Monday, 21 January 2013

Backbends and Bellygrams

There was only one place to hide - a narrow cupboard in the corner. The problem was that it had a slatted wooden door, so if I moved I’d be seen. It was cramped too, but I had no choice. I climbed in quickly and shut the door behind me before I could be discovered.

Then I heard voices. There were four of them. The boss (a man I had only seen once, but who, I could tell, was strong and powerful) and his three employees. The big man entered first, the others followed, quiet and subdued.

When the big man spoke he was clearly angry. His rage was controlled, held in check, but anyone could tell there was trouble ahead for his three shaken colleagues. He started to berate them. Told them how they’d messed up, how they’d lost him money and credibility. One was in hotter water than the others and, with a cold voice, the boss outlined how, while the target of his wrath had been away, the job had gone dreadfully, terribly wrong.

The man being accused was clearly shaken. It was sounding bad.

The big man’s invective was coming to a head. “To see what I mean, JUST LISTEN TO THIS!!!” He pressed a button. The room filled with bellydance music. I leapt out of the cupboard, headed for the man on the far left and started to gyrate and shimmy, before dropping down to the floor and writhing in front of the shocked employee.

It was the man's birthday. And I was the surprise. Thank goodness he was young or I think we could have been calling an ambulance!

The place was an advertising agency in Covent Garden, the year was 1982 and I’d been booked as a bellygram. Singing telegrams and strippergrams were all the rage at the time: out of work actors dressed as police officers, nuns or gorillas would appear out of the blue and proceed to sing or strip to embarrass a birthday boy or girl. As far as I knew, I was the only bellygram in London. I would climb on to my motorbike (dressed head to toe in black leather if you’re asking…) and ride off to a venue somewhere in London where I would find a place to change secretly. At the appointed time I’d burst into the restaurant or bar, place my Sony Walkman on the floor or table and proceed to dance and undulate around the victim. I did a mean backbend and some pretty sultry floor work in those days too.

I remember changing in a freezing outside toilet in a slightly dangerous looking pub in the Old Kent Road, directing the heat of the hand-dryer onto my icy body before parting the crowds in the public bar. I jumped up on tables in restaurants, shimmying my way through the plates and glasses. And I got up on the antique polished desk of the manager of The Who, went down into a backbend and laid myself out in front of him, while his laughing staff looked on.

Yesterday, on Facebook, someone asked me what I thought about bellydancers who advertise themselves as exotic dancers and perform in nightclubs alongside pole dancers or strippers.  The questioner pointed out that, by doing so, they are perpetuating the perception of bellydance as a sleazy activity, rather than a serious dance form. I think it’s a fascinating question and one that goes right to the heart of how bellydance is viewed.

These days most professional bellydancers want to be seen as serious dancers - as artists. They want people to understand that bellydance is an ancient dance form with its roots in the folk culture of the Middle East. That it's a richly textured and challenging dance which deserves to have a place alongside Western mainstream styles such as jazz or hip hop. And I’m one of them. I want bellydance to be appreciated by a far wider public as the beautiful, rich and fascinating dance form that it is. I want to hold my head up high amongst the ballet and West End dancers and choreographers and I want aspiring bellydance professionals to undergo the type of tough physical training that those dancers have always expected, so that we can be the very best performers possible.

So, in the light of the question I was asked yesterday, I look back at that 24 year old girl, undulating on the floor in front of a shocked advertising executive and I wonder what I think of her.

Well, firstly I have to say that I was just doing what I had seen Syrian and Palestinian dancers doing in the Arab nightclubs in London (see blog post here). In those performances there was a lot of jumping up in the air and dropping to the floor to shiver and undulate. And in front of a large crowd of Arab men too. Men who would most certainly have assumed those dancers were prostitutes.

Those of us who bellydance in the West have to accept that in the Arab world, bellydancers are considered to be prostitutes. And truthfully, many of them are. At the very least, they are behaving in a way that is far outside social norms. Bellydance has never been something that nice Arabic girls do in public. It’s true that Arab girls absolutely love to dance and will almost certainly dance at home with their female friends. But in public? No. If a Muslim woman dances in public in front of of a mixed audience she is believed to be the very worst kind of woman. And in countries like Egypt, professional bellydancers have to live with the shame of knowing that what they do is considered wicked by the majority of society.

So in trying to promote bellydance as a high art, we in the West are being revisionist. We are trying to create a bellydance culture that feels acceptable to us, that we can be proud of. There is nothing wrong with trying to change the way that bellydance is viewed, but we can’t hide from the fact that ‘exotic dancer’ is exactly what bellydancers traditionally were.

I also have to look back at my younger self and admit that I was fascinated by the sexual sub-culture of London. I was thrilled to be part of it, to walk around Soho at night and feel that, as a bellydancer I belonged to that dark, slightly dangerous underworld. I’ve always loved the ‘other’ in society - the exotic, the experimental, the people who push at the boundaries.

Of course in a perfect world I’d also love bellydance to be accepted by mainstream society, for people not to look down on the dance I make my living from. But I also rather like the fact that when I say I’m a bellydancer I know I’m immediately interesting to most people. I’m different and, yes, exotic. And I know that many of my students feel the same. It’s a giggle to tell people at drinks parties that you are a bellydancer.

Indeed, I’m prepared to guess that for many of us in the West, the exoticism and slightly risqué reputation is one of the things that drew us to bellydance in the first place. There’s something excitingly naughty for many women in learning to bellydance and I think we should accept that. Even embrace it.

That doesn’t mean of course, that we can’t disapprove of certain things. It’s everyone’s prerogative to dislike and, yes, disapprove. Personally I don’t like heavily sexualised bellydancing. I don't like seeing loads of chest bumps in a dance and I can’t abide a pouty face or a floor hump. And don't get me started on the dancers who shake their breasts or backsides in men's faces! But even if I don't like it, I don’t want to shut that dancing down, just as I don’t want to stop ‘commercial’ R & B dancing on music videos, even though I personally dislike it. Instead I want to create something that in my mind is ‘better’ and put it out there in the hope that people will love it and choose it over the other.

And I have to admit that I did my fair share of ‘floor humping’ in the past. Not least on that beautiful polished antique desk, behind which sat The Who’s manager. I’d jumped up there because I’d never seen anyone look quite so bored with my performance as Bill Curbishley did that day. I suppose when you’re the manager of The Who it’s hard to be impressed and I would imagine you get to see an awful lot of semi-naked young women in the course of your job. But his staff had paid for me as a birthday treat for him, and were now crowded in the doorway, excitedly watching me dance.

I leapt up on the desk, did a full backbend and then descended slowly down onto my knees and then my back in front of him. I undulated, I belly rolled, I fluttered. I was 24 years old, I was in great shape, I was dressed in very little and I knew I looked amazing. Surely I’d get a reaction from him now!

He looked down, held my eye, took his cigar out of his mouth. And said: “Mind the desk love.”

Oh well, you can’t win them all.


  1. Great post, Charlotte. I love the ending!

    When I first started bellydancing, I thought it was beautiful and glamorous. I didn't realise people thought it was risque or sexy - until I started trying to talk to people about my new passion. I guess it just goes to show that we all find what we look for!

    1. Thanks Antonia! There was a very interesting series of comments on Facebook yesterday in response to the blog. I'm going to repost them here soon, so people can see the conversation.

      But what is particularly interesting to me is that most people said the same as you - that they hadn't thought of bellydancing as being risqué. I wonder whether that's because of the great teaching that's been going on in the past few years - teaching that has explained the cultural side and has stressed that bellydancing isn't sleazy or seductive.

      Whereas when I started, there was no such teaching at all, and the dancing that I saw in the nightclubs was very much sexier than the style of dancing most of us do these days. There was a lot of floorwork and some very skimpy costuming.

      Also our emphasis in the UK has been very much on Egyptian style dancing which has no floorwork and is much more 'classy' and than some other styles.

      Things have certainly changed an awful lot since my early days and I think they will continue to change. I hope so! I'd love to see bellydance become more mainstream and take its place alongside some of the great dance styles.

  2. Kashka (via Facebook)22 January 2013 at 12:22

    'Indeed, I’m prepared to guess that for many of us in the West, the exoticism and slightly risqué reputation is one of the things that drew us to bellydance in the first place.'

    Exoticism: yes, slightly risqué reputation: no.., what I'm concerned. I never felt comfortable with that. At all. Hence my 'problem' with 'being' an Oriental dancer/ advocating myself as such. It's an ongoing struggle

    1. Ahh Kashka! It's probably just me then - always a bit bad... ;)

    2. Jennie (via Facebook)22 January 2013 at 12:24

      I wonder if the relationship with dancers and wider society in Egypt is slightly more complex than that - for example, how are female singers viewed? Female actresses? I wonder if it is something akin to how female entertainers used to be viewed in our society? I'm not sure a lap dancer in the UK is an exact equivalent to an oriental dancer in Egypt - we certainly wouldn't have a lap dancer perform for guests at a wedding . . . personally speaking the seedy side wasn't an appeal for me either, to each their own!

    3. Amy (via Facebook)22 January 2013 at 12:24

      There is actually a book on that subject...I just now need to rack my brain to remember the title!!

    4. Rachael (via Facebook)22 January 2013 at 12:25

      'A trade like any other' is the book. It's very interesting.

    5. Jennie, I agree with what you say about attitudes towards dancers in the ME being akin to how female entertainers used to be viewed but I think it's far more complex than that. I don't think we can avoid the fact that bellydancers tend to wear very few clothes when they dance. And bellydance movements are pretty sexually alluring.

      I also can't entirely get my head around the fact that women considered to be prostitutes are hired for weddings in the Middle East (and the fact is discussed in A Trade Like Any Other I seem to remember) but I wonder whether it's something to do with fertility.

    6. Jennie (via Facebook)22 January 2013 at 12:50

      I guess that's what I meant though Charlotte - is that it's this weird ambiguous relationship, you are seen as a prostitute yet hired for a wedding - Samia Gamal is celebrated as a movie star yet no one would want their daughter emulating her etc etc

    7. Jennie (via Facebook)22 January 2013 at 12:50

      PS - also interesting to know how much orientalists/Oscar Wilde and his dance of the seven veils influenced perceptions of middle eastern dance in west although am sure loads been done on that already

    8. Yes! A discussion of that is in the book (A Trade Like Any Other) too - it's a great book, you'll really enjoy it

  3. Karen (via Facebook)22 January 2013 at 12:26

    I'm with you on this one Charlotte, you cannot avoid the fact that bellydancing is sexy/exotic. It doesn't mean that it's seedy though- there's a more cheeky/fun element to it which is far more effective. I've often found myself defending in discussions with men who see it as a erotic dance like lap dancing but I have to say I enjoy seeing people's reactions to my admission I! There's a bit of bad in me too!!!

  4. Rachael (via Facebook)22 January 2013 at 12:52

    There's a difference between being sexy, transgressive and disreputable and being a sex worker. I suspect a lot of 'respectable' people here still wouldn't want their child to become or marry an entertainer of any sort, especially a relatively low-status one as opposed to a Hollywood star. Some people here do still assume that actresses, models or dancers (especially young, not-yet-famous ones) must be sexually available, if not actually sex workers.

    That type of attitude towards all entertainers apparently still holds much more strongly in Egypt, and is especially strong for (female) professional dancers because even if they are covered, they are still using and drawing attention to their bodies in the presence of unrelated men. Tabla players aren't exactly considered respectable either though...

    1. Rachael (via Facebook)22 January 2013 at 12:54

      Sorry, unclear wording above. Didn't mean to imply that many people thought that actresses were sex workers, but that some people's perception definitely tends in that direction. I suspect it's probably worst for models, actually, due to being presented primarily as a body - which could have an interesting parallel with the Egyptian view of bellydancers.

  5. You know (and here I'm going to be pretty controversial) I feel increasingly uncomfortable with restaurant dancing these days. I was in a Moroccan restaurant with a friend before Christmas. We were having lunch and the restaurant was full of people having business lunches and Christmas get togethers. There was a bellydancer there - a really good one - beautiful dancer, lovely costume, great technique. But it felt all wrong, her coming out semi-naked and gyrating right under people's noses, and embarrassing the men by getting them up to dance, when all they wanted was to eat their lunch. Most of them were doing everything they could to avoid her eye. And it absolutely wasn't her fault - as I say, she was a great dancer and very classy and I'm sure it was the restaurant who wanted her to get people up. But it's just the nature of the stuff we do - how can we say that's high art?

    1. Jennie (via Facebook)22 January 2013 at 12:57

      I used to find that when I was a restaurant dancer - a lot of people didn't know how to receive it, it's not part of our culture to go and eat dinner and watch a belly dancer, we go to dinner to eat dinner. Plus there is the whole 'belly dancing is like stripping thing' so where to look? Can you look? Should you look? But on the other hand it bugged me that if people had such a problem with it why go to a restaurant that advertised belly dancing every night? You would also have people who would take it as they found it and appreciate it as entertainment sooooo . . .

    2. I am not sure this is a good example to use when discussing restaurant dancing in general - it seems weird to me to have a dancer at lunchtime when people definitely aren't there to party, and even more surprising for her to be trying to get people up to dance in that situation. Plus I'd expect most dancers to wear more conservative costuming for a daytime gig...

    3. I'm also quite uncomfortable with your choice of words here - "semi-naked and gyrating" is the kind of description I'd expect to see in a sensationalist tabloid that was trying to paint us in a bad light, and I'd be pretty annoyed if I heard someone describe one of my restaurant shows in that way.

    4. I do think that some restaurant gigs are less than idea for presenting the dance well though. Especially those where dancers are hired at inappropriate times when people aren't in the mood for music and dancing, or in venues with only tiny spaces between the tables, or where the restaurant owner insists on skimpier costumes even though these make the audience uncomfortable (hasn't happened to me, but have heard of it happening).

      On the other hand, there are things you can do to make it better. Always engaging with women and small children in the audience first to avoid letting them think you're there 'for the boys'. Costumes which cover more skin (long opaque gloves, cropped vests etc). Having a friendly and joyful stage persona rather than a sexy sultry one.

      There will still be some people who will insist on seeing the worst, but then, some people want to see filth everywhere they look. There's only so much that can be done to placate the Mary Whitehouses of this world...

  6. Kashka (via Facebook)22 January 2013 at 12:58

    It's not the clothes, Charlotte, I watched modern ballet more than once, with female and male dancers dancing together very sensually in only their (skin coloured) underpants, no tops, much more naked than Oriental dancers are.. and no one considers them to be 'strippers'.. Obviously, it IS the clothes if your 'girls' are falling out of your bra, etc.., but if you have a 'normal' belly dance costume, you are far less 'naked' than most girls on a sunny day in town. Is it the combination (movement and costume)? I don't know.. I really think it is, for the most part, the perception of the general public..

    1. I think bellydance costuming does highlight the female body though Kashka - some of the Egyptian stars are pretty pneumatic 'up top' and the tight jewelled bra certainly pushes it all up! Whereas modern ballet costuming tends to make the dancers look fairly androgynous.
      Ballet dancers' bodies tend to be androgynous too of course - very small breasts and bodies starved into submission.

      So I think that yes, it's the combination of the costuming and the movement, and the venues we dance in, and the way we dance so close up. Lots of stuff really...


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