The Gilded Serpent presents...
When Pop Culture Meets Belly Dancing; Here we go again!
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.”
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:
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:
On the negative side, members of our dance community point out their following issues of concern:
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.
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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