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Is Belly Dance Sexy?

How to Embrace Sensuality When Words are Traps

Belly Dancer Belly“Now, stand with your pelvis in neutral, feet hip width apart, and knees bent” I told my class of Advanced Beginner students as I showed them a Figure 8. “Don’t do this,” I added, taking my legs wider apart and tilting my pelvis forward. “That’s okay for the club, but it’s not okay here.” As usual my students giggled at my exaggerated impersonation of an ‘impolite’ belly dancer.

Then one of my students asked shyly, as if she was anticipating my disappointment, “But… I don’t understand. Belly dance is sexy, isn’t it? Why do we have to try so hard not to be sexy?”

She didn’t mean it as a challenge. She was simply puzzled by a complicated issue I had often struggled with myself, one that has shadowed our art ever since it was brought to the Western world. Where does sexy belong in belly dance? And what are we to do with it?

A Belly Dancer Named Goldilocks

It’s always a harrowing walk along the edge of the knife for belly dancing professionals. We have to make our living, which means promoting ourselves and advertising our services to a general public that often is very misinformed about what we actually do. It can be difficult finding a common language that sells our classes and shows, but that still maintains an authentic connection to the art. If you lean too far one way, you’ll alienate potential students and customers who may not yet understand or appreciate authentic Middle Eastern culture. Lean too far the other way and… well, you know what kind of names are waiting for those belly dancers.

I don’t know about you, but I feel constantly burdened by the tension that exists between these two extremes. I’m always at the ready to defend my art, ever-anticipating a need to justify who I am and what I do. When I tell people I’m a belly dancer, I’ve come to expect that it will somehow give them permission to ask me personal questions they’d never ask another stranger, or even a close friend. I sometimes assume dancers of other mainstream and Western styles will be prejudiced against me. I often attribute rejections to be included in community events and exclusions from teaching at certain studios to be a judgement of me or my trade.

As I drove home that evening after class, I couldn’t help but think that I had, in some ways, failed in my duties as an instructor. In their studies I had encouraged my students to find the beauty and power, to respect the level of dexterity that it demanded, and to show them expressions of joy, humor, and even tragedy. But in my battle-ready preparedness to defend my art I had not encouraged them to embrace their sensuality. It wasn’t that I thought belly dance shouldn’t be sexy, it was that I assumed they already had connected the two. Or rather, I assumed what they knew about sex and belly dance was overdeveloped and that I, at the least, had to show them other dimensions of the dance, if not tone down the perception that already existed. I was coming to realize, however, that it wasn’t just that Americans tended to oversex belly dance, it was that their idea of sexiness was very different than the sensuality in belly dance. In other words, it wasn’t just the volume, it was the melody of the music, too.

An Ill-Advised Search

In the coming months I thought a lot about sexuality, sensuality, and belly dance. I even did a few searches on Google (I wouldn’t try it unless you are prepared!) to see what happened when I put the terms “sex” and “belly dance” together. In the top ten results there were a few links I didn’t dare click. In others, a teenage boy asked on Yahoo Answers if belly dancers made the best sex partners, to which the replies, also from other young men, unanimously agreed that they were. The experience was so sensationally crazy, one suggested, as to break his equipment. There was also a blog article from a feminist author that questioned whether or not belly dance supported or contradicted stereotypical roles for women, a tutorial “How to Belly Dance Your Way to Better Sex,” and in a forum where, again, the experience of having sex with a belly dancer was being discussed, a woman claiming she was just beginning to take belly dance classes joined the conversation and promised “to use [her] powers for good and not evil. ::wink::”.

It’s particularly frustrating to read these discussions when you think about how many double standards exist. Certainly, more skin is shown in professional ice skating (when there’s even more reason to bundle up!), and yet the sport is an esteemed tradition in Olympic competitions. There’s actual physical contact between partners in ballroom dancing but, at least in this day and age, the waltz wouldn’t be excluded from any wholesome community event. Other exercises that improve physical health, even some that probably do much more for improving sexual health like Yoga, are celebrated by doctors, physical therapists, and psychologists. I’m not going to discuss how and why these double standards came to exist (because there’s already great articles about that), but I think it’s important to acknowledge how challenging they can be.

*I happen to love ice skating, ballroom dancing, and yoga, so I am by no means suggesting that these are not legitimate pursuits. In fact, all of them are great for physical conditioning, and all are beautiful art forms, too.

It’s a Trap!

Why are these perceptions so damaging? Certainly most belly dancers would prefer not to be treated like strippers or prostitutes. But the real dangers, in my opinion, are in the limitations it imposes. In American culture being sexy is a trap. It’s a characteristic of the “other” entertainment, the kind that didn’t get to your television or to the stage by the merits of requiring dedication, talent, creativity, or vision. When entertainment is defined exclusively by its sexiness, it’s value is judged by the physical attributes of the performers, not by their skills.

This means that:

  • To be a good belly dancer, you should fit the American stereotype of an attractive woman. You should be thin, toned, and young. You should have flawless skin, thick shiny hair, and… well, you know. Go open a magazine.
  • The art of the dance goes unnoticed. The preparation and work given to each performance is overlooked. Your technique, your creativity of interpretation, your strength and poise, are relatively meaningless.
  • You’re limited in your expressions. You can be sexy, but you can’t use the dance to celebrate a joyful moment, interpret the loss of a loved one, show triumph over a challenging obstacle, connect to a higher being, share in a sisterhood, or anything else. Even sexy is limited to the American interpretation of being very loud, aggressive, and accessible.

It’s therefore easy to see why ‘polite’ belly dancers shy away from the label of “sexy”. It’s a dangerous one.

But Belly Dance Is Sexy, Isn’t It?

Yes, it can be! But it can be sexy in a way that embraces womanhood in all stages of life, no matter who she is or what she looks like. It can be sexy in the way she dances, the dedicated practice, the creative vision, and the energy that is invested, not what her body looks like through the performance. It can be sexy, but through an entire range of feminine expressions from cheerful celebrations to quiet lamentations, moments of hopelessness to surges of triumph, it can be many other things, too.

To my students: I encourage you to embrace sensuality in your dance, because it is a natural part of the human experience. But I ask that you first examine, and expanded upon, your previous conceptions of sexuality. Be wary of the limitations that “sexy” imposes. Continue to learn about and advocate for belly dance as an art. You have a responsibility to represent it as such to the greater community.

To other professionals: I encourage you to have a “birds and the bees” talk with your students. Let them discuss their ideas about what sexiness means to them and how it relates to belly dance in an environment that is supportive and judgement free. Remember that you’re not just turning down the volume, as I did for years, but also trying to change the melody. Sensuality in belly dance is not always bad.

What do you think?

Does sexy have a place in belly dance? How do you manage perceptions? Please leave your thoughts in the comments below!


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Branding and Professional Image

Choosing a Stage Name in the Digital Era

A dancer's stage name online

We live in an era where nearly everyone has a social online identity and it’s difficult to separate one’s personal from professional life. It used to be easy to step out on stage under whatever name you pleased only to leave behind the oriental fantasy at the end of the night. Now there will always be Facebook photos and YouTube videos to connect her to you; the digital world is an unmasker of secret identities.

So how does a dancer identify herself in the digital age? There is already great advice available about choosing a stage name. I’m not going to readdress what’s already been thoroughly discussed in such thoughtful detail by others. If you’d like more information about where to find or how to pick a name you should read Do You Need a Stage Name? by Shira, or How to Choose Your Stage Name by Taaj. What I would like to present, however, are some considerations for dancers who are thinking about going pro and would need their name to serve them as a brand.

A few assumptions

If you’re a belly dancer that plans to one day teach or perform professionally you’re going to need an online presence. Yes, I said it. An online presence is a necessity for professionals. It may just be a website, but more than likely you’ll also have an online social presence like a Facebook page, a Twitter feed, a blog, or a YouTube channel, as well. This is what makes choosing a stage name in the digital era different. We now have to consider how that name will fit within a global network.

I’m also going to assume that the digital age has brought changes that are neither good or bad- just different. A lot of people are quick to criticize or praise the use of social media. Let’s just assume for now that, whether we like it or not, it’s part of our brand. Our job as professionals (or as up and coming professionals) is to learn about the market so that we can make the best decisions.

Is choosing a stage name going out of style?

As Ava Fleming, Michelle Joyce, and Rachel Brice might tell you, it certainly is becoming more common for dancers to perform under their legal name. I think this is a result of the evolution of the dance in this country, as well as the evolution of its perception by the general public. However within more traditional styles, especially when the dancer may be working with an ethnic audience, choosing a stage name is still common.

Do you really need a stage name?

Creating an alternate dance persona can be fun. It can give you courage when you first start to perform. It may help you create a sense of mystique or authenticity for the audience. It can also help protect your identity if you really really need to separate the dancing from your personal life. These are still good reasons to choose a dance name, but I also think they are becoming less important and less relevant.

I think there is something very powerful about a dancer who is bold enough to step on stage as herself. It has also been my experience in the six years I have been Ananke that the pseudonym has become less enticing and more off-putting for potential clients and students. They seem more uncomfortable calling me by my stage name when they have the choice of my legal name.

If I were making the decision today? Hmm… I might not be Ananke.

Tips for choosing a stage name in the digital era

  1. Make sure the name is unique. This is where having the internet really comes in handy! Do a thorough search on Google, Wikipedia, Facebook, and YouTube to make sure that there aren’t any other dancers, troupes, or businesses with that name. Adjust the spelling and add a last name if needed to make it totally yours. I strongly urge you to avoid common names, such as Nadirah or Scherezade, even if you have a unique spelling and last name.
  2. Try the name out first. Perform a few times in a casual setting with the name you’re thinking about using. It may look great on paper or in your head, but it might not feel right when you’re dancing or when the announcer introduces you. Ask people at the show for their opinion. What did your name make them think of when they saw it in the program? Did it fit the dancer who came out on stage? Trying out a name at a show is a great way to test the market’s reaction.
  3. Have a two part name ready. Maybe you’ve already chosen a first and last name for the stage. Even if you’re going to go the single name route, have a second word prepared for online social profiles. Often when you sign up for an account on a website or online directory they’ll require you to enter a first AND last name. I always sign up as “Ananke Dance”. It’s easy just to add ‘dance’ or ‘dances’ after your stage name to complete the profile. The goal here is just to be consistent, so that if someone is interested and searches for ‘Ananke Dance’ they’ll be able to find your other profiles.
  4. Reserve the name for yourself. You might not be ready to go professional at this point, but when you do you’ll want to own your stage name on major sites like Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube. My favorite place to go is Knowem.com where you can check the availability of your name across hundreds of social networks. Register on the networks that are most important to you, or find new networks you may want to add to your existing online network.
  5. Decide how you want to separate your personal and professional life. It’s important to start thinking early about where you will use a dance name versus your personal identity. You may choose to use a website only as your dance persona, have separate accounts for your personal and for your dance persona, or divide them in some other way. For example, I have a personal Facebook profile but a Facebook page for dance. I only have one Twitter account, but it’s for my dance persona only. I have two Pinterest accounts, one to serve me personally and another to serve me professionally. Decide where it’s important to make these divisions (and how many times you want to login and out everyday).

Questions, thoughts, reactions?

What else would you consider when deciding upon a stage name? Does it still make sense to choose a name in this day and age? Why or why not?

 

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Branding and Professional Image Most Popular

5 Creative Approaches to Writing a Stage Introduction

Gerson Kuhr, the “Fitness Pharaoh”, as emcee for a bellydance show in Silver Spring, MD.

You’ve worked really hard to make sure every detail is perfect for this performance. The costuming and make-up, your song selection, the choreography… each took hours of careful planning, hard-earned sweat, and maybe even a few tears. Don’t let all your work go to waste, take the time to write a good stage introduction!

What is a stage introduction? The stage introduction, sometimes called the emcee notes or dancer’s bio, is how your routine is announced to the audience. It’s the ‘who you are and what you’re doing’ that may be read by a live MC, pre-recorded, or printed in the show program. If you’re dancing in an organized show, you’ll probably submit your introduction with your music and contact details. If you’re performing at a professional gig, you may be asked if you want anything announced before you enter.

Why is it important? The stage introduction is often your first impression on the audience. It’s a chance to get their attention, set the mood, and raise the level of anticipation.

So let’s walk through some important considerations before we begin. Then we’ll look at a few creative writing approaches, with examples of how each may by used. We’ll finish with some general tips on style.

Considerations:

  • What’s the format? Will your intro be in a printed program, read by a live emcee, or both? If you know your intro is going to appear in print, then you can ask the show organizer if it would be okay to include a link to your website (or your teacher’s!) in your intro. It’s a great way to get free advertising. If your intro is being read by a live emcee, you may want to consider including a phonetic guide to pronouncing any difficult names.
  • Who is your audience? The purpose of the intro is to provide context for your audience, to help them connect to you and your work. You’ll first have to understand who they are to be successful. Are the people in your audience traditional American, or do they generally belong to a particular ethnicity, culture, or other socioeconomic group? What is their level of experience with bellydance? Will this be their first time seeing a live bellydancer?
  • What’s the venue? Is this a formal gathering, or something more casual? The tone of your writing should compliment the tone or mood of the event.

Approaches:

  • Educational: Explaining a few of the historical or cultural background details related to your performance. This works great for audiences that are new to bellydancing, or for haflas where there are often students in the audience that are learning about different styles and traditions. It also works nicely for folkloric routines.

Ancient dancers in Egypt, Greece, and Turkey held percussive instruments in their hands during religious and secular ceremonies. These instruments would later come to resemble the modern belly dancer’s finger cymbals. Tonight, Ananke fuses the traditional playing of finger cymbals with New Age world music in a routine that features some jazzy rhythms.

  • Translation: Summarizing a translation of the lyrics to set the mood or tone. This can add depth to your interpretation, especially when the singer relates an interesting story or parable. It also works well for traditional American audiences that may feel disconnected to foreign music.

Ananke interprets a Turkish pop song in which singer Tarkan pines for a woman that is a bit of a tease, and who also happens to be with another man.

  • Dedication: Dedicating the performance to a teacher or inspirational figure, or to a friend or family member. This works well for emotive pieces, especially when the routine demonstrates a quality of the person you are celebrating or remembering.

Ananke dedicates this performance to her good friend Jeanine, who taught her that life’s most valuable lessons are those that are the most hard-won.

  • Provide a setting: Using imagery to evoke a particular scene in space or time. This works well for non-traditional fusion pieces with a particular theme, as well as historic folkloric routines. Here’s one I used for a Halloween show:

On this moonless night you have been summoned to witness upon this stage a dark covenant. From the shadows emerge creatures who conjure around the ghostly flames and take pleasure in ghastly tricks and treats.

  • Use humor: People have a good time when they laugh. Use a bit of humor to engage an audience before a light or playful routine.

Ananke will perform a sizzling drum solo, a traditional component of the Cabaret line-up involving precise isolations that require intense practice and drills. These shimmies are sure to leave you (and her!) breathless.

Tips:

  • Keep it short! Less than four sentences is great.
  • Pick just one of the above approaches (or your own!) and do it well. Don’t overcomplicate the message.
  • If you need to include biographical information (like how long you’ve been dancing, who you study from, etc.), then try to creatively weave it into your approach. Avoid sentences like, “Salimah has been dancing for three years.” when you could write, “In three years of dancing Salimah has learned that the most challenging pieces are easiest to interpret with a veil in her hands.”
  • It is proper for student-level dancers to acknowledge their teachers, and to acknowledge the choreographer of the routine if it is not yours.
  • Remember to write in the third person, “Ananke dances…”, instead of “I dance…”, so that it makes sense when the emcee reads it. And don’t forget to include your name somewhere!
  • Use the present or future tense, “Ananke is performing…” or “Ananke will perform.”
  • Try to use an active voice, it sounds much more powerful. “The routine features…” instead of “… is featured in the routine.”
  • Save the introductions you write so that you can reference (and reuse!) them later.

Happy writing!

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Branding and Professional Image Most Popular

Mind Your Manners! Hafla Etiquette for Bellydancers

Ananke performing at hafla

Update for the Non- Dancer Audience: Just remember that attending a belly dance show is about having a good time! You probably have already attended a ballet or other performing arts event. It’s really not much different.

What do you do when a belly dancer approaches your table? Feel free to encourage the dancer with smiles, eye contact (for however long seems natural to you), and by clapping along to the music. It’s okay to watch her body movements or her use of any props, too. And don’t forget that you can always talk to her, even if it’s just to tell her she’s doing a great job! If you’re uncomfortable- go back to your dinner conversation. It’s that simple.

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It’s spring, which means it’s hafla season. If you’re into performing you probably have at least one upcoming show in the next few weeks. And even if you’re not performing I bet you’ll be attending one soon. So I thought it would be a good time to review the P’s and Q’s of performance etiquette.

Why it’s important. Being polite and respectful at shows is about maintaining your reputation amongst your fans and your fellow dancers. Your name is the single most important thing you have. If you tarnish it, then you don’t dance. It doesn’t matter how good your technique is. It’s that simple.

So what is good show etiquette for bellydancers? I’ve broken it down into three categories:

In the Audience

  • Be positive. You know Thumper’s Law: if you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothin’ at all. Help create a show atmosphere where women are supported for being who they are, where they are in their study of the dance. Plus, you never know who might overhear your negative comments.
  • Be supportive. Don’t underestimate the power of a reassuring smile, especially for dancers new to the stage. Clap along to the music, or zaghareet where appropriate. If you’re comfortable with a little Arabic, you can also call out encouraging phrases such as “Yalla!” or “Ya Habibi!” Be careful with hissing- while it may be appropriate in some tribal dance themed shows, cabaret or folkloric dancers will probably find it offensive.
  • Buy something. If the hafla is being held in a restaurant or lounge, you should at least buy a drink to support the establishment. The tables are there for paying customers, and your ticket or cover charge doesn’t count. This is just as true for dancers in the show who are sitting in the audience before or after their number!
  • Stay for the whole thing. Don’t just arrive for your number and then leave after your done. Be there to support all the dancers. If you really must leave for another engagement, then email the event organizer to let them know well ahead of time.
  • Wear your cover-up. For performers not on stage, and this includes any time you’re sitting in the audience, you should wear an appropriate cover-up. A transparent veil isn’t enough; aim for a caftan or change of clothes instead. You don’t want your costume to detract from the performance currently onstage. And if you haven’t performed yet, you don’t want to give away your look!
  • Promote where appropriate. Haflas often have a table with promotional materials such as flyers and business cards made available to the audience. Before placing your own materials here, check with the event organizer.

In the Dressing Room

  • Be on time. This helps the event organizers run the show smoothly. It also gives you more time to prepare backstage. Be sure to check in with the stage manager and to hand off your music, stage introduction, etc. to the DJ or emcee as soon as you arrive.
  • Come prepared. You should arrive in full costume and makeup with only some last minute pinning and adjustments needed. Triple check that you have everything you need before you leave. Have your dancer emergency kit (extra safety pins, costume tape, needle and thread, bobby pins, etc.) with you. Remember: “A lack of planning on my part does not constitute an emergency on someone else’s part.”
  • Don’t hog the dressing room. It’s rare to be in a dressing room that isn’t overcrowded. Do what you can to maximize the space by bringing in only what you must. Try to give everyone some mirror time, especially the dancers going on stage before you. And please please please don’t practice your routine in the dressing room.
  • Stay positive.  It’s good to remember that everyone prepares for a show differently. Some people might want to chit chat to ease their nerves, others may want time alone to recenter. Stay positive and cheerful. The “OMG I’m going to mess up!” neediness is draining for everyone. You’re already here. Take a breath. Have fun.
  • Offer some help. Other dancers may need assistance with zipping, pinning, clasping, etc. Lend a hand if you have a spare moment, especially if you’re already done with your performance.
  • Mind the door. Some dressing rooms open into an area that is public. Check to make sure that you won’t expose any dancers before exiting. Knock before entering if necessary.
  • Don’t bring anyone else. Your friend/significant other/children should not come with you to the dressing room. If you need support or assistance, ask another dancer. If you need a babysitter, hire one to stay with your kids in the audience!

On Stage

  • Shh! Be quiet. While waiting in the wings try not to make any noise or ruffle the curtains. This includes talking, zilling, jingling, etc.
  • Stick to time limits. Let me tell you a little secret. I’ve never seen someone dance over their time limit and be glad they made the decision. Sticking to your time limit is respectful to the event organizers and your fellow dancers. Also, the best performances leave the audience wanting more. It’s hard to go wrong leaving too soon.
  • Give credit. In your stage introduction (or emcee notes) you should acknowledge anyone that assisted you with the choreography or the routine. Giving credit also means acknowledging the musicians if dancing to live music, and acknowledging the audience with a bow or curtsey.
  • Have a prop retrieval plan. A lot of event organizers would prefer you to leave the stage with whatever props you had when you entered. Even if this is not the case, make sure someone will be there to collect your things before the next performance.
  • Entrance and exit (have them). Be in character before the audience can see you, and keep it until after you are well out of sight. Nothing ruins the moment like an artist getting into character on stage.

The Good, the Bad, the Ugly

Do you have an example of really great show etiquette? How about a horror story? Please post in the comments below or share it on the Facebook page.