|Gilded Serpent presents...
Belly Dance, Burlesque and Beyond:
Confessions of a
Post Modern Showgirl
Farhana (Pleasant Gehman)
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.
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.
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.
I can hear you screaming, “ BURLESQUE IS STRIPPING!”
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
said every burlesque show needed a good belly dancer, it was
practically a tradition.
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
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.
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.
was even a pair of aerialist who stripped suspended by their
knees from their trapezes!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
Storm with Betty Page
with the Princess also at Exotic World
My mom, Betty Bennett being "Miss
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.)
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
a comment? Send us a
Check the "Letters to the Editor"
for other possible viewpoints!
7-26-05 Review of
Princess Farhana's Bellydance & Balance: The Art of Sword
and Shamadan by Eugenia Chao
may not be the most professional-looking bellydance video you
ever bought, but it definitely serves its instructional purpose
-- perhaps more so than many high-budget productions.
Tease-O-Rama, A Weekend
of Burlesque in Old North Beach by Susie, Lynette, Sierra
to learn if women were drawn to stripping for some of the same
reasons they are drawn to bellydance...
Making New Musical Inroads
in Spain by Mark and Ling Shien Bell
takes Rhythm Diatribes Workshops to Europe, series continues...
Sirat Al-Ghawazi, Part
7 by Edwina Nearing
in the mid-1970's , the early sections of "Sirat Al-Ghawazi"
were first published under the title "The Mystery of the
Ghawazi." We are happy to be able to respond to the continued
demand for these articles by making them available to our readers
Interview with Mahmoud Reda
Part 2: The Troupe by Morocco
what I call my choreography is not folkloric. It’s inspired
by the folkloric.
Re-defining Belly Dance and Middle
Eastern Dance by Tasha Banat
fact is that “Middle Eastern Dance” is not an acceptable
definition for Belly Dance and let me explain why.