Consuming the Belly Dance

ABSTRACT - This study explored the consumption behaviours associated with the highly gendered pastime of belly dancing and interpreted these behaviours in terms of the dancers’ aims and motivations. The women interviewed were found to invest more heavily in the accoutrements of belly dancing as they became more self-assured in the role of dancer. The way they adorn themselves for the dance symbolically links them with the other members of their group and the belly dancing sisterhood. In particular, costumes facilitate the transformation from a normal person to a dancer and assist in achieving self-expression and self-satisfaction.


Fiona Wort and Simone Pettigrew (2003) ,"Consuming the Belly Dance", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6, eds. Darach Turley and Stephen Brown, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 187-192.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6, 2003      Pages 187-192


Fiona Wort, Edith Cowan University, Australia

Simone Pettigrew, Edith Cowan University, Australia


This study explored the consumption behaviours associated with the highly gendered pastime of belly dancing and interpreted these behaviours in terms of the dancers’ aims and motivations. The women interviewed were found to invest more heavily in the accoutrements of belly dancing as they became more self-assured in the role of dancer. The way they adorn themselves for the dance symbolically links them with the other members of their group and the belly dancing sisterhood. In particular, costumes facilitate the transformation from a normal person to a dancer and assist in achieving self-expression and self-satisfaction.


Belly dancing is an ancient and flamboyant art form that is becoming increasingly popular in eastern cultures (Orecklin 2002). There are numerous consumption rituals associated with belly dancing, including those involving costumes, music, and body decoration with jewellery and henna. To date, these consumption rituals do not appear to have been examined through the Consumer Behaviour lens. This article explores the increasingly popular pastime of belly dancing from the perspective of twelve Australian women who have been involved in belly dancing for differing lengths of time and who exhibit different levels of passion about the activity. The objective was to generate a rich description of some of the consumption behaviours associated with the highly gendered pastime of belly dancing and to interpret these behaviours in terms of dancers’ aims and motivations.

The Role of Dance

Dance is similar to traditions in that it promotes group identity (Gaudet 2001; Jones 2000) and marks life events or rites of passage (Dissanayake 2001; Ginn and Hulme 1990; Muller 2001; Neitz 2000). In the dance literature, dancing in its many different forms is recognised as a language that communicates individual and group identities and delineates in-groups and out-groups (Hazzard-Gordon 1991; Juan 2001; Mason and Miko 2002). Historically, dance has performed the function of communicating customs and stories to the young while also confirming community identity to older group members (Barnes and Eicher 1992; Rittenhouse 2001). In this way dance can function as a means of cultural survival or resistance (e.g., Berardi 2001). In the Australian context, however, the relative newness of non-Aboriginal Australian culture (just over 200 years) has resulted in a lack of dance forms that can be considered particularly Australian in nature. Engaging in dancing activities in Australia is thus more likely to be about identification at the sub-cultural rather than cultural level.

According to Bernstein (1979, p.259), dancing is a "happy activity"’ that is "physically incompatible with depression". Young women have been found to have higher self-esteem and to display increased levels of empathy, sensitivity, and creativity when participating in regular dancing activities (Kalliopuska 1989). This outcome has been largely attributed to the physiological or motor activities involved in dancing (Walker 2001; White and Sheets 2001). Dance is recognised to be an inherently enjoyable activity for many (Bernstein 1979), and as enjoyment of an activity has been linked to increased confidence (Carleton and Heinrich 2000; Mason and Miko 2002), dance is argued to be able to positively influence dancers’ confidence levels (Rittenhouse 2001). Csikszentmihalyi (1975) noted that dancing produces a holistic sensation of total body involvement. This sense of "flow" encourages self-forgetfulness, a loss of self-consciousness, and the transcendence of the individual. Recent studies of various forms of dance have identified these outcomes across varying groups of dancers such as Hutson’s (2000) ravers and Jensen’s (2001) ballroom dancers.

Adornment. Members of every society engage in rituals and ceremonies that involve adorning their bodies and artefacts (Dissanayake 2001). Such adornment has been interpreted as a means of protecting from uncertainty and making an investment in the outcome of the activity (Brain 1979; Eicher 1995). In a dance context, Weeks (2001) has documented the pre-show rituals of the members of the New York City Ballet Corps. Most of the professional ballet dancers she studied had rituals or talismans to ensure the quality of their performances. Some had special warm up clothes that they avoided washing, while others had 'lucky’ accessories like rings, hair bands, or undergarments.

Clothing or costumes "socialise" the human body, transforming the person from a mere biological entity to a cultural being (Wilson 1992). They reflect the particular (sub)culture in which the individual is immersed (Barnes and Eicher 1992; Davis 1992; Tulloch 1992), and they often play highly significant roles in cultural ceremonies and celebrations (Dissanayake 2001; Muller 2001). In particular, costumes can act as a projection of what the individual wishes to be (Wooten 2000). In the case of clothing donned for dancing, the selected costumes communicate information about the dancer and the situation to the audience (Barnes 1999). They are the garments of the persona the dancer projects (Flugel 1930). As costumes can be highly sacred to performers, their storage and care are important aspects of their possession (Arnold 1973; Tarrant 1983).

Belly Dancing

Compared to other dance forms popular in Western cultures, such as ballroom dance and boot-scooting, the belly dance is a more natural earthy dance that is danced with the whole body and not just the feet. It can be as structured and choreographed or as freeform and spontaneous as the dancer wishes. This makes it very versatile to any skill level, occasion, or audience. There is an element of mysticism in belly dance, probably due to its primarily Egyptian and Turkish roots and the mythology and mystery connected with Ancient times. It is important to note, however, that the Middle East is a diverse region that exhibits varying forms of belly dancing. Some dances, like Nefertari’s Dance where a dancer holds candles in both hands, hold ancient myths and stories from Egyptian history and mythology (Ikram and Dodson 1998). Some dances are specifically designed for special circumstances or events, like the wedding Zaffa or the Birth dance that is performed during labour (Dissanayake 2001; Muller 2001; Neitz 2000).

Like other forms of dance, belly dancing has been interpreted as a form of resistance. For example, Doubleday (1999) found that in Middle Eastern cultures where women’s behaviours can be highly restricted, women can find power and inner self-worth through dancing in private all-female meetings (see also Neitz 2000; Wooten 2000). Similarly, in Western cultures the movements and highly decorative and feminine costumes of belly dancing can symbolise liberation from the trappings of a professional career (Jensen 2001).


In-depth interviewing was the main method of data collection, combined with participant observation and self-introspection. These methods were combined in an attempt to obtain rich data relating to belly dancing and its associated consumption rituals. In the early stages of the research the first author engaged in self-introspection to identify appropriate topics to raise during interviews. Subsequently, twelve female belly dancers of varying skill and experience levels were recruited for depth interviews where they were invited to share their lived experiences of the act of belly dancing. Being already immersed in the subculture of Middle Eastern dance, the first author had extensive knowledge from naturalistic and participant observation that served to provide valuable background information (Adler and Adler 1994). Accessibility was another benefit of familiarity, along with a detailed knowledge of the language of the subculture that assisted in building rapport and developing an atmosphere conducive to disclosure.

There are many degrees of involvement in belly dancing. There are career dancers who perform publicly and are highly trained and there are those who attend classes once a week in community halls. The dancers involved in this study had highly disparate backgrounds and dancing histories. Some were professional dancers and teachers while others were novice dancers enjoying their early attempts at belly dancing. Some had families while others were single women for whom belly dancing was a lifestyle in and of itself. Education and income levels varied significantly among the women. Some held full-time jobs while others were housewives seeking social and creative outlets.

The recruitment of interviewees was managed t ensure that multiple levels of participation, experience, and skill were represented within the sample. All the interviewees were white Australian women living in Perth, Western Australia at the time of interviewing. Recruitment commenced with a posting to the Belly Dance WA mailing list seeking expressions of interest to participate in the study. Responses were received from a wide range of belly dancers. Selection was made on the basis of availability for interviewing and the dance histories and personal characteristics of the volunteers. During the interviews the women were encouraged to discuss those aspects of belly dancing they find to be most personally relevant. The interviews thus held some element of an oral history of the dance life of the respondent (Fontana and Frey 1994). All interviews were tape-recorded and subsequently transcribed. The transcripts were coded at the level of line unit. Some of the codes were based on themes generated through self-introspection and a review of the relevant literature while others were generated inductively based on the information provided by interviewees (as per Glaser and Strauss 1967).


The interviewees focused their discussions on their enjoyment of belly dancing, and many offered explanations for their passion for the activity. Also of significance was the perceived importance of costumes and music to their dancing experiences. The following discussion outlines the interviewees’ stated motivations for belly dancing and their feelings about the music and costumes that are considered so important to participating in the dance.

Why Belly Dance?

Most interviewees discussed at length the support and unquestioning acceptance offered by other women within the community of belly dancers. The dancer enters a world in which they are accepted regardless of their shape, size, or skill level. They see this positive and non-judgmental atmosphere to be highly conducive to developing strong self-esteem and personal empowerment. The communities are matriarchal, with experienced and accomplished dancers receiving admiration and respect from the other members of the community and subsequently taking on leadership roles. These leaders provide mentoring services to other members of the group to ensure that positive feedback and confirmation of worthiness flow to each dancer, regardless of skill level or experience. This permeates the group to the extent that all members provide consistent encouragement and compliments to each other, ensuring that each member regularly receives positive feedback from a wide range of dancers. It was this element of belly dancing that appeared to differentiate the pastime from other forms of exercise in the minds of the interviewees:

In the belly dancing community, they really encourage each other. It’s a warm welcoming community amongst ourselves. It gives you confidence. There’s no judgementthere’s a warm connection between the women. The acceptance and all that, it’s a nice change (Bev).

Lough’s (2001) thesis that dancing with others or being taught or initiated into the art by another person forms a special bond between dancers was evident in the way interviewees discussed their feelings towards the other women in their belly dancing groups. A sense of community and sisterhood was reported by all interviewees, although this appeared to be particularly important to novice dancers who had a greater need for support and had had less time to become acclimatised to the collegial nature of the belly dancing scene.

While they also appreciated the warm, nurturing environment, the more experienced dancers tended to place greater emphasis in interviews on the transcendental outcomes of dancing. They described being transported to another plane where they are uplifted and transformed:

It’s one of those things I can do where I loose all perspective of time and I completely forget about everything else in my life and I just get lost in the music and in the movement, and I get into that flow state that people talk about. Or the "zone", as the Americans call it. So I just I love it from that point of view (Anita).

These women have become more comfortable with their own bodies and are thus able to be less self-conscious and more able to lose themselves in the dance experience. The progression from commencing belly dancing to experiencing transcendental dancing may take many years or a very short space of time. It is self-paced and depends on the personality and initial skills of the dancer. Jan is a new dancer who has been dancing for only one year. After being introduced to dancing she enjoyed the experience as she socialised with other dancers, lost some weight, and toned her muscles. She is a middle-aged lady with older children still at home. She felt she was lacking excitement and femininity in her life and was discontented with her self-image. Belly dancing has introduced her to 'girly’ pursuits and makes her feel glamorous, even though she is a newer performer and needs the security of set choreography and others to dance with. As Jan progresses through her dance life she will reach new stages, like Rosie.

In the middle of the spectrum is Rosie who is a costume maker who operates a small business called The Shimmy Shop. She specialises in making highly-personalised, painstakingly-beaded costumes for dancers, and her own costumes are always dazzling and of the highest quality. Rosie is a very practical person who enjoys the feminine pursuits of belly dancing, particularly the music. She performs frequently, both in troupes and solos. When preparing for a dance she concentrates on the costume she wears and also the audience she dances for. Rosie seems to have accepted herself as she is and has lost the self-consciousness about her body that she experienced in earlier years. Rosie at times achieves transcendence in her dancing, but is yet to be able to achieve this frequently.

Helen is a true transcendentalist. She says dancing has changed her life. She has "cleansed" her life of all its bad influences and she is connected to the "beatific energy" in the world. She dances whenever possible to express the mood she is in and also to convey her feelings towards a person or thing. Welters (1999) suggests there is a basic human need to connect to a supernatural energy, power, or deity. Helen feels the connection very strongly and is positively affected by it. Although a larger lady, Helen totally accepts her body and wears clothes that show her belly and her other "flabby bits" without any of the self-consciousness felt by "less actualised" people (Green 1999). Helen is also a dedicated henna tattooist and is rarely seen without decorated skin.

The point was often made by interviewees that belly dancing is something done by women to fulfil their own needs for femininity and sensuality, rather than being an activity designed for the male gaze. The all-female-environment provides the security and freedom for women to dance in ways that would be considered provocative or inappropriate in mixed company. Some interviewees specifically noted that belly dancing gives them the opportunity to engage in "womanly" behaviours that are not condoned elsewhere:

It’s graceful, you know. The veils dances are graceful, which is something all women love to be. (But) society’s knocked it out of women. You are not meant to flap your arms around, you not meant to swoosh your skirts around anymore. You’re taught not to do these things from a young age, but I think a lot of women would love to e able to go back and do that (Bev).

The freedom to exhibit what are considered to be highly feminine behaviours enables some dancers to obtain the reprieve they need from a social environment that is increasingly expecting women to act and think androgynously. In the following quote Rhonda explains how being able to express her femininity through dancing provides balance in her life:

It’s sort of stopped me, to a certain extent, men bashing. Because I’m in a corporate sort of job all the time, and it’s given me a totally different focus about the differences between men and us, and accepting that difference and enjoying it. Yeah, that’s what it’s done for me anyway in particular (Rhonda).

Music. All of the interviewees discussed the importance of music to the belly dancing experience. It is perceived as both a source of enjoyment in itself and critical to the dance. They described dance as the visual interpretation of the music, a manifestation of how the music affects the individual. When dancing solo, an important element of the performance is the way the dancer assimilates the music and produces a unique dance that reflects her style and personality:

I love the music. I love the challenge of deciphering music (Jasmine).

Interviewees described the music to which they dance as a source of pleasure and inspiration. The pleasure derives from the sensory and emotional responses to the music while the inspiration relates to dancers’ choice of dance style and specific steps. The work involved in interpreting music is perceived as rewarding and part of the process of becoming one with the dance. According to the dancers interviewed, belly-dancing music provides the activation trigger that creates the mood necessary for belly dancing and draws the dancer and any audience into a mental state that is conducive to appreciation of the dance form:

It’s the music. I just love the music, and I love to move to it and it just transports me. It’s just beautiful...It’s very hard to explain, as soon as I hear the music, I just have to do it...Listening to the music, it’s just so romantic, so sensual. It’s very uplifting (Eva).

Adornment. Decorating the body is recognised in the literature as an important part of preparing for transcendental experiences (Brain 1979; Flugel 1930). The women interviewed nominated numerous forms of adornment associated with belly dancing. These often involve lengthy beauty rituals that include showering, grooming hair and nails, applying makeup, perfume, and henna, and donning costumes, hairpieces, and jewellery. Through such rituals the women feel they can shed their everyday concerns and become dancers:

I have to do the whole getting ready thing two hours beforehand. I have a shower, wash my hair, brush the teeth, do the whole thing. If I don’t feel like I go through that ritual, I don’t dance as well, because I haven’t changed personality (Jasmine).

The application of henna to the skin and hair is a ritual that is particularly associated with Eastern cultures. It is historically associated with patriarchal ceremonies that serve to reinforce the subordinate role of women (Ustuner, Ger, and Holt 2000). In the Australian belly-dancing context, however, henna is viewed as a source of authenticity and femininity that enhances the dancing experience and is thus evidence of cultural hybridisation. In the lead up to important performances Helen allows her usual henna patterns to wear off completely to enable her skin to return to its natural state. This process begins approximately six weeks before the event as it takes henna a long time to fade entirely from the ski. Then, approximately one week prior to the event, Helen takes an entire day to henna herself. This time and care investment reflects how important it is to Helen to fully prepare for important performances. The time-consuming and complex process of henna application enables Helen to transform her everyday self into a decorated cultural entity that can participate in the dance to a higher level.

As well as skin decoration, all interviewees mentioned the importance of costumes to dancers. Costumes enable the wearer to feel authentic in the act of belly dancing, and they communicate femininity and beauty to the wearer and others. Some interviewees discussed the reactions they receive from those viewing them in costume, but most interviewees described the effects their costumes have on the way they feel about themselves:

It’s just beautiful to have such a lot of costumes, just to be able to just put them on and feel like a princess whenever you wear them (Ayesha).

It’s great to wear gorgeous clothes, and show bits of your body that you probably wouldn=t dare to otherwise, especially once you’ve had kids. It’s just like a female thing, very sensuous. You feel sexy (Jan).

Costumes are the garments of the persona that the dancer projects and as such are cared for reverently. Costumes were reported to be stored in special areas of the house, removed from proximity to everyday clothing. Most dancers had an entirely separate room for their dancing accessories, costumes, and music. Rosie has a room with full-length mirrors and a music centre where she drapes her scarves, hangs her costumes, and displays her swords. She nominated this room as the one in her house where she feels most comfortable.

The interviewees discussed the lengths to which they go to ensure their costumes are stored properly. Heavily-beaded belts and bras are kept flat to avoid stretching. Skirts and dresses are hung carefully and many of the women have arranged some sort of display with either their jewellery or hip scarves. These items are draped over mirrors or hung up to be admired. Old costumes are used for decoration and costumes recently worn are hung out to air and sometimes sprayed to remove odours. The careful handling and storage of these garments denotes their personal significance to the dancers (Arnold 1973; Tarrant 1983). As noted by Jasmine: "I don’t dance in day clothes and I don’t do dishes in my costume."

When it comes to disposing of a garment or a costume no longer needed, the dancers interviewed do not typically throw them away. Some of the more pragmatic dancers, like Rosie, sell their old costumes or re-use them to make new costumes. Most dancers had retained early costumes they are particularly attached to and would never part with despite their ill fit or state of repair. Some described their costumes as having personalities and attached memories to explain why they could never be thrown away. In the case that a costume is not to be kept or sold, an acceptable method of disposal is to give the costume away. When given away, a costume is considered to have been "bequeathed" to another dancer who is expected to demonstrate due reverence for it. The process of passing on a costume is an important event in the relationship between two dancers. If a costume is given away and not treated with appropriate levels of respect the donor tends to become disgruntled and the personal relationship between donor and recipient becomes strained. For example, Jasmine recounted a story where she had given a red costume away to a dancing friend who had hankered after it to such an extent that Jasmine finally allowed herself to part with it. However, the friend did not wear the costume and did not give it its due attention and care. This upset Jasmine and put a strain on their relationship. She has now resolved to never give away another costume. Conversely, a costume transfer can strengthen a relationship:

Helen bequeathed me a costume that she no longer needed. I had it altered and have re-beaded it, but it remains in its original form. It is my favourite costume as it came from a dancer I revere, and it is also very special for Helen to watch me perform in it and see it give me so much happiness. Thus our friendship has been strengthened and deepened by the gift and reverence of one costume, creating shared history (Fiona).


While there were differences in interviewees’ accounts of the role of dance in their lives according to their experience levels and personal situations, there was a strong degree of uniformity in their descriptions of belly dancing is a source of freedom, empowerment, and joy. It is a way of dabbling in the exotic and experimenting in the ways of another culture. By engaging in the dance they can gradually achieve transcendence to a different level of existence that offers peace from the anxieties and mundaneness of their day-to-day lives. For these women, belly dance fulfils needs that are not filled elsewhere. They feel their participation in this activity has direct consequences for their self-esteem and confidence. In particular they have been able to come to terms with the shapes of their bodies, which for some was particularly difficult due to the clash between their relatively large sizes and the modern preoccupation with body image (Joy and Venkatesh 1994). Belly dancing constitutes one of the few physical activities for which curves are considered desirable and beneficial rather than ugly and a hindrance. This leaves participants free to enjoy their participation without the attributions of mental and physical weakness that often flow to larger individuals in Western consumer cultures that revere slimness as an indication of strength of mind and even of morality (Joy and Venkatesh 1994).

Enculturation into the art of belly dancing appears to be a transforming process that involves people, objects, and clothing that become sacred to the dancer (Belk, Wallendorf, and Sherry 1989). These sacred things come to be considered vital to the dancer’s conception of who she is as her sense of self expands to include both the act of belly dancing and the people and artefacts associated with the dance (Belk 1988). There are thus two layers to the process by which costumes, for example, become part of the self. They are valued because they are necessary to properly participate in the dance, but they are also treasured in their own right because of the meanings of femininity, luxury, and beauty they contain and convey to the wearer (McCracken 1990). As dancers grow more self-assured they invest more heavily in the accoutrements of belly dancing in order to more closely associate themselves with the lifestyle and the mindset of actualised dancers. The way they adorn themselves for the dance symbolically links them with the other members of their group and the belly dancing sisterhood in general (Belk 1988; Lury 1996). Costumes play a particularly important role in this evolution as they facilitate the transformation from a "normal person" to a "dancer". Wearing her costumes the dancer feels as if she has become a different person, an alter ego brought to life by the sacred garments of the dance. This transformation can occur whether the dancer is on stage performing in front of an audience or dancing alone in her lounge room.

As noted by Dissanayake (2001), the scale of the investment in the dance made in terms of energy, time, and expense says much about the dancers’ priorities. Of all the things they could do with their limited spare time and money, our interviewees choose to dance, bead costumes, buy accessories, and adorn themselves for the dance. The strong emphasis placed on dancing by the interviewees, regardless of skill and experience levels, indicates the significance of the pastime in their lives (Barnes and Eicher 1992).

The belly dancing subculture is consumption environment unlike most others in Western cultures, including other activity-related environments such as sporting clubs. It is a highly supportive and nurturing social environment in which women are encouraged to express their individuality. A stark comparison appears between this environment and the world of work in which many Australian women now find themselves ensconced (Mackay 1993, 1997). Rather than having to disguise their femininity through clothing and behaviour considered appropriate for the workplace, dancers can replace heeled shoes with bare feet and controlled behaviour with emotional and physical release. Similarly, in the roles of wives and mothers women are expected to conform to certain standards of behaviour that require a degree of containment of the individual’s spirit. Escaping to a belly-dancing lesson provides adult conversation with like-minded women who take on the task of making each other feel valued and special. In this environment women can feel free to engage in forms of consumption that may elsewhere be considered "frivolous" and "fanciful". Far from being trivial, however, these consumption activities are highly symbolic behaviours (McCracken 1990). The costumes and other forms of adornment selected by dancers are nonverbal communications (Douglas and Isherwood 1979) that express the dancers’ needs for social inclusion and personal actualisation. Their exotic nature and blatant femininity make them particularly effective means by which women can achieve a connection with other women yet communicate their individuality.


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Fiona Wort, Edith Cowan University, Australia
Simone Pettigrew, Edith Cowan University, Australia


E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6 | 2003

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M11. Motivated to Be Moral: The Effect of Nostalgia on Consumers’ Recycling Behavior

Xiadan Zhang, Renmin University of China
Xiushuang Gong, Jiangnan University
Jing Jiang, Renmin University of China

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An Idea Opposed to Another Idea is Always the Same Idea: Reconsidering the Materialistic Aspects of Voluntary Simplicity

Mathieu Alemany Oliver, Toulouse Business School
Justyna Kramarczyk, Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan

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