Meet the country's first-known professional male belly dancer who has danced his way to fame, battling various stereotypes.
Sporting a nose ring and chunky silver jewellery the dancer in a long skirt and blouse pirouettes and shimmies with sinuous and graceful pelvic and belly movements, as the audience looks in rapt attention.
Delhi-based Fashion graduate Eshan Hilal, 26, was just five years old when he first danced to the rhythms of a popular song from a Bollywood hit. But as he grew up in a conservative Muslim family, and refused to conform to the stereotype of a typical boy who would play cricket and rough games, and wanted to continue dancing and watching videos of graceful actresses on television, he was shamed and abused by his family and friends, who disapproved of his unconventional choices.
“I was attracted to belly dancing and started watching YouTube videos of famous belly dancers in other parts of the world," Hilal told TRT World.
"I trained in Kathak dancing but wanted a teacher or guru for belly dancing, but there were no schools teaching belly dancing at that point. I tried asking many female belly dancers to teach me but they refused either on the grounds that they did not teach men or they thought I was flirting with them!”
Today, he is India’s first-known professional male belly dancer who has danced his way to fame, featuring on top dance reality shows, teaching and choreographing dances.
French ‘Danse du ventre’
In a patriarchal society where gender stereotypes are strict and, classical dance is revered but belly dancing is looked upon as sleazy and associated with women in dance bars, he has come a long way to be accepted and praised for his art. In fact, the students of Delhi University have even made a movie called “Adam's Belly" that focuses on the lives of male belly dancers and the difficulties they face in a female-dominated sphere
“In India, belly dancing has unfortunately been associated with cabaret clubs and bachelor parties, and not many people know that there are different styles of belly dancing and just like ballet is danced by both men and women, so is belly dancing too. My father opposed my dancing saying that we were Pathans, and not meant to entertain others. Many people assumed I was gay or bisexual because of my choice of profession. Many others think I am effeminate and not masculine enough and have called me sissy,” says Hilal.
Hilal finally moved to Delhi, and the Banjara School of Dance was started by belly dancer Meher Malik, where he learned belly dancing professionally and started his stage performances. There has been no looking back ever since.“ From the beginning, I knew that what gave me joy was dance. I knew I was different from other boys and could be termed effeminate. But I embraced that part of me and considered it a power, not a weakness. If I could be as graceful as a woman when I danced, that was a talent,” he says.
Belly dancing which originated from the French ‘Danse du ventre’, which translates as “dance of the stomach”, involves undulating movements of the pelvis and belly and has generally been considered a feminine dance, which originated in Egypt and evolved in different parts of the world like Turkey and the Middle East. Some say that the dance is ancient in origin, and was used by pagan societies as a fertility dance for women and preparing a women’s body for birth, The dance has multiple variations and different schools of dances from Egyptian to Tribal.
In Egypt, it is both a social dance performed at weddings and celebrations and performance art, performed on stage. In the Ottoman Sultan’s palace, with the advent of Islam, young zenne male dancers in androgynous or feminine clothes, performing belly dances to entertain men was common, as the women lived separately in harems and were also forbidden from performing. In recent times energetic music performers like Rihanna, Beyonce and Shakira have used belly dancing movements in their routines.
“ The belly dance was adapted for the most part to women. In this art form, the centerpiece of the entire dance were/are the hips and belly area. Making it harder for men to become part of it. And still, men are joining the ranks of this sensual dance; whether it is for culture, learn to dance or stay in shape,” says Daniel Otero, in a paper published on Belly dancing in 2020.
Tall and athletic Arun Bhardwaj, 29, is another Indian male belly dancer who started dancing when he was 16 years old, and then learned belly dancing from the Banjara School of dance and calls his style ‘Tribal fusion’ which is a combination of American tribal style with any other dance form. Hailing from Punjab, he met belly dancer Meher Malik the founder of the Banjara School Of Dance and moved to Delhi to pursue his dancing. Today he runs his own school of dance called the Indian Tribal School in Pune.
“I was fortunate to belong to a fairly open-minded Punjabi family who supported me on my journey and that gave me the strength to fight societal norms. Initially, I used to be upset by people’s comments and trolls on social media, who questioned my masculinity, body-shamed me, but now I am so focused on my dance that nothing bothers me.”
“ Though there are more women than men in my class, more and more men want to express interest in this form of dance, which is a good sign. Belly dancing is a low impact exercise which is great for the spine, so many of my students also take to it as exercise, besides a dance form,” he says.
“ It’s heartening that in recent times many men and boys are my students. Many send me messages on social media saying that they would love to learn belly dancing but their families would not support or accept them. I hope that Indian society learns to appreciate art for art’s sake and not confuse it with gender roles or sexual orientation,” says Hilal.