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When Pop Culture Meets Belly Dancing; Here we go again!

by Shira


Pop culture runs in cycles. Hemlines rise and fall. “Retro” fads return, and belly dancing cycles through popularity periods just like everything else.

In the 1890s, “Belly Dancing” burst on the scene in the U.S.A. at the Columbia Exposition in Chicago, stirring up a storm of a scandal. Vaudeville, recognizing a money making opportunity, embraced it with enthusiasm, and over the next couple of decades, the dance known as the “Hoochy Kootchy” became an integral part of the burlesque and side-show scene. The marketing message focused on bawdiness, scandal, and naughtiness.

In the 1970s, along with the rising popularity of ethnic nightclubs, the interest in ethnic arts, and the popular U.S. tour of the King Tut exhibit, interest in belly dancing arose once again. This time, the mass-media marketing message was, “Seduce your Sultan,” and dancers draped themselves in chiffon with wide-open skirt slits all the way up to the belt.

Today, we’re seeing another revival. Belly dancing is popping up on music videos featuring Shakira and other artists. Miles Copeland (a prominent music promoter) has released several CDs based on Middle Eastern music. He has booked an act on the Lollapalooza tour for 2003 titled, “Bellydance Superstars,” and has announced that he is creating a documentary to be called, “American Bellydancer.”

Belly dancing is hot today, and likely to remain so over the next couple of years.

Our Belly Dance community is simultaneously thrilled and cringing. We’re thrilled to see our beloved dance form growing in popularity, but we’re not so thrilled when we see promotional photos focusing on a rear view of a dancer’s skirt flying up. Also we’re not so thrilled when we see press releases that say, “Only the young and cute need apply,” such as this one which Ark21 sent out:

“ Want to tour the country and perform at this year's Lollapalooza festival? The Bellydance Superstars are looking for you to be a part of their junior troupe, the Desert Roses, and perform in front of nearly one million people this summer. If you are under the age of 23 and an exceptional bellydancer, come down to <time & place details> for an open audition. Good luck!”

Some fellow dancers say our art form is harmed when the mass media becomes interested in it. Others argue that it is beneficial because it elevates public awareness and interest. I think both sides are right.

On the plus side, the pop culture “coolness factor” will:

  • Fill our classes
  • Stimulate income for our vendors.
  • Generate paying performance opportunities for us.
  • Raise new respect from our friends and co-workers when we talk to them about our dance form.
  • Curtail the frequently asked question: “Isn’t that something like stripping?”

On the negative side, members of our dance community point out their following issues of concern:

  • Concert promoters and music video producers will emphasize the “sex appeal” view of Belly Dancing with skimpy costumes and seductive choreography.
  • Mass media portrayals of belly dance will emphasize the “under 25” age group, and that only the “commercially thin” need apply.
  • Concert promoters will further corrupt the public’s view of Belly Dancing into something that it’s not.
  • Promoters will contaminate the integrity of our dance form by injecting moves and expressions into it that have nothing to do with Middle Eastern dance.

It may be interesting to note that each and every one of the above negatives is already being done today by many dancers within our existing dance community.

There are many dancers who strive to be sultry and seductive when they perform. Many troupe directors will accept only members who meet a certain “look”, and many dancers who publicly portray belly dancing in ways that others think is harmful to the dance’s image. Additionally, many dance artists are currently experimenting with fusion.

I acknowledge that the concerns are legitimate. Indeed, I fully expect that a decade from now, the position of “Belly Dancing” in American culture will be different from where it is today. Today’s upsurge in popularity is bound to leave its mark.

However, let’s view these concerns from another angle: How do you suppose Arab people felt when they saw their traditional dance perverted in the U.S. in the 1920s and ‘30s into burlesque and stripping? What do you suppose Arab audiences think when they see an American “Tribal Style” troupe performing at an outdoor festival? I’ll bet many think, “These crazy Americans have corrupted the public’s view into thinking their Raqs Sharqi performing art is something it’s not.” Also, I’ll bet that they think we’ve already contaminated the integrity of their art form. Before we wring our hands too much over whether “our” dance belongs on the stage of Lollapalooza, we should consider how we have already left our own stamp on the dance of a different culture.

Fortunately, I think the pluses of the entertainment industry’s interest in Belly Dancing outweigh the negatives. As people hire us to perform, and they enroll in our classes, we can present our dance form as the wonderful source of creative expression, social contact, physical fitness, ethnic understanding, entertainment, education, empowerment, and fulfillment that it is. We can talk about the purpose it once may have served in preparing the female body for childbirth, and the position it holds today of being a social dance women in the Middle East still do with other women on family occasions. We can establish troupes of dancers who welcome recruits of all sizes, shapes, and ages. Every audience member and every student presents an opportunity for us to show people the side of our dance that we want them to see.

This has always been true, and now that the mass media is stirring up people’s interest in our dance once again, we’ll be able to reach more people with this message than we did previously. What will happen next is up to us dancers.

Belly Dancing emerged from the burlesque fad of the early 20th Century, stained with the taint of scandal, and synonymous with stripping. During the 1950s and ‘60s, leaders in our field (such as Morocco, Cassandra, and Dahlena) worked hard to overcome the misconceptions. These artists, and many others like them, are helping to dispel many of the myths through showing the public that our dance can be an honorable form of entertainment. Although they haven’t yet been able to reach everyone, they have nudged the public toward a better understanding and awareness of the Middle Eastern dance arts. As the fad of the 1970s began to wane, public understanding and respect for our art form was left in a much stronger position than previously.

Today, our dance community faces an exciting opportunity to carry forward the work of those who have come before us. We can’t control the messages the public sees in the general media, but we can control the messages people receive when they come into direct contact with us. We can welcome people to our performances and classes, and share those aspects of Belly Dancing we want them to see. Together, we can seize this “pop-culture phenomenon” and, just as our predecessors have done (and some are still doing), we can help to advance public attitude toward Belly Dancing up to its next level.

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Ready for More?
More from Shira-
9-13-02 Mailbox Missives: Are You Helping or Hurting Our Vendors?
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2-5-02 Are Strippers Our Enemies?
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6-10-03 North Beach and Mark Bell from an Interview with Lynette
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6-10-03 Tribal Fest 3 photos by Lynette
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6-9-03 A New Series! Zaharr's Memoirs, Part 1- Washington D.C. and Part 2- New York to Berkeley by Zaharr Hayatti
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