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PHOTO CREDIT: Above photo by John Rickman Photography, San Jose, California.

Belly Dance: Isn't That Like Stripping? (Why They Ask)


by Shira




Table of Contents




When you discuss your interest in belly dancing with someone from North America, the conversation often goes something like this:

You: "I'm a belly dancer."

Other Person: "Belly dancing - isn't that something like stripping?"

I think nearly all belly dancers are tired of this question. The two entertainment styles come from entirely different origins: belly dancing from the Middle East, and stripping from North America. Belly dancing originated as a social dance known as raqs baladi that people did for their own enjoyment at parties, whereas stripping originated as something to stir the loins of audience members. The audiences are quite different from each other.

Many of us then rush to correct people's misconceptions. Unfortunately, this can lead to saying negative things about strippers, which we really shouldn't be doing, either. It's okay to point out that these are entirely different forms of entertainment, because they are, but instead of claiming to be more honorable than strippers, we should try to educate with facts.

In our eagerness to correct this misconception, we talk about the fact that belly dancers provide "wholesome entertainment" that is "suitable for the whole family". To prove our "respectability", we clothe ourselves in so many layers of pantaloons, skirts, body stockings, tunics, vests, Ghawazee jackets, turbans, and veils that it takes two hours just to get dressed! Plus, that's not how the performers in the countries of origin dress, so therefore we also create new misconceptions about the dance and its originst.

We tell people over and over and over again that belly dancing is in no way connected to stripping until we're even sick of hearing ourselves say it!

And still people ask us that question. But why?

Just where did that imagined linkage to stripping come from? Why do people think these entertainment forms are related? Arm yourself with the facts, so you can discuss this intelligently with both your fellow dancers and The General Public. The better you understand why people believe this, the better equipped you'll be to confront these misconceptions and promote acceptance of belly dance in your own community without trampling on other women who do other types of performances.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Pixie Vision, Glendale, California.




Colonialism and Orientalism

During the 1700's and 1800's, the major colonial powers of Europe raced to claim parts of Africa and South America as their own. Countries such as England, France, Belgium, and Spain considered their own white people to be superior to the darker-skinned native populations in just about every way. They enslaved the people, banned them from having a voice in their own government, and enforced an alien culture on them.

In this environment, the Orientalist art movement arose. Soon, writers such as Gustav Flaubert and artists such as Jean-Léon Gérôme were making trips to the southern and eastern Mediterranean region to study the locals and write about them or paint them. Some Orientalists were sincerely interested in learning about these unfamiliar cultures, while others looked down their patronizing European noses at them. The diaries of European travelers from that era describe intensely racist views toward the locals.

Occupying colonial armies, business travelers, and tourists sought local entertainment while visiting these places. They hired local musicians and dancers for performances, even though many of these foreigners didn't appreciate what they saw. They were both repelled and fascinated by the hip and abdominal movements that they saw in the local dancers.

In letters and diaries, they wrote about the scandalous behavior that passed as "dancing" in the Middle East and North Africa. This encouraged additional European travelers to visit the area and see for themselves.

Writers such as Flaubert spoke of prostitutes who would also dance for them. Orientalist artists such as Gérôme created paintings depicting Middle Eastern women as nude or scantily clad. These paintings served as the pornography of their day.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: This painting was created as part of the Orientalist movement of art in the 19th century. The artist, Jean-Léon Gerôme, was probably the most famous and most prolific artist of the era. Art historians believe this painting dates to 1866.




The First Belly Dancing Scandal in North America

It was the 1890's. Respectable women wore corsets and long, flowing skirts that covered their shapely ankles. Queen Victoria reigned in England. Women in the U.S. did not yet have the right to vote. The U.S. Civil War had ended only 30 years earlier, and the country had celebrated its centennial only 20 years prior.

U.S. attitudes toward people in show business were very different then from what they are today. It was considered very embarrassing if a member of someone's family became "one of those show business people" on the vaudeville circuit or ran away to join the circus. Entertainers were a social class that "decent, church-going" people felt were beneath them.

Vaudeville grew out of the music halls of Europe, sideshows, and the post-Civil-War minstrel shows. Components of a typical show might include a melodrama, skits, songs, dance numbers, and novelty acts such as acrobatics and juggling. White people put on black make-up known as "blackface" and exploited African-American culture. Popular songs were about love and romance.

Vaudeville's companion form of entertainment was burlesque, which satirized and parodied society's issues and values of the day. It was particularly designed to be entertainment for the poorer classes, the masses, and it lampooned the upper-crust wealthy and power elite. The primary difference between vaudeville and burlesque was that vaudeville tended to keep its acts more "clean" and suitable for the whole family, whereas burlesque aimed for more ribald humor. Many comedians who later became legendary in movies started in burlesque, such as Abbott & Costello, Bert Lahr, and Phil Silvers.

In this environment of risqué burlesque humor being used to satirize the moneyed upper classes, an event known as the Chicago World's Columbian Exposition made its debut in 1893 to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus' "discovery" of the New World. This was a ground-breaking event in many ways. The notion of a carnival with rides and shows was introduced for the very first time. The section of the Exposition that housed this entertainment was the Midway Plaisance, which included the world's first Ferris wheel, a balloon ride, and anthropological exhibits showing people of exotic cultures.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: This is a still image from an 1897 film showcasing a dancer named Fatima. The filmmaker was Thomas Edison. He filmed many short silent films of vaudeville entertainers, and one of these was Fatima.

The anthropological exhibits included camel rides, cafés featuring ethnic food, and a series of acts portraying the music and dance of various regions. They included performers representing Egypt, Algeria, Persia, and the Bedouin. Even though these dancers were fully clothed from head to toe, the fact that they moved their midriffs so easily was very disturbing to turn-of-the-century upper-crust Americans.

At first, the Exposition wasn't attracting as many audience members as the organizers had hoped for. Promoter Sol Bloom came up with the idea to promote the performers from the Middle East and North Africa as "belly dancers". In a time when even the word "leg" was considered vulgar (people used the word "limb" instead), Bloom's decision to use the word "belly" in promoting his Midway sparked outrage within polite society. Soon a Senator was trying to shut down the act, and newspaper headlines were screaming about the scandal. This, of course, led the public to become very curious, and they flocked to the fair in large numbers to see what all the fuss was about. Fair promoters were delighted, and encouraged the scandal.

After the fair was over, many burlesque performers eagerly added the "hoochy koochy" (the name that arose for their twisted version of raqs baladi) to their repertoires. These women knew nothing about Middle Eastern dance or culture; they were professional all-American entertainers who saw a hook they could add to their act. Building on the scandal, they appropriated raqs baladi to create a vulgar distortion that would sell tickets. It was all in the name of mocking the establishment.

Burlesque entertainment had featured sexualized humor and scantily clad women long before the 1893 Columbia Exposition occurred. To burlesque entertainers, exaggerated "belly dancing" was simply another thing that they could use to make fun of the prudery of the upper classes.

In the decades that followed, burlesque shows reduced the amount of time allocated to the skits that featured male comedians, to allow more time for sexual teasing acts by the scantily clad female performers. Eventually, burlesque shows became synonymous with striptease, and male comedians were phased out altogether.




Portrayals in Movies & Television Shows

Although some movies and television shows portray belly dancers in a respectful way, there are others that cast it in a "sex sells" mentality. In one episode of Sex and the City, Mr. Big thrust wads of bills into the belts of a pair of belly dancers at a Moroccan restaurant, then later joked about stuffing money into belly dancers' crotches. An episode of The Simpsons that featured a belly dancer framed it in a story line suggesting it was somehow wrong for Homer to have enjoyed watching a dancer's performance. The movie Charlie Wilson's War ended the belly dance scene by having the dancer grab the necktie of one of the men watching, and lead him offstage as if it were a leash, leaving the viewer to imagine what was going to happen next.

These unfavorable portrayals seem to be the ones that The General Public remembers. We can't stop television shows and movies from portraying our dance form as a soft-core pornography, but we need to have an answer ready when people who saw these shows talk about what they think they "know" about belly dancing.

ABOUT THE PHOTO: This is a still from the episode of The Simpsons titled "Homer's Night Out", showing him dancing with Princess Kashmir at a bachelor party.




Even Some of Our Own

Even some members of our own dance community have done things that reinforce the public's unfavorable view of belly dancers. I've heard numerous reports of "belly dancers" who:

  • Allow men to tuck tips deep into their bra cups
  • Accept tips from men's teeth
  • Wear very revealing costumes which just barely cover their nipples or buttocks
  • Slip up behind a bald man in the audience, place a breast on either side of his head, and shimmy the breasts
  • Incorporate openly sexual pelvic thrusts into their dancing
  • Perform without a skirt or pants, wearing only a pair of bikini bottoms under their belts
  • Fix their eyes on a male audience member and seductively lick their lips at him
  • Strip out of a belly dance costume in a burlesque show
  • Place their skirts over the face of a man in the audience and wiggle their pelvises just for him
  • Strip out of an abaya to reveal a belly dance costume underneath
  • Aggressively promote their performance videos to the late-night crowd

When belly dancers do these things, it's no wonder many members of the public view our art form with suspicion. Nobody wants to book a dancer whose behavior will embarrass them in front of friends, family, and professional colleagues. Most dancers work hard to portray the dance as entertainment that's suitable for community festivals and other family-oriented occasions, but it's a constant battle to overcome the impressions left by the choices of a few.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Pixie Vision, Glendale, California.




In Conclusion

The General Public does have some valid reasons to view belly dancing as something inappropriate for family entertainment. There's the issue of early 20th century mockery of the ethnic dance to inspire them. Television and movies sometimes encourage this attitude through depicting unflattering stereotypes of the dance. And even some misguided dancers from our midst represent the dance in a way that shows disrespect for its cultural origins.

So how do you respond when someone says, "Isn't that something like stripping?" Well, it depends on the person. Maybe they're interested in a history lesson, but maybe they're not.

The best thing to do is initially respond with one of the following:

  • A lighthearted dismissal: "Oh, do people still believe that nonsense?"
  • A firm, "No," with a glare that says, "And you'd better not try to claim I'm wrong."
  • A brief reference to the dance's ethnic history: "No, it's actually based on a folk dance from the Middle East that people do to celebrate weddings and other family occasions."
  • A brief comment tying raqs baladi to the Bible (if you're talking to a church-goer): "No, it's a dance of celebration, and was probably done by the women attending the wedding at Cana where Jesus turned water into wine."

Then invite that person to come watch you perform, to see that the dance's foundation is that of expressing human joy.

Don't go into a long explanation unless you're certain the person you're talking to wants to hear it. You might alienate the other person if you go on and on with a boring lecture. Then again, maybe that would be exactly what you want to do!

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Pixie Vision, Glendale, California.




Related Articles

  • A Dance by Any Other Name. Explores how continuing to use the term "belly dancing" instead of the correct name of "Oriental dance" or "raqs baladi" may make it harder for you to gain respect for this art form in your community.
  • Classy or Tacky: Which Are You? Thoughts on how to portray belly dancing in a positive family-oriented light in your own community.



Related Books

  • Looking For Little Egypt. By Donna Carlton. Detailed historical research focused on the appearance of Middle Eastern dance at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair and the evolution of it in the decades that followed.
  • Before They Were Belly Dancers. By Kathleen Fraser.
  • A Trade Like Any Other. By Karin van Nieuwkerk. Excellent historical information about the rise of the first nightclubs in Cairo in the 20th century.




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