With love and sex on the minds of many today, I thought it would be apropos to discuss a question that's been on my mind lately: Should a belly dancer be sexy?
Well, depending on who you ask, you'll likely get different answers, including some pretty strong opinions. The most common stereotype of a belly dancer is of a scantily clad woman gyrating and writhing around in some public venue as audience members push tips into her costume. That it is some type of low-brow art form, with lots of sexy and sex sells going on. Case in point, I've heard a father remark to his young daughter, "don't get any ideas" as I've danced past their table (and let's get this straight, it was in a non-writhing, family-friendly fashion) at a restaurant. But ask most belly dancers, and they'll tell you they are pretty offended by this stereotype.
Stepping back, let's define what we're talking about. What does it even mean to be sexy? Webster's dictionary has two definitions, "1: sexually suggestive or stimulating" and "2: generally attractive or interesting". Hmmm, okay. Well those are two entirely different things. I find a large number of items, like Dali paintings, sequin ballet flats, Paris, and high-end stationary to fall under definition #2, but certainly not definition #1. However, as a society, we seem to be fixated on definition #1.
I would say that unfortunately, our society has demeaned, marginalized, and eroded what it truly means to be sexy. Our culture in the U.S. is one where we are constantly bombarded with visuals of hyper-sexual women, whether it's Victoria's Secret Angels prancing down a runway or Kate Upton in a too-small bikini. We have fashion magazines exploding with touched-up images of perfection. (By the way, take a look at this project illustrating the ridiculousness of fashion editorials.) Now, I would like to clarify that I'm not judging either Victoria Secret, Kate Upton, or any others like them, as I believe they have a place in our collective culture. But sadly, this is typically the sole image of femininity that we are presented with. It's only one facet of being sexy, and it's not the facet that comes from a position of strength and respect for women.
Which brings me back to belly dance. When being stereotyped, most belly dancers are being compared to, or expected to look like, these media images of sexy without any further dimension. But in dance, what we really want to get into is definition #2. When my audience watches me dance, yes, the costume and the visual image are part of the presentation, but they are only one part. Like all professional belly dancers, I've spent countless hours studying not only the dance technique itself, but the history, culture, and music behind the dance. So when I step onstage it's much more than just outward appearances. It's the culmination of many years of hard work. It's my goal to take all that hard work and get my audience to see the music brought to life. I want them to see the crispness of my isolations and the soft flutter of my silk veil I want to transport them. I want to engage them. In short, I want them to find the performance interesting.
So does that mean that outward appearances don't matter? Is sexy just an artistic state of mind? Well, I would argue that no, that's no entirely correct either. Dance is a visual art form, and as such, a dancer's outer appearance is part and parcel with the performance. You cannot separate the two. In an art form where a costume costs on average $600 to $1,000, there is a substantial investment in the outward presentation. A professional dancer would never just expect to show up and perform. Time and money are invested, not only into the costume, but into hair, makeup, nails, jewelry, and more. And I would even go so far to say that her demeanor should convey a certainly level of sex appeal. And by a certain level, I like to think of it as more goddess than sex kitten. She's doesn't need to flirt with her audience. And I certainly think a belly dancer should not be performing any lewd or suggestive moves. But she should most certainly be confident. Because in any situation, confidence really is the ultimate in sexiness. She should smile, look me in the eye, let me know she's comfortable inside her own skin, and that she's in charge of what's going to happen in the upcoming minutes.
So in my opinion, yes, a belly dancer should be sexy. Yes, even definition #1 sexy. Her appearance should be put together and with well-manicured hair and makeup. Her costume should fit in a flattering manner and be appropriate for her body. But she should also present the deeper dimensions of the dance to me. Definition #2 sexy. As I'm watching her, I want to be drawn in by her, but I don't want her sexy speaking so loudly that I can't hear her dance or see her talent. I don't need overaggressive sexy pushed into my face or flaunted for the room. But rather it should just smoulder and simmer below the surface, leaving me space to marvel at her whole presentation.
Photo Credit: Aziza (who, dare I say, is sexy #1 and #2), www.bellydance.org