Thursday, June 08, 2006

Keep your day job?

This summer, I'm planning to do the following things to become a better bellydancer:

Choreograph a new solo to contemporary music
Dance in a couple of local showcases and haflas
Work as a volunteer at a local dance studio
Get back in the habit of going to the gym and doing my Pilates video
Tutor high school kids for their SATs

Ok, you're thinking, that makes sense, gotta get your name out there, yeah, go to the gym, that makes sense... wait -- SATs? What does THAT have to do with bellydance? Well, the answer is, not much, except that, well, a job's a job. And when it comes to being part of an artistic subculture that can be so widely misunderstood, having a day job has certain big advantages.

Yes, I know, I just went and said something controversial again. I don't mean, of course, that I don't think dancers should be able to make a living out of it, or that only rich girls should be able to bellydance. But for those of us who currently dance as a hobby, I think that the ambition to make dancing a full-time source of income can lead to some major pitfalls. Right now I'm kind of scrambling for gigs, and it's making me realize first-hand why it is that some dancers end up in dangerous or degrading situations -- because it's really damn hard to find well-paying jobs with respectful, community-friendly, woman-friendly organizations and venues! For instance, the other day I asked a friend who has some connections in the local dj scene if he knew of any clubs that might be interested in booking a tribal-fusion style soloist. The next day, he responded with a link to an event -- a local fetish party that was having a "bellydance night," complete with a suggested-attire list that included "transparent harem pants." Honestly, I'm as kinky as the next girl (ok, probably more so), but I'd rather dance for a venue that distinguishes between trained dancers and random hot chicks in see-through pants.

There will always be postings and requests like this that will make dancers roll their eyes and send into a tizzy. And much worse, there will be events where dancers aren't safe, and are vulnerable to groping and possibly worse. A colleague warned me the other day about a bad experience she'd had dancing at a bachelor party, and it seems like whenever one dancer mentions a story like that, everyone present has her own horror story to tell. Even those of us who haven't had to face worse than a few catcalls have had the experience of mentioning bellydance and having people react like we're talking about stripping or prostitution, and of course, some people think that if a woman "makes herself available" through sex work -- or what they perceive as sex work -- then, well, she's "asking for it."

The obvious example of this phenomenon was the much-publicized Duke lacrosse scandal, at which an exotic dancer hired to help celebrate the team's win ended up accusing several players of sexual assault. Now that the players have been mostly found innocent and lacrosse has been reinstated at Duke, it's tempting to just go with the media attitude that "oh well, I guess nothing really happened." In reality, of course, things aren't that simple, and strippers and other sex workers are still extremely vulnerable to stalking, harassment, abuse and assault. These women tend to come from poor backgrounds, are frequently trafficked into the country against their will, and do not have the economic or legal standing necessary to choose not to put themselves into dangerous situations. If it's paying work, they are, to varying extents, forced to take it.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many Egyptian dancers found themselves in a similar situation. As European Orientalism led wealthy Englishmen to travel to Egypt, the awalim, a class of educated women who danced and sang clever improvised songs at weddings and other events, were forced by economic circumstance to perform striptease, dance nude, and even engage in prostitution in order to gain the valuable European money. This period severely damaged the reputation of the dance, which did not regain much of its status until the Golden Age of Egyptian cinema, in which dancer/actresses like Tahia Carioca and Samia Gamal worked to establish a connection between the poise and dignity of the bellydancer and the glamour of Western film stars. Sadly, though, the image of the professional dancer in much of Egypt and the middle east is still closer to that of the impoverished woman who must give up her modesty and virginity in order to please men and earn enough money to live on.

Most of us American bellydancers, however, are not in that situation. We have day jobs, and enough money to take classes and workshops and buy those expensive (but so pretty!) costumes. Many of us have studios and troupes that help us further our dance careers. However, many dancers still put themselves in situations that could easily lead to incidents of harassment or assault. The experience of performing is a powerful rush; being on-stage creates a fight-or-flight response in the brain that leads to a surge of adrenaline that can be extremely pleasurable. I know that I'm addicted to performing; I get a little bit antsy and unhappy when I haven't done it in a while, and have definitely had my judgement impaired once or twice by that wonderful feeling of I get to dance! For lots of people! But for those of us women who have the choice to protect ourselves by insisting on safe venues, respectful events, and safety measures like bringing a friend along to help out, it is our responsibility to do so. If you want to dance in transparent pants, or accept costume tipping, or whatever else you feel comfortable with, go for it -- hell, plenty of modern dance companies have done more outrageous things without getting any flak. But when you do what makes you, personally, feel compromised, you're losing some of the power of your art, which derives so much of its beauty from its intense personal expression.

Yes, being a full-time bellydancer would be an amazing opportunity. And it can happen, for those who are willing and able to teach tons of classes, travel nonstop, and organize large groups of flaky women into coherent, step-perfect performing companies. But what won't make it happen is taking every performance opportunity that comes along, no matter how insulting or risky it sounds. So I'm passing on bellydance night at the fetish club, and resisting the little voice in my head that says that the fastest way to get gigs might be to just post an illustrated ad on I'll have my day job to fall back on, and if I have to, I'll get my performance fix from just making my friends watch me dance. Some things really do just take some time.


Blogger Aimee "Roo" said...

Great post! How long have you been dancing? Would you want to be part of a group bellydancer blog? I just started one, and I would love to have you join if you are interested.

8:35 PM  

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