The lights dim. The beat of the music fills the stage. The camera’s scope settles upon Captain Robert of Abney Park and the young woman at his side. Dressed in a leather halter top, an aviator cap, and voluminous skirts, Magdalene Veen sways on stage as Captain Robert croons the lyrics to “Death of a Hero”. Again and again, the camera returns to capture her lithe form as she twirls and shimmies. Taken at Convergence 13 in 2007, this performance is available on Abney Park’s website and not only showcases the band’s steampunk aesthetic but also adds a non-Eurocentric aspect physically symbolized by Ms. Veen’s dancing. Although Abney Park’s incorporation of belly dance into its stage show is most likely a carryover from its gothic dance roots and world music influences, it has nevertheless helped inspire many belly dancers and steampunks alike to add goggles, bloomers, and corsets to their dancing.
In fact, steampunk bellydance has been on the rise. Several belly dance companies—such as Read My Hips in Chicago, Pavlov’s Hips in Kansas City, and Troop Moirae in Massachusetts—have done steamy performances that can be viewed on their troop websites or YouTube. As another sign of its blooming popularity, the dancer Tempest, best known as the co-producer of Gothla US, the largest Gothic/Fusion Festival in North America, named the most recent festival “Cogs in Motion” and conducts steampunk belly dance workshops across the United States.
Steampunk belly dance may seem out of place in a genre known for its Victoriana. Historically, belly dance existed for thousands of years in northern Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia. Dancing techniques vary widely, with each region engaging different parts of the body in a series of various undulations, shimmies, and circles—the hips, the torso, their arms, and even through certain facial expressions and hand gestures. However, ever since European explorers made their way eastward, accounts of belly dance have been recorded in their travelogues since the 1600s. With the rise of Western imperialism in the nineteenth century, many travelers from Europe and America added belly dance to their Far East itineraries: the most famous account is French author Gustave Flaubert’s series of letters about his intimate encounters with Egyptian dancer Kuchuk Hanem (and just one of many cases of Western associations between sex, prostitution, and the Eastern woman).
Middle Eastern dance was showcased at many world’s fairs throughout the late nineteenth century, but the dance form achieved popular recognition in the West at Chicago’s Columbian World’s Exposition in 1893. According to Anthony Shay and Barbara Sellers-Young, authors of Belly Dance: Orientalism, Transnationalism, and Harem Fantasy, Sol Bloom, manager of the Midway Plaisance, promoted his Egyptian dancers’ performances as “belly dance” in order to attract audiences. Academic professor Zeynep Çelik spoke about how the press couldn’t get enough of the “new obsession” at the World’s Exposition. Thousands flocked to see the performers and newspapers cheekily remarked how “the soiled devotees of Constantinople and Cairo corrupted Western morals by the seductive allurements of the danse-du-ventre.” Thus, ever since its first forays into Western cultural consciousness, belly dance has been (and remains) associated with hyper-sexualized Orientalist imagery. Its resurgence as a popular dance form today has triggered concern within the Muslim community about popular misconceptions of Middle Eastern culture. As frequent contributor Fatemeh writes on the blog Muslimah Media Watch, “I take offense at the presentation of Middle Eastern ‘culture’ through things like transparent veils, coin necklaces, and henna tattoos because reducing the Middle Eastern experience to some jingly coins and a scimitar takes the humanity right out of us.”
So the position of belly dance within steampunk art is a polemical one. Dancers have interpreted steampunk as a current fad, a fashion aesthetic, and a form of neo-Victorian inspiration. Yet the intersection of steampunk and belly dance raises the concern about whether steampunk sanctions romanticized Orientialism. Not only that, but questions over co-opting come into play. Co-opting in general is defined as the use of something from a particular culture by members outside that culture. This “use” isn’t inherently bad, but can cross the line of cultural respect between the users and the originators. So, by applying a Westernized aesthetic to a dance form that has non-Western origins, does appreciation for the cultural roots of the dance get lost in its Europeanized glamour? Does the participation and emphasis upon Eurocentric, Western dancers in the community overshadow the historically marginalized dancers who originated it? With steampunk, is the West “stealing” belly dance from its native culture? These questions aren’t the easiest to answer but one way to investigate them is by looking at how belly dancers interpret and use steampunk in their art and how modern belly dance itself became established as an art form.
And of course, I have to thank the following steampunk belly dancers who offered to be interviewed for this article. All of them contributed unique perspectives and insight into the art of belly dance and concerning steampunk; this article would not be possible without their help. They are spotlighted under the cut, along with my research sources for the article.