Sunday, 1 December 2013

Sex and Sensuality in Belly Dance (Again)

A while ago, I found that I had inadvertently offended someone at a belly dance taster.  I was saying that for belly dance, tilting hip circles should be done with the legs quite close together and certainly no more than shoulder-width apart, and that 'burlesque dancers might do it with their legs open'. Okay, it's a generalisation, trying to make a distinction between belly dance and burlesque dance styles. I certainly have seen burlesque dance which included tilting hip circles done with wide legs, albeit still tastefully keeping the front arc of the circle very shallow so that the movement was downwards rather than thrusting forwards. I was upset to have caused offence and I commented about this to another dancer I know who is also an accomplished burlesque artiste. She said that she wouldn't do wide-legged hip circles and that there was burlesque and 'burlesque'. Essentially, burlesque artists have their own battle to distinguish their work as a performance art, with its teasing, erotic sensuality, story-telling or theme and humour which appeals to a wide audience of genders and ages, from the sort of harder-edged, more sexually-oriented 'strip and prance around in your knickers' approach to the genre. Yes, burlesque artists may (or, indeed, may not!) remove some clothing, bare their buttocks and twirl their nipple tassels, but they want to keep it from being seen as tawdry, lewd and dirty. I can understand that.

The same seems to be happening in pole dance. Some pole dancers are strong gymnasts who essentially use the pole as a vertical dance floor, working with their music and changing dynamics to dance, and want to distance what they do from the sort of strut-around, bump-and-grind-against-the-pole, buttocks-to-the-audience moves seen whenever an insalubrious lap dancing joint is shown in TV crime serials.  Others take the view that, whether a viewer finds it sexy or not, they are dancing primarily for themselves, increasing their strength and flexibility, feeling and displaying sensuality, and it's nobody's business to tell them what moves they should or should not do. The pernicious media view that pole dancing is inextricably linked to lap dancing and therefore to the objectification and exploitation of women with accompanying violence led to the banning of Swansea University's pole fitness club. Swansea University Students' Union's attempt at upholding political correctness was challenged by the pole fitness dance community. The wider dance and fitness community piled in when the issues were shared and discussed on social media.  There was a lot of interest from the mainstream media on the ban; rather less interest after a referendum result was 94% in favour of the club and it was reinstated. Oh dear, seems it is based on dance fitness after all and not worthy of reporting once the contentious issue is resolved.

As with so many other issues, there is evidently a fine line in place here as well, but the discussions made me think about our love-hate relationship with the idea of being thought sexy.  If you perform, you are the object of your audiences' views, opinions and prejudices. You can choose not to be an object, to dance for yourself  rather than perform, but you may still be subjected to the content of others' misinformed and fertile imaginations. I have known a couple of women who keep their belly dancing a secret, and a few who gave up after pressure (bullying!) from family and friends who found out. I find it sad that these women have to compromise in order to avoid what is tantamount to emotional abuse from the narrow-minded and ignorant people who theoretically love them.

As discussions picked up on Facebook, I looked back at my previous post on 'sexy' belly dance. Then someone posted a link to Ananke's well-written, thought-provoking article Is Belly Dance Sexy which prompted a response from Nicole Beckerman.

The consensus still seems to be that the perception of whether the dance is 'sexy' (or even dirty) is still very much a subjective opinion. Recently, I met a rather strict Christian who was horrified that I offered to dance as part of a charity fundraiser, as she considered belly dance to be pornographic (and would not talk about it to be persuaded otherwise. I bet she thought I would finish my piece naked and rewarded by a severed head on a platter). Although everyone is entitled to their opinion, I found her reaction quite extreme. Most belly dancers will, however, agree that overtly sexual body language has no place in belly dance. This means no bump-and-grind moves, twerking (good grief!), hip thrusting, touching and stroking yourself, pouting and pulling sex faces. From what I've seen of good burlesque and pole dancing, the same applies. As dancers, we have a responsibility to set and maintain some quality standards in the dance, so that our audiences appreciate and value what we do. They may well find the humour, passion, strength and sensuality that we put into the dance sexy, but it's still all about the dance, not about sex.

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