Ambassadors of Our Art

“Do you touch people during your show?”
“You don’t take anything off, do you?”
“Is that your costume?? But there is a priest in the audience!”

Ah, the joys of being a bellydance artist! The crazy questions and misconceptions about what we do and how we do it provide endless discussions on websites and social media. We’ve all been asked strange questions or had a potential client throw us for a loop wondering if we need a pole. Never mind the attempts at bartering for services – how often have you been told a potential client can get someone for less than you charge in the hopes you’ll come down in price or asked for a bulk rate because they want to hire two or three of you?

Let’s face it – when you say you’re a bellydancer, the responses can be everything from “how cool is that?” to “you must have amazing abs!” to “so you’re a stripper?” You want to laugh but often feel like crying instead.

Since bellydance has evolved around the world to include a variety of styles and blends of fusion, I suppose it could be understandable if someone isn’t totally clear what we do. Our job as members of the bellydance community is to set the record straight. That doesn’t just mean explaining ourselves; it’s also a question of how we ultimately present ourselves. Whether it’s a wedding gig, a summer festival, a variety show or a full-length dance production, we are all ambassadors of our art form.

What do I mean when I say we have a responsibility to present our art appropriately? Keeping the sexual content out of it is a good place to begin. Sure, the dance form is sensual and can indeed be flirty, but never behave in a manner that could be interpreted as coming on to a member of the audience. When you’re dancing at a party where there has been drinking, there is always a chance someone will take whatever you do the wrong way. We can be firm in discouraging inappropriate behaviour and using good taste when we dance to limit the problems.

When you’re talking about being a bellydancer, and the person/people you are talking to jump to a wrong conclusion or make an assumption about what you do (“hey, maybe at our next Christmas party you could come and stand with our Santa and give out candy canes!”), set the record straight right away. You don’t have to be rude (“Oh, I’m afraid I’m not a model, I am a dancer, but if you’re interested in having me perform at your party I am more than happy to discuss how I work!”) but if you don’t take the opportunity to promote that you are an artist, you’re letting the stereotype perpetuate.

It’s also very interesting how generally the public views the average cabaret costume as “scandalous.” Yes, they do tend to show the belly and the costumes can often show a lot of leg, but really, when you think of the average string bikini, why is what we wear considered so overly revealing? Ballerinas usually wear tutus where you can often quite clearly see the briefs underneath, and Caribbean dance costumes frequently seen at events such as Caribana are even more revealing. Samba, salsa and other forms of Latin dance also frequently feature bikini-style costumes that reveal a great deal of skin, but it’s the bellydancer who gets the bad rap.

So what can we do to help improve the public perception of what we are and what we do? I’ve created a general list of do’s and don’ts that I use and share:

1. Don’t make overtly sexual gestures when performing. This includes things like overtly licking your lips, sitting on the laps of audience members or doing gyrating movements with your hips. While there are definitely snakey and clear hip isolation movements in our vocabulary, avoid anything in the “bump and grind” category that can be misconstrued as stripper moves.

2. Don’t single out men in a crowd. While it’s fine to go around a hall or move through and audience to dance with people, only dancing with men is never a good idea, and when inviting members of an audience to join you on stage, simply gesture with your hand that you’d like them to come join you. Keep movements simple that can be easily followed and keep them clean – shimmies, shoulder shimmies or shoulder rolls, simple figure eights are fairly easy for someone to try and copy and don’t look like you’re trying to pick the person up.

3. When dancing with an audience member, don’t put your hands on their shoulders, hips or waist. That simply gives a message that if you can touch them, it must be okay for them to touch you. If they try to get physical, simply step back from them to make it clear that is not okay. I tend to do a little finger wag to indicate that is a no-no and immediately move on to dance with someone else.

4. Don’t encourage audience members to place tips in your costume. If I see someone who wants to try and put money in my bra or belt, I tend to step back and put out my hand and offer a little bow, as I accept it in my hand. Some dancers will also put out a hat, small box or a tambourine for tips – all great alternatives.

5. It’s one thing to toss a veil off, but unless a costume piece accidentally comes lose, don’t start removing anything onstage. This might seem obvious but unless it’s for dramatic impact – removing an over skirt to reveal harem pants underneath – better to leave yourself costumed.

6. If there is a chance audience members may see you before or after a show, wear a cover-up of some kind over your full costume. It tastefully preserves the mystery and shows that your costume is for performance only. Why spoil the dramatic entrance a beautiful costume can make by showing revealing it before you dance?

7. If people want photos of you after you dance (and this does happen a lot), keep poses simple. This would be the only time I might allow someone to put an arm around my waist, and only my waist. I never reach for someone first to show that I’m not looking to be groped, and I also always warn a person that I am sweaty – for some reason this comes as a surprise to many! Again, if they try to get too close or grabby, I step away a bit to show it’s not okay.

8. Even if you are invited, do not hang around after a performance to eat or drink with the audience. You were hired as a professional dancer to do a professional show. This ensures people don’t think that they can simply start flirting with you or that you’re there to “meet people.”

9. If anyone asks if you have a card, it is obviously more than okay to hand a few out. However, I sometimes check in with the DJ or band to see if they are leaving a pile of cards somewhere and would they mind if I leave a few of mine as well on a table. Then you can easily direct people rather than have to figure out where to keep them while you’re dancing. You can also check with the host if they have a spot that might be okay to leave your cards when you arrive.

10. If you have a website, including a section where you clearly outline your rates and what people can expect for a performance is a good idea. Make your requirements clear for appropriate change room space so you don’t wind up changing in a public washroom where the audience can get up close and personal while you are trying to get dressed and warmed up.

As bellydancers, we all have a responsibility to keep our reputation positive and professional. If people see a particular show or dancer and she’s overtly sexual in her moves, attire or interaction with the audience, it sends the message that we’re all like that. If someone has never seen bellydance before and this sort of performance is his or her first experience, it can set the stage for a lot of misunderstanding.

In no way am I suggesting that we can’t express certain emotions or traits. There is nothing wrong with the soft, sensual styling of a taxim or being sassy, but there is a fine line between sensual and sexual and crossing it gives the general public the wrong impression of what it is we do.

We are members of a community of artists and therefore need to remember that it’s not just about you, your style or the gigs you chose to take. For example, I don’t know any reputable bellydancer who will do bachelor or all-male parties – that’s just asking for trouble. It’s about presenting our dance to be seen as art and ensure the world understands we take it seriously, attend classes and workshops to improve and grow and, at the end of the day, be able to take pride in what we do.

• Thanks to guest writer Nashita