Beautiful Embarrassment: Musings on a Popular Request

Carrara charms the crowd at Marisa’s in Trumbull, Connecticut

a) Toilet paper stuck to your shoe on a big date. b) A run in your stockings right before an important job interview. c) You’re around the water cooler with colleagues, quietly quipping about your boss’s bow tie – then Orville Redinbacher himself walks in. d) You’re at your own birthday party and a beautiful woman in an exotic couture costume comes out and performs an engaging and authentic Middle Eastern dance show, getting the guests up to dance.

One of these things is not like the others. One of these things just doesn’t belong…

My PSA of the day? Life is full of embarrassing situations. Belly dancers shouldn’t be one of them.

Call me a belly dance elitist, but why is it that belly dancers are often hired to for the sole purpose of making grown men squirm? If aliens came to earth in search of “authentic belly dance,” and if they first sent their scaly green tentacles out to American party-planning websites like Gigmasters, they would likely come to the conclusion that belly dancers must be some type of mischeivous sparkle-clowns sent to torture unsuspecting middle-aged Earth Men. Many of the Gigmasters leads that land in my inbox on a daily basis go a little something like this: “My brother-in-law is painfully shy and I know he’ll have my ass on a silver platter if I do this, but I wanted to know if you could torment him a little for his birthday. Maybe sit on his lap, feed him grapes and put a turban on his head.” OK, that’s fine, but where does the actual dancing come in?

Now, before anybody calls me a bellydance buzzkill, 1. I quite enjoy pulling children, women and men (usually in that order!) up to dance with me, and 2. I also don’t believe that birthday parties are exactly the right venue to present high ahhhhhrt. As Shira says, “It’s a party, not an art-y.” But you also can’t spell party without the art-y. So I try to keep some artistic and cultural merit intact, even when dancing at the most casual venues.

Back to our friendly E.T.’s, if they beamed themselves up to big Turkish wedding, they wouldn’t see a whole lot of funny business going on. In the Middle East, there really is no concept of tying a turban around a strange man’s head and feeding him grapes while The Red Elvises’ I Wanna See You Bellydance plays in the background. In fact, most Arabs would probably laugh at me if I suggested doing that at their wedding or anniversary party. When I dance at Arab, Greek and Turkish events, I get everyone up and dancing with me. (Usually, this happens on the guests’ own accord!) But in the spirit of the social dances bellydance came from, these shows are more about creating fun, excitement and authentic ambience on special occasions, rather than doing cliche harem girl schticks or making grown men squirm in their seat.

That’s how I tend to approach audience participation even for mixed American crowds. My presence alone is enough to stir things up! Plus, I have a near-flawless track record of getting the Guest of Honor and their friends up to join me for a quick hip twist or shimmy. If all of the women have had a glass or two of pinot grigio, I may get held hostage on the dance floor. I do, however, draw the line at rubber snakes, jumping out of birthday cakes, feeding fruit to strange men, and forcing shy guests up to dance. Why make people uncomfortable? Why even leave the slightest bit of room for somebody to get the wrong idea about what you do? I’d rather be remembered as “that really entertaining belly dancer” than “that scary glitter-lady who wouldn’t leave us alone.”

As working dancers, we have a slew of stereotypes that work both for and against us. Often, we are hired because we’re glitzy, kitschy, fun and to many people, a little naughty. Whether or not we want to admit this, we all leverage this in our own marketing, to one extent or another. I sure do. But once I get a foot in the door, I like to pleasantly surprise my audiences. If I had a penny for every time a party guest said, “I had no idea there was so much artistry involved in belly dance!” I’d save up enough money to do my mundane errands in couture costumes. Give your customers some credit and for the love of all things sparkly, don’t dumb down your dance.

And to customers who may be reading this, we don’t want you to stop asking us to pull the Birthday Boy and his buddies up to dance. Most of us, including myself, would be more than happy to engage your audiences. But if you only want a belly dancer because you’re hell-bent on sticking it to that special somebody, there are more cost-effective ways to do so. Like bringing up incriminating tales from their wilder college days! Enough said.

Keeping it Classy,


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