I’m not a good dancer. At all. I generally find that I can either coordinate my legs or my arms but that coordinating all four limbs together is too much for me to handle. In spite of this, on a whim, I signed up for belly dancing (or “al-raqs al-sharqy” in Arabic) in Amman, not really knowing much about what it entailed beyond wiggling your belly. I certainly didn’t realise that it would be such a powerful way to feel free from the harassment.
As it turned out, the first thing I learned was that your belly isn’t so crucial. It’s all about the shoulders and the hips. The second thing I learned was that it’s incredibly sexual, to the extent that, by comparison, most of the dancing you see in UK clubs looks practically Victorian in its level of prudishness. I left my dignity behind on the first day when, with somewhere around fifteen faces staring at me expectantly, I had to basically thrust the air and shimmy with my bum.
The sexuality of the dance defines the class, in a way. The class is all girls, mostly Jordanian nationals, and the class consists of little blushes and awkward giggles until one of us manages to pull off the move with an acceptable level of sass. For that second, the girl basically becomes Beyonce and there is a little round of applause in acknowledgement of the sexiness of the moment.
The interesting thing is the context in which we dance like this. Who are we dancing for? Before the lesson starts we cover all the windows with material so that no man can see. At least half of the women in the class wear headscarves; once the windows are covered they can remove the scarves and we can all start dancing.
There is something peculiarly liberating about this – dancing in such a sexual way knowing that men are not allowed to watch. The liberation comes not from the fact that men cannot watch, but from the fact that we’re still dancing like this even though men cannot watch. We’re dancing sexily just for us, for ourselves. The issue of what a man might think is a million miles from our minds. It feels like a celebration of female sexuality for itself.
In Amman, I live in an apartment above a family with three daughters. Sometimes they invite me over to dance with them in front of Arab Idol. When the girls’ father comes home, they quickly rush over to him and pull him into the other room because he’s not supposed to see me dance. If a man unrelated to them came into the room, he would not be able to see any of us dance. Again, there’s a peculiar liberation in this because it begs the question: who am I dancing for? And the answer is definitely not men.
I describe this as “peculiar”, though, because I believe that rules separating “male” and “female” in such a binary sense and implying that there is something potentially wrong with dancing together or in front of one another are not at all liberating for anyone of any gender. Had someone told me in advance that my dance lessons would be so hidden from men, I would probably have retorted that I would like to be able to dance in front of whomever I choose to dance in front of.
In some kind of paradox, I’m finding liberation within a convention of gender roles and restrictions that ultimately I don’t agree with. I don’t entirely understand how it’s possible to feel so free and so confined all at once. I just know that, when I’ve had a tough day of street harassment, dancing with a group of girls knowing that men are not allowed to watch feels like I’m reclaiming the body and the sexuality that those harassers tried to claim for themselves.