On Dancing Like a Lady (Notes from Miss Carrara’s Sparkle Charm School)

Have you ever felt like you were born in the wrong era? I tend to be an old soul when it comes to a lot of my values and the things I find beautiful in art and dance. I love watching vintage belly dance clips, collect old handmade bra and belt sets, and often feel nostalgic for eras way before my time.

One “Old World” idea that’s become increasingly attractive to me is the idea of being a lady. Being classy. Channeling femininity through sweetness and style. Yesterday, I found myself looking through some of my boyfriend’s books on pinup art, and what struck me in the old Elvgren paintings was that even the most popular sex symbols of the 1940’s and 50’s looked so warm and approachable, very much like the Girl Next Door. They didn’t put it all out there, and they left a little something to the imagination. Imagine living in a time when you didn’t have to show a lot of skin or act like an attention-seeking celebutante to be considered beautiful or sexy!

By this same token, my dance idols are Samia Gamal, Fifi Abdou, Nesrin Topkapi, Amani, Madhuri Dixit (for Bollywood), and other “living pinups.” I like dancing that’s warm, sweet and inviting; effortless and elegant. Aggressive popping, locking, high-kicking and acrobatics don’t excite me, nor do overly revealing costumes or sexually-charged onstage shenanigans. Unfortunately, times are changing, and so has dance.

Instead of turning this into a negative rant, a few pearls of wisdom I’ve picked up along the way, and some elegant qualities that I really like to see in dancers:

  • Mind Your Manners Offstage: At my very first restaurant gig, about 7 years ago, I made the mistake of coming back out after my show and mingling with the crowd – in full costume. Eek! My teacher read me the riot act – and no, she wasn’t being a tyrant! As she explained, the way you comport yourself offstage is just as important as your onstage persona. This means throw a caftan over your costume when you’re not performing, and in general, just play it cool. No drinking, no flirting with customers or musicians, no shimmying to Pitbull in plain view of your audience while waiting for your music to start (tempting though it may be). Some cultural groups still have their own ideas about “dancing girls.” Don’t give them anything to talk about. Always act like a queen, onstage and off!
  • Match Your Costume to the Occasion: As many belly dancers have lamented in their blogs, costumes have become pretty risque in recent years. While some of the more cutting-edge designs might be suitable for a nightclub gig, family-friendly events such as weddings just aren’t the place to show too much cleavage or leg. (Unless, of course, your name is Dina!) If a client seems apprehensive, offer up a few more conservative costume options.
  • Women and Children First: I was taught, as a general rule of thumb, to engage the women and children in the audience before the men. (I do this even at events with a male Guest of Honor). If you focus your attention on the guys and ignore the rest, then women will start to get uncomfortable and wonder who you are and what you’re really there to do. If you win over the ladies, then they’ll be your biggest allies, both during the show and long after the party’s over.
  • Don’t Give it All Away: In this time of fast-paced, aggressive, “bang-bang belly dance,” there’s nothing more refreshing than watching a dancer who gradually builds the pace of her show instead of coming on strong. Unlike many Western dance forms, where the energy is bold, brazen and in your face, belly dance has its own unique energy that’s confidently reserved. (Instead of, “Hi, I’m fabulous! Look at me! Watch me dance! I’m doing tricks!” belly dance is more along the lines of, “I know I’m fabulous, I’m having a great time, and I’m going to keep on dancing. You know you want to have fun with me!”) For inspiration, study the way Fifi Abdo enters her performance space. She begins her shows offstage, sometimes waiting behind the scenes for 2 minutes while the music builds. Then, she promenades around the stage a couple of times, to give the audience a chance to take in her gorgeous costume and wonder what she’ll do next. Then, she gets down to business and starts dancing. That’s how you enter your space like an Old World movie star.
  • Look Polished: This is a lesson you can learn from the pinup girls of the 1940’s and 50’s. Always show up to your gigs with your hair and makeup fully done. And I don’t just mean slap on some eyeliner and run out the door. Learn to do full glamor makeup, complete with filled-in eyebrows, false eyelashes and all the glam details. Do your nails every time. Never go to a gig with greasy, stringy hair. If you don’t have time to style your hair, or if your hair isn’t manageable, invest in some good hairpieces and learn how to anchor them properly.
  • Be the Change You’d Like to See: It’s easy to complain (and sometimes, it’s productive!), but not always easy to take action. One Orlando belly dancer recently confided to me that she quit her restaurant job because the venue was re-branding, and management decided that a sexier/edgier belly dance show would draw more customers. Instead of showing more skin per management’s request, she went on to pursue a better environment to dance in, while the venue began experimenting with racier forms of belly dance – possibly to the long-term detriment of their family-friendly image. I personally take a stand against cheesy, sleazy belly dance by keeping a high profile in the local wedding industry and educating my colleagues about the art of belly dance and how to help their brides hire quality Orlando wedding entertainment. I also hang out with like-minded local dancers who share a similar vision, and give them my overflow, or include them on gigs when a client wants a duet or a trio. Raise the bar. Be the new standard other dancers are compared to.

Am I missing anything?

Comments · 2

  1. As always, thank you for sharing, Meissoun! :)

    I picked up a lot of this wisdom early in my dance career, through my mentors. While I took a lot of it for granted, I’m now coming to appreciate how lucky I was to learn from the last of a dying breed of belly dance teachers. They taught me to be a class act onstage and off!

    From what I “know” of you online, I can tell that you do the same for your students. Thank you for that!

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