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

Classy or Tacky: Which Are You?



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Far too many people still think belly dancing are women of questionable reputation. The way belly dancers have been portrayed by U.S. media for over a century has created many misconceptions about our art form. In particular, the U.S. mass media regularly reinforces the misconception of belly dance's purpose being for arousing the loins of male audience members. This misconception has been reinforced by some dancers who try to use the spotlight to reassure themselves of their own ability to seduce male attention.

Just as bad, many people think belly dance actually isn't a "real" dance form, believing that it's nothing more than shaking your rear. Unfortunately, people often get this impression because of how belly dancers represent our art form to the public.

As a dance community, we find ourselves confronting this lack of credibility all the time. It becomes even harder for us when some of our own dance colleagues do things that The General Public thinks are tacky.

Are you classy or tacky? Your clothing and behavior can make a big difference in how people view you and your dance. Here are some thoughts on how you can gain respect of your audience members, employers, and fellow dancers.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Kaylyn Hoskins, Solon, Iowa.




Why Does It Matter?

Students sometimes ask me, "Why does it matter? Why shouldn't I just do what I want?" Here's why:

  • Audiences, gig organizers, studio owners, and other people will treat dancers they don't respect differently from ones they do. If they think a dancer doesn't deserve their respect, they may act dismissively, sexually harass her, break promises they may have made about providing facilities for changing into costume, keep her waiting while they delay her performance, and otherwise treat her badly. Do you want to be treated in a disrespectful way? If not, then use your behavior to show people that you deserve their respect.
  • Dancers are sometimes denied access to space for holding classes, troupe rehearsals, parties, or performances because the people who control those facilities have a negative opinion of belly dance. Often, that negative opinion came from something they witnessed a belly dancer doing.
  • You could damage the market for your teacher, your friends, and yourself to get gigs. If you act crass just as a joke, you could cause witnesses to decide they don't want to hire a belly dancer because they don't want to risk someone acting like that at their wedding or family birthday party.
  • If a student's family or friends see belly dancing depicted in a way that damages the reputation of the dance (and by extension damages the reputation of people who do it), they may pressure her to stop dancing.



When You're in "Normal-Person" Clothes

Sometimes you deal with the public when you're wearing normal clothes rather than a costume. You may be visiting a nursing home before the day you're scheduled to dance to examine the performance space. Or maybe you're meeting with a club owner to interview for a dance job. Or maybe you're interviewing a videographer you're hiring to produce a video. It's important to be "in character" as the beautiful professional dancer even in these situations.

Whatever the occasion, whenever you're conducting belly dance business, even if wearing everyday clothes, you are still seen as a representative of this dance form. If you show up for these meetings in a stained shirt and tattered blue jeans, you will leave the impression that you don't care about how you present yourself and your art form. A prospective employer will conclude that you probably will look ragged even when wearing the costume.

So, whenever you will be appearing in "normal" clothes but identifying yourself as a dancer, make the extra effort to look just a bit special. Wear a nice shirt with slacks, or a dress, instead of wearing a T-shirt with blue jeans. Put on just a bit of make-up even if you don't normally wear it. Style your hair attractively, and pay attention to your grooming.

It does take extra effort to do these things, but it will pay off in the level of respect that other people pay to you.

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




Preserve the Mystique

Don't stand around in full costume before your show, chatting with audience members. Wear some kind of cover-up: a nice caftan, a flowing full-length cape, a long coat, or similar wrap.

Part of the impact of your opening dance is the effect of your wonderful costume. There's something magical about exotic music, theatrical make-up, unusual lighting, and a wonderful costume all working together to make your first impression. If the audience sees you before you dance doing mundane things in your costume such as chatting with friends, much of that impact will be lost.

After your show is done, change back into attractive "normal" clothes before you reappear. Pat your face and cleavage with tissues to remove perspiration or runny make-up. Your image of glamor or goddess will be lost if you come out to chat with your audience while beads of sweat run off the tip of your nose and down into your cleavage.

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




Collecting Tips

In some communities, it is common practice for belly dancers to accept tips tucked into their costumes. In others, people frown on it. This issue divides the belly dance community. Please think it over carefully, and try to find out how audiences in your own community would be likely to respond.

  • Some dancers believe that allowing tips to be tucked into your costume causes audience members to equate belly dancing with stripping. Others don't see a problem with it.
  • If you do accept tips tucked into your costume, do not permit tips to be tucked into your bra cups or the center front of your belt.

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See the Related Articles section at the bottom of this page for links to two more articles by Shira on how to accept tips in a classy way.



Smoking & Drinking Alcohol in Costume

When you're dressed in everyday clothes and not representing belly dance, you're free to smoke as much as you please and drink as much as you please, within legal boundaries, of course.

However, when you're wearing your costume, or playing the role of "the dancer" at some sort of function, be careful how you behave. Even though both smoking and alcohol are both perfectly legal in many places and widely accepted, there is still some public attitude that these activities are somewhat sinful. I don't recommend doing these things when you're acting in some official capacity as a "belly dancer".

In the early 20th century, the very same time period when belly dancing was first tainted with scandal, it was considered scandalous for "ladies" to smoke or drink alcohol. If someone who appears otherwise to be a "nice girl" does these things, people may think it's cute or glamorous. But if people already think someone's reputation is questionable (and they do often question a belly dancer's reputation), then when they see her with tobacco and alcohol it just reinforces their negative opinions of her.



Chewing Gum

Chewing gum is often viewed as either immature behavior (something children do, but not adults) or as low-class behavior. For example, in Germany, after World War II, women would sometimes offer their services in exchange for a pack of chewing gum, and therefore even today gum chewing is often seen in Germany as an indicator of a "cheap" woman. In the U.S., I've heard people disparage those who chew gum by calling them "cows chewing their cud." Chewing gum detracts from the glamorous image that audiences expect from belly dancers. It's best to avoid doing it when you're representing yourself as a dancer.

Some people believe that chewing gum is appropriate when dancing with a melaya leff. In fact, some Egyptian dancers such as Nadia Hamdi have taught foreigners who study with them to do it. When I asked Mahmoud Reda about that in an interview, his response was, "The women of Reda Troupe never chewed gum in melaya dances. Per Reda, both he and Farida Fahmy consider gum-chewing to be vulgar, like spitting. A person who has the proper respect for the melaya as a modesty garment would never chew gum while using it."

Another thing to consider is that it's a bad idea to chew gum while performing. It presents a choking hazard, it could throw you off the rhythm of the music and it wreaks havoc with your facial expressions.



Body Language

It's usually okay to:

  • Pose for pictures with the guest of honor after you have performed for a private party.
  • Grab an audience member's hand when pulling him or her up to dance with you.
  • Touch your audience victim's hips with your hands in an attempt to make him/her try to shimmy them.
  • Teach a line dance in which everyone is holding hands, including you.

However, it's generally best to avoid physical contact with audience members, especially if you are dancing in a place where alcohol is readily available and some audience members are likely to be drunk.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by William M. Smith, Iowa City, Iowa.


There are some things you should never, never, NEVER, NEVER do, except in private for your special partner!

  • Never place your breasts on either side of a bald man's head and then shake them.
  • Never shimmy your breasts in a man's face.
  • Never sit on an audience member's lap, not even when posing for pictures, even if you know him. (The rest of the audience won't realize that you know him, and they'll think you're trying to seduce a stranger in public.)
  • Never engage in openly seductive behavior while dancing, such as licking your lips sensuously, doing vigorous forward-and-back pelvic thrusts, or twirling your hair around one finger while undulating directly in front of a specific audience member.
  • Never make "porno faces" in your performance.
  • Never point your knees toward the audience when doing a backbend.

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





I do hope that when you perform your fingernails and toenails are clean and neatly shaped, your hair is clean and attractively styled, and your clothes are free of stains and odors. I hope your costume is in good condition, without looking tattered. I also hope you know why this is important, even for student dancers.

In most professional gigs in North America, audiences expect the dancers to either have hair-free armpits or to have the armpits covered by the costuming. Even if you're part of a student troupe, it's best to avoid showing armpit hair when dancing for the general public. However, you should be fine with the natural look at belly dance insider events such as festivals and haflas.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by William M. Smith, Iowa City, Iowa.




In Conclusion

Unfortunately, too many members of the public already think belly dancing is sleazy, low class, or not a real dance genre. When we parade around in costume where the public can see us before or after we perform, or smoke cigarettes while in costume, we reinforce their belief. It doesn't seem fair, but it's reality.

So, if you want people to respect you when presenting yourself as a belly dancer, it's not enough to look and behave like an ordinary everyday person. You need to be just a little more tasteful, a little more ladylike, a little more glamorous than a "normal" person.

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




Related Articles

Other articles on this web site that you may find helpful include:



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