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

Dear Shira


Dear Shira:

What About My Scars?



The Question

Dear Shira:

After having a 10-pound baby four years ago, I have severe stretch marks that go 2 inches above my navel.They don't really bother me but my teacher says that body scars distract the audience from the actual dance. So far it hasn't seemed to bother anyone in performances, though sometimes in class I feel a little uncomfortable.

I don't feel comfortable in body stockings. I love to dance and I really hate to think that people would judge me for my scars. Tell me honestly what you think.

— Proud Mother



Shira Responds

Dear Proud,

There are a lot of things to consider here. There's a lot I don't know about your situation, so I'll have to stick with general comments.

As I read the note you sent to me, these questions came to mind:

  • Are your scars vivid colors, or are they mostly characterized by changes in texture from the surrounding skin (indentation, bump, etc)?
  • Did you ask your teacher for an opinion on whether to let the scars show, or did she volunteer the advice? Had you told her the scars had made you uncomfortable in class; that is, had you given her reason to believe you might appreciate advice on covering them?
  • What type of audience would this have been for? Belly dance insiders? The general public? A specialty audience? (For example, a support group for young mothers who meet to discuss the challenges of caring for their infants?)
  • Would you be dancing physically near audience members (for example, weaving your way between tables at a restaurant) or separated from the audience by some distance (for example, a raised stage)?
  • What would the lighting for the gig be like? Bright outdoor sunshine, or smokey hookah bar with mood lighting?
  • Was this going to be a student/hobbyist performance, or a professional gig?
  • Was this for a solo performance, or for an ensemble (troupe) show? If ensemble, what would the other dancers be wearing? Would you have been the only one covering your midriff?
  • Have you told your teacher that you want to work as a professional performer someday and you want her to show you the path to attain that, or do you see your future as staying with the "community" gigs just for the joy of performing?

Your teacher is correct that the stretch marks (or any other obvious scars) could potentially distract some audience members if the scars are a vivid color, if you're dancing close to audience members, and if the surrounding lighting is bright. You say that so far it hasn't seemed to bother anybody, but it's possible that your teacher could have learned of negative reactions that you weren't told about. I've known teachers who felt it was kinder to not tell the students about negative audience responses.

As adults, our bodies come with histories. We have histories of injuries, pregnancies, and surgeries. As dancers, we must consider those histories because they affect how we move, how we feel about our bodies, and what we choose for costuming. It can be tricky to make peace with whatever our bodies have endured in the past, accept what they are in the present, and adjust for them as necessary. Sometimes we need to adjust dance technique to accommodate medical conditions, sometimes it may be advisable to use costuming to camouflage, and sometimes openly displaying signs of our struggles is exactly the right choice. From a performing perspective, the key is to consider that different types of performances may require different choices.


How Do You Feel About Those Scars?

First, don't let your scars keep you from enjoying the dance. Whether you are a hobbyist or a professional, you can do belly dance performances.

If your scars make you feel self-conscious, then you probably should find a way to cover them. A dancer who is self-conscious about her own appearance probably won't be able to perform her best. In your letter, you said that you sometimes feel uncomfortable with the scars in class. Could that be why your teacher advised you to cover them? Was she trying to help you a way to avoid feeling self-conscious about the scars while performing?

If you don't feel self-conscious, maybe the scars mean something else to you. Scars can actually be very, very personal. Depending on what caused the scars, they might be linked to very precious memories, or very traumatic ones. Maybe you feel a strong desire to display them, either to celebrate a joyous event (pregnancy) or reclaim your life from trauma. A teacher's well-intentioned suggestion that you cover them might feel like an attack on you and your life history.

It can help to remind yourself that your teacher is trying to do what you pay her to do: share her expertise with you on how to look your best as a performer. Maybe this time her advice was something you didn't like hearing, especially if it felt like a personal attack. Chances are, she probably did not intend it as a personal attack at all, but if you're sensitive about body image and body shaming, it may have hit a nerve. If you can interpret her comment to have been motivated by a desire to help you feel great about yourself or protect you from possible body shamers in the audience, it can ease the sting, and open the door to further conversation with her about it.


If You Just Dance For Fun...

Even if you're just a student, when performing in front of an audience you still owe them the very best performance you are capable of providing at this point in your dance journey. And that does include looking your best with respect to costuming, makeup, and grooming. I'm not saying that means you must cover your scars, it's just a general statement about the value of trying to look your best every time you perform. I ask my students to come to performances with clean hair that's styled attractively, wrinkle-free costumes, and stage makeup.

The scar issue is tricky. Audiences at belly dance "insider" events such as haflas, festivals, recitals, and student showcases tend to be very supportive of the performers. At these events, audiences consist primarily of other dancers, their friends, and their families. I would expect such an audience to encourage performers regardless of scars, body type, or any other issue with physical appearance. Admittedly, sometimes there are mean-spirited people even among these audiences, but on the whole I find these events to be positive experiences that allow performers to explore their personal comfort levels with their bodies.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Michael Baxter, Santa Clara, California.

The general public is a different type of audience, and it varies by situation. If you're dancing at an event with a large number of drunken college students in the audience, their behavior could be very hurtful. If you're dancing at a nursing home or hospital, the audience may be so appreciative that they'll be warm and enthusiastic regardless of whether your scars are showing. If you're on the "community stage" at a city festival, you might get all kinds, from very supportive to nasty hecklers.

This is where your teacher's experience comes in. Part of the knowledge she can share with you is an expectation of what the audience is going to be like. Her instinct will be to try to protect you from unkind remarks, and to keep the audience focused on the positive qualities you have to offer. This is most likely why she has given you the advice she did.

Ultimately, you have the right to make your own decision on whether to cover / camouflage the scar, or whether to let it fully show. Your decision may vary depending on the nature of the performance - the audience composition, the level of lighting, the distance between you and the audience, etc.

If you choose to let the scar show, you may inspire a woman in the audience to feel more comfortable with her own scars, or you may overhear a rude remark about your scar made by an audience member. You may also make your teacher wonder whether you value her advice and can be relied on to follow it, which in turn could lead to her excluding you from some performance opportunities. Just remember that by making a decision to let the scar show, you are opening the door to these possibilities, both good and bad. We all choose to take risks in our lives every day, and this is one that you can choose to take or not, as you see fit.



Do You Aspire To Be A Pro?

If you aspire to building your career on working as a paid professional dancer, performing in nightclubs and private parties, then you will need to find a way to cover or disguise those scars, either with costuming, jewelry, tattoos, or makeup. People who pay to hire a professional dancer expect the illusion of glamor, and scars don't fit the glamorous image. Clients and audiences expect a different standard from a paid professional versus a student or hobbyist. This is just as true for Oriental dance as it is for painting, music, or any other art form.

If you want to seek work as a professional dance artist, you'll need to conduct yourself as one, and that goes for paying attention to your appearance as well as to your dance technique and business practices. Belly dance is show business. In show business, the performer's physical appearance is part of the package the customer is buying.

Show business can actually be brutal, because the customers often value your physical appearance more highly than they do your dance skills. Actresses, singers, and other entertainers experience it, too. Every professional dancer can tell you about the callers who complain of sticker shock when she quotes a price and then ask, "Well, don't you have a sexy younger student I can hire for cheaper?" or the restaurant owner who brought in a new young dancer who looked great in a costume but danced poorly. It can be maddening to see how little some clients value dance skill. The only way a professional dancer can survive emotionally is to remind herself over and over that these situations are not a reflection on her worth as a person, just thoughtless clients behaving badly.

For a working professional dancer, her income depends heavily on working a steady stream of regular gigs, in a variety of situations. She may be hired for shows at restaurants, Arab or Turkish weddings, birthday parties for men, women's health clinics, baby showers, bachelorette parties, hookah bars, retirement communities, going-away parties, fraternity/sorority parties, Middle Eastern themed corporate parties, and more. Some of these audiences are likely to appreciate a dancer's scars, while others are likely to be very judgmental. A professional needs to understand her market well enough to anticipate which gigs are likely to respond each way, and make choices accordingly. For the high-glamor gigs such as weddings and corporate parties, it would be a good idea to find ways to cover or camouflage the scars. See below for suggestions on options for how to do that.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by John Rickman Photography, San Jose, Calfornia.



So, What Can You Do About Those Scars?

Start by honestly assessing just how visible, how obvious those scars are. If they're faint, maybe they're not a major issue. But if your teacher thinks they're vivid enough to be distracting, then artfully covering or disguising them when dancing for the general public might be worth considering.

For what it's worth, body stockings aren't the only way to minimize the effect of scars. Maybe one of these ideas will be more appealing to you than the body stocking you've considered:

  • Some dancers wear belly dance costumes that look like elaborate evening gowns, dripping with beaded fringe, instead of the bra/belt ensemble. In the photograph to the right, I am wearing such a dress, and I don't even have any scars!
  • Look for body makeup that is designed to cover scars. You may have to shop around a bit, but it does exist! One brand name, Dermablend, is sold in department stores such as J.C. Penney. Even if the general shape of the scar is still visible after you put the makeup on, it will probably reduce the level of contrast between the scar's color and that of your neighboring skin, and therefore make the scar less obvious.
  • Learn how to do traditional folk dances and perform them. Folk costumes, such as the red dress I'm wearing in the photo next to the "If You Just Dance for Fun" section above, do cover the midriff, and are usually much more comfortable than a body stocking.
  • Work with your favorite tattoo artist to create a beautiful design that incorporates the scar as part of the image.
  • Consult your dermatologist and ask whether there are treatments such as lotions or skin lasers that might make the scars fade a bit.
  • If you like the two-piece bra/belt set, you might consider adding a stomach drape to your costume. This is jewelry or beaded fringe that attaches to your dance bra and covers your stomach. You can make your stomach drape from fringe, beads, coins, glittery fabric, or other materials that suit your costuming style. This, too, is popular among dancers who don't have scars, so you'll be right in style with everyone else if you go this route!
  • If you have a surgical scar (or injury) on your upper back, then perhaps long hair (a wig, maybe?), a vest, a shrug, or a headdress that hangs down your back will provide attractive coverage.

PHOTO CREDIT: Above photo by Lina Jang, New York City, New York.


What I Tell My Own Students

In my 17+ years of teaching, I've never initiated a conversation with a student about her scars. I have assumed that students who wanted advice would ask for it, and some have done so. For the ones that asked, I helped them explore the pros and cons of their options, pointed them to vendors if that's what they wanted, and left the decisions to them. Some chose to cover, some not, and I supported their decisions either way.

Closing Thoughts

You have a number of choices on what to do. Just decide what's important to you, and then act accordingly. Just remember that whatever you choose, it will influence which dance opportunities are available to you, so be sure to weigh possible consequences of any choice you make and ensure you can be comfortable with the outcome.

— Shira



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About this Column

Shira has received many questions from readers over the years related to various aspects of the dance. In this column, she picks some of the more interesting ones to answer publicly. Details contained in the questions are sometimes removed or disguised to protect the anonymity of the person who asked the question.



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