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Commentary: Belly dancers and strippers not one and the same


Photo
JACOB KONST/Arizona Daily Wildcat
Kathryn Ferguson, a belly dancing instructor, demonstrates to UA students how to move their bodies one section at a time.
By Kylee Dawson
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Tuesday, February 1, 2005
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Is there really a difference between belly dancing and stripping?

Well, if a woman writhing her body seductively for an audience is the defining characteristic of both, then I'd have to say yes.

Let's face it: Strippers straddle the bottom of the social pole in the United States and other westernized lands. Comparably, in the Middle East, belly dancing holds the same stigma of being raunchy and tasteless.

And with such labels come the same lack of respect and shame for women who perform as belly dancers.

The issue is complicated even more because many strippers use the term "dancer" as a euphemism for "stripper." Why would they do such a thing if they weren't ashamed of the status associated with being a stripper?

Instead of paying attention, I pondered this question while taking an Arabic course in Los Angeles. One of my classmates included Katalina Stephanopoulos, a belly dancer who happens to be from Greece. When she performed for the college's annual Foreign Language Day celebration, she changed costumes three times, but never once was her belly on full display.

She did this intentionally because she wanted the audience to realize that belly dancing is more than just a bare gyrating stomach. This made me wonder, "What's wrong with checking out a bare gyrating stomach?"

Well, nothing, unless you think it is only to sexually gratify gawking men. That's what strippers are for!

Photo
Kylee Dawson
Columnist

"We tell people over and over again that belly

dancing is in no way connected to stripping until we're sick of hearing ourselves say it!" said Shira, a world-renowned belly dancer who's clearly been called the "S" word far too many times.

So, what does distinguish strippers from dancers? A historical analysis is essential in determining what characteristics determine the two.

Because it did originate in the Orient, the correct name for belly dancing is actually "Oriental dancing." Before Oriental dancing became more respected in the late 20th century, it was part of the Vaudeville acts of traveling carnivals and fairs.

When it was first introduced in the United States at the Chicago World's Columbian Exposition in 1893, belly dancers from Morocco were fully clothed, from head to toe practically.

But instead of being impressed by the new exotic dance form, American audiences totally freaked out at the sight of the dancers' moving midriffs. They found it so disgusting, and the media hyped the scandal of it up so much, that audiences became even more curious about belly dancing.

Fair promoters decided to exploit the scandalous dance form, and over the years, the shows became even more bawdy and seductive which developed into burlesque shows.

Of course, you have to remember that these were times when blackface and minstrel shows were all the rage too. So, exploiting women's bodies became just as easy, if not easier than exploiting the cultural practices of different ethnic groups.

As burlesque spread around the country, and more and more clothes began to come off, it eventually evolved into what we know today as stripping. Needless to say, stripping has become much more popular, while the truth about belly dancing remains veiled in mystery and misconceptions.

The purpose of belly dancing is not to amuse and incite horny men with dollar bills in their teeth; belly dancing is a social dance, performed at weddings, during childbirth and at other respectable gatherings throughout the Middle East and the world.

If this is the case, then why are belly dancers oftentimes viewed as "the strippers" of the Middle East? In her book, "A Trade Like Any Other: Female Singers and Dancers In Egypt," author Karin van Nieuwkerk examines why women who work in show business in Egypt are held in low esteem.

In some regards, because a belly dancer is required to socialize and drink with customers - something respectable veiled women do not do - she is viewed as somewhat of a harlot, unworthy of respect.

True, everyone enjoys watching a belly dancer perform, but the situation changes once she re-enters society in her street clothes.

One of my best friends, who is from Tunisia - where most women do not wear veils - explained to me that working as a belly dancer is very embarrassing, not only for a woman, but for her husband and family.

Because of this, most women who belly dance keep their occupation a secret if they can, much like strippers. Therefore, it seems there are more similarities than differences between stripping and belly dancing, based on societal standards.

On another twist, male strippers are not excluded from this argument. The difference between men who go to see women strip and women who go to see men strip is restraint. Women can pretty much jump a male stripper, but, in many strip joints, men are only allowed to look and not touch.

Stripping supposedly objectifies the stripper, be she a woman or be he a man. So, you're probably now wondering: "If strippers are so similar to belly dancers, then why are there no male belly dancers?" Well ... male belly dancers who are not transsexuals?

Truth be told, male belly dancing has been around since the Ottoman Empire. No joke. Only, it's obviously not as popular in comparison to female belly dancing, except in Turkey, one of the few countries where male belly dancing is still practiced, and actually enjoyed.

The bottom line is this: Women, prostitutes or housewives, belly dancers or strippers, are still viewed by many men as commodities rather than companions. And, no, I'm not singling out some of the cultural mentalities of Middle Eastern men - though plenty are guilty of thinking this way.

But how can American men be viewed as more sensitive or civil when they hem and haw over a naked woman's body, not her dance performance? At least most belly dancers are allowed to keep their clothing on.

Thanks to several women like Shira and Katalina, who respect the ancient purposes of belly dancing, it is emerging from the shrouds of shame and misunderstanding.

Who knows how long it will take for strippers to become worthy of the same regard.

Kylee Dawson is a journalism senior. She can be reached at gowild@wildcat.arizona.edu.



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