What’s in a Stereotype? aka “The Beating a Dead Horse Post”

Have you ever wanted to see a belly dancer get really, really angry? Show them that Sex and the City scene where Mr. Big doesn’t have any more $20 bills because he “stuffed them all in the belly dancer’s crotch” at the Moroccan restaurant.

Trust me. You’ll get an earful.

Part of me really hates to participate in any sort of commentary on why belly dance isn’t a watered down, clothed, PG-13  version of stripping. We’ve been flogging the same dead horse since the Chicago World Fair in 1893, when the dancer Little Egypt’s cultural presentation was co-opted by the burlesque community and dubbed the “hoochie coochie dance.” We lecture until we’re blue in the face about the rich social, historical and cultural components of the dance, seemingly to no avail. It seems the more we talk about it, the more the misconceptions exist: you can say “belly dance and stripping are absolutely not the same thing – one is about culture and the other is about sex,” and all some folks want to hear is “blah blah blah belly dance and stripping yadda yadda yadda are blah blah the same.”

Personally, I prefer to talk about the positives – the interesting people I’ve met, the new things I’ve learned, the golden retriever at the birthday party who wagged his tail to my finger cymbals. But sometimes, you just get mad.

Ladies and gentlemen, I present Exhibit A. I like to Google myself. Basic brand management, you know. After a few pages of entertainer and party planning directories where I’ve listed myself, I found myself (and a bunch of my friends from CT, for that matter) on a directory called 101ExoticDancers.com. Interesting. I never gave those chuckleheads any sort of authorization to use my name in such a dodgy way. All I did was sign up for a listing on the parent site, PartyPop.com. But PartyPop also has listings for DJ’s, photographers, ballroom dance teachers, and ballerinas. I didn’t see a single African dance troupe or hula dancer on the 101ExoticDancers directory! So what gives? Why do belly dancers always get singled out? If you think belly dancers can shake their hips fast, you’ve never taken a class in Tahitian dance!

This isn’t the first time a stripper site has “farmed” a dancer directory. There have been a number of horror stories on the Bhuz forums lately. And did you know that if you have a listing on MyPartyPlanner.com, your name will pop up on a search for exotic dance teachers, or even “naked belly dancer?”

Granted, if I really were a naked belly dancer, I would save a boatload of money on costumes and cut back on my prep time about 200%. But all joking aside, I really like doing sophisticated corporate events and promotional appearances. I like to appear in the mainstream media, which is something most strippers can’t do. And I love to dance for senior citizens and small children and all ages in between. I want to keep my opportunities ample, my image commercially viable, and all my engagements classy. But I’m afraid it’s all too easy for somebody to get the wrong idea when a simple Google search can yield a slew of shady, misleading listings.

This all begs the burning question, the belly dance equivalent of The Meaning of Life: how do we, at the individual level, dispel the myths and transcend the stereotypes? Here are a couple of my thoughts:

  • Practice Your Snappy Comebacks: Maybe I’ll share some of mine in an upcoming post. For instance, if somebody says, “Belly dance, huh? Is that anything like stripping?” I always like to say, “Well, no. It took me 3 hours to put the costume on, and it takes even longer to take it off! That wouldn’t be hot. It would just be painful to watch!” Or simply shake your head and say, “Wow. That was the most depressing and ignorant thing I’ve ever heard.” Don’t be afraid to put stupid people on the spot.
  • Write a Letter to 101ExoticDancers.com: If you find yourself on a directory listing and you don’t approve, write an e-mail to the Powers That Be and politely request that they remove you. If this doesn’t work, follow up with another e-mail. If you still don’t have any success, and you’re feeling ballsy, get a customer service on the phone, and demand to speak with their boss if necessary. You can even fabricate a huge, well paying corporate gig that you lost because the company’s HR team came across your listing and was afraid of a sexual harrassment suit. Position the listing as a liability to your professional image.
  • Don’t Cheap Out: In our field, pricing and brand perception share an inextricable tie. Want people to think your services are cheap? Then price yourself cheaply. Can’t get gigs at the going rate? Maybe it’s time to rethink your approach to business, image and dancing.
  • Be a Lady (or a Gentleman): You know the drill. Wear your caftan before and after your set. Don’t curse, smoke or drink in costume or in caftan. Don’t tell all the restaurant patrons about how your thong is riding up. Don’t linger too long after your set. Carry yourself as if you’re rubbing elbows with foreign dignitaries, Miss Manners, your grandma, and possibly Jesus himself. Remember: there is a time and a place to act like a drunk pirate.
  • Bad Juxtapositioning! Very Bad! Not long ago, there was a thread on Bhuz about a dancer who taught an ongoing class in a sex shop. Dancers in that community were losing gigs because of it. I won’t contribute my editorial. Simply use that as a textbook example of why it’s important to choose your venues wisely.
  • Always Practice Responsible PR: Nothing has the power to inform and influence quite like the mass media. Why, then, do so many dancers “blow it” when they get the rare opportunity to appear on television or in print? How many times have you read a newspaper article where every other word was “gyrating torso” or “seduce the sultan?” How many times have you seen a TV news feature where a belly dancer ties a scarf around a male anchor’s waist and he proceeds to do pelvic thrusts while the dancer says nothing? I saw a local lifestyle TV feature where a pole dancing studio owner discussed belly dance and pole dancing in the same sentence, seemingly as one interchangable entity. If you’re asked to appear on TV or in print, take some time before your big appearance to speak with the reporter/host. Point them in the direction of helpful resources. Educate and enlighten them, lest they prep for the interview via Wikipedia – or worse. Meanwhile, prepare your “sound bytes,” and brainstorm some ways to parlay yourself out of a worst case scenario. If a media appearance still feels like it’ll be a big fat bust, don’t be afraid to turn it down. When dealing with a maligned dance form, zero publicity is better than bad publicity. Media opportunities come and go. The impact of bad PR can last for years.

What are YOU doing to reverse the stereotypes? Have any of you had success getting your listings removed from the stripper sites? Talk to me!

Comments · 2

  1. Thank you for your enlightening commentary. I am finding, as a new (but older) dancer, opinions of belly dancing generally do run towards the same bent as those of adult entertainment dancers. I believe that my response from now on will be; yes, both take a great deal of athletic ability as well as skill and both have dance moves most people cannot do but kindergarten age children and sunday school teachers would be welcome at a belly dance performance.

  2. Yes, and on the flipside, dance forms that are actually more suggestive are considered family-friendly entertainment. How ’bout some of the stuff they wear on Dancing With the Stars? And personally, I’ve seen raunchier moves in high school cheerleading competitions.

    I don’t know. On the one hand, I’m willing to educate. On the other hand, some people knowingly choose ignorance. My family falls into the latter camp, unfortunately.

    But we do live in a global village and people are becoming more culturally savvy. The more we defend the artistry and the rich cultural roots of our dance, the better.

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