Belly dancing v. pole dancing and the “culture of rape”


A joke I recently learned:


Who’s there?

A feminist.

That’s not funny!!!


My daily e-mails from Living Social (a company that offers deep discounts on restaurants, goods and activities) often include a great deal on pole dancing lessons.

This makes me a little crazy, hard as I try to be a light-hearted feminist.

It makes me a little crazy because, while I have deep respect for women earning a living by pole dancing and know that many of them are working hard to stay safe and pay the bills at the same time, I really hate that this has become a now almost passe form of exercise. Shrill as I may sound, it’s just not feminist.

Belly dancing, on the other hand: totally feminist.


The funny thing about pole dancing and belly dancing is they have the same potential result: women feel sexy and desirable, men are drawn to them, and chemistry can take over. So what makes one feminist and the other anti-feminist?

It’s not complicated: pole dancing is all about how to appeal to the man, how to excite him. Don’t get me wrong–it’s a killer workout from what I hear. But a friend of mine who did a pole dance (or strip tease?) workout video said one of the tips is to make sure to put your finger near your mouth a lot…I’m assuming that’s not in order to strengthen your pointer finger muscles. (For an odd but interesting reflection on a pole dancing class at Cambridge in 2010 as well as mistreatment of British politicians’ wives, click here.)

According to my mother (who has taken belly dancing at the Anne Arundel county senior center), belly dancing was originally meant to be performed by women for women. Since the 1960s it’s intertwined itself with feminism in America. Friends who have taken the classes feel more in touch with their bodies and feel sexier and more powerful and more desirable. That doesn’t mean it’s not complicated, of course. In an interesting reflection by a feminist belly dancer, Nadia, she quotes Andrea Deagon about the inherent conflict within belly dance: “Belly dance exists at a point of conflict between women’s expressions of fundamental truths, and patriarchal interpretations of this expression. It is not an easy place to be” (“Feminism and Belly Dance”).


I think all of this is rattling around in my head because my fatherland of India is currently stirred up over the brutal gang rape and manslaughter of a 23-year-old woman riding home on a bus from a movie with a friend. Arundhati Roy, world-renowned author and social commentator, has framed it as part of a culture of rape in India with significant class and caste issues embedded within it. Forced sex usually has little to do with sexuality–it has to do with power–but this article from Foreign Policy also highlights some devastating statistics about the acceptability of forced sex (by men on women, including their wives–the statistic is 1 in 4 Indian men have forced women to have sex with them) in a culture that diminishes women through the gender gap created by infanticide and through the Madonna/whore dichotomy that runs rampant (there as well as here, I should add, as someone who gets sexually harrassed all over the world).


I don’t know if it matters what kind of exercise classes we take in the face of such widespread physical harm. (Soldiers Against Violence Everywhere, or SAVE, here in Oakland, just held a vigil for all the women beaten to death by their husbands this year, in a city with an Asian American woman mayor and a city council that has strong female leadership and with women on the police force and powerful women pastors and imams and rabbis.) I don’t know that it makes a difference that we choose sexuality that empowers us instead of sexuality solely meant to excite our partners, when men may interpret any type of sexuality as being about them. I don’t know if it makes any difference that we express ourselves as powerful when people (people I love who work with strong feminist men and women every day) make music videos where they need “sexy women with pouty lips and a big booty” (for a video about stopping the violence in Oakland? Really, friend?).

A few weeks ago, a teenage nephew of mine in India posted an image on facebook of this shrieking harpy shouting “I’m a feminist! Treat me as an equal! And I’m a lady! Pay for things and hold the door open for me!” I asked whether that’s actually the way he experiences women in his daily life. “It’s just a joke, aunty. Why so serious?” he responded. I said he wouldn’t find it so funny when he had a daughter. And when I read this EXCELLENT commentary on the way we (South Asian women in particular, but I think all of us who are female might recognize ourselves in it) swallow the anti-feminist slights that result in a culture that always asks, “What did she do that invited the attack?”, I remembered my conversation with my nephew and wish I could find a way to stand with my sisters in a way that is powerful and not humorless. (Although as one colleague pointed out, “We’re not always lighthearted because THIS ISH AIN’T FUNNY.”)


How we choose to represent ourselves is half the struggle. I am truly grateful for the men I know who bother to ask what it’s like to navigate this. (Even my feminist male friends usually assume they understand already–and you know what happens when you assume.)


I continue to feel both outrage and rage that we actually pay to participate in our own oppression (those pole dancing classes aren’t cheap, even with a Living Social discount) and sometimes impotence that people I love think feminism is worth making fun of. I seethe today over that 23-year-old woman but also the 637 reported cases of rape in India and the thousands of unreported cases, including rapes of Dalit and Adivasi women that police don’t care about or in some cases have actually perpetrated against women in prison. Because this ish ain’t funny.


But maybe as women claim our bodies and support one another’s comfort with our bodies as NOT inviting harrassment by men, and as men grow in recognizing that the love, the friendship, and the sex are all better when we all are comfortable in our bodies and are not assuming that said comfort is about the other person….maybe we can have a culture of bellydancing and not pole dancing. And maybe men will be liberated in their own selves as well…

And maybe the next time my nephew answers the door to a feminist, he’ll say “Lucky me!” instead of “That’s not funny!”

7 thoughts on “Belly dancing v. pole dancing and the “culture of rape”

  1. Until Shakira, belly dancing was not well known in the United States. Shakira’s ability to crossover into mainstream music essentially changed the American imagination concerning belly dancing. Belly dancing is now marketed to women of all colors and shapes. It is now a workout, a sexy way to achieve a firm body. There are DVDs, including Bellydancing : The Sensuous Workout with Shamira and Belly Dancers: Fitness for Beginners . There are even belly-dance classes from coast to coast, from New York City to San Francisco . All of these DVDs and classes emerged post-Shakira, and they have been successful. Belly-dancing, however, is not a new dance. Indeed, Belly Dancers: Fitness for Beginners states on its back cover , “This ancient form of artistic movement has been practiced for thousands of years and remains exceptionally popular throughout the world. Once performed as entertainment for royalty and common people alike, these beautiful movements evolved with strong links to womanhood, sensuality, and even fertility. But Bellydance is also one of the safest, simplest, and most effective ways to achieve lasting fitness.” Woman hood. Sensuality. Fertility. Sex….is available to all women, if only they belly-danced.


  2. While I think this article is well-intentioned, I believe it gets pole fitness all wrong.

    I’ve been practicing pole for over a year now. (In my day job, I’m an attorney who works on issues of poverty and sexual violence.) I have found it to be an empowering activity. It has allowed me to move beyond concerns over how my body looks and focus instead on what my body can do. Very few things have filled me with the same degree of self-confidence than mastering a new inversion (one of the moves where you flip yourself upside down).

    I’ve also never come across a more supportive exercise community. No matter your age, weight or ability, your fellow pole artists will support you.

    Moreover, both my studio and several other studios in the United States have engaged in activism to support anti-sexual violence groups and women’s shelters.

    I’ve had several friends who love belly-dancing. It’s not a competition.

    For a more comprehensive view of pole, I suggest you check out Jenyne Butterfly’s work or Felix Cane’s work with Cirque du Soleil. Male polers like Eugeny Greshinov are also worth a look. It will give you a different view of it all.

    I’d also suggest that you focus the blame for rape where it belongs: on the rapist. Blaming pole dance is another way of telling women, “if you didn’t do so many slutty things, you wouldn’t get raped”.


  3. I completely agree with Brett Landis,

    and since she already exposed some key points, the only thing I’d like to add is that the writer is completely wrong when states that “pole dancing is all about how to appeal to the man”. That’s an dancing style option, but you could use sexy movements around a door frame for the same purpose, and nobody is going to say that door frames are not feminist.

    Being a pole dancer myself, I can assure that it is not all about how the others “see you”, but how you feel and enjoy yourself.
    So yes, pole dancing is perfectly feminist.

    Regarding the “finger aroud the mouth” anecdote, you better get informed about the diversity of dancing styles that can be applied to pole dancing.


  4. 5 years later I hope you have more of an open mind.. Your text is so prude in so many levels. It is a little insane you feminists so concerned in what pleasures man (just to go against it) ..
    I am a prouder pole dancer for 4 years. I haven`t poled to pleasure any man, I have a pole in the middle of my living room and I never dance to my husband and he actually hates the pole, since I am always asking him to spot me or take a picture (and normally it requires a lot of attempts – which are not sexy at all). The world would be a much better place without prudes and false moralists. And it disgusts me moralists who hide themselves behind a cause. So you wanna be moralist and judgemental and feminism gives you the power to be like that, while preaching you wanna a better world. You people are so pathetic.


    1. The main reason I leave this post up is so people have the chance to tell me I’m wrong. I’m still not convinced I’m wrong in general but I have been really grateful to learn how I should not universalize anything. Even things I see as anti-feminist can bring power and meaning for other women. That’s a good lesson for me to be re-grounded in. I believe your writing suggests you had every capacity to communicate in a less ugly fashion (“you people are so pathetic” is not a helpful way to communicate), but I also understand that when people feel attacked, it is not easy to be kind in response. So thanks for sharing how your experience is very different from mine and helping me grow. Maybe if you really are trying to bring me around, don’t attack me personally in the process. In this particular moment in our nation, I think we need more kindness, especially towards people we believe might be mostly on our side but with some significant blind spots.


  5. Hi Sandhya,
    I am really sorry you have to reply to hateful commentary like that. Pole dancers and feminists have many things in common: for one, we are not all hateful, but occasionally you get a bad fruit…
    I am a feminist and a pole dancer and I agree with previous comments of Irene and Brett Landis, I think you’ve got a great article up until suggesting that pole dancers are contributing to the very rape culture we are criticising by performing a sexual dance. It’s the same victim-blaming you are outlining in your third-last paragraph: “what did she do to get attacked?”. I also find anti-pole dancing articles are generally written by non-pole-dancers. Try it out! 🙂 I genuinely believe all people should be feminists and pole dancers. There are no negatives in it! (Apart from crying over not being able to nail that very inversion trick Brett is talking about…)
    Also, thank you for living this post up – reading it and the comments really helped me and I recommend you read this fantastic article by one of all-time stars of pole dancing Michelle Shimmy – she is my idol feminist and a pole dancer and she has just published this article earlier this year on the intersection of feminism and pole: .


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