbade their appearance. (1959:30-31)

What Were the Attitudes Toward Male Dancers?

There is no clear answer to this question and from what we have presented indicates a range of attitudes and not a little ambiguity regarding the professional male performers. To return to the Princess Taj Al-Saltana's observation, that Abdi was unworthy of anyone's love because he was a dancer sums up the common perception that professional dancers were passive homosexuals, or were available to play a passive sexual role, and therefore dishonorable was, and is, a widely-held attitude. Dupree noted in Afghanistan in the 1970s that "Some dancing boys supplement their income serving as male prostitutes. Sometimes they form a partnership with a lover such as a lorry driver, and travel together from town to town" (1976:16).

In addition, religious figures often fulminated against dance and dancers. Literary scholar, and renowned scholar of Sufism, Annemarie Schimmel comments: "Treatises and articles against dancing have been written throughout the centuries, for one saw here demonic influences; hence musicians and dancers should not serve as witnesses at court" (1994: 415). Their association with the medieval underworld and the need to keep them "under the supervision of the police," have already been noted.

On the other hand, numerous observers have commented on the enormous popularity and fame that at least the most skilled and famous of them enjoyed. English diplomat Henry Lansdell, who observed a dance performance in an Uzbek provincial town in the 1880s, that took place in front of a large crowd who had gathered to see a performance of dancing boys commented that:

Their appreciation of the batchas was intense. They offered them tea and fruit, and, when the boys sat, they could hardly have been made more of had they been the first stars of a London season. They seated themselves apart from 'the vulgar crowd,' near to us, whereupon lights were placed before them, that all might gaze and admire" (1978: 304).

Schuyler's observations that patrons reached out to help establish these dancers in business after their professional life had ceased, indicates that the attitudes toward them retained a certain affection. "Even when a batcha passes through the bazaar all who know him rise to salute him with hands upon their hearts, and the exclamation lf 'kullak!' (your slave) and should he deign to stop and rest in any shop, it is thought a great honor" (1966:70-71). Clearly the attitudes toward the men who were dancers is one of ambiguity, disdain and admiration, dishonor and fascination, all in tension.

The object of this discussion is to press home the point that these male dancers did not enter their profession because they were homosexuals, harbored homosexual inclinations, or "just loved to dance." Western individuals, who have the freedom to enter chosen professions and vocations, as well as life styles, should not confuse the lives and practices of the historical professional dancer with their own experiences. For both the male and female dancers this was hard gritty work, and if they became stars of the entertainment profession, it was through long hours of rehearsal and a winning personality. Few rose above the stigma of their dishonorable profession.

The Contemporary Male Oriental Dancer in the Middle East

The aftermath of World War II marks a major sea change in the manner in which traditional and folk dances are conceived and performed both in the Middle East and, later, in the West. Forces of modernity, nationalism, and postcolonialism converged so that national elites in newly-emancipated Middle Eastern nations like Egypt began to cast about for ways to fashion unique, nationally specific identities. Folklore, including dance, became an obvious tool for the manipulation of national symbols to construct a bright and new national heritage, one that befit Egypt's new status as an independent, modern and forward-looking nation.

Egypt had lived through the traumatic, often brutal experience of colonialism - Ptolemaic, Roman, Persian, Ottoman, French, and British - for centuries. The latest British colonial period was not the more simplistic colonialism of those past empires: the superior power dominating and consuming the other through brute force, although that happened. Rather, as political science scholar Timothy Mitchell penetratingly describes, British colonialism was one that attempted through a variety of methods, particularly through the educational system, the colonial civil service, and the armed forces, to colonize the Egyptian mind and create disciplined bodies.

Disciplinary power, by contrast, works not from the outside but from within, not at the level of an entire society but at the level of detail, and not by restricting individuals and their actions but by producing them. . . They also produce, within such institutions, the modern individual, constructed as an isolated, disciplined, receptive, and industrious political subject. (1988: xi)

Through this experience, in much the same way that several literary masterpieces suggest, prisoners come to love their jailors in what is popularly known as the “Stockholm Syndrome.” Colonized individuals and nations, too, attempt in every way to emulate the very colonizers against whom they have struggled. In this love-hate relationship, sensitive to negative criticism, the post colonial individual seeks to construct a national identity that will be acceptable and esteemed by Europeans and Americans. This included changing attitudes toward sexuality and gender.

Thus, postcolonial individuals and governments, smarting from their former powerlessness in which others spoke for them, in building and constructing a new symbolic identity, turn to art forms to build their new identities. "They want art to represent and reveal them only at their nicest, finest, and most flattering. Images are to be 'positive.' The genre of realism is to redeem the 'negative' images of the past and to project the aspirations of the community in the present" (Simpson 1994:23).

It is within this context of the nexus of these forces of newly emerging nationalism, post colonial euphoria, and modernity that Mahmoud Reda, the seminal figure in Egyptian dance emerges. From the 1950s, through his new movements, he created a new dance tradition, one in which the inherent sexuality in traditional Egyptian dance became de-emphasized. He employed new choreographic strategies that defined the new representation of the male dancer in solo improvised dance. This is a distinct and conscious break with the past. He turned to contemporary Egyptian folk dance, the main form of which is a genre of domestic belly dance, for inspiration. He consciously and specifically attempted to erase the equation of dancer, male or female, with prostitution, by erasing or altering any movements he perceived as overtly sexual. Like many individuals of his time, Reda was not interested in reproducing authentic dance traditions on the stage. They had to be remade and recreated for the approval of the new postcolonial elite. This new dance genre can be characterized as Egyptian character dance, that form of ballet that constitutes a stylized form of folk dance. It is, in Hobsbawm and Ranger's (1983) terms, an "invented tradition," that has now become naturalized on Egyptian soil. Reda's style of dance has been widely emulated throughout the Arab world.

In discussing the use of folklore in the context of the newly independent Egyptian state, Walter Armbrust in his masterful analysis of Egyptian popular culture notes that: "Heritage is not simply there, but something to be properly organized. Vulgarity should be struck from the record and the folk be admitted to Egypt's heritage on condition of 'authenticity'. 'Scientific' methods sort out the crass and regrettable from the sources of refinement . .(1996:38). He adds, "Others considered folklore; an evil to be stamped out by a benevolently modern state, and encourage the substitution of almost any cultural model that is not the traditional 'backward' one (ibid: 37). Armbrust, while not specifically addressing the oeuvre of Mahmoud Reda, situates Reda's approach to the creation of a new folkloric dance genre within the Egyptian national quest for modernization.

Mahmoud Reda's interest in dance began in his youth in the 1940s. He was a devote of Hollywood musicals and he became enamoured of the dance styles of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. He took formal ballet classes, which were difficult to find during his youth. Paradoxically, taking ballet classes in the Middle East was not regarded as the effeminate and epicene activity it appeared, and appears, to be to many individuals in the West, but rather bore the cachet of a high art from the West, superior to native dance traditions, another legacy of colonialism. After World War II, many male dancers in the Middle East report having taken such training, which in those early days, except in Turkey, was largely in the hands of the Armenian community.

He choreographed a work commissioned by the Egyptian government in 1954 and went to Moscow with the group who performed his work. Although both he and Farida Fahmy (1987: 15-16) vigorously deny it, the influence of the Soviet state dance ensembles clearly had an impact, if not on the specific movement vocabulary he developed, at the least seeing those state sponsored Eastern European dance companies provided him with conceptual models for presentation. In the 1950s dancers from the Moiseyev company of the former Soviet Union were sent to Egypt to "advise" the firqat al-qawmiyyah, the ensemble the Egyptian Government's Ministry of Culture founded a short time after Reda's fledgling company had begun. (See Shay 2002 forthcoming).

Upon returning from the USSR, he worked in other professions such as accounting, but it was always in his thoughts to create a company. Thus, he subsequently founded the Reda Troupe in 1959 on a shoestring and the good will of his dancers, since in the beginning the Egyptian Government refused to help him. This was, in part, because the government officials could not believe that a private individual could maintain a company. In the post independence, socialist euphoria in Nasser’s Egypt in the 1950s, it was believed that such projects must flow from governmental sources.

He implemented a number of changes in his dance style that parted company with past dance practices, because "the reputation of dance was terrible. We decided to avoid strong movements of the belly and hips, and we covered the dancers. The (male) fellahin of the Delta had no distinct dance tradition, so I created one. I did not want to leave the region without a dance so I formed a style from everyday movements" (personal interview 1-10-2000). Thus, Reda created an "Egyptian heritage" through his new genre of dance. His choreographies and movement styles were, as performance studies scholar Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett notes regarding state sponsored dance companies like the Reda Troupe:

Such choices in repertoire and style are ideologically charged. Folkloric troupes attempt to find a middle ground between exotic and familiar pleasures and to bring these forms (and their performers) into the European hierarchy of artistic expression, while establishing their performance as national heritage. The more modern the theater where the troupe performs the better, for often there is a dual message: powerful, modern statehood, expressed in the accoutrements of civilization and technology is wedded to a distinctive national identity. (1998: 65)

At the same time that he de-emphasized female sexuality, he totally erased male sexuality as one can see it today in social dancing throughout both urban and rural Egypt. Mahmoud Reda, following in the hallowed dance steps of Fred Astaire, in the two films in which he and his company star, quickly establishes his identity as a modern, upper middle class heterosexual, by featuring a female love interest whom he pursues throughout the remainder of the films. Except in scenes in which he is clearly a professional folk dancer, he wears the clothing of an upper middle class Western urban man, strongly reminiscent of those worn by Gene Kelly in films of the period.

As I detailed above, traditional professional male dancers carried out their trade in the most peripheral regions of the Middle East until the present, but in those cities that had a major European presence, like Cairo, Beirut, and Damascus, they had largely disappeared from the urban scene. According to recent newspaper stories, they are beginning to reappear in cabarets, but not in traditional guise. (Morris 2000; New York Times 2000). This is no return to the golden days of boy dancers. Like their female counterparts they learn their movements by "watching old Egyptian movies," a standard teach-yourself method among many belly dancers, and their costumes derive from Hollywood sex and sand films rather than any attempt at historical reconstruction.

Because of changed attitudes towards male dancers, these new dancers constitute an anomaly in the eyes of the majority of their co-nationals, and they have created a position of ambiguity, unlike the dancing boys of previous generations who had formed a societal institution. Also unlike those boy dancers, these men made a choice of profession and entered it knowing that they would incur potentially negative and derisive reactions. (See Morris 2000; New York Times 2000).

Male Oriental Dancers in the Middle Eastern Diaspora
in the United States

It is difficult to characterize the many Middle Eastern diasporas in the United States without falling into the trap of essentializing and thus creating a skewed portrait of these communities. Even within those transplanted communities a range of behaviors and attitudes toward dance and dancers exists, between generations and between those who are long-time residents and those who have newly arrived, among others. As an example of some of those attitudes and behaviors, I will pull from personal experiences and interviews from Southern California, which is home to several very large communities of individuals from the Middle East. These communities do not mirror the Middle East, however, since the levels of education of a significant percentage of those communities are much higher than in the home countries as are the ratios of urban to rural inhabitants. Relatively few Turks reside in Los Angeles, compared to Arabs and Persians, brought to, or driven to, California by the twin engines of politics and economics. In addition, the number of minority groups: Kurds, Armenians, Jews, Copts, Zoroastrians, Druze, Assyrians and others reside in Southern California in far greater ratios relative to the majority populations of their homelands. That having been said, in many ways, because of nostalgia and homesickness, many individuals attempt to keep certain traditions, for example the formalities of weddings, more here than they did when they were home. "There people sought the modern; here they seek the traditional" (Jamal Personal Interview: March 14, 2001). Thus, as in the homeland, dance becomes an icon of the expression of traditional joy, and the services of professional dancers become an indispensable element in celebratory events.

Several small dance troupes, four all female, and two with both males and females, as well as female solo dancers, service these communities, which number in the hundreds of thousands. (Yayoi Taketani. Personal interview: March 12, 2001). Male Middle Eastern Dancers, that is those whose cultural heritage is Middle Eastern, can be found in two different contexts, rarely moving between the two: First, there are several male dancers who work almost exclusively within their own communities, where they are more secure, both culturally and linguistically. 9 Second, there are individuals, like Yousary Sharif, who make their careers based on teaching American students and function extensively in the American belly dance community as instructors. It should also be noted that two or three older male dancers, now in their sixties and seventies, follow the pre-World War I custom of bearing the label of entertainer rather than dancer because they sing, dance, act, and perform comedy routines. They operate as soloists, occasionally teaming up with other entertainers for special theatrical projects. They are widely perceived in the Iranian community as passive homosexuals and they openly make comic innuendoes about this topic.

Those few younger male dancers, now in their forties and fifties, who work within the diaspora communities often lead dance companies of mostly non-Iranian women. Unlike the older entertainers, these men are exclusively dancers. In the Iranian community they perform at weddings, nightclubs, and as back up dancers for Persian language popular music singers making television appearances and music videos. (For a discussion of the Iranian popular music industry in the United States see Naficy 1993 and Shay 2000) 10 They must engage non-native women because performing dance in public, particularly performing for weddings and private parties, carries such a low status that it severely endangers a woman's reputation and her family fears for her chances of contracting a suitable marriage (Shay 1999).

Yayoi Taketani, an oriental dancer, has managed and performed with two such groups over the past two decades, as well as performing in two professional fine arts companies that perform Middle Eastern repertoires, during the period in which the Iranian and Arab communities both mushroomed in size and complexity. She describes her experiences:

Among the various Arab groups, the Palestinians, the Egyptians, the Lebanese, and the Iraqis, there is a great demand for "zaafa," the traditional wedding procession, with traditional instruments and songs, which are different for, say, the Egyptians and the Palestinians. They want both men and women to do folkloric dances and to cover themselves. A few of the more open-minded Lebanese and Egyptians still like to have the belly dancers in cut-down costumes, but conservative Muslims, and even Christians, want the dancers covered. For the Arab communities, we are most in demand for folkloric dances.

One of our male dancers, an Arab from Lebanon, tried for years to be accepted as a male belly dancer, and he wore 'flash and trash' costumes with lots of beads, fringe, and glitter. But the Arabs do not want to see a male do professional belly dancing, even though the male guests do it socially. One night at an Egyptian wedding he performed the dance with the candelabra and the people were outraged. There is no problem, however, for a man to dress in folkloric costumes and dance folkloric dances. (Yayoi Taketani: ibid)

Beyond the danger of conflating and essentializing between specific Arab nationalities, the large Iranian community also exhibits differences among the religious and linguistic groups as well as within them. They react to male and female belly dancers differently than the Arab groups. Egyptian style cabaret dancing is almost as exotic to Iranians as it is to Westerners and their experience of it generally derives from Egyptian films and cabarets, both banned in Iran since the 1979 Revolution. "The Iranians love belly dancing and they allow the Arab man I mentioned, as well as a well-known Iranian dancer to perform, although sometimes they request all-female groups. The Muslims will not hire the Iranian dancer, only the Jews will have him" (Yayoi Taketani: ibid). Jamal added that "these male dancers are regarded as amusing and the people love to laugh at them and to feel superior to them. They are definitely not respected" (Personal Interview: March 12, 2001).

Among the Iranian community here, when the name of that well-known dancer, I will call him Ali, is mentioned, they make grimaces, sneers, raise their eyebrows, and in every way, indicate that "we all know" that he is homosexual, but in conforming to Stephen O. Murray's penetrating analysis of "keeping silent" (1997), no one pronounces the "h" word. 11 A second male dancer, who is also well-known and who is heterosexual, manages a professional career in dance, but because of his sexuality and his primary association with modern rather than traditional dance, he has largely escaped the negative associations that plague Ali, and the older performers I mentioned earlier.

As a dark coda to this study, one of the male dancers that I profiled in this essay recently returned to Iran and was arrested, tried, and found guilty of “corrupting youth” through teaching dance classes in the United States. Confirming the concept of “choreophobia,” which I introduced in an earlier study (Shay 1999), the Iranian court relied heavily on the evidence of video cassettes and satellite television broadcasts that depicted him performing “Arabic” belly dance. His arrest and trial generated many newspaper reports throughout the United States. (See for example Arizona Daily Sun, July 9, 2002; Bahrampour July 18, 2002; Slackman July 9, 2002.)

Thus, although the male dancer continues as an institution, it is an occupation that is fading with new concepts of gender and sexuality and what behaviors may be ascribed as "male" and "female" constitute dynamic and fluid cultural categories. Nevertheless, solo improvised dance in Middle Eastern contexts is still performed by males as a social activity, and in that form dancing is a unisex activity. The performances of dancing males can still excite interest and deep-seated feelings of choreophobia.


1. Taj Al-Sultana was a Qajar Princess (1884-1936) who wrote her memoirs, was one of the few Iranian women's voices heard before the Second World War. In his notes to Taj Al-Sultana's memoirs, historian Abbas Amanat notes that Taj Al-Sultaneh's husband "pawned off pieces of their fortune, perhaps to spend lavishly on his new lover, a male dancer called Tayhu (1993: 54).

2. I specifically challenge statements like the following because of the abundant iconographic and written evidence of European travelers. In fact, women were often not permitted to dance in public. In a recent article, Iranian dance scholar Azardokht Ameri stated: “It is important to remember that historical research shows that dance movements were based on female dance, because historically the most important performers of dance were women” (2003, 61). A European man who had lived in Cairo asked me why all of the men, most of them heterosexual as far as he knew, danced a "woman's dance" (Personal interview. January 19, 2000).

3. Bagoas was the "Persian boy" of Mary Renault's outstanding historical novel of the same name. In her historical explanations at the end of the novel, she discusses in detail the citations from Ancient Greek literature that mention Bagoas. (1972: 413-419, Author's notes)

4. I am not, however, entirely comfortable with the term "Islamic," which refers to a religion. No one refers to Jewish or Christian Homosexuality, a better term would have been Homosexualities in Islamic or Muslim Societies.

5. The idea of a dancer becoming a major official such as the Grand Vazir should give the reader pause. I think that some of the informants were pulling Mr. Schuyler's gullible leg. Schuyler's description certainly suggests that real affection accompanied the sexual liaisons between the dancers and their patrons who stood ready to help them after their dancing careers had ended.

6. I also observed that life-long friendships, and perhaps more affectional and physical relationships, existed between men who participated in homosexual affairs, even after each went on to marry and raise a family.

7. Khaleqi speaks exclusively of female dancers. He expresses himself as reluctant to discuss the whole issue of professional dancers because of their lurid reputations, but prides himself on his bravery and frankness in mentioning them (1976: 469). Given his attitude toward discussing women entertainers, the idea of discussing male dancers must have proven truly impossible, although there are some photographs of them in the text, he remains silent on the topic.

8. Roger Baker, in his study of female impersonation in the performing arts, discerns two major modes of female impersonation. The first he terms "'real disguise' when the actor playing a woman is taken by the audience . . . as a real woman. He sites Shakespearean boy actors. The second mode is the 'false disguise,' which "happens when there is no attempt by the performer to pretend he is anything other than a man playing a woman (1994: 14-15). I argue that the male dancers, unless they were acting the part of a female, do not fall into either category.

9. Because of the large numbers of Iranians living in Southern California, a largely closed world exists in which many individuals, particularly in the media, service, and entertainment fields, negotiate their lives with relatively little reference to their new American environment. Many individuals possess only a rudimentary command of English, and they carry out their lives much as they did in Tehran. It is perfectly feasible to carry out one's life in the Los Angeles Iranian community without speaking or knowing English since one is able to find all of the services and goods one needs to be comfortable.

10. The Arab community does not have a corresponding popular music industry. The Arab music world is centered largely in Cairo and Beirut.

11. The term "gay" would be an inappropriate since its use is for self-identified individuals who wear that identity with a sense of pride or at least with no shame.


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Synopsis: in this article I directly challenge several cherished, long-held assumptions and theoretical stances expressed by many individuals from native elites and Westerners interested in Middle Eastern dance and dancers. First, I specifically address the attitude that raqs sharqi, belly dancing and other forms of Middle Eastern dance such as solo improvised dance in the Iranian world, Turkey, and Central Asia constitute an exclusively, or even primarily, a female form of cultural expression. 2 Rather, I will attempt to recuperate raqs sharqi/solo improvised dance/raqs baladi (dance of the people or dance of countryside) as a dance genre per se, a genre that is danced by everyone in a variety of performances, amateur and professional, by boys and girls, women and men.


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