First Advisor

Michele R. Gamburd

Date of Publication


Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (M.A.) in Anthropology






Belly dance -- United States -- Sociological aspects, Orientalism in dance -- United States, Feminism and dance -- United States



Physical Description

1 online resource (vii, 143 p.) : ill.


Belly dance classes have become increasingly popular in recent decades in the United States. Many of the predominantly white, middle-class American women who belly dance proclaim that it is a source of feminist identity and empowerment that brings deeper meaning to their lives. American practitioners of this art form commonly explain that it originated from ritual-based dances of ancient Middle Eastern cultures and regard their participation as a link in a continuous lineage of female dancers. In contrast to the stigmatization and marginalization of public dance performers in the Middle East today, the favorable meaning that American dancers attribute to belly dance may indicate an imagined history of this dance. Based on ethnographic fieldwork conducted on the West Coast of the United States and Morocco in 2008-2009, I explore American belly dance utilizing theoretical contributions from feminism, Foucauldian discourse analysis, and postmodernism. I argue that an anthropological investigation of American belly dance reveals that its imagery and concepts draw from a larger discourse of Orientalism, connected to a colonial legacy that defines West against East, a process of othering that continues to inform global politics and perpetuates cultural imperialism. But the creative identity construction that American women explore through belly dance is a multi-layered and complex process. I disrupt the binary assumptions of Orientalist thinking, highlighting the heterogeneity and dynamic quality of this dance community and exploring emergent types of American belly dance. Rather than pretending to be the exotic Other, American belly dancers are inventing a new exotic Self. This cultural anthropological study contributes to a greater understanding of identity and society by demonstrating ways that American belly dancers act as agents, creatively and strategically utilizing discursive motifs to accomplish social and personal goals.


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Portland State University. Dept of Anthropology

Persistent Identifier