The Tattooed Belly Dancer

by Jasmin Jahal, April 2003 (back)

Sonya is a very talented dancer whom I have nurtured from her first day in oriental dance class. She has mastered her lessons so well that over the past 6 years, she was featured in both of my dance companies and now holds a teaching position in Chicago at my School of Authentic Mid East Belly Dance. I trust her abilities to perform oriental dance in its most beautiful and artistic way. And yet, I found myself frowning with worry when I saw that she had once again added to her collection of permanent body art. You see, Sonya has several large, elaborate tattoos adorning her arms, legs and torso. Why did I frown? Not because I have any personal feelings against tattoos nor because I thought the artwork was of poor quality or design. Actually, I worried for her as one of my protégés because, from personal knowledge, I am aware that the average Middle Eastern audience would not appreciate her tattoos, resulting in Sonya being unsuccessful in acquiring the jobs to perform for such audiences. Plainly speaking, it is not in her best interest as a classical oriental dancer to have a prominent tattoo.

This form of prejudice is most unfortunate. It means that a performer of lesser quality but with no body art will have a better chance of getting a dance job over a tattooed performer who offers true dance ability. And yet, when I look over the youthful torsos of my students (and I see about 400 women every week!), I find that many of these ladies have at least one tattoo that would be quite obvious when wearing an oriental dance costume. Obviously, tattooing is enjoying popularity in the Western world today. This presents a problem for those who want to be a professional belly dancer.

As an entertainer and an artist, I like to believe in the ideal that quality will always be sought out over quantity. No one likes to admit there is discrimination going on in any realm. Why do the Middle Eastern audiences tend to dislike belly dancers with tattoos? Because tattooing is not a particularly Arab tradition and the Muslims strictly disapprove of it. Tattoos are not allowed in Islam. It is considered the equivalent of disfiguring the body, an unnecessary change to the natural state of the body, which is what Allah created.

It is curious that Islam rejects all versions of tattoo artwork, even that not depicting human figures, because this form of body decoration has been around for a long time and some roots are found in the Middle East. Tattoo instruments were discovered at several archeological sites throughout Europe, dating back to the Upper Paleolithic era 10,000 BC to 38,000 BC. Remember that with death, the body deteriorates, thus we have no physical proof of the tattoo artwork. However, in 1991, a body of a man was found in the ice of the Alps. The frozen body dated back to 3300 BC and displayed almost 60 tattoos.

Throughout recorded history, tattoos have always held an important role in ritual and tradition. Tattooing was a custom in Egypt during the time of construction of the great pyramids of Gizeh (2686-2493 BC). Egyptians had started the process of tattooing with needles at that point. Even clay dolls found at archeological digs were adorned with tattoo-like designs and serve to prove that tattooing was popular.

Written records, physical remains, and works of art relevant to Egyptian tattooing have been virtually ignored by most Egyptologists influenced by prevailing social and religious attitudes. However, there have been mummies recovered which exhibit the art. One of the most famous is the mummy of Amunet. She was a priestess of Hathor, the ancient Egyptian goddess of love. In 1891, archeologists discovered her mummified remains near Thebes. She lived sometime between 2160 BC and 1994 BC. Amunet’s mummy was very well preserved, and her body clearly displayed tattoos of lines and dots. Parallel lines were tattooed on the arms and thighs. An elliptical design was tattooed below her belly button.

Statues buried with male mummies have been found that are decorated with similar designs to Amunet. These statues were symbols of fertility and rejuvenation.

A second mummy was also found depicting this same type of line pattern. Interestingly enough she was identified as a female dancer of the same period.   She is tattooed with diamond-shaped patterns on her arms and chest. Also, the dancer had several patterns of dots and dashes over her abdomen in geometric patterns.

This geometric pattern was similarly found on mummies in ancient Nubia, in a geographic area from Aswan in Egypt to Khartoum in the Sudan. Excavations uncovered numerous mummies of adolescent and adult women with blue tattoos in the same pattern as those found on the Egyptian mummies.

The art of tattooing developed during the Middle Kingdom of ancient Egyptian times and flourished beyond. As the Egyptian empire expanded, so did tattooing, spreading to Crete, Greece, Arabia and Persia. All tattooed Egyptian mummies found to date are exclusively female, and usually these women were associated with ritualistic practice. Tattooing became even more popular in Egyptian society during the New Kingdom, around 1550 BC. The patterns of dashes and dots were replaced with abstract representations of the goddess Bes found on the thighs of mummies who were dancers or musicians. Bes was believed to connote carnal love. This form of tattooing may have been reserved for only the followers of this goddess and for representing deities associated with carnal love.

From country to country and continent to continent, this art form has evolved.  Through ancient Egyptian eyes tattooing is something that satisfies various needs and interests. Sometimes they provided magical protection against sickness or misfortune. Sometimes they served to identify the wearer’s rank, status, or membership in a group. Sometimes a representation of the god Thoth was tattooed on slaves and prisoners of war as a sign of their life-long service to that deity.

In Libya, both male and female mummies with tattoos have been discovered. Some of the male mummies were tattooed with sun worshipping images and pictures symbolizing a fierce goddess who led warriors into battle.

Tattooing is common among the Berbers of North Africa. Mostly women get tattoos of small designs with symbolic meaning. Egyptian Christians often have a cross tattooed on their hand or wrist. These designs are very simple and often crude. It is believed that there is no Arabic equivalent to the elaborate tattoos used elsewhere in the world. Today it is popular to tattoo one’s name in Arabic calligraphy. Of course, it is offensive for anyone to choose an Arabic design that contains religious quotations.

In recent history, the art of tattooing has become a well-developed, safe industry.   Women sometimes choose to permanently add color for purely cosmetic reasons, for example to the their eyelids as eyeliner. Contemporary designs can be elaborate in any size and may use bright, beautiful colors. The bottom line is that tattoos are a form of self-expression which displays one’s uniqueness. For a belly dancer, a tattoo can connect her to an element of mystery and ancient activity. When tastefully and artistically done, it is wonderful body art that should not be a detriment to dancers whose bodies are their instruments.

The only arena of belly dance in which tattooing is accepted and in fact encouraged is that of American Tribal. How liberating of women! It would be fantastic to have this kind of freedom for dancers of cabaret-style belly dance. Unfortunately, the future does not appear to indicate such a trend of acceptance.   Perhaps American Tribal dancers are lucky that they are in a niche that is more open-minded, because every other form of dance and professional entertainment does not tolerate less than perfect skin on a less than perfect body.

While tattoos display beauty on the surface, the true beauty is more than skin-deep. The next time you see a belly dancer perform, look beyond the surface (don’t judge by looks alone). Choose to promote the ART of Middle Eastern dance by making quality of performance the first and foremost criteria for judging a dancer. A great dancer will still be great no matter what she wears!




©2003 Jasmin Jahal