Painting the Shulamite By Angela Yarber
Calling the Shulamite holy is my way of affirming female sexuality, the beautiful variety of the body’s shapes and sizes, and including the LGBT community in the canon of saints.
Several years ago, after experiencing the innate maleness and straightness of most traditional icons, I decided to give iconography a folk and feminist twist. Biblical women, mythological figures, poets, artists, dancers, scholars, literary figures, and personal loved-ones graced my canvases and with a brush-stroke they were canonized. Miriam, Sappho, Gaia, Jephthah’s daughter, Virginia Woolf, Tiamat, Mary, Baby Suggs, Isadora Duncan, Fatima, the Shulamite, Dorothy Day, Mother Teresa, Mary Daly, Sophia, Sojourner Truth, and many of my friends and colleagues became “Holy Women Icons.” It is these icons—these holy women—that will be the focus of my monthly articles in Feminism and Religion.
This month, the Shulamite is the center of our attention. She is a dancer made famous by the erotic love poetry dedicated to her sensuous curves in Song of Songs:
Return, return, the Shulamite.
Return, return, and let us gaze on you.
How will you gaze on Shulamite in the dance of the two camps?
How beautiful are your sandaled feet, O prince’s daughter.
The curves of your (quivering) thighs like jewels crafted by artist hands.
Your vulva a rounded bowl; may it never lack wine.
Your belly a mound of wheat hedged by lotuses.
Your breasts like two fawns…
(Song of Songs 7:1-4 translation mine)
I first encountered the Shulamite in a passing reference by dance historian Wendy Buonaventura. She listed the Shulamite as an example of a bellydancer in the Hebrew bible. It was only an example, merely an item on a long list of historical references. Nonetheless, this brief mention was enough for me to translate the text, embark on an exegetical adventure, and begin to ask questions about the movement vocabulary embedded in the Hebrew. These initial observations about the Shulamite bellydancing were published in my 2008 article in the Review Expositor, which provides more detail about my choices in translation and exegesis.
The words describing the Shulamite are commonly understood as a traditional Arabic love poem called a wasf. Wasfs are intended to describe female beauty and are found in two additional locations in Song of Songs. What is striking about this particular wasf is that it describes the Shulamite from toe to head, which is opposite of traditional wasfs. Feminist biblical scholar Athalya Brenner proposes that the reason for this descriptive reversal is due to the fact that the lover—whom she assumes is male—is teasing the Shulamite for having a pudgy stomach; therefore, she surmises that it is a parody of a wasf. Brenner contends that the male lover is doting upon the Shulamite’s beautiful dancing legs (which are also rotund) and then shifting to poke fun of her jiggling belly.
While this is a possibility, I find that other comparable wasfs and the role of bellydance offer an alternative interpretation. Within this wasf category, there are strikingly similar bodily description poems, such as the tale in Thousand and One Nights:
The…damsel…was the loveliest creature Allah had made in her day, and indeed she outdid in beauty all human beings…her middle was full of folds, a dimpled plain…and her navel an ounce of musk, sweetest of savour could contain. She had thighs great and plump, like marble columns twain or bolsters stuffed with down…and between them a somewhat, as it were a hummock great of span of a hare with ears back lain…and indeed she surpassed…with her beauty and symmetry.
In both wasfs we read the description of a beautiful woman, a woman with “curved” or “plump” thighs, a rounded “vulva/navel.” Her belly is like a “mound of wheat” or “dimpled plain,” that is “full of folds.” In bellydance quivering bellies, trembling thighs, shaking buttocks, and shuddering breasts are precisely the point. Hip shimmies, rib cage isolations, and abdominal rolls are part and parcel of bellydance’s movement vocabulary. The intention of the dance is to make these parts of the body—the stomach, breasts, hips, and butt—tremble, quake, roll, shake, shimmy, bounce, and jiggle. To a dance historian, it is clear that the movement being described in the wasf is bellydance.
What is more, the history of bellydance provides a fascinating lens for deciphering the gender of the Shulamite’s lover. Historically, bellydance was performed by and for women only; men were not permitted. It was either a dance form celebrated in all-female groups in homes or within the confines of all-female harems. In such harems, women were “set apart” from men and lived, learned, and loved within the harem. Women often learned to read, write, play musical instruments, and dance in these harems. Bellydance often provided women with an opportunity to explore their sexuality, staging imitations of the sex-act or engaging in same-sex love. Because of the queer history of bellydance, one cannot help but deduce that the Shulamite’s lover may have been another woman, delighting in same-sex love. I have only recounted glimpses of this rich and fascinating history; more historic and contextual details can be found in my earlier article.
This dancing history combined with feminist and queer understandings of the Song of Songs in a way that enlightened my approach to painting the Shulamite as a Holy Woman Icon. Calling the Shulamite holy is my way of affirming female sexuality, the beautiful variety of the body’s shapes and sizes, and including the LGBT community in the canon of saints. Accordingly, the Shulamite’s robust curves fill the canvas as we remember her dancing body:
Her quivering curves and undulating lines
proclaimed praise and love…
Her body was beloved and holy,
She was a dancer divine
 This translation of Thousand and One Nights is taken from Athalya Brenner, I Am…Biblical Women Tell Their Own Stories (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005), 165-6.