"Isn't That Like Stripping?"
(Why They Ask)

by Shira

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 we're all tired of this question, and of the attitudes that go with it. We've been denied opportunities to perform in community festivals, arts events, and other occasions because "respectable" venues don't want "that kind of thing".

Many of us then rush to correct people's misconceptions. We talk about the fact that we 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! We choose coins and tassels over beads and sequins to distance ourselves from the stripper-esque image. We pontificate to people about the historical birth ritual origins of the dance. We tell people over and over and over again that belly dancing is in no way connected to stripping until we're sick of hearing ourselves say it!

And still we're denied performance opportunities. Still, people ask us that annoying question.

Just where did that linkage to stripping come from? Why do people think they're 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 think belly dancing is linked to stripping, the better equipped you'll be to address these misconceptions and promote this dance form's acceptance in your own community.

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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. People put lacy covers over their table legs to avoid any hint of indecent behavior by their furniture. The U.S. Civil War had ended only 30 years earlier, and the country had celebrated its centennial only 20 years earlier.

U.S. attitudes toward people in show business were very, very different then, compared with what they are today. It was considered a major scandal 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 was a raucous form of entertainment that "common people" enjoyed, but "decent people" condemned. A typical show consisted of a melodrama, ribald skits, and various song and dance numbers. White people put on black make-up known as "blackface" and did song & dance performances mocking the culture of former slaves. Popular songs were about love and romance.

In this environment, 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, in the form of the Midway Plaisance, a section of the exposition dedicated to entertainment. This was where the American public experienced a Ferris Wheel for the first time. This was also where the very first technology for making "moving pictures" made its appearance.

One of the attractions on the Midway Plaisance at the fair was a series of acts portraying the music and dance of various countries, including those in North Africa.

Even though the dancers of the Moroccan pavilion were fully clothed from head to toe, wearing long-sleeved outfits, the fact that they moved their midriffs so easily was very disturbing to turn-of-the-century Americans. 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 went to the fair to see what all the fuss was about. Fair promoters were delighted, and encouraged the scandal.

After the fair was over, many Vaudeville performers eagerly added the "hoochy koochy" (the name that arose for "belly" dancing) to their repertoires. Building on the scandal that originally made the dance famous, these all-American performers emphasized its sleaziness in a ploy to draw crowds. They succeeded.

Over the decades that followed, Vaudeville continued to integrate the "hoochy koochy" into the form of entertainment that came to be known as burlesque. Some performers like Mae West approached burlesque with elegance and a bit of cute naughtiness, while others took it to sleazy extremes. While sneering at what a low form of entertainment this was, Americans still filled the theaters to watch. Burlesque eventually evolved into stripping.

So you see, modern-day stripping in America has many historical ties to belly dancing, although today the two have diverged into very separate activities with very different goals. Americans took a healthy family-oriented dance form from another culture and twisted it into something very different and decidedly not family-oriented all in the name of profits.

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Colonialism & 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 Gérome 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 other cultures, while others looked down their patronizing European noses at them. The diaries of European travelers from that era describe intensely racist views of the locals.

Both occupying colonial armies and Orientalist visitors sought local entertainment while there. They hired local musicians and dancers to perform for them, even though many 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 home 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.

In the early 20th century, nightclubs arose in Cairo and Beirut that catered to the European visitors. These featured entertainment consisting of the local music and dance forms. Dancers were often required to sit with the patrons before and after their shows, encouraging the men to buy them drinks. The local populations resented the owners of the clubs and the performers. It was forbidden under Islam for a woman to dance for non-family men, and dancing for foreigners was even more taboo. Locals were offended by the sleazy attitudes of many Europeans who patronized these businesses and exploited their local women. In the 1950's, Egypt even passed a law forbidding women to perform floor work in Oriental dance shows.

By the middle of the 20th century, many nightclubs throughout the Middle East and North Africa offered "belly dancing" as entertainment. But instead of being the true Oriental dance that might be done in the homes or at family occasions such as weddings, these performances were specifically tailored to give foreigners what they were willing to pay money to see. The higher-class places did offer excellent music and dancing. But the seamier, cheaper clubs often featured scantily-clad women with minimal dance talent pandering to the tourist demands for exposed flesh.

There are many Americans who saw these less-than-savory representations of the dance form over the course of the 20th century while traveling "over there" as tourists or while stationed there in the military. To these Americans, who went to the cheap, sleazy, sex-oriented shows, that is what "belly dancing" is like. Their minds were tainted by seeing something that did not truly represent what Oriental dance is about. They think they know what "belly dancing" is, even though what they saw was a made-for-tourists act.

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Portrayals on Television and Movies

Most portrayals on television and in movies that I've seen of belly dancers have been just fine. I remember an episode of Hill Street Blues when one of the officers received a "bellygram" for his birthday. Helena Vlahos amazed audiences with her coin-rolling tricks on an episode of That's Incredible. Little Egypt danced vigorously to music by Paul Revere and the Raiders on an episode of the campy 1960's Batman television series. Suhaila Salimpour did a lovely dance next to an enormous pig in an episode of Max Headroom.

Unfortunately, there are a small number of television shows that portray belly dancing unfavorably. 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.

These less favorable portrayals seem to be the ones that The General Public remembers when they think of belly dancing as something sleazy. We can't stop television shows from portraying our dance form as something tacky, but we need to have an answer ready when people who saw these shows talk about their misconceptions.

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Even Some of Our Own...

Even some members of our own dance community have fostered this idea of belly dancing as sleazy sexual entertainment. 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
  • Fix their eyes on a male audience member and seductively lick their lips at him
  • Place their skirts over the face of a man in the audience and wiggle their pelvises just for him
  • Aggressively promote their performance videos to the late-night crowd

When belly dancers do these things, it's no wonder the public views it as seamy adult entertainment. Most Oriental dance artists 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 antics of a few.

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In Conclusion

The General Public does have some valid reasons to view belly dancing as something sleazy. There's the entire history of burlesque, seedy shows for tourists, etc. to inspire them. Television and movies sometimes encourage this attitude. And even some misguided dancers from our midst represent the dance in a way that most of us would prefer they didn't.

So what do you say 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 either a lighthearted dismissal, a brief reference to its ethnic history, or a brief comment tying it to the Bible: "Actually, no, getting ready to take a shower is more like stripping," or, "No, it's actually a folk dance that people do to celebrate weddings and other family occasions," or "No, it's a dance of celebration, just like the ones that women did for Jesus on Palm Sunday in the Bible." Then invite them to come watch a performance with you so they can see for themselves that it's an activity that "nice girls" like you do.

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.

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Related Articles

If you're interested in exploring the topic of how Western society views Middle Eastern dance, here are some other articles:

  • Public Perceptions: A Double Standard. Explores the question of why the public accepts nudity and openly sexual behavior in Broadway musicals, but still views belly dancing as sleazy.
  • A Dance for the Whole Family. How belly dancing fits into the social lives of people in the countries where it comes from.
  • Bringing Middle Eastern Dance to Your Community. Thoughts on ways to cultivate opportunities to perform Oriental dance in your community. The more the public sees Oriental dance portrayed in a family-oriented manner, the more they'll understand that it really is different from stripping.
  • A Dance by Any Other Name. Explores how continuing to use the term "belly dancing" instead of the correct name of "Oriental dance" 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.
  • Men Who Ogle Belly Dancers. Opinion piece regarding men who have a sexual fetish regarding belly dancers.

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Related Books

  • Looking For Little Egypt. Book by Donna Carlton. ISBN number 0-9623998-1-7. Published by IDD Books. 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.
  • A Trade Like Any Other. Book by Karin van Nieuwkerk. ISBN number 0292787200. Published by University of Texas Press. In-depth research into the question of why Oriental dance is considered to be such a low-class profession in Egypt. Includes excellent historical information about the rise of the first nightclubs in Cairo in the 20th century.

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Acknowledgements

This article originally appeared on the Suite101 web site, in the Middle Eastern Dance category, on December 14, 2001.

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