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Divorcing Bellydance from Burlesque
by Miles Copeland
Backstage Video by Lynette

As the Bellydance Superstars Show completes the second leg of its US tour, it is now apparent that acceptance by the mainstream performing arts world has largely been achieved . Having had a well-respected booking agency specializing in performing arts, representing the show, has made a big difference, as we are not out there, alone pushing our wares. It took four years to get such an agency to take us seriously and when the theatre managers who talk to each other on a regular basis begin to say nice things about the show the job gets easier and easier. Thankfully, that is happening. Still, there are challenges we face and people to convince.

Maintaining a positive image for the show is not the only issue; I can control that for the most part. However, I cannot control the message the bellydance community at large puts out as the art becomes ever more popular.

In spite of the controversy and criticism the BDSS and I have generated in the past, we have never caused anyone who actually saw the show to question our basic goal of elevating the art to broader mainstream acceptance and to do so with quality and good taste as we saw it. People can argue that we are not traditionalists, prefer younger, very fit dancers, and we do too much fusion, or whatever, but never of lowering the tone.

Yesterday I received an email from our booking agent, telling me of a Burlesque and bellydance show that was taking place with its advertising clearly using sexual innuendo and highlighting "nipple tassels" and a "fascinator" (I’m not quite sure what that is!) are to be given away. Ms. Farhana was performing along with others—with “DJ Sleaze” orchestrating the flow of performances. What a nice choice of a name for the disc jockey—don't you think? Needless to say, I find such shows that clearly link sleaze and Burlesque with bellydance (as if they naturally go together) a danger for what I, and most of the bellydance community would like to see happen for the art of Belly dancing. If performers want to incorporate Burlesque, or nudity, it is their right to do so, but they should realize that there is likely to be fall-out that will affect the work of others. There is no question that growing awareness of the success of bellydance will mean that shows that heretofore would have gone unnoticed will now be more liable to garner attention. Previously, our booking agent (who lives in a mainstream world) would never have noticed such a show, but when he saw the word bellydance coupled with Burlesque, it caught his attention and concern.

Most of us realize that the success of bellydance as an art form will reflect on the plight of bellydancers in the Arab world who are often regarded as prostitutes. The blessing of freedom and liberation that women can count on here in the West is one that others elsewhere do not have.

It is possible that bellydance, gaining respect in the West, can affect its regard in Arab society and therefore, have a role in elevating women's participation in those societies in general. Linking bellydance to nudity, Burlesque, and other risqué associations does not raise its respect but reinforces it as a low-life pursuit in the minds of those likely to see it as such.  Therefore, to sell a few tickets by titillating public interest via relying on carnal instincts is, in this regard, highly irresponsible! As I am trying to get the Arab community here in the U.S. (and by splash-affect the Arab world itself) to have greater regard for bellydance as a legitimate, respectable art by writing articles in the Beirut Times, An Nahar, Alo Hayati, Aramaca and other Arab papers, I see any public advertising of Burlesque-bellydance shows as a detriment to that effort.

I am aware that MECDA, an organization that has been in the forefront of trying to promote bellydance in a positive manner, is going through some organizational issues that I hope they can resolve to everyone's benefit. However, I am surprised to see that they are featuring teachers at their event in June who are associated with a more sexually oriented exploitation of the art of bellydance. This seems like an unlikely choice for such an organization and one that must raise a few eyebrows within the community. In fact, is it not about time that the bellydance community starts to speak up strongly? It would seem so, since we all realize that if more eyes are watching this art, more care has to be taken by all involved in it to project the image the community would like it to earn. Creative differences are one thing, and there will never be agreement among all within an art is to what is great and what is not. The fusionists will always upset the traditionalists to some degree, but all should be on the side of artistic acceptance as a respected art form, especially, given the problems with the art in the Middle East.

As it is traditionally understood, I do not find Burlesque, (meaning nudity—no matter how hard one pretends it does not) amusing or creative in the slightest when it comes to including bellydance, an art that has suffered too long with such unfortunate associations. I find it completely irresponsible and detrimental.

A dancer in the U.S. may find it liberating (though I fail to see why) but meanwhile, in the Middle East, it is another shackle fastened on dancers who are burdened with quite enough already. I fear it is a shackle that we in the West all will come to feel as well. Meanwhile, from an artistic point of view, I always assume when a dancer resorts to this sort of approach, it is because that dancer lacks the talent to get attention in any other way. It is too bad those limitations can, and will, hurt others.

Backstage with Jillina and Issam, March 1, 2008
more video clips on the CK

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Ready for more?
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