The Dark Side of Belly Dancing - OZY | A Modern Media Company

The Dark Side of Belly Dancing

The Dark Side of Belly Dancing

By Zara Stone

Gothic bellydancer inside a studio.
SourceArthur Koek


Because Goth girls like to hip roll, too.

By Zara Stone

Jangling hip belts, shawls and snake-like swaying. Belly dancing has long been the domain of the Middle East. But for some women, the appeal lies in the moves — not the origins — and taking the dance to darker places. Enter the world of Gothic belly dancing, where hip rolls meet swords and steampunk.

Blue-haired Mavi Clay, one of the mainstays on this scene, is a self-described “dark fusion belly artist” known for her dramatic performances. Her costumes personify her catchphrase, “the Maven of Mayhem”: She belly dances wearing horns and body paint, sometimes balancing sharpened scimitars on her head. Her arms are adorned with tattoos, wreaths and swirls twisting across her skin.


Clay is the co-producer of DCTribal Cafe, a monthly showcase of alternative belly dance in Washington, D.C. “We wanted to … make a place for the alternative belly-dance community and fans who were interested in something a little outside the norm,” she told Serenity Tribal. The goal was to show that “this art form is valuable and interesting to the public.”

The Gothic belly-dance movement started in the early 1990s, born from dancers’ discontent with the cookie-cutter style of belly dancing traditionally taught. These dancers loved the physical movements but wanted to experiment and weren’t supported by their groups. Since many had “Goth” backgrounds, these elements were drawn into their performances.

The Gothic belly dancer [is] part actress, part vamp, part gypsy, part rebel, part sorceress and part priestess.

— Tempest, Gothic belly dancer

As dancers started to explore their dark sides, offshoots occurred and a style called Tribal Fusion emerged. It’s less choreographed than mainstream belly dance, but more respectable — think PG-13 rated — than full-on dark dancing, with more esoteric elements, and mixes dark fantasy and brooding theatricality into the flow.

Think Nightmare Before Christmas, rather than Arabian Nights.

Gothic belly dancing has many names, and even the star dancers are divided about describing their craft. Some say they perform “dark fusion,” others call it “dark tribal.” And some reject all labels.

Despite their differences, many of the noted names came together in 2006 to perform on Gothic Bellydance Revelations, a dance DVD created by World Dance New York. In 2011 they released an 85-minute show with a grandiose synopsis: a “multitude of poetic visions born out of the Gothic subculture.”

To document the movement, Tempest, a Seattle-based belly dancer, founded the Gothic Belly Dance Resource website in 2003. “It’s not just dancing to ‘gothic’ music … or dressing goth,” she wrote. “There is a third element that is vital to the performance: a sense of theatrics, emotional intensity, drama, and purpose. The Gothic belly dancer [is] part actress, part vamp, part gypsy, part rebel, part sorceress, and part priestess.”

But while some are drawn to the sassier, stronger side, not every belly dancer wants to go Goth. Alina Yllanes, producer of the annual Tribal Solstice belly dance festival in Florida, said, “I’m not into the Gothic unless it’s Halloween. Some people are dark all the time.”

Yllanes believes that there’s room in the belly-dance world for everyone. “Belly dance makes women feel good,” she said. “You can be 200 pounds or whatever. It attracts people from all walks of life.” She emphasized that belly dancing creates a strong community for all dancers.

So whether you’re more drawn to “Belly Rolls & Flutters” or the alternative “Kiss and Kill” moves, rest assured that there’s a place for you. It may just be on the dark side. 

 Photography by Arthur Koek

This OZY encore was originally published in October 2014.

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