Body Art and the Belly Dancer
Is there a connection between body art and belly dance? Tattoos themselves have existed for thousands of years in many cultures. They’ve served as rites of passage, indications of status or bravery, and symbols of spiritual devotion. For some, the art of oriental belly dance holds its own symbolism, including renewal and self-awareness, even bravery and spirituality as well.
Some would say that body art appears to be part of the ‘tribal uniform,’ with tattooed tribal style belly dancers outweighing the number of those without ink. Among solo ‘cabaret’ performers, the opposite appears to be true, but tattoos and other body modifications are prohibited in Islam and many solo performers work in Arab-owned restaurants. Body art can have a negative impact on their dance career.
Louise McClung, a belly dance performer in Texas, has felt this impact first-hand. Her tattoos include a Celtic band and rune spell reminding her to, "use my God given talents and enjoy life's journey." She also has a collection of very meaningful stars, "a gold star for my 1st year of sobriety, I get another gold star for every year sober," she said.
So, Louise cover up the tattoos to perform? "Yes, I cover my armband, at least when I dance for certain ethnicities. Tattoos mean a lot of different things in different parts of the world. Usually, non-conformist is one of those things, and I've danced in parts of the world where dancing is non-conformist enough for me... I don't hide the others, which has cost me work."
Seattle belly dance instructor, Genevieve did find the art of belly dance at 13, and later added body art in her 30's. "I feel that seeing American Tribal Style for the first time made it more ok to have body art and be a belly dancer," she recalls. And while she doesn't site one specific experience that inspired her tattoo, she does see how the two are intertwined in her dancing. "... my body art enhances my performance in a mental and spiritual way. Body art is very personal and many people, including myself, get inked for spiritual reasons. So I think this naturally enhances a performance. On the physical level, they can definitely enhance a costume."
Additionally, Genevieve is acutely aware of her audience and tailors her appearance. "Sometimes I will choose a costume because it will show off my body art. Other times I will just pick a costume because I want to wear it." However, if she is dancing for a more traditional or conservative audience, the tattoos are concealed.
The shift from ‘tribal dancers have tattoos, cabaret dancers don’t’ belief, is easily explained by the evolution of society’s perception of tattoos in general. Years ago, body art marked the wearer as a former prisoner, or a sailor, or a member in a biker gang, but tattooed skin no longer carries the same stigma. Men and women sport tattoos under their tailored suits, Hollywood stars proudly display their body art, and according to a U.S. News & World Report article, there are over 20,000 tattoo shops in the United States.
A survey conducted by Harris Interactive may actually prove a logical connection between tattoos and belly dance. It revealed that 26% of tattooed Americans reported having a tattoo made them feel more attractive, and 34% said it made them feel sexier and more comfortable in their own skin. Could there be a correlation?
A large percentage of women do not take belly dance classes with performing in mind. They do it for exercise or for the socialization. The dance itself can give women a sense of empowerment; belly dance teachers see it many times. A new student may prefer to remain in the back of the room, perhaps keeping her eyes downcast, but as the weeks pass, she gets a sparkle in her eye and willingly moves to the front of the room, closer to the mirrors. Her confidence level rises, not just with her ability, but with her very self.
Amy Vidrine, a belly dancer from Arizona admits that, "according to some,I probably have too many (tattoos). Her body art includes Dragons, a wizard, a xenomorph alien (from the Alien movies), a Celtic cat, the Rebel Alliance and Imperial symbols from Star Wars. "I could go on!" she added. "I will still continue to get tattoos, because I like them and I feel they help me express who I am."
"Dance does the same thing," Amy said. "It is part of who I am." Although her tattoos were not inspired by belly dance, she does have a few inspired ones in mind.
Rebeka - Aludra another belly dancer said "I am a dancer, and I come from a family who has body art. I didn't just pick a pretty I picked a tattoo that represented me. I think your body art should say something about you!"
Not all dancers want tattoos, nor does every tattooed woman want to learn belly dance, but comfort level within one’s own skin is priceless, even if aided by the sting of a tattoo gun or the jingle of a coined hip scarf.