Belly Dancing vs. Erotic Dancing

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Belly Dancing vs. Erotic Dancing
Written by Mellilah

Why does the general public sometimes get erotic dancing confused with belly dancing? This happened to me just the other day while telling a stranger what I do. I will try to explain from my point of view and discuss ways that I feel we (dancers) can work to eliminate this confusion in the future.

Although belly dancing is ancient art form, it’s gone through a metamorphosis and still is, incorporating many cultures, techniques, stylizations, etc… It’s only in the most recent past that belly dancing has morphed into a more refined art form. However, the dichotomy is that belly dancing is also more experimental than ever. We have an art form that has become more refined, and at the same time, more experimental.

Ballerinas never seem to get mistaken for strippers. Why is that? Is this because ballet has a universal vocabulary and technique, standards? Ballet has been classified as a fine art form and has been for years. There are schools of ballet and although there are differences in philosophy and pedagogy, the end result follows a standard or norm for that art form. In my opinion, “fine art” follows standards, making it more refined. I found this, most appropriate, definition of “fine art” on dictionary.com: [Something requiring highly developed techniques and skills.] That is not to say that art is any less respected or regarded if it doesn’t have standards. In my opinion, the general public has less confusion around what ballet is, or is not, as compared to belly dance, because of these reasons.

I used to be a soprano vocalist, an opera singer, and I constantly found myself pointing out the difference between a classically trained vocalist practicing the “fine art” of singing and a pop singer. A pop singer does not necessarily need to practice technique following a pre-existing standard. A pop singer doesn’t actually have to be a good singer as defined by the fine art of singing. Therefore, there’s a lot more variation and diversity between pop singers; it’s experimental. If we want belly dancing to have less variability, less experimentation (when defined as belly dance), than do we need to work towards standards? What are the advantages and disadvantages of this? Maybe we can have both.

I can respect those who choose to perform burlesque and other alternative forms of dance. And I respect our fellow belly dancers that choose to experiment with their craft because that is art. We should respect every artist’s right to express his or herself and cherish the fact that we can do as we wish in the US. However, the issue does not lie in whether or not the art being presented is appropriate for a given venue and the issue does not lie in whether or not you think erotic dancing, burlesque or other experimental dance is tasteless or inappropriate. In contrast, the problem exists only when labeling these art forms incorrectly. If the general public is ever to understand what belly dancing is or is not, than it should not be confused with other forms of dance. That’s not to say that there aren’t belly dancing moves being used in erotic dancing. We use jazz and ballet moves in belly dance! However, how much can be tweaked before it becomes something else entirely? Of course art is subjective and so are its labels. I think we need to use judgment, and if it’s experimental than label it as something else; make a new label, call it “free-style dancing,” “experimental dance that incorporates belly dancing movements.” Aren’t we confusing the public by labeling other dance forms or experimental dance as belly dancing? There is no “dance police.” However, as a belly dance community, we can choose to support a standard when referring to “belly dance” and we can choose to educate our audiences as we share our various art forms. We can also choose to experiment with belly dance, providing our own unique dance experience. To do this, we need to encourage and educate all those around us, students, teachers, performers, and the general public to use the label “belly dance” appropriately and as a prerequisite, to understand it in it’s purest form first. That does not mean that we can’t be a belly dancer and a dancer of other forms. We just need to educate ourselves and label each individual performance as accurately, and with as much consideration, as we choose each individual costume and routine to meet the needs of the venue.

Of course there’s more than just the label. As a belly dancer, I never undercut other dancers, I make sure if I’m “belly dancing,” that it’s family friendly, and I dress and act with propriety before, during and after the show. I labeled myself as a student and didn’t pose as a professional until my teachers and I reached consensus that I had reached a professional level. As students, teachers, and lovers of belly dance, each of us can take steps to help belly dance grow. If we work on becoming better belly dancers, educate ourselves about the music, history, costuming, etc… and put time into how we present ourselves to our audiences, I think there will be less confusion over time. Experiment but label it accurately and belly dance will be an impetus behind creations we haven’t even dreamt of yet. But respect and understand it’s history and development, too, and label “belly dance” for what it is.

On a positive note, I receive more praise and respect when I tell people I’m a belly dancer, than I receive misinformation or disrespect. Yes, I still run into people who are confused as to what belly dancing is or isn’t, but I accept these incidents as opportunities to educate.

November 11, 2010– Since I published this article three years ago, I have learned a lot more about belly dance through researching, teaching and performing. I would never want a move towards standardization, not that I think that’s what I was saying in my article. It’s not that simple. But I do want dancers to learn and be taught with intention, which can only be achieved with a knowledgeable instructor. We, as dancers, need to understand the styles that have existed and that exist today. Understand when and where the dance was influenced. Know what is contemporary and what is traditional. I am still disheartened when I see dancers who identify themselves incorrectly. I do think more education is needed. The dance constantly evolves and branches off and we need to know what our purpose is when we perform and label has appropriately as possible with all the subjectivity that lies in doing so. I have written another article which I think is relevant to this topic. Read the “Styles of Belly Dance” on my Blog.

For more info about the author, visit www.mellilah.com

About Mellilah Jamal

Mellilah teaches belly dance classes in Redmond and Bothell and performs for private parties and restaurants throughout Seattle.

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