I’ve had ideas floating around in my head for some time, for an article about bellydance and “sexiness”. I recently had a conversation with local dancer Mahsati about exactly where _is_ the dancer’s line between appropriate and inappropriate, which coalesced some of these ideas nicely.
I often say the dance is sexy the way an evening gown is sexy – that isn’t its primary trait, and it shouldn’t seek to be sexually provocative. The best Oriental dancers are unafraid – unafraid of their bodies and their personalities, and allow both to shine through. Some sexiness shines through as a natural result.
Unfortunately, early on in the U.S. the dance gained a reputation for being a dance of seduction. For those of you who haven’t heard the story of Sol Bloom, there’s much to find on the internet. The short version – Bloom brought Middle Eastern dancers to perform at the 1893 World’s Fair, but no one was buying tickets to see his ethnic dance show. Bloom coined the term “belly dance” to shock and titillate Victorian-era society (understand, at this time “leg” was a vulgar word, never mind “belly”), and according to some reports began refusing to sell tickets to women because the show would be too much for their delicate sensibilities (the female dancers didn’t wear corsets! The scandal!) (They _were_ however, wearing full, body-covering clothes – the typical midriff-baring costume worn by most dancers today is another product of Western Orientalism and not traditional at all). Bloom’s marketing shift worked like a charm – tickets sold like hotcakes. Unfortunately we’ve never recovered from the reputation or the ridiculous name…
Back to the present: since some patrons expect a provocative dance of seduction, some dancers cater to it (both here and in the Middle East). In the short term it gets them more jobs and more tips, plus, in the U.S. at least, the gratification of sexual attention and approval from a culture that tells women they need to be sexy to be of any worth. I think in the long term they damage their own reputations, though, and the “more jobs” they get aren’t the ones I’d want. I wish I could just say those deliberately provocative dancers can do what they like, not my problem, but they perpetuate a stereotype about the dance that hurts us all. (I’ve seen this example given many times: if you see a stripper in a nurse’s costume you don’t assume all nurses are strippers. But Oriental dancers do not get afforded the same consideration. Thanks again, Sol Bloom.)
So where the heck is the line? I’ve been dancing in restaurants for about a decade now, and I’ve learned that there’s no simple answer to this one. A great deal of it is cultural context – for example, older Armenian and Persian women tend to try to tip you right in your cleavage. From an American perspective it sounds icky, but they do NOT mean it that way – it’s meant as a compliment and sort of a show of sisterhood – you’re representing women and as women they think you are doing a good job. It’s very hard for me to explain, but if you experience it you’ll see what I mean. But Americans get the wrong idea when they see it, and Arabs think anyone who accepts tips in the costume is a whore. And some Americans just won’t let go of their preconceived notions about bellydance, and no matter what you do they are either offended (if they disapprove) or treat it like it’s all about sex. Our own North American culture equates “sexy” with “sex object” to the point that some people are just blind to the fact that someone who is comfortable being sexy isn’t necessarily offering herself (or himself) up for your consumption. Therefore, if it’s sexy at all, it must be _about_ sex. *sigh*
Speaking of tipping, I always consider my audience. Greeks and Armenians expect to be able to tip you in costume, and I don’t have a problem with that in an established venue. In fact, sometimes they are quite insulted if you don’t allow them to tuck a bill into your hip belt – they mean it as appreciation of your dancing and nothing else. But I don’t allow cleavage tipping – it sends the wrong message to folks who aren’t familiar with the culture. In other types of restaurants where the clientele isn’t almost uniformly Greek or Armenian I discourage tipping in costume at all – tips can be showered over the head, Arab-style. This way no one gets mixed messages, and the overall atmosphere remains classy regardless of your cultural background.
But tipping is just one example of the whole issue. Much of the time, it’s simply a dancer’s facial expression that makes the difference. The same move with a joyous expression has a totally different impact than when performed with an I’m-so-sexy face. Costuming is also an issue. Personally, I try to keep my costumes to what I consider tasteful; I don’t generally show too much leg (not that I mind leg, but I want my audience watching my dancing, not wondering whether they are about to see my panties). I try to avoid too much cleavage. But, how much is “too much”, what is “tasteful”, are also both cultural and individual judgments.
And that’s what makes this so complicated for dancers here: the line we walk regarding cultures. If an Egyptian girl is dancing in Egypt, she really only has to worry about Egyptian standards, which are already ingrained in her since she _is_ Egyptian. An American dancing in Egypt has to learn those standards very carefully, but they still are the ones that apply. But dancing here? We are of one culture, and we have to balance the standards of that culture along with multiple others – both those of the art we are performing and the members of the audience we are performing for – all in the same performance much of the time! That’s a difficult balance.
I’ve seen raging debates break out about this online, but I just don’t believe there is a simple, cut-and-dried answer. I think there are some dancers, some costumes, some behaviors that are so far over the line that we all can agree they’ve gone too far. But I can’t pinpoint that line, and I don’t think anyone else can, either. I think a lot of people take a Potter Stewart approach: “I know it when I see it” but, while I think we all have that gut reaction at some time or another, it discounts cultural bias. The line is varied and fuzzy, and we all have to find our own way.