I began teaching belly dance in 1981, prompted by my dear friend Julie McCleod. She had just opened her studio, The Dance Warehouse, and was filling it with teachers. I was also just beginning my solo career performing at the famous Greek restaurant, The Plaka. Additionally, I was a new mother and had a two year old son. And, I was a member of the Ojai based belly dance ensemble, Yaleil, Director, Jeneani Rathor. I was very busy.
The 80’s was a transitional time. We were moving out of the “hippy era” into a new era of affluence and re-westernization – away from the Global Trend. I was, as always setting up shows for my advanced dancers to perform and having fun teaching them how to prepare for the stage; how to costume themselves, put on stage make-up, do their hair and sometimes- personal hygiene. One of the challenges I ran into during this time was that, from time-time there was a girl who did not shave or wear deodorant. In addressing these issues, here’s what I came across.
The most common argument against shaving was that women in east do not shave so why should we? How flabbergasted were they when I informed them that hair debilitation began in ancient Persia and has existed throughout the world for a long time since then.
"Three days before the actual wedding the bride would be taken to female beauticians or was visited by them at home for the ritual of removing body hair. A significant rite of passage this marked the passage from girlhood to womanhood. Unmarried women would not remove their body hair or pluck their eyebrows, the most visible sign that a woman was married.
This was done three days before to make sure any allergic reaction and redness of face and body parts would be healed by wedding day. Facial hair, all hair from under arms, legs even stomach and back hair were removed by using special threads that once moved in certain fashion would remove the hair right from the root. This is called band andazi and is still practiced by traditional families and in the rural areas. In recent times with the more restrict and traditional parents moving to the western countries shaving legs and plucking eyebrows has become a source of conflict with their teenage girls. For the teenagers these are part of beautifying process common in modern societies, while for their parents this is an obvious indication of becoming a woman without being married."
Iranian Wedding Ceremony: Its History and Symbolism
But in the US it was and is a marketing ploy to sell razors, etc. Here’s an great article: Why Did Women Start Shaving Their Underarms.
Then there is the argument that men don’t shave so women should not be expected to? After all, our natural state is beautiful. The truth is that male dancers (in the west) have been debilitating their underarms for a long time. Then there is the current trend of “manscaping” which many (non-dancer) men do.
Then there is the issue of deodorant, the protest against this is that it is unhealthy. True, but there are healthy alternatives today and there is always the alternative of taking a shower.
What these protests of shaving and not wearing deodorant come down to is a lack of awareness of the fact that when you are on stage you are obligated to your audience and so need to be and do your best as a performer. Performers are performing because they want to attract the attention and admiration of the audience, but students often don’t consider how they appear (or smell) or impact the audience until and unless the teacher points this out. That’s the teacher’s duty. So, I explain to fledgling performers that, while your personal habits are their own, once they impact others – such as dancing in close quarters with other dancers, or, performing on stage – it is no longer just about you. Performing is a relationship between the performer and her audience as well as the relationship with the other performers both onstage and in the classroom/rehearsal space.
Dance is a visual art – what the audience sees (and smells, if it is a restaurant) can either have a positive or negative effect on the audience. If a dancer is overweight, wearing glasses, not wearing stage make-up, has hairy armpits or has B.O. - it can turn the audience off. And if there is a group dancing with the offending dancer, it reflects poorly on everyone. So, personal hygiene must be commensurate with the activity at hand. Happily, most dancers are flexible and reasonable and so compromise in order to make the performance the best it can be.
Bottom line, trends come and go in society and dance but, when it comes to being a performer, it is always important to consider the audience and those you work with both on stage and in the classroom. And remember that the art of dance, and particularly belly dance, will always include a high level of spiffed up glam! Here are a couple of interesting articles related to this subject.
Threading – The Ancient Art of Hair Debilitation
Plucked – A history of hair debilitation.