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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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Categories
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?

 

Categories
Costuming, Makeup, & Presentation Most Popular

Hip Scarf 101: From Buying to Tying

Photograph by: D. Sharon Pruitt

So you probably had lots of good reasons for becoming interested in belly dance… it’s graceful, beautiful, and powerful. It’s great for burning calories and toning muscles. It teaches coordination and body awareness. It’s fun and exciting.

But I think we all have to admit that somewhere, deep down inside maybe, we were all pulled in at least a little by the glitter, the glitz, and the BLING!

So here’s your comprehensive guide to the most popular belly dance accessory, the hip scarf. Everything you need to know from buying to tying one (and keeping it up through those shimmies!).

Hip Scarf History

Coined scarves as a belly dance accessory were invented in the States sometime in the early seventies. They are not folkloric, but are instead a modern costuming element. Cabaret dancers generally wear scarves with coins, beads, and/or fringe. We’ll mostly be covering these in this guide rather than the wraps adorned with fringe, tassels, shells, brooches or talismans, feathers, and synthetic flowers that Tribal dancers often wear.

Selecting a Good Hip Scarf

  • Coins are sewn on with abandon! They should be plentiful and dense, sounding like a rain stick when you shimmy your hips.
  • Coins are relatively thick and heavy, not aluminum foil thin.
  • Seams are edged twice, threads holding coins are thick or doubled. The reason coins fall off prematurely is that their sharp edges can wear the threads out. Make sure they’ll hold up.
  • The fabric is of a decent weight and quality. Chiffon often lasts longer than velvet, which tends to stretch out.
  • Color is of course your choice and preference (but black or white tend to get boring).
  • Shape is also your preference, but rectangular ones tend to make hips look curvier and triangular ones less so.

Tying and Keeping it on

  • Hold the hip scarf at your waist from the top edge. Gather the fabric from the bottom up to the top. Tie in a double knot. Push the hip scarf down to you hips (tying at the waist and not the hips will keep it on through those shimmies).
  • You can tie it on the side or in the center, but most people prefer it over the right or left hip.
  • Layering a fringe scarf underneath your coin scarf provides even more color, texture, and movement to your look.

Caring for your Hip Scarf

  • Always fold the scarf with coins in to protect them from snagging.
  • Repair any loose threads, and re-sew loose coins when they fall (pick them up when it happens!).
  • You shouldn’t try to wash a hip scarf. If necessary, you can mist lightly with vodka and hang to dry. This should take out any odors caused by bacteria left from sweat.

My Favorite Online Retailers for Hip Scarves

Hope you found this helpful. Let me know where YOU like to get your hip scarves.