The notion of the body as “a medium of culture” (Bordo, 1990, p. 13), and specifically the female body as a site on which the oppression of patriarchy is inscribed or played out has been discussed by many feminist theorists (Bartky, 1988; Bordo, 1990; Dimen, 1989). More recently there has been increasing interest in the material body as a source of kinesthetic pleasure rather than, or simultaneously as, a site of inscription and oppression. In searching for new ways to think and talk about the body, there is a recognition that it cannot be seen simply as either a site of oppression or pleasure, but rather as a site where many apparently contradictory and opposing discourses can coexist and where interesting and complex mixes of pleasure and oppression can occur simultaneously (Shilling, 1993).
In this paper we attempt to explore these complexities through a study of belly dancing. This is a form of physical activity with an increasingly large following. On one hand, it seems possible to conceive of belly dancing as ‘feminist project’ as it offers possibilities for challenging hegemonic constructions of femininity and for women’s empowerment; on the other hand, many of the practices associated with belly dancing work to construct discourses which sit uncomfortably with feminist understandings of the body. This paper then becomes an exploration of the complex meanings which constitute the contemporary practice of belly dancing, with reference to a specific dance class in a regional city in Australia.
While we are using the description ‘feminist project’ as a guiding principle for this paper, we also recognize that this is not a totalizing concept and will be different for different women in different contexts. We also recognize that the attribute “feminist” is itself not unitary but that feminist theory takes many forms, takes up different issues and defines its objects of study in a variety of ways. In the paper we draw on feminist post-structuralist theory to examine the various discourses and social practices of belly dancing. This allows us to recognize that in talking about the dance, the women interviewed may draw on a wide range of discourses which are concerned with women and their bodies, and which in their different ways may be characterized as feminist. On the other hand, the consequences of taking up one discourse rather than another have implications for how women are located and locate themselves in relations of power. We are wary, for instance, of essentializing discourses which attempt to naturalize sexual differences in a context where male and female attributes are often seen as constituting the opposite sides of a binary where those attributes associated with women are regarded as of lesser value.