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Gilded Serpent presents...
Belly Dance, Burlesque and Beyond:
Confessions of a
Post Modern Showgirl

by Princess Farhana (Pleasant Gehman)

I share a pet peeve with many other Oriental dancers: we hate being confused with strippers! Unfortunately, due to the ignorance of the general public, this tends to happen once in awhile.

Like most professional Oriental dancers, I work hard to counter-act our sometimes tawdry image, trying to raise the bar by ensuring high production standards in my shows, and by putting in hours of research on everything from dance technique and Arabic culture to costume authenticity, in addition to endless amounts of time spent in classes, workshops and rehearsals.

Unlike most of my peers, I am also a burlesque artist. For almost fifteen years, I have been a professional Oriental dancer… and for the past decade, I have performed as a soloist in America’s premiere burlesque troupe, The Velvet Hammer.

“BUT WAIT!!!” I can hear you screaming, “ BURLESQUE IS STRIPPING!”

Well, yeah. Although burlesque is synonymous with strip tease it’s most assuredly not lap dancing, pole dancing, or even “Girls Gone Wild”-type hi-jinks. The word itself has its origins hundreds of years ago in the Italian opera, where “burleschi” was coined by Francesco Berni as a term for the onstage lampooning of the aristocratic class. By the 20th century, burlesque had come to represent an entire theatrical genre. The racy counterpart to vaudeville, it featured these specific hallmarks: scantily-clad female performers, broad slapstick humor, skits featuring social parody, musical numbers with singing and dancing, feats of magic and circus acts. Think Zeigfield Follies, Folies Bergere or the Moulin Rouge. Many world-renowned performers got their start on the American burlesque circuit: Mae West, Al Jolson, “Funny Girl” Fanny Brice, Gypsy Rose Lee, Sophie Tucker, and Burt“The Cowardly Lion” Lahr. Even Yvonne De Carlo (you may remember her as Lily on “The Munsters”) was a burlesque chorine.

Due to the cyclical nature of things, in the past few years there has been a huge burlesque revival going on. In a world where soccer moms wander around malls in rhinestone-studded t-shirts that read PORN STAR, burlesque is considered downright tame. It’s trendy.

By now, everyone has seen a burlesque show, or knows someone who performs in one. There are professional and amateur troupes in every major city in the US and in most of the smaller ones as well. . Nowadays, scholars and cultural commentators agree that performing retro-style burlesque is seen as faithfully reproducing and preserving a form of American folk art. Some feminists liken burlesque to the modern equivalent of goddess worship. To the average layperson, being a burlesque performer is an activity akin to being a skateboard pro or playing in an alternative band. It’s “cool”. But in the world of Oriental dance, burlesque was still taboo.

For the very reasons stated in the opening paragraph, for years I hid my burgeoning burlesque career as carefully as I hid my tattoos when I was working at Arabic nightclubs. Basically, I was leading a double life. After all, I was an Egyptian raks sharqi dancer, trained by the likes of Zahra Zuhair, Raqia Hassan, Ibrahim Akef and Aida Nour, among others. I am very serious about my art, and though I consider myself primarily an Egyptian-style dancer, I also perform fusion. When doing so, I am absolutely anal about making sure audiences don’t think it is authentic ethnic belly dance. Conversely, my work in the realm of any sort of Oriental dance really doesn’t have much to do with what I perform in the burlesque world, either.

Recently, however, many belly dance boundaries are beginning to blur, and whether it’s in the name of fusion, progress, or plain old experimentation is irrelevant.

In the past few months I have witnessed a Sally Rand- style fan dance performed by a contestant in the Fusion Category at The Belly Dancer of The Universe Competition. Following that, I saw an entire troupe wearing glittery, feathered showgirl headdresses at, of all places, Tribal Fest.

Oh, and when I saw pasties on sale - not to mention watching a male dancer stripping out of his pants onstage at Rakassah - I figured I might as well come out of the closet!

In 1995, producer Michelle Carr literally drafted me for the Velvet Hammer Burlesque. The Los Angeles-based Velvet Hammer is now legendary for pioneering the Neo- Burlesque movement, but back then they’d only done one show, and most people had NO IDEA what the heck burlesque was. Personally, I had my doubts about joining up (after all, I was a Oriental dancer, not a stripper!) But Michelle was extremely persuasive.

She said every burlesque show needed a good belly dancer, it was practically a tradition.

I already knew about the history of the burlesque/ belly dance connection. Little Egypt had scandalized Victorian America at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, because the intricate hip and torso movements of her ethnic dance had never been seen in the West. Though she (and the other Oriental dancers) on The Mid Way Plaisance were considered highly skilled in their countries of origin, the Victorians dubbed it “obscene”, which in turn, lured in large, thrill-seeking crowds. Inadvertently, (and of course with the help of promoter Sol Bloom) Little Egypt became a huge draw and for decades spawned a number of burlesque circuit imitators who appropriated not just her exotic moves and costumes, but even her name. Still, it was a leap of faith on my part to think that this connection would translate to modern times, let along be understood by the women I worked with or the people who hired me as a belly dancer! Always a risk taker, I decided to give burlesque a whirl, and to this day, I am so glad I did.

For me, joining The Velvet Hammer was like running away with the circus. Suddenly, I was artistically free. I didn’t have to stick to the archaic morals of another culture if I didn’t want to, I could let my imagination run wild.

Though I adore Arabic music and listen to almost nothing else, the music used in classic burlesque is music that I grew up with and that gave me a sort of looseness I’d never experienced with Oriental dance. Even though the structure of Middle Eastern music is now ingrained in my psyche, with vintage rock ‘n’ roll, raunchy blues, and be-bop jazz, I didn’t have to listen to it repeatedly to understand time signatures or “get” rhythmic changes, it was natural to me because it’s inherent in my culture.

The Velvet Hammer is essentially a reproduction of old fashioned burlesque, but it’s filtered through a savvy, witty, post-modern feminist point of view, not to mention Michelle’s totally twisted, politically incorrect sense of humor, which, thankfully, the entire cast shares. Anything was possible!

If I wanted to, could belly dance without removing my costume, or I could strip…I was always encouraged to do both with abandon. I did a straight belly dance for my debut show, but when I saw the mostly female audience screaming their heads off in appreciation, not to mention how much fun all the other dancers were having, I tried stripping… and loved it! Over the years, I stripped as a wild half-breed squaw, as Dorothy from “The Wizard of Oz” (complete with Flying Monkeys carrying me off the stage), as The Sugar Plum Fairy, a silent movie star, and as part of a “whip tease”- as an assistant in a circus-style precision bullwhip act. Other cast members were stripping as pirate wenches, naughty housewives, cat burglars, female gladiators, and the Bride of Frankenstein.

There was even a pair of aerialist who stripped suspended by their knees from their trapezes!

The women involved in the Hammer are incredible - adventurous and talented. There are visual and performance artists, professional costumers, writers, musicians, filmmakers, actors, even a magician. The shows feature lavish costumes and over-the-top sets, and a band of ridiculously talented musicians. We have adorable chorus girls and “bad” comedians that are actually good. We’ve been filmed for a multitude of TV shows, been in numerous magazines and newspapers, and been the subject of three documentary films. I was even on the cover of the London Sunday Times! We had the good fortune to start at the top - having the luxury of ongoing residencies at huge theaters with top-notch sound and lights.

Though my experience in the Velvet Hammer may differ from the experience of other women in different troupes, I have learned many things in my years as a burlesque performer. To me, the most important is that burlesque artists share many of the same values as Oriental dancers. The similarities are multitudinous.

For starters, in burlesque as well as belly dance, you will meet amazing, adventurous women whom you might not normally meet in the course of your life. Vital and curious, fearless or just ready for a change, the women who are involved in both styles of dance are extraordinary. Between belly dance and burlesque, I have met emergency room nurses, lawyers, speech therapists, fire fighters, rape crisis counselors, kindergarten teachers, and college professors, to name just a few.

Both genres are constantly fighting negative stereotyping. Through the ages, they have both been typically looked down upon because women – seen as second-class citizens-, performed them and both types of dancers have frequently been accused of being nothing more than prostitutes.

In both belly and burle-Q styles, craftsmanship and artistry counts. Just as belly dancing is not simply getting up and wiggling around in a scanty costume, neither is burlesque. Both genres have their own specific techniques, and whether it’s a hip bump or a bump ‘n’ grind, it must be performed accurately to translate to the audience. Stage presence, exciting choreography, musical selections and costuming (even if it’s coming off!) count just as much in both categories. The act of stripping itself is an exercise in timing, choreography and logistics. Getting garments removed in the correct sequence- without having a “reverse wardrobe malfunction” where the piece of clothing refuses to come off isn’t easy; having the pieces hit the stage floor on the beat is an art.

Burlesque dancers bristle in indignation the same way Oriental dancers do when an incompetent or beginning performer is held up as an example of the entire art form.

Both burlesque and Oriental dance are “kind” to women with real bodies. Diversity in shape, size, height, weight and age is not just accepted, it’s applauded. Despite all the glitz inherent in both styles, the real inner spirit and beauty pours out though the performer’s aura or stage presence. Attitude scores wa-a-a-y more points than a wasp waist or perfect butt. Other women consistently identify with, aspire to and cheer on this type of body confidence.

Just the process of learning belly dance or burlesque gives women a huge boost of self-esteem, as well as a license to “play”. Whether dancing with feather boas or veils, most women get all giggly like little girls pretending to be princesses, and promptly toss aside body issues, day-to-day stress factors or “outside world” problems. Both dances are extremely aerobic, without being punishing to the body. They promote strength and flexibility. The isolations and combinations are never boring, and engage healthy, challenging physical co-ordination as well as brain activity.

Both are ultra-feminine forms of expression, and the ensuing spiritual effect they have on the dancer is incredible. The female bonding in a classroom situation - or backstage at a show - is beyond therapeutic. While teaching both types of dance, I have watched students transform in front of my eyes, going from hunch-shouldered and shy to flamboyant, confident and proud.

So… there you have it. I’ve stated my case; maybe you get it, maybe you don’t. Either way, it’s MY life. I am outta the closet, baby - proud to be an Oriental dancer, and just as proud to be a burlesque dancer… it’s who I am.

Dance (no matter what style) has changed and enriched my life in innumerable ways. As a child, I’d always dreamed of having a career in dance, and as an adult, I am thankful every day that my dreams have come true.

Princess Farhana will be performing on Saturday, Oct 1, at 11:00pm as part of Tease-O-Rama, held at
Bimbo's 365 Club, 1025 Columbus Avenue, San Francisco, USA
For more information and ticket click here-

The Princess with Tura Satana, poster for cult film starring Tura

Dancer Sedona, Satan's Angel, and the Princess, at Helendale for the Miss Exotic World Contest

Tempest Storm with Betty Page

Tempest with the Princess also at Exotic World

My mom, Betty Bennett being "Miss China"

As you can see, the costume embodies the best of Loie Fuller, a belly dancer's skirt and a table setting known to every Chinese restaurant in the world.And behind me, the best of Spain (PF-dancer in polka dots, checkers in back is skirt of Miss Germany.)

Costume designer Alvin Colt (now on the Broadway Hall of Fame at the Gershwin Theatre in NYC) won dozens of Tonys for dozens of shows.Alvin was about 6 feet 5 inches tall, weighed about 150 pounds, and was very young when he did Top B. His movements were gawky, like a baby giraffe. His grandmother was Ethel Barrymore, making him a first cousin to Drew. Isn't dynastic show biz fun? -Mom

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