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Men Have Always Danced

Updated: Jun 16, 2023

By Drake von Trapp, MA

With the advent of video archives and analyses of various European travel writers, many

have claimed that male concert (1) dancers are as new to belly dance history as the 19th century. The popular narrative is that, after the 1834 ban (2) went into effect, Egypt became inundated with male khawal dancers, effectively replacing the ghawazi. This notion comes from Morroe Berger’s article (1961), “The Arab Danse du Ventre.” This is usually framed the way Abigail Keyes phrases it in The Salimpour Compendium, that the male dancers “filled a void” left by the ghawazi. Similarly, Wendy Buonaventura in her book Serpent of The Nile writes, “With the ghawazee gone from Cairo, boy dancers grew in number and popularity. They appeared disguised as women, aping the women's dance and, according to some witnesses, made it more salacious than the ghawazee had done” (2010, 68–69). However, the narrative that the “boy dancers” suddenly appeared after the ban went into effect is not quite accurate. Stavros Stavrou Karayanni criticizes this popular misunderstanding,


Berger footnotes Lane as his source, yet Lane nowhere says that boys came

along to substitute the girls in public performances. In fact, Lane’s phobia

regarding the khawals is such that he even denies they were a large population:

“the number of these male performers,” he insists, “is very small” (389).

Regardless, Wendy Buonaventura reiterates that same information as Berger,

presenting it as historical fact in Serpent of the Nile (68). These inferences and conclusions require further revision because despite being appealing in their

historical tidiness, their character seems rather simplistic. (2004, 94–95,

emphasis added)


Karayanni’s point is that the popular understanding of where male khawal dancers come from lacks necessary complexity and nuance. While they did likely ascend to a higher degree of visibility after the 1834 ban, given the vacancy left by the publicly performing ghawazi, they did not suddenly pop out of the ground. The khawal dancers were popular entertainers with native audiences long before the 1834 ban (Fraser 2015, 81; Shay 2000, 150).

The most commonly referenced passages about the predecessors of male belly dancers

focus on two main types: the köçekler and the khawalat. Mentioned less often are performers such as the batcha, the mukhannathun, and my favorite reference, a passage in George Dimitri Sawa’s 2019 book that mentions three highly skilled male dancers, or raqqas. Before we get to my favorite, I’ll offer a brief overview of the aforementioned dancers in reverse chronological order relative to the year they are referenced in the written record.

The batcha are dancing boys from Tashkent, which is present-day the capital of Uzbekistan. They are written about briefly by Eugene Schuyler from his book Turkistan: Notes of a Journey in Russian Turkistan, Kokand, Buhkara and Kuldja. He describes Islamic “prudery”

as prohibitive to women dancing, but due to the “desire of... witnessing a graceful spectacle,” the boys and youths would take the place of the dancing girls. They are written about as delightful and beloved by their audiences. The dancing is hard to describe, according to Schuyler, but he did defend that it was graceful and athletic. However, Schuyler suggests that most of the batcha do not gain social mobility, and many die prematurely from substance abuse (Monty 1986, 136–139).

The khawalat (plural for khawal) were dancing boys in Egypt who adopted feminine

mannerisms and dress, and our only written accounts of them are recorded in European travelogs between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. These dancers are subject to substantial historical conjecture around their behavior, costuming, and origins. They are often falsely depicted as subversive people who tried to pass themselves off as women, but this was purely a Western misunderstanding, as native audiences knew that these dancers were men, which contributed to their widespread appeal (Shay 2000, 239). European travelers generally found them disreputable.

Köçekler (plural for köçek) are the Turkish dancing boys who were similar to the

khawalat in how they adopted feminine mannerisms and dress, and like all public dancers in the Islamic Middle East, were of low social status. Keyes writes, “It is thought that when the

Ottoman Sultan banished the köçek from Istanbul, many of them filled the void left when

Muhammad ‘Ali Pasha banished the ghawazi from Cairo, and many of them were employed to dance at the same celebrations as would the ghawazi” (2015, 68). The köçekler were very

popular amongst the sultan’s infantrymen, the Janissaries, and were said to be so highly sought after that the Janissaries fought over them. Turkish scholar Metin And writes, “The popularity of the [köçekler] led to so much trouble and quarreling among the Janissaries that, finally, to preserve order in his army, Sultan Mahmud forbade their appearances. Many of them fled to Egypt, where they were employed by the Khedive Mehmet Ali Pașa. Finally so as to put an end to the riots, there was a law passed in 1857 which outlawed köçeks, prohibiting their performances” (1976, 141). Keyes and And suggest that some of the khawalat in Egypt were expatriated Turkish köçekler.

Historically, early predecessors to the Egyptian khawalat were the mukhannathun, male

entertainers popular in the Umayyad and Abbasid periods who were employed as dancers,

musicians, and comedians (Moreh 1998, 548). The mukhannathun adopted feminine mannerisms and dress, but were neither characterized by diverse sex traits nor a desire to live their lives as women (Zaharin and Pallotta-Chiarolli 2020, 2). (3) While I’ve found no written description of the dancing performed by the mukhannathun, we do know they were highly skilled interdisciplinary performers (2020, 5). The mukhannathun flourished for two generations until 717 with the rule of caliph Sulayman, who ordered all the mukhannathun in Medina to be castrated (Rowson 2003, 46, 57). (4) Though the mukhannath identity and social location survived the mass castration, there is little information about them for the rest of the Umayyad period. They did not reappear in the written record until after the year 750 when the Abbasids defeated and replaced the Umayyad.

And finally, my favorite reference, the dancing of “Ishaq,” “Kubaysh,” and “‘Abd al-

Salam.” In his 2019 book, Musical and Socio-Cultural Anecdotes from Kitāb al-Aghānī al-

Kabīr, Sawa provides translations from The Book of Songs, a collection of anecdotes curated by the scholar Abū al-Faraj al-Iṣfahānī from medieval Baghdad. Al-Iṣfahānī writes,

Ishaq al-Mawsili accompanied Mukhariq singing on a lute in which the strings were switched to show his virtuosity; [this was] a real tour de force as all the strings were tuned to new positions. He played it without any problems with the new string positions, or the rhythm, or anything else. Al-Wathiq marveled at his immense skill. Ishaq then got up, left the lute, and danced improvisationally as a result of the tarab (raqasa taraban) emanating from his virtuosic performance and Mukhariq's magnificent voice. By God, he was better at

dancing (ahsan raqsan) than Kubaysh and Abd al-Salam, who were among

the best dancers (arqas al-nas). Al Wathiq said, ‘No one reached the perfection

of his craft the way Ishaq did’ (Sawa 2019, 318, emphasis added).

This passage is exciting for many reasons. Not only does it show that male dancers have been visible in public performances, but that they were factored highly in the hierarchy of virtuosity. That is, they were considered to be skillful as well as beloved. Most exciting to me is that this anecdote harkens back to the tenth century, which makes this reference over one thousand years old, effectively proving that men have a long record of substantiated public performance. While the setting of this particular anecdote appears to be informal, given the impromptu nature described therein, Al Wathiq’s comment about Ishaq’s perfection in his craft implies that he had a dance pedigree beyond that of social dance. Therefore, it’s my opinion that this written record proves the presence of highly skilled male concert dancers in the Middle East.

In conclusion, while there are still many mysteries as to the lives of these male dancers,

there is no question as to their presence, significance, and impact on the global history of dance in the Middle East. Experts in the field, such as Ward, continue to expand the scholarship on these historical dancers. Domestically, there is much to be done in excavating our own dancers’ histories, and how those histories shaped the belly dance community in the United States.

1 “Concert” dance, as I am using it in this article, refers to dancing that is done by professional entertainers for an

audience. The opposite of this is called many things—folkloric dance, community dance, social dance, vernacular

dance, etc.—but its primary difference is the relationship between the performer and the audience. While there are

dancers who professionally perform folkloric styles, such as the Chicago-based dancer and musician Karim Nagi,

there is not the expectation that one has to be an experienced dancer to participate in folkloric dances.

Moreover, “folkloric” or vernacular dances are “dances of the people” (Bordeleon 2013, 39), but this does not make

them exclusively synonymous with unskilled dancers or rural settings. Folkloric Middle Eastern dances are often

homogenized under the belly dance diaspora, but it is prudent to note that they are not a monolithic “dance style.”

These regional dances all have sovereign individual identities, history, and cultural significance.

2 This is in reference to the 1834 ban on public female entertainers, which disproportionately affected the ghawazi,

who were known for being professional public dancers. Kathleen W. Fraser in her book Before They Were Belly

Dancers writes, “To sum up all information presently available, one concludes that a police ordinance, passed by the

cabinet of the viceroy, stated that the female entertainers, known often as ghawazi, were no longer allowed to use

the public streets in Cairo and Alexandria as locales for practicing their profession” (2015, 159). In her book The

Rise of Raqs Sharqi: Egyptian Belly Dance in Transition, Heather D. Ward says, “...the ghawazi would appear in

public spaces wearing these ‘interior’ garments. In this way, the ghawazi reinforced their lower-class association,

because only Egyptian women of the lower classes would appear in public with their faces unveiled; middle and

upper class women always donned appropriate modesty garments while in public” (2018, 50). Ward is saying that

the ghawazi were low-class professional female entertainers, and as this ban only affected public dancing, the

“awalim”—a separate type of skilled female entertainers—were less affected.


3 “The Arabic term for a trans woman is mukhannith as they want to change their biological sex characters, while mukhannath presumably do not/have not. The mukhannath or effeminate man is obviously male, but naturally behaves like a female…” (Zaharin and Pallotta-Chiarolli 2020, 2). Rather, they were characterized by a “languid” gait, voluntary effeminacy, a soft voice, and a sharp wit (ibid; Rowson 1991, 673).

4 Sulayman’s motives are widely debated, but a common interpretation focuses on his fears for the chastity of

women “tempted into immorality by the seductive songs” of the mukhannathun. Another theory claims that

Sulayman was appalled when he learned that mukhannathun leveraged their unique social location to indulge in

illicit bisexual affairs. Interestingly enough, it was the relations with women that upset Sulayman, not the relations

with men. “Neither homosexual behavior in itself nor any inherent immorality in the adoption of feminine dress and

behavior is offered as an explanation” for the crackdown on the mukhananthun (Rowson 2003, 46, 57). Homosexual

acts were more or less tolerated during this time period in the Middle East, and not seen as significantly more sinful

than other transgressions under Islamic law. In other words, the punitive actions by the caliph could have been more

motivated by protecting the modesty of the women in the household rather than punishing homosexual behavior.


About the author

Draconis "Drake" von Trapp is a professional belly dance performer, instructor, lecturer,

and researcher based in Chicago, IL. His dance background started in 2008 with American

cabaret and raqs sharqi, but he quickly gravitated towards fusion and cued improv styles. He

later pursued cross-training in contemporary modern, ballet, and Guinean dances.

Drake holds both a BA and MA in dance, with a post-master's certificate in multicultural

women's and gender studies. His research interests lie in how the intersections of gender,

masculinity, and performance operate in the context of American belly dance history.

For those interested in learning more about Drake’s research, he is offering a four-part

lecture series on Zoom starting in July, “Men in Belly Dance.” Registration information as well as his other published works are available for purchase on his website at

www.drakevontrapp.dance.


References


And, Metin. 1976. A Pictorial History of Turkish Dancing: From Folk Dancing to Whirling

Dervishes, Belly Dancing to Ballet. 1st ed. Çankaya-Ankara, Turkey: Dost Yayinlari.

Berger, Morroe. 1961. “The Arab Danse Du Ventre.” Dance Perspectives 10: 4–41.

Bordelon, Candace. 2013. “Finding “the Feeling”: Oriental Dance, Musiqa al- Gadid, and

Tarab.” In Belly Dance Around the World: New Communities, Performance and Identity,

edited by Caitlin E. McDonald and Barbara Sellers-Young. Jefferson, North Carolina,

and London: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers.

Buonaventura, Wendy. 2010. Serpent of the Nile: Women and Dance in the Arab World. 2nd

edition. Northampton: Interlink Books.

Fraser, Kathleen W. 2015. Before They Were Belly Dancers: European Accounts of Female

Entertainers in Egypt, 1760-1870. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.

Karayanni, Stavros Stavrou. 2004. Dancing Fear and Desire: Race, Sexuality, and Imperial

Politics in Middle Eastern Dance. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press.

Keyes, Abigail. 2015. The Salimpour School of Belly Dance Compendium, Volume 1: Beyond

Jamila’s Articles. Vol. 1. Berkeley: Suhaila International, LLC.

Monty, Paul Eugene. 1986. “Serena, Ruth St. Denis, and The Evolution of Belly Dance in

America (1876–1976).” PhD diss., New York: New York University.

Moreh, Shmuel. 1998. “Mukhannathun.” In Encyclopedia of Arabic Literature, 2: 548. Taylor &

Francis.

Rowson, Everett K. 1991. “The Effeminates of Early Medina.” Journal of the American Oriental

Society 111 no. 4: 671–93. https://doi.org/10.2307/603399.

Rowson, Everett K. 2003. “Gender Irregularity as Entertainment: Institutionalized Transvestism

at The Caliphal Court in Medieval Baghdad.” In Gender and Difference in the Middle

Ages, 45–72. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Sawa, George Dimitri. 2019. Musical and Socio-Cultural Anecdotes from Kitāb al-Aghānī al-

Kabīr. Leiden: Brill.

Shay, Anthony. 2000. “Dancing Boys.” Pomona Faculty Publications and Research.

https://scholarship.claremont.edu/pomona_fac_pub/473.

Ward, Heather D. 2018. Egyptian Belly Dance in Transition: The Raqs Sharqi Revolution, 1890-

1930. Illustrated edition. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company.

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