Monthly Archives: October 2010

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Where is the line?

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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.

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Bellydance and Martial Arts – where do they connect?

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A student of mine emailed me a little while back to tell me that her new sensei was interested in having me come to do a demo at his dojo, and talk a bit about any relation between bellydance and martial arts. I studied Parker-style kenpo for some years, and this topic was of interest to me – I see a number of parallels between martial artist and dancer.

Subsequent conversations with the sensei turned up that this was a miscommunication – he wanted me to come see a demo of their classes at his dojo. Apparently he saw his new student’s dance teacher as a potential sale…  My student – a lovely and insightful woman – was disappointed; she wanted to hear about those parallels. Most of what I have to say on the subject is about approach, philosophy, and state of mind, not similarities of the movements themselves. I thought to myself, I may not have a room full of captive martial arts students to talk to, but I sure as heck have a blog.  🙂

Practice Practice
In both arts, the first step is to practice a move over and over again again until it enters “muscle memory” and happens as naturally as breathing. Pay attention to the move; note how it feels internally, execute it slowly, break it into its component parts. Then repeat it. Don’t just execute it a few times until you “get it” mentally – repeat it until you absorb it fully, without having to think about how it is done.

Alignment is Key
Both arts, done properly, involve a deep attention to the internal – which muscles are engaged in the torso, where is weight placed, etcetera. These things, often not visible themselves, are the foundation of how powerful a move is. If you aren’t harnessing the power of the muscles of your waist, your punch will lack force. If you aren’t engaging all your abdominals, your undulations will lack depth and fluidity.

Surrender to the Moment

“A good martial artist does not become tense, but ready. Not thinking, yet not dreaming. Ready for whatever may come. When the opponent expands, I contract. When he contracts, I expand. And when there is an opportunity, I do not hit. It hits all by itself.”
-Bruce Lee

I think of this quote frequently in terms of improvisational dancing. When the music calls, I do not move. It moves all by itself. Dancers respond to the music without conscious thought the way martial artists respond to opponents without conscious thought. Practice is the time to think. Once you hit the sparring ring or the stage, you have to let go. In both a performance and a fight, if you have to think about how to execute a move, you’ve already lost.

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Am I just old-fashioned?

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The trend I see of marketing dancers, gigs, venues, with unsupported superlatives bothers me. “Boston’s most sought-after bellydancer” – really? ‘Cause I don’t remember giving anyone _my_ inquiry or booking statistics to compare. “Boston’s most prestigious ___ restaurant” – Truly? When it just opened 6 months ago, and doesn’t seem to have the popularity, quality, or reputation of ABC restaurant in the same genre? How are we calculating these things?

I get that people want to attract people, to communicate that something is good, worthwhile, special. But when non-subjective superlatives are used, I find it off-putting. It comes across as exclusionary. It makes me feel that someone’s ego is at stake, that they feel they have to believe that they are most popular, respected, authentic – whichever superlative they’ve chosen – regardless of whether any facts have been gathered or what those facts tell us. And that they choose to view me through the lens of competition rather than as a fellow artist.

Maybe other people don’t value generosity of spirit so highly as an artistic trait. I dunno. So, leave me a comment – do others feel the same, or am I just old-fashioned?

 

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Why I call my costume style “nightclub”

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I’m Canadian. I’ve been living in the U.S. for many, many years, but the early foundation of my upbringing, that shaped how I see the world, is Canadian. In a lot of ways, Canadians aren’t that different from Americans. But in some ways, we’re closer to European. For me, one of those ways is the association of the word “cabaret” with with a place that’s rather sleazy…

This is common in Europe in the Middle East. In Morocco’s “Dancer to Dancer” interview with Oberon (http://www.casbahdance.org/dancertodancer.htm) she says: “…in the Middle East and the rest of the world, a ‘cabaret’ is a low class dump, a dive — like the whorehouse dive in the movie ‘Cabaret’.”

Shira has a longer commentary on the term in her article on dance styles here:
http://www.shira.net/styles.htm#Overview
(My only beef with her “styles” article is that it doesn’t mention Turkish Oryantal :D)

I find American dancers are often quite surprised to learn that the term “cabaret” is unsavory overseas. I personally am not offended by the use of the term, but for myself, I’ll stick with “nightclub style”.