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

Dear Shira


Dear Shira:

To Cover Up or Not?



The Question

Dear Shira:

Thank you for putting together such an amazing site! I've used your advice as a foundation of my dance knowledge, but now I have a question for you I haven't found.

I know you and other dancers featured on your site say to wear a cover-up or change clothes before appearances after your performance. I have my first performance this weekend at our university as part of the dance program; I'm sort of a special feature. I was going to change clothes before greeting attendees post-show, but many of the current dancers said I should appear in costume (since the audience will not be able to see the costume up close and since this is something few of them will have seen before). I'm wearing a nightclub-style costume (sequined belt and bra, circle skirt, etc.)

What would you recommend: wear the costume and attempt to teach attendees a little after the show, or change clothes to greet people? I appreciate and respect your advice.




Shira Responds

Dear Debating:

The cover-up rule exists to help us overcome the negative image that many members of the general public hold toward our dance form. Long-time dancers encourage our students to use cover-ups such as the abaya you see me wearing in the photo to the right before and after performances to:

  • Ensure that your first impression when you step onto the stage or dance floor has the most exciting impact possible.
  • Preserve the mystique.
  • Avoid giving people a close-up look at the not-so-glamorous vision of sweat rolling down your cleavage.
  • Demonstrate that you are a respectable artist, not a loose woman who looks for every opportunity she can find to show off some skin.
  • Present yourself as an elegant, high-class person.
  • Avoid dropping food, getting cigarette burns, spilling red wine, or otherwise damaging expensive costumes. (Even if you're not eating, drinking, or smoking, an audience member or waiter passing by might have an accident.)

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Carol Grow Johnk, Iowa City, Iowa.

You typically don't see ballerinas mingling with the audience in their tutus after a show, or Las Vegas showgirls doing so in their thongs and feathers. When I saw the traveling tour production of "Cabaret" in my community, the dancers didn't come out in their lingerie to mingle with us audience members.

Of course, every situation is different and in making your decision you should consider the specific factors of yours. There are indeed times when it's appropriate to let the audience enjoy a close-up view of the intricate beading or ethnic coins on your costume. I can't make your decision for you, but I can offer you some ideas to think about that may help you determine how best to handle it.



Who Will the Audience Be?

You said that your performance will be part of a university dance program. Is your university a liberal state-run institution, or is it a conservative private school owned and operated by a religious organization? Would I be correct in guessing that the audience members will consist of students, faculty, and those members of the community who appreciate the performing arts?

Assuming that your university is not a conservative religious school, then you can probably expect that the audience is generally more receptive to artistic experimentation, including nudity on stage, portrayal of homosexual relationships in theatrical productions, etc. University populations often contain a high percentage of people whose attitudes are much more secular, whose sensibilities are much less easily offended by the sight of some skin. Therefore, your bedleh (nightclub-style costume) would be likely to be viewed by such an audience as interesting and attractive rather than as risqué. Such people would probably enjoy the opportunity to take a closer look.

In contrast, if a large proportion of your audience will consist of conservative people whose political leanings favor "family values" and "decency", your costume may be viewed as a threat or a challenge to things they hold dear. In such circumstances, you may want to distance your after-show persona from the performer that appeared on stage. "That was a character on stage, this is the real me."

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


How Formal Is the Show?

Will you be appearing in a standard theater, with professional lighting, printed programs, a box office, tiered seating, and formal introductions of each act? Or will the audience be sitting cross-legged on the floor of a gymnasium with an announcer in blue jeans introducing each dancer? A formal performance generally calls for your behavior to be more on the professional side and I would recommend changing your clothes before you mingle. A casual performance can allow for more relaxed standards




How Much Real Education Value Would You Offer?

Suppose you did decide to mingle after your show without wearing the cover-up. Are you equipped to discuss your costume intelligently, or do you just plan to parade around and let people take a good look at your exposed flesh? University audiences are generally people who respect and value education. Even professors generally enjoy a lifelong journey of learning new things. If you plan to offer people a close-up view of your costume, then I would urge you to research the origins of bedleh (the bra/belt/skirt costume) well enough to discuss how this look originated and how it fits into the history of Middle Eastern dance.

Have you done the reading to understand how the Orientalist art movement of the 19th century and the archeological fascination with ancient Egypt helped inspire Isadora Duncan and Ruth St. Denis to look to the mysterious East as a source of inspiration for modern dance? Do you know how Oscar Wilde's play Salomé and the opera by Richard Strauss that it inspired spawned a Salomé craze and launched the entertainment industry of the early 20th century into a continued fascination with the mysterious East? Are you aware of the early silent movies that embraced harem themes such as Rudolph Valentino's The Sheik and Claudette Colbert's Cleopatra?

I don't mean to intimidate you or discourage you, but if your intent in staying in costume after the show is to educate, then you need to prepare yourself to indeed deliver education. That means you need to equip yourself with sufficient knowledge to tell people how this type of costuming came to become associated with the raqs sharqi performing art. If you can't answer the questions that people are likely to ask about the costume, then you're nothing more than an attractive woman in a revealing costume. If you do decide to mingle in costume after your dance, you might want to read the chapters of Serpent of the Nile titled "The Obsessive Image" and "Cabarets and Clubs". Another good resource about the evolution of Oriental dance as a performing art is A Trade Like Any Other.


Will Other Dancers Be Mingling in Costume?

Will the other dancers who appear in your show be wearing their costumes when mingling with the audience? Or would you be the only one? If you would be the only one, then it might be better to change your clothes or put on a cover-up. Otherwise, you could look like someone who is hungrily seeking further attention. But if everybody comes out to greet the audience in costume, you'll fit right in.


What I Would Do

If the other dancers are not going to wear their costumes for greeting the audience, then I would not want to be the only one doing so. I would either put on the cover-up or change to an attractive normal-person dress before coming out.

If I chose the cover-up, I would probably select either a Khaleegy thobe al-nashal such as the one I'm wearing in the photo to the right, worn belted at the waist to keep the excess length under control, or brightly colored abaya or kaftan. (See above for a photo of me wearing a turquoise abaya.) Such an ethnic garment offers further opportunity for you to educate people about Middle Eastern garb.

If I chose the normal-person dress but thought the audience was likely to have an interest in seeing the costume I wore for the performance up close, I would probably bring the belt with me to show people. I would leave the bra in the dressing room because 1) It will be sweaty from the performance, and 2) Costume bras do closely resemble lingerie and that resemblance will be even more obvious up close.

If the other dancers are going to wear their costumes for mingling with the audience, then I would wear mine too, but I would first carefully pat down my body with a towel to remove the sweat. Then I would tuck one of my veils around the upper body, even if I hadn't used it in my dance. Even a sheer veil will provide a level of modesty, and make it easier for the people you're greeting to look you in the eye rather than gazing at your cleavage.

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

Either way, I would make sure I possessed the knowledge to hold intelligent discussions with people about the history of the bedleh style of costuming. This will leave a lasting impression of respect for your intelligence (in addition to appreciation for your beautiful dance performance) in the minds of the people you meet. I would encourage you to bring along a supply of fliers or business cards promoting your teacher to distribute to people who seem interested in trying classes or hiring a professional performer.




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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