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

Public Perceptions:
A Double Standard


This is an opinion piece.

Every belly dancer I know is tired of the question, "Belly dance — isn't that something like stripping?" The question is confusing, because the two dance forms are entirely different. We aren't looking to disparage strippers. We just want people to quit confusing our dance with something it's not.

This dance form, more correctly known as Oriental dance in the region it comes from, was heavily promoted in the United States in the 1890's under the name of "belly dance" in connection with the Columbia Exposition in Chicago. The objective of using the term "belly dance" was to titillate a society that was so sexually repressed they even put lace coverings over table legs for modesty. The promoter, Sol Bloom, encouraged controversy because he knew it would stimulate ticket sales. In his autobiography, Bloom claims he was the first to call this art form "belly dance", though the dance was known by a similar name before that. The public was fascinated, and soon nearly every Vaudeville and burlesque stage featured a highly sexualized "hoochy koochy" act based on distortion that bore little resemblance to the real thing.

The titillation theme continued in the U.S. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, U.S. cinema (and later, television shows) repeatedly linked "belly dance" to story lines of seducing the Sultan. In the 1970's, a generation of white women appropriated the dance to use as part of their "women's liberation" and "sexual revolution" agendas. Record albums were released with such titles as How to Belly Dance for Your Husband and How to Make Your Husband a Sultan.

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

Over a century later, Oriental dance artists are still contending with the misconceptions and stigma that Bloom attached to the dance. No matter how hard we work to present the dance as a beautiful art form in family-oriented venues, members of The General Public still wrinkle their noses and ask, "Belly dancing — isn't that something like stripping?" Even today, belly dancers are still blocked from some performance opportunities because narrow-minded bigots who know nothing about Oriental dance don't want "that kind of thing" in their events. Fortunately, this is not as common as it used to be when I first started as a student, but it does still happen. As recently as 2003, a nursing home refused to book me for a performance because they were afraid "someone might be offended".




That Double Standard

Nearly every professional belly dancer I know in my community is careful to choose costumes that are appropriate to the type of show they are planning. For example, if performing on an outdoor stage at a city festival, most of my professional colleagues will be thoughtful about the amount of leg and cleavage they show. They recognize that what's appropriate for that occasion is quite different from what would be appropriate in a late-night, adults-only nightclub revue. In performances for family-oriented environments, some pros require their troupe costumes to include leggings or harem pants, especially for raised stages or outdoor performances where the wind might catch the skirts. Some teachers insist on inspecting student costumes before recitals to ensure that they cover everything the teachers feel they should cover.

So why is it that ice skaters, cheerleaders, hiphop dancers, ballet dancers, baton twirlers, and dancers in Broadway musicals are all viewed as presenting wholesome entertainment in their costumes that provide a full view of form-fitting leotards, briefs, bare midriffs, or bare legs and cleavage, while belly dancers are viewed by some as sleazy? Why is it okay for us to see Ginger Rogers' panties in old Hollywood movies when Fred Astaire makes her do rapid twirls, but it's not okay when we glimpse the dance trunks of a belly dancer doing rapid spins?

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

Within the course of a 2-week period, I went to see two musicals performed by professional traveling tours: Cabaret and Chicago. In both cases, the female dancers cavorted around stage in skimpy lingerie that showcased their jiggling cleavage and butt cheeks. In both shows, they frequently sat on chairs and spread their legs wide open, inviting the audience to be their gynecologist.

Now, I'm not complaining about the artistic decision to use such an openly sexual style of costuming and choreography. It was certainly appropriate to the "bad girl" image of the characters and the seamy world in which the stories took place — in one case, a decadent cabaret; in the other case, a prison. I actually enjoyed both shows very much. The music, story lines, costuming, and choreography all worked together very well.

My complaint is with the theater-going public: Why is it considered "good entertainment" and "artistic" when a woman clad in black leather bra, black French-cut briefs, garter belt, and fishnet stockings straddles a chair and spreads her legs wide apart with her crotch facing the audience, but a belly dancer's bare midriff is considered "poor taste" and "inappropriate"?



So Where Did the

Double Standard Come From?

I think there are several reasons for this:

Taint of Scandal

Many people's opinions are still influenced by the scandal that tainted this dance form's reputation in the early 20th century. Any time we use Sol Bloom's term "belly dance" to refer to our dance form, we conjure up all the baggage that goes with it. That's why many modern-day American dancers now prefer the terms "Oriental dance", "raqs sharqi", or "Middle Eastern dance".


Harem Fantasies

Thanks to Orientalist painters and early Hollywood "harem" movies, the public links belly dancing with sensuous fantasies involving diaphanous fabric, naked women lolling around Turkish baths, skimpy clothing, seducing the Sultan, and sexual slavery. The public doesn't know and doesn't care that these images were largely created by Europeans and Americans as the pornography of their day.

So the American public starts with the "knowledge", however wrong, that harems were gardens of earthly sexual delight. Then they add to that the belief that anyone performing belly dance must be re-enacting the efforts of concubines to seduce the Sultan.



Most of the "general public" don't realize that the idea of the "dance of the seven veils" was invented and brought to the stage by Europeans (Oscar Wilde and Richard Strauss) Wilde's play and Strauss's opera. The public mistakenly thinks that stripping one veil at a time until the dancer is nude is an accurate portrayal of belly dance. The truth is that this was done for the first time in Wilde's play, which made its debut in 1896.

If you read the Biblical account of John the Baptist's death, you'll notice several interesting facts:

  • The account does not describe the kind of dance she did. It does not tell us whether the dance was sexual, acrobatic, spiritual, cute, or just plain exciting choreography.
  • There is no discussion of what the dancer wore or used as props.

So, if the Bible doesn't mention veils or seduction, where did these concepts come from? Answer: It came from the fertile minds of the European Orientalist art and literature movement in the 19th century, combined with Victorian pornography.

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


Up Close and Personal

The "theatrical" dance forms such as ballet, tap, and Broadway musicals are often performed on a stage that is somewhat remote from the audience. There is no up-close-and-personal interaction between the audience and the performers.

In contrast, belly dancers often perform in restaurants, people's living rooms, and other settings where the audience can see them up close. It's one thing to view a skimpy costume and sensuous body movement from the safety of a balcony when it is presented within a "show" because there's a certain remoteness involved, including the invisible theatrical "fourth wall". It's much more threatening when an Oriental dance artist approaches close enough to be touched.


Collecting Tips

People often tuck tips into belly dancers' costumes, and many dancers encourage that. People also tuck tips into strippers' costumes. When was the last time you saw a ballet, jazz, or contemporary dancer with money sticking out of her bodice?



Belly Dancers' Own Behavior

Many belly dancers fail to understand the difference between dancing for one's own personal gratification and performing for an audience. There's nothing wrong with using dance for personal satisfaction, but usually such dancing should be done either in private, or in front of an audience of the dancer's inner circle who are there to support her in her personal expression.

Normally, when dancing for the general public, the performer needs to de-emphasize her desire for self-gratification and focus on what will provide a satisfying experience for an audience of strangers who expect to be entertained. A belly dancer who uses her time on stage in front of such an audience to work through her own personal self esteem or sexuality issues clearly doesn't understand this. If she uses a public stage to work through her insecurities, she could create a very uncomfortable experience for an audience who was expecting to see a polished entertainer.

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


Which Means....

I think we dancers ourselves are part of the problem with public perception of our dance. As long as we present the dance primarily in nightclubs, with non-professional quality of lighting, and as long as we wander close enough to the tables for patrons to tuck money into our costumes, we'll continue the association in people's minds with the other dance form that has similar properties. We need to give careful thought to how we present the dance and what impact that presentation will have on how people respond to it.

I'm not saying we should stop dancing in venues traditionally associated with our art form. In fact, I think we would lose something precious if we stopped. I personally feel energized by nightclub audiences and I enjoy dancing in that environment. However, when we perform in nightclubs, we may want to think about how to present ourselves in a manner that demands respect.

But it's not entirely our own fault, either. Public opinion is very slow to change, and people who have never, ever seen belly dance performed still believe they know what it is. Some of these people are too narrow-minded to see an actual show and learn some facts.

It still annoys me that there's a double standard that says it's okay to see a woman's underpants on cheerleaders, ice skaters, ballet dancers, ballroom dancers, and even vintage 1940's Hollywood movies and Lawrence Welk reruns, but it's not okay to see a flash of bare leg or midriff on a belly dancer. It annoys me that lingerie commercials on network television can show women modeling lingerie bras, but belly dancers who spend hundreds of dollars for modestly-cut bras encrusted with sequins or coins are sometimes viewed as unsavory.




What Can We Do to Change This?

It's not easy to change a century of misunderstanding, but it can be done. Ballet was once viewed as scandalous, and now it's a highly respected art form.

Here are some thoughts on how to overcome the public misconceptions about Oriental dance:

Think carefully about which name you use for the dance when talking to people. For example, if you are proposing to perform or choreograph a segment for the "Arabian Coffee" section of the Nutcracker, you might use the term, "Arabic dance" when submitting your proposal to the ballet company who is planning the production.


Consider Your Audience

Different audiences respond well to different types of productions. Before making decisions about music, costume, and dance style for a particular show, think about who your audience will be and what type of performance will most likely lead them to react the way you want.

If you live in a conservative rural Christian community, consider producing "Dances Of The Holy Land" shows featuring folkloric music, with the dancers garbed in Biblical costumes instead of midriff-baring ensembles.

Similarly, if your community is more open-minded but still not very well-informed about Middle Eastern dance, consider producing "Middle Eastern Dance" shows with modestly-cut costumes.

Resist the temptation to be rebellious. It may be annoying to wear a more covered look, but one act of rebellion can destroy your chances of future performance opportunities in future events sponsored by influential members of your community.

PHOTO CREDIT: Photo by Jeff Obermann, Corvallis, Oregon.

Even though national touring dance companies such as the Joffrey ballet or Pilobolus have been known to present nude dances on stage, remember that dancers performing mainstream dance styles can get away with daring artistic statements because today's society generally accepts what they do as "legitimate". Because they're already "legitimate" they can push the envelope and be daring. However, those of us engaged in Oriental dance are still struggling to be viewed in an equal light, and we don't have the freedom to do the same kinds of artistic experimentation that they do.

When performing at a private party in someone's home, wear slightly more modest clothes than what you might choose for a theatrical show on a stage that's somewhat separated from the audience. When you're close at hand, you may seem too "available", especially if your costume is very revealing.


Educate, Educate, Educate!

Whenever possible, incorporate announcements into your show that explain the family- and community-oriented history of Oriental dance. Most audience members erroneously assume the dance started as a tool for seducing the Sultan. If you're not familiar with the story behind this dance form, please see A Dance For The Whole Family elsewhere on this web site.

Admittedly, some people will continue believing whatever they want to believe no matter how many times you tell them the facts about the origins of this dance as a social dance done at family occasions such as weddings. However, many people enjoy learning a little something new. Offer them information about the story behind the dance, and you'll soon build respect for the dance in your community, one person at a time.


Emphasize Family Fun

If you like to recruit audience members to get up and dance with you, focus your attention on the women and children in the audience. It's okay, of course, to invite some men to dance with you too, but emphasizing women and children will defuse the sexual innuendo. It's always a crowd-pleaser when the belly dancer encourages young children to dance with her.



Is Tip Collecting Really A Good Idea?

Maybe the patrons where you perform stuff large amounts of money into your costume that you desperately need to put food on your table and clothing on your back. Or, maybe the best you can hope for on a given night is $5 or $10.

If the place where you dance doesn't generate much tip money anyway, then why even bother collecting tips? Why encourage strangers to stick their fingers under your clothing?

And if the place where you dance does generate a lot of income for you in tips, maybe you could re-think how you collect them. What about holding out your hand to receive a tip then tuck it yourself rather than allowing the tipper to stuff it into your costume? Or what if you were to carry a basket with you to receive the tips?

I was recently watching a rerun from the second season of the television show Sex and the City. There was a scene set in a Moroccan restaurant. It showed just the waists and hips of 2 or 3 dancers clustered around Mr. Big, with disembodied hands doing snake arms in front of his face as he crammed bill after bill into the center front of their belts. Later, as he and Carrie left the restaurant, he made a comment about stuffing all his $20 bills into the belly dancer's crotch. Would you want one of your audience members describing you that way?


Preserve Your Aura Of Mystery

Some dancers like to greet the patrons after their shows. This can be charming, if you say things like, "Thank you for coming tonight," or, "I hope you enjoyed the show." But how you do this can make a big difference in the lasting impression you leave with them, so please be careful.

Before you come out, either change into an ordinary but attractive dress, or put on a lovely full-length caftan to cover your costume.

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

Be careful how you behave when you're around the people who saw you dance. Even if wearing your everyday dress or caftan, some people will think you look tacky and seamy if they see you smoking a cigarette, drinking hard liquor, or indelicately scratching yourself. Also, avoid using swear words where audience members can hear you. Many people view these behaviors as being low class people, and it can taint their lasting impression of you. Instead, behave as though you were an elegant movie star with wonderful taste.




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.




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