“My gender nonconforming son is 9 and recently discovered belly dancing. He is teaching himself from YouTube videos that I have carefully prescreened. He’s good at it and I’m kind of proud of his grace and fluidity, but I am very conflicted about indulging an interest that most of society perceives as highly sexualized. Would I be letting a daughter do hip and belly rolls? We’ve set ground rules: OK at home but not appropriate out in the world until he’s older (our ‘make-up is for middle school’ rule.)”
Question Submitted Anonymously
Answered by Julie Tarney
Wow…a nine-year-old boy who’s good at belly dancing? That’s amazing! I can understand how proud you are of his poise and dance abilities. Seriously, have you ever tried an abdominal roll? I wish I had that much coordination and body control.
Most of society knows very little about the origins of what we call “belly dancing”—I have to admit I didn’t know much either. Here are a few things I learned since receiving your question:
• The correct name for “belly dancing” is Middle Eastern dance.
• Middle Eastern dance dates back to 1000 B.C.
• Middle Eastern dance is part of the culture in many Arabic-speaking countries.
• Children learn their country of origin’s folk dances from grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins at weddings and other family celebrations.
• The name “belly dance” was adopted in the U.S. when Middle Eastern dance premiered at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. (That was the Victorian era. Ahem.)
• The term “belly dance” is considered fairly offensive in the Middle East, where it’s called Raqs Sharqi (pronounced “rock sharky”) and translates as “oriental dance.”
I think your approach to your child’s newfound interest in a cultural dance is spot on. You prescreen his tutorials and have age-related ground rules for in-home vs. out-of-home. While you’re being thoughtful in handling his new hobby, I do understand your conflict. On the one hand, most of society holds the hardline misconception that Middle Eastern dance is intended to be seductive and therefore not appropriate for children. On the other hand, your child has discovered a performing art form that he loves. He’s able to express himself through creative movement, and he’s good at it!
He’s a gender nonconforming kid, so he’s probably already experienced society’s rigid assignment of gender to toys, clothes, and colors. Those established norms are changing slowly, but still, many adhere to outdated “rules.” Chances are he’s also been exposed to the erroneous belief that recreational dance is “too feminine” an activity for boys. Now he’ll be exposed to another aspect of society’s negative misperceptions. This time, instead of ballet or jazz, limiting beliefs will be aimed at a cultural dance. And the bias extends to adult dancers too.
As parents of gender nonconforming kids we must be mindful not to let society’s restricted thinking limit our children’s creativity, self-expression, and inner authenticity. Please know that in this piece, I would make the same suggestions were it your daughter who’d discovered Middle Eastern dance.
If you haven’t already, start educating your son about Middle Eastern dance, and give him some ways to talk about it that will inform others and elevate the art. Undoubtedly the day will come on the playground when some double-jointed kid will ask, “Can you do this?” while bending their thumb back to touch their forearm. Before you know it, another kid is inverting their elbow or wiggling their ears. Your kid should be able to show off his abdominal control!
When you mention your son’s new hobby to relatives or friends, you might get a raised eyebrow or two, followed by the questions you’ll half-expect but still cringe to hear. Queries like, “What? Isn’t that type of dancing for strippers?” Or, “Isn’t that erotic dancing?” Or, “Is that type of dance appropriate for children?” Think about arming your son with some prepared answers. In other words, the same kind of replies you may have armed him with if he liked to wear pink shorts in kindergarten or carry a Dora the Explorer backpack in first grade.
Ever since the turn of the last century, the entertainment industry, followed by movies and TV, continues to portray many cultural dances as erotic. I mean, have you seen the Tango or the Samba performed on Dancing with the Stars lately? So there are some long-standing barriers to overcome when it comes to your son’s new favorite pastime.
But there’s a good chance that he and you can both become ambassadors for centuries-old folk dances. Encourage your son to examine the cultures, traditions, and history of the Middle Eastern and North African countries where the dances originated. Maybe he’ll even do a Social Studies report on Middle Eastern dance in school some day.
In the meantime, continue to be proud of him. Encourage his love of dance. Be happy he’s found a hobby that’s both fun and good aerobic exercise. And if you’re lucky, maybe you can get him to teach you an ab roll.
Julie Tarney is an advocate for LGBTQIA youth, speaker and author. Her award-winning memoir, My Son Wears Heels: One Mom’s Journey from Clueless to Kickass (University of Wisconsin Press 2016) and blog of the same name are about her experiences raising a gender nonconforming child in the Midwest in the 1990s and what she learned from him along the way about gender identity, gender expression and self-acceptance. Julie is a board member for the It Gets Better Project, contributes to HuffPost Queer Voices and is an active member of PFLAG NYC’s Safe Schools program. She was named a “Favorite Queer Hero of 2016” by HuffPost and one of BlogHer’s “Voices of the Year” in 2015. A longtime resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Julie now lives in Brooklyn, New York, where she can often be found cheering in the audience at her creative director and sometimes-drag-artist son Harry’s performances.