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“Burlesque to Belly Dance and Back”

Stripping is the act of undressing to expose sexual parts in order to titillate and sexually arouse an observer(s), usually performed as a dance to music. Historically, the reputation of stripping in most cultures has been that of a debased form of public foreplay for lascivious men (and women).

When I began belly dancing in 1975 I was awestruck by the beauty of the (feminine?) art of belly dance, and wanted to be that artist. When I finally began performing professionally, I quickly became aware of the stigma of belly dancers as strippers. Often we were not taken seriously as artists or even as entertainers because we were considered to be strippers. At parties I was asked “When I was going to take my clothes off”? I set the audience straight on many occasions. But, the number of obstacles to gaining respect seemed endless.

Sherry Britton, NYC Stripper, 1940's

Language and Belly Dance

The name “belly dance” comes from the French legionnaires who, during their occupation of The Maghreb, dubbed the dance “La Danse du Ventre” (dance of the belly). The very word itself, “belly dance”, seemed to undermine the art because it defined the art by a body part. I remember the efforts we dancers made to shed this onerous image by re-naming the dance, “spiritual dancing”, “Goddess dance”, “Earth dancing”, “Middle Eastern dance, “Raks Sharki” or “Oriental dance”. Whether this contributed to the improvement of its image or not is debatable. What I think did bring about real change was the field research, academic study and movement away from cabarets into theaters and festivals. We have Jamila Salimpour and Carolina Nericcio to thank for this.

Strippers World-Wide

The roots of belly dance have something to do with this stigma, directly and indirectly. The nineteenth century North African Oulid Nail dancers stripped, the Egyptian Ghawazee and Persian dancers danced “The Bee”, the notorious strip tease of the Middle East. Then there are Turkish dancers who, in the early days of club dancing, danced only in underwear and pasties. In the seventies, the club dancers in London, like the Omar Kayyam, were strippers, (amongst other things), at private, after-show parties.

In NYC in 1937, the mayor La Guardia outlawed burlesque, apparently to win the vote of the dominant conservative sector. Many of the dancers, like Sherry Britton, (see image above), took up belly dancing, bringing their audiences with them, and the expectation for them to “take it off, baby! Obviously they were confused.

Oulid Nail dancing

Fast forward to the present and today you’ll find exotic dancers, burlesque dancers and even belly dancers who strip while belly dancing, reviving the old stigma. (I’ve taught a few). So, the image of belly dance as stripping comes as much from belly dancers themselves as those outside the art who promulgate the stripper image.

Costumes and Venues of Belly Dance

Look at belly dancing itself; the scanty costuming, the sexual movements and, moreover, the venues we often performed in. Sleazy clubs were not always the setting for the art, however. I remember attending shows at The Fez and the famous 7th Veil on Sunset Boulevard, and seeing the top dancers of the time, dancing in those gorgeous, exotic settings to live music- it was intoxicating! Sadly in the late 70’s they all became strip joints. Once again, art and culture gives way to the baser needs and instincts.

Additionally, we perform at bachelor parties – often in addition to or in lieu of strippers, (one rarely finds clowns, tightrope walkers and jugglers at bachelor parties, right?). So, it doesn’t take much imagination to see the connection that people make between the two genres. It’s no wonder the Goddess image and the Earth dancer are lost on audiences.

To Be Nude or Not to be Nude?

When it first arrived in the US, Ballet did not have the respect and reverence it now has. Many dancers were saloon dancers who kicked their legs up and “showed it all”!

Can- Can Dancers of saloons in the Old West

Jazz is very sexual; consider, for example, Marine Jahan, Jennifer Beals’ double in Flashdance.

Modern dance, too, has, from time to time, included nudity in its theatrical performances. Remember the Broadway hit, Oh Calcutta!, a long-running avant-garde theatrical revue, created by British drama critic Kenneth Tynan. The show consisted of various sketches on sex-related topics. It ran in London for over 2,400 performances and in NYC for over 1,600, proving once again, that sex sells and nude and naughty are synonymous. Throughout history, even the most prestigious styles of dance and theater, when incorporating nudity, stigmatize dance as a sexual form of entertainment.

Marine Jahan as "Alexandra" in Flashdance.

Religion and Dance

But there is another, perhaps more insidious culprit in the world which diminishes the good reputation of dance as art – religion. And, I consider it is one of the biggest culprits in creating social prohibitions against free expression in the arts throughout history.

I was raised in a family that was religious. I went to parochial schools and eventually a convent. We went to church on Sundays and we said prayers at meals and at bedtime. I attribute my deep sense of spirituality and love of philosophy and ethics, to my relationship with the church and God. I consider this to be the foundation of my happiness in life. However, I have also seen up-close and personally, the havoc that religious ignorance and bigotry can wreak on people and the arts. This story, exemplifies that.

I was a member of the company, Yaleil, founded and directed by Jenaeni Rathor, (Ansuya’s mom). In the summer of 1982 we had a one-week engagement in Mammoth Lakes, California at a restaurant named “The Elephant Bar”. It was a nice, family restaurant. While there, the women from one of the local churches picketed us daily outside the restaurant, demanding that we leave town. Their signs read: “Get the Belly Dancers Out Of Town Now”! It turned out they thought we were strippers.

Hollywood and Belly Dance

Despite the efforts we 70’s and 80’s dancers made to untangle the connection between belly dance and stripping, the stripper stigma is obviously still alive and well in Hollywood! If you saw the flick, “Charlie Wilson’s War”, you noticed that the “belly dancer” in the movie was really a burlesque dancer.

Her name was Tracy Phillips. She did everything BUT belly dance and wore almost nothing but some beads. A belly dancer she was not. In fact, she was not even a very good burlesque dancer!

Tracy Phillips, the Burlesque dancer as "belly dancer" in Charlie Wilson's War

Belly dancing is definitely sexy enough to stand on its own. So, why, with so many incredibly beautiful and talented belly dancers, did Hollywood have to hire a fake? (I understand that a number of legitimate belly dancers were turned down for Tracy Phillips, one of which was Ansuya). Clearly, the attitude towards belly dancers in Hollywood is that there is no difference, so why not hire a stripper or a dancer who can and will mimic one. It’s all in who you know in Hollywood.

Dance, like any other performing art, is subject to the pernicious influence of the dominance of men in power in Hollywood. How many professionals have sold themselves on their sexuality alone? Hollywood is a “good-old-boys” industry where impresarios such as Miles Copeland claim their target market is “fourteen-year-old boys” (fourteen going on forty-nine). Harvey Weinstein is not alone, nor is he the first to manipulate artists for sexual favors. That little tradition goes waaayyy back to the beginning of Hollywood!

In the 1990 National Geographic documentary, “Egypt Unveiled”, the famous belly dancer Lucy (one of my favorites!) has this to say about men and belly dance:

“Most of my admirers are women and I prefer it that way, because a woman does not want anything from another woman. I don’t care much about a man’s judgment because he will never look at me as a whole.”

Lucy of Cairo

And therein lies the difference between stripping and (belly) dancing. Stripping may include dance and may be very artistic, but the point of it is not to express the artistry of dance but to show off ones sexual parts in order to sexually excite. Period. Nothing more. If it happens to be artistic, great, but, the bottom line is that, the audience is not interested in being inspired by the expression of the person dancing. They are not thinking about or reacting to the intellectual or spiritual elements of the person stripping – they want a sex act.

Dance, on the other hand, expresses the whole being. The thoughts, the feelings and soul of the artist. And it appeals to the observer as a whole being. So, while a (belly) dancer may be partially (or wholly) naked, may be moving in a sexual or sensual way, he or she is not doing so to sexual arouse the audience – at least not exclusively. Strippers dance to strip and dancers dance to dance. Most dance and theater includes a degree of sexuality, and this is fine, because sexuality is a part of the human experience and therefore a part of all art.

Me at forty-something

As I aged, I came across men (they usually own the dance venues) who refused me as a dancer because I was not young. Still, I was pretty hot and a hella dancer in my forties and even fifties, I realized that there is a connection for men between women who are of child bearing age and women who are not. Once club owner put it aptly to me when I encouraged him to hire a local dancer who was great – but not a young “nymphet”. He said “a belly dancer should be f---able; if she is not she should not be dancing”. That man now has dementia. (I guess my spell worked).

I asked myself back then, why do I dance? For me, it was to give to the audience the response I felt when I first saw belly dance – that awestruck sense of something greater than myself – beauty that is so riveting as to spellbind. As I aged and was turned down by men in clubs, I asked myself, “Should I stop dancing because I am no longer of childbearing age? Does that make me unattractive”? My answer was a resounding no! I think we should continue to dance until we keel over! We should perform with dignity, joy, discretion and with as much sensuality and skill as we can conjure up. Because the older we get, the better we get. And, we should and can be the best we can be as artists, not by being overly sexual, but by being sensual, whole human beings! And we should learn to ignore men, groups or organizations that see or present us ONLY as sexual beings. We should continue to become educated as artists, to train, to study and embrace the authentic while nurturing the progressive, and certainly stay fit and beautiful as athletes. If we do this and embrace the sublimity of our beautiful art while having fun and bringing that joy to the world, we will be seen for what we are ~ Earth Mothers, Spiritualists, Goddesses, Middle Eastern dancers and above all – artists!

“You can have a relationship with God, but you can still have fun”! ~ Lucy, Cairo, Egypt.

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