I haven’t written here in a few days, but I have been busy writing! One of my students, who is a bellydancer, asked me to give my perspective about bellydance/burlesque fusion for a lively debate that has been taking place at The Guilded Serpent, a bellydance zine. The gist of the argument is that one person in the bellydance scene, Miles Copeland, attacked Princess Farhana for producing a show that was advertised as offering burlesque and bellydance performances, blaming burlesque for giving or supporting a bad reputation for bellydance, and even going so far as to say that the association of burlesque with bellydance would affect the rights and respect that women have in the countries where bellydance originated.
Here is my response to the article and the letters to the editor:
4-18-08 re: Divorcing Bellydance from Burlesque by Miles & When the Hip Hits the Fan by Princess Farhana
This is a very interesting conversation. There was recently one very similar to this in one of the burlesque message boards I belong to, only it was talking about the association that burlesque has in the eyes of the public with strip-club strippers, i.e. poledancers. I wrote about this in my blog here: https://bombshellbetty.wordpress.com/2008/03/08/stripping-vs-burlesque/ In the burlesque movement, we are seeing some fusion between burlesque and poledancing (for example, the duo called Gravity Plays Favorites). Some people like this, and some don’t. I consider it to be the inevitable result of a creative and innovative movement. Everyone adds their own style and flavor to the mix, which then inspires more people to add their own styles and flavor, which then inspires more people…
The burlesque “bump-and-grind” dancing in the 50’s was taken directly from bellydance moves. You can call this cultural appropriation if you wish. I call it human nature and an inevitable part of growth and creation. As creative humans, we see something we like and wish to emulate it, and then we add our own creative influence to what we are doing and soon enough a new style or even artform is born. This happens in music, in visual art, in dance, in architecture, in literature… you name it. Burlesque as it is known in America (and as it is spreading internationally) is an American cultural tradition that drew from European theatrical traditions and later developed into striptease (often comedic) with bellydance inspired moves and costuming themes.
It is pointless for traditionalists to bemoan the changes and new interpretations that people create in these art forms. Everything changes. People will always innovate. All I can recommend is that traditionalists stick with the style they enjoy, the innovators stick with what they enjoy, and everyone just worry about your own act, your own reputation, your own success, and leave everyone else to their own business. Or you can bang your head against the wall, but I promise you that won’t change anything anyone else is doing, although it might give you a headache. And dismissing someone else’s success by calling them “sleazy” while excusing your lack of success by blaming it on them is just a cop-out. If you want to be hired (to perform or to teach), work on your skills and presentation and stop worrying about what other people are doing. If you stand out, you will be successful. If you don’t, you probably won’t.
To the people who are afraid that “bellydancer = callgirl” in the eyes of the public, keep in mind that the people who would look up a bellydancer in the phone book and harrass her are the kind of people who automatically think “woman = whore.” Disassociating burlesque from bellydance won’t iradicate that kind of ignorance and sexism. Any employer who would fire a person for practicing or performing burlesque in their off time deserves to be slapped with a law suit.
And anyone who claims that associating burlesque with bellydance is undermining their efforts to “legitimize” bellydancers in the countries the art came from is just fooling themselves. The dance forms will be respected in those areas when women are respected in those areas, and not until then.
Public dancing and performance in general has only recently been seen as a respectable activity for women in our culture, and there are many places in the world where it is still seen as indecent. For hundreds of years in Europe and America, “actress” or “opera dancer” or “chorus girl” were synonymous with “prostitute.” The bias against women showing their independence and flouting cultural strictures is not new to striptease, and cultural ideas of what is “vulgar” or “tasteless” or “indecent” change from generation to generation. Expecting the norms of yesteryear to apply today is not only unrealistic, but it would also paint even the most “traditional” and “respectable” of dance forms with unflattering associations.
Blaming burlesque for dance’s “sleazy” associations isn’t going to fix any of these problems, because burlesque is not the problem, just as pole dancing isn’t the reason burlesque has a bad rap. The problem is that so much of the American (and hello… Middle Eastern… or even the world’s?) population is afraid of stong, earthy female sexuality and artforms that express it. Fix that problem and the rest will go away. Until then, you’re just putting fresh frosting on a stale cake.