Belly Dance and Burlesque

When I heard today that a local performance group portrayed a belly dancer in a strip-tease scene, I felt a little sick. I’ve seen a few high-level burlesque performances; they’ve told stories of love, mishap…timeless tales that we can all relate to. They’re entertaining.

But belly dance, to me, is a spiritual, respectful, and sacred form of movement art that unifies women around the globe, celebrates history, and is making history. I, along with many of the belly dancers I know, work hard to maintain a high reputation for it. Yes, it’s sensual; there’s no denying that, but it’s a celebration of the female form in a positive way that honors women.

Onca O’Leary is reviving vaudeville in the eastern United States and beyond. In my humble opinion, she’s a goddess. Check out her shows and workshops whenever possible. (Photo ©Robert Stoutamire, 2010)

Madame Onca of the Mezmer Society, the Accidental Circus, Baraka Mundi, and producer of TribOriginal, knows about belly dance and burlesque (and so much more). She kindly had this light to shed: “I think that burlesque in the sense of the striptease needs to remain a separate animal from stage belly dance. However, burlesque was historically a powerful, multidisciplinary tool for reevaluating and reinventing outdated social mores. Between its inherently radical, feminist roots and as a creative, vibrant, anything-goes-for-entertainment-value art form, belly dance has a lot to learn from the other B word about performance, underlying narrative, and stagecraft.”

Wow – do I agree! As a belly dancer, I find it bothersome that someone would misrepresent this genre. I think it blurs the line between the two separate and honorable dance forms, and could have a negative impact on how the general public perceives us. Even today, in 2011, I see eyebrows raise a bit when someone finds out I belly dance…as in, folks don’t realize that this isn’t just about shaking for the menfolk the gifts our mamas gave us.

If you see that Princess Farhana of Hollywood is teaching in your area – take her class! Yes, she, too is a teaching and performing goddess. 🙂 (Photo by Maharet Bryant)

Princess Farhana of Hollywood is another well-respected and uber-talented woman. Here’s what she had to share: “I believe that belly dance and burlesque are both incredible art forms. Historically in America, they have been presented side by side for at least 100 years in theaters, nightclubs, at fairs, circuses and carnivals, and most visibly, in television and film. This has definitely caused some confusion in the eyes of the general public.

“I perform both types of dance, but contrary to popular belief, do not EVER do a striptease while belly dancing, I keep my burlesque acts as “non-Oriental” as possible.

“There are many dancers who are interested in both styles of dance; hence I have been asked to teach and perform burlesque at belly dance events, and to teach and perform (straight up) belly dancing at burlesque events.

“Like Onca, I believe that practitioners of both styles can learn a lot from each other…and the more this subject is discussed openly, the less taboo it will be, the more we will be able to educate others, and the more the general public will be able to understand the difference between the two genres.” ~ Princess Farhana

What you’re reading here is a conversation-starter about the relationship of burlesque with belly dance. Dante’s has been known to perform in burlesque shows, but the sets weren’t related to belly dance; they had other, unrelated themes.

This topic is worthy of discussion, and I invite your input. All opinions are welcome, but I ask in advance that comments are respectful to all. 😉

Cherie Dawn

Dante’s Gypsy Circus is proud to announce that we’re hosting Onca and the Accidental Circus for a show and workshops in May 2012! Click here for the details; she’ll be teaching a workshop that addresses this very topic of which we speak! 🙂

5 responses to “Belly Dance and Burlesque

  1. I agree that both art forms are fierce, empowering and entertaining… and I also agree with your two fierce ladies! Thanks for bringing up this “hush hush” topic. 🙂

    • Hello Zahara, and thank you for your support of this post. In addition to Madame Onca and Princess Farhana, you too, have taught me about the responsibilities we have as performers, and you do wonderful things for our community here at large – both belly dance and burlesque. Much respect! ~Cherie Dawn

  2. If we refuse to intermingle jazz and blues, we would have never had Rock and Roll, You probably don’t have a problem with all the body popping I have seen in bellydance lately, so it is not about keeping the art form pure right? Could it be that you are more afraid of people thinking you are a stripper? Art, especially dance and burlesque, is by its very nature a changing, subjective, experience that is made to be fused and pushed and twisted to reach new levels and new forms. Worry less as evidenced here..”I think it blurs the line between the two separate and honorable dance forms, and could have a negative impact on how the general public perceives us. Even today, in 2011, I see eyebrows raise a bit when someone finds out I belly dance…as in, folks don’t realize that this isn’t just about shaking for the menfolk the gifts our mamas gave us” Worry less about what people think of you, you will always have distractors, as about creating something unique. You will have more fun and you art will be more pure. By the way, you know very little about burlesque if you think it is about “simply shaking for the menfolk”

    • Hi there!
      I’d like to first thank you for reading this post, and for taking the time to share your thoughts. Next, I definitely want to admit that I don’t know a lot about burlesque, although I respect that it’s so much more than “…shaking…”. I’m afraid that this is how others, perhaps from the general public, may perceive both burlesque and belly dance; this isn’t how I view it. My sincere apologies if this was misinterpreted. And, you bring a new, honest perspective regarding the changing styles. I personally use contemporary movements in my fire dancing, and I do like the popping that we’re seeing in belly dance (guilty of that too!). 🙂 I guess I see pops as part of the intricate isolation process. Art may be dead if it doesn’t grow, expand, contract, develop, etc. We’re always trying new things.
      It’s funny – I was recently inspired by a book for creatives, which tells us to be audacious, and to stop worrying about what others think. Your words reinforce this (in a positive way – I’m not being sarcastic, please understand). Many of us are striving for pure, authentic art. Conversations like this help bring that to fruition.
      (And hey, feel free to share your name! It’s cool.)
      Cherie Dawn

      I’m pretty liberal, including with my love for and interpretation of belly dance. A specific incident had inspired this original blog post, and it was one that I personally found offensive because of the way it portrayed belly dance and explicit sexuality, at a venue that regularly hosts belly dance events at that. This blog post is my personal reaction to that, and it can be difficult to express a reaction in black-and-white words, when it really just stems from a feeling. I appreciate all dance forms, and support any means that women have of expressing (or supporting) themselves.

  3. I think the key reason I see the need to keep them separate is respect for the cultural roots of belly dance–and burlesque!
    But It’s also about setting expectations for safety reasons. When going to and setting up burlesque performances, there is a certain expectation that goes along with it, that women will be taking off their tops. That’s absolutely fine! But there’s also certain aspects of safety and preparedness that go into that for the performers, the audience and the venue.
    When that expectation is falsely transported onto a belly dancer, the audience and environment can then become something threatening or hostile. The belly dancer does not go in expecting to take her clothes off or to have dollar bills shoved in her bra, but when expectations of belly dancing become as something of a glorified strip tease, these very things can happen, leaving a belly dancer unprepared mentally and emotionally. And I do think that setting expectations and changing perceptions and what people think of us as belly dancers is important in that respect, because it becomes as much about safety as it does about artistic expression.

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