BELLY DANCE ~ ART OR ENTERTAINMENT?
When I became a belly dancer in 1975, I was horrified to discover that the art had a stigma attached to it. Instead of being considered an elegant, sensual and spiritual form of feminine movement, (as I viewed it), it was looked upon as a base form of seduction - burlesque or worse, stripping. Clients expected us to undress; men screamed things like “Ya Baby – take it off!”. From time to time, a man would grab or attempt to molest me…..it was a pretty awful time. Sure, I knew it was sexy, sensual and that I was partially dressed, nonetheless, for me the dance was art and never stripping or burlesque!
There was a grass-rootsie effort on most dancers parts to dispel the stigma of belly dancers as burlesque dancers or strippers. Thankfully, over time this image has waned. But, during the transition I did a lot of thinking about what I was doing and about the question: “was belly dance art or entertainment”? Well, of course it’s both. Here’s why. The goal and means of the magic is in the quality, emphasis and point of the movement. Dance is visual music. It is the expression of the soul in bodily movement and facial expression. And it is the dancer making the audience feel and think and suspend their sense of reality during the performance. It should leave them wanting more and with the utmost respect for the art and the artist.
And, one has to take into consideration the personality profile of the audience. A men's club or bachelor party is cearly a set-up for the dancer to be targetted as a sex object. The fact is, all dancers use their bodies as the medium of their art. So, it's understandable that throughout history, all dancers have experienced some form of chastisement, stigma or ridicule. And that they have been ostricized from "good society". Religion often plays a big part in stigmatizing dance or anything having to do with the human body, for that matter. In my experience in clubs and private parties there is often 1-2 guys (never girls), who sexualize the dance and ruin the moment with crase and vulgar comments. That's a reflection on their obsession with sex and their lack of social skills.
Art is subjective. It's often beauty, but always transformative. It speaks to the universality of human experience for anyone open to that. It takes us to a place that not only moves us, but changes us. True art makes us think and emote deeply. It is cathartic. And we are better because of it. Entertainment is amusement – it transports us out of our daily stresses and endeavors, so that we are relieved, our mood is changed, our pleasure level increases and endomorphs are released. We become childlike, silly and happy when we are entertained. This is a fine and laudable goal. And, a great companion goal with art. Because entertainment that is also artistic, is the perfect blend! Even burlesque dancers and strippers who are beautiful dancers. Their art is just as profound if executed well.
The movie Flashdance really opened my eyes to this. It helped me unravel the dilemma I was in about belly dance as stripping or burlesque. Here were amazing artists doing something I considered base and unartistic – simply stimulating the sexual desire of men, who, in general, could not care less about the skill level or artistry of the stripper, (or belly dancer) – they just want nudity.
The point of dance for me was all of these things; “transportative”, universal, deep, emotionally profound and at the same time sensual, sexual and spiritual. So, I considered and consider myself an artist and an entertainer. What sets us belly dancers aside from a stripper or burlesque dancer? Simply that our sole intention is not to show off our bodies and sexually stimulate the audience. Strippers and burlesque dancers have been put in environments that make that so. But, our intention is a complex mix of wanting to amuse, astound and leave the audience awestruck – the way the dance affects us all when we see it. Sure, there is a certain amount of sensuality and sexuality – but this is a part of human experience and it makes any art or performance richer and more real. Because like life, the point of art/dance is to experience and express the joy, sorrow, angst, mystery and pleasure of living through movement and the beauty of the music in motion.