The Rise of Male Belly Dancers

Indian men are blurring gender lines and embracing belly dance as a form of expression.

Zinara Rathnayake

August 6, 2020

The Rise of Male Belly Dancers
(Eshan Hilal Instagram)

On stage, Anirudh Ahlawat moves intricately in heels, which he later declares to me as his specialty. He’s wearing long black pants and a rolled-up black sweater that hugs his body and sits right above his belly button. Most men shy away from belly dancing, but not Ahlawat. When he comes off the stage, he’s swarmed by his loyal spectators, who snap selfies with the small-town star.

Before the pandemic, Ahlawat traveled three hours every week — across the northwestern state of Haryana, from Hisar to Gurgaon — for his dance classes. He would travel the day before classes so he was fresh and energetic for his lessons. When he tells me this over the phone, he chuckles. It’s an indication that he loves his classes, but more than all, he loves to dance.

“My father knows I’m taking classes for something, but he doesn’t know what it is,” Ahlawat said, “or maybe he does,” referring to his TikTok dance videos, which are shared widely among his community. At 24, the boy from Hisar is a belly dancer.

Ahlawat is part of a recent group of Indian men who are embracing belly dance — a centuries-old dance traditionally performed by women — as a form of expression.

Belly dancing originated centuries ago in the Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean regions, as a fertility ritual, a form of dance women performed for other women. It’s a dance passed from mothers to their daughters to celebrate the ability to bear children. When French colonizers walked through Egypt in the 18th century, they returned home with belly dancing, and modified and reintroduced it to the world. During the Victorian era of restrictions on women, belly dancing was considered salacious, but in the late 1800s, American society welcomed belly dancing. It grew popular across the globe as a dance form women performed for male entertainment. For tour-operators, it attracts tourists — a desert tour in Dubai commonly features a belly dancing performance paired with shisha.

Shakira introduced Ahlawat to belly dance with her 2006 hit, “Hips Don’t Lie.” But Ahlawat had begun dancing several years before, at age 6, when he was in awe after seeing actor Kareena Kapoor’s dance moves in 2001 Bollywood movie Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham.