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Dancing and body image: Comparing belly dancers, hip hop dancers and exotic dancers

By Christin Bowman

*From the SPARK Research! Blog Archive: This blog was originally written for SPARK, a girl-fueled organization working to ignite an anti-racist gender justice movement

When I was a kid, gymnastics was my life. I spent hours and hours at the gym, and I was closer to my teammates than I was to my schoolmates. At school, I wrote all of my book reports and biography assignments about gymnasts, and I spent every recess balancing, swinging, flipping, and dancing. I felt the most free and comfortable when I was doing gymnastics. The training taught me how to use my body, and hone my body’s skills to accomplish exciting things. I was strong and flexible and focused.

That is, until one fateful day. It was a hot summer afternoon, and the doors to the gym were propped wide open to let in the breeze. My teammates and I were called into the dance studio for a talking-to from our coach. “It’s time to start thinking about the kinds of foods you eat,” she explained to the room full of 9-year-olds, “Gymnasts need to maintain a slender body, so no more hamburgers!”

A slender body? I thought to myself, Is there something wrong with my body? It had never occurred to me that my body needed to look a certain way for me to be a good gymnast. Don’t get me wrong, I was well aware that my favorite sport had a lot to do with performing. “Smile at the judges!” was our coaches’ constant refrain. But I had thought that what mattered most to those judges wasn’t my smile, but the ways I could control the difficult movements of my body to produce a performance of strength, grace, and skill. Now all I could think about was not looking fat.

Gymnastics is one of those interesting sports in which athleticism is paired with femininity – dance is another one. Dancers, like gymnasts, have to be supertough and superstrong, but they also usually have to be graceful and feminine – a tricky combo when it comes to things like body image (how you think about your own body). Research has shown, though, that not all dance is created equal. For example, ballet dancers[1] and exotic dancers (exotic dancers are defined as women who dance in sexualized settings for the pleasure of others)[2] are more likely to have negative body image than non-dancers, but hip hop dancers[3] and modern dancers[4] are more likely to have positive body image than non-dancers. Researchers think this might be partly because hip hop and modern dance are more “athletically-focused,” while ballet and exotic dance are more “appearance-focused.”

But what about types of dance that straddle the line between focusing on appearance and focusing on athleticism? What about gymnastics? Or perhaps even more apropos… belly dancing?

Psychologists Tiggemann, Coutts, and Clark[5] set out to discover if belly dancers have better body image the way hip hop dancers do, or if they have lower body image the way exotic dancers do. They recruited a bunch of belly dancers and non-dancers, and asked them to take a survey that measured things like body image and self-objectification.

Full disclosure: I was on the edge of my seat as I read this paper. As someone who doesn’t know a lot about belly dancing, I could totally see the results going either way. On the one hand, being a belly dancer means that you have to learn how to use your muscles and move your body in a very particular way. Just like gymnastics or other sports, belly dancing forces you to connect with your body, feel your body, and use your body – feminists would say that in this way, belly dancing, like other sports, is an embodying activity. But on the other hand, being a belly dancer means performing a sorta sexualized dance, in revealing clothing. There’s all that male gaze stuff to consider.

Not knowing what you’re going to find is what makes research freaking awesome. And in this case, the results do not disappoint.

It turns out belly dancing is a lot more like hip hop or modern dancing than exotic dancing. Even though there are sexual components to belly dancing (read: appearance-focus), belly dancers find themselves much more concerned with the athletic components of their craft. They love belly dance because it allows them to reconnect with their bodies, it makes them feel confident, and it actually helps them move beyond the gaze of others.[6] Belly dancing makes women feel embodied.

Here’s another reason research is rad: sometimes when you’re finished, you have more questions than answers.

The researchers in this study think belly dancing is different from exotic dancing because exotic dancing is usually done professionally, while belly dancing is usually recreational. If belly dancing is such an embodied activity, what about other recreational forms of dance or sport that blend both athleticism and appearance? What about those pole dancing classes I keep hearing about? What about figure skating or – wait for it – gymnastics?

We’ll have to wait for researchers to catch up with my burning questions, but I will tell you this: I wasn’t in love with gymnastics as a kid because I thought it was sexy. I wasn’t in it for the approval of the judges, my coaches, or anyone else. That’s why when my coach told us to ditch the hamburgers, I was crushed. Gymnastics, for me, had never been about what my body looked like. I loved gymnastics because it made me feel alive. It taught me to take up space with my body and love what my body could do and it made me feel powerful. If belly dancing feels to belly dancers anything like gymnastics felt to me, I say, keep on dancing!

[1] Pierce, E. F., & Daleng, M. L. (1998). Distortion of body image among elite female dancers. Perceptual and motor skills, 87(3), 769-770.

[2] Downs, D. M., James, S., & Cowan, G. (2006). Body objectification, self-esteem, and relationship satisfaction: A comparison of exotic dancers and college women. Sex Roles, 54(11-12), 745-752.

[3] Swami, V., & Tovée, M. J. (2009). A comparison of actual-weight discrepancy, body appreciation, and media influence between street-dancers and non-dancers. Body Image, 6, 304–307.

[4] Langdon, S., & Petracca, G. (2010). Tiny dancer: Body image and dancer identity in female modern dancers. Body Image, 7, 360–363.

[5] Tiggemann, M., Coutts, E., & Clark, L. (2014). Belly Dance as an Embodying Activity?: A Test of the Embodiment Model of Positive Body Image. Sex Roles, 71(5-8), 197-207.

[6] Moe, A. M. (2012). Beyond the belly: An appraisal of middle eastern dance (aka belly dance) as leisure. Journal of Leisure Research, 44, 201-233.

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