BELLY DANCE IS *NOT* SEXUAL! - It’s Sensual.
--BELLY DANCERS: 🐍luts, Priestesses, H😱🤩chies & G😈ddesses.
--NEVER BELLY DANCE TO THIS SONG! - It's About A Prostitute.
33 years old
Overlooking the valleys & mesas of the Four Corners in Colorado on a gorgeous afternoon
As we drink tea on the patio just off her dance studio, she’s been telling me about all her adventures in Turkey. She went on a belly dance excursion of classes, shopping, shows, sight-seeing, food, and music with Artemis. (1) I hope someday I will have the chance to go, too, especially now that I hear it’s as amazing as I’ve always imagined.
“So…” She stirs her tea around like it might help her find the words she’s so obviously searching for. At last, she sets the spoon on the saucer and looks straight at me. Her eyes glow with excitement, but also with an intense intrigue and more than a hint of mischief. “You know how we’ve always been taught that belly dance is supposed to be sensual, not sexual?”
I nod, for this adage has been pounded into me like a drummer’s hands on hide. In turn, I have passed it on to my students, of which she is one.
“Well, let me tell you. In Turkey, it’s all about sex.”
My eyes go huge as my brows fly up.
She nods. “I know. But it wasn't like it is here. So many people there don’t view sex like we do. There isn’t this automatic assumption that, if a woman dances in a certain way or has any sort of smolder in her eyes, it means she’s either a stripper, a prostitute, or she wants to go home and perform those moves in private on whoever she looked at while she was dancing.”
I tilt my head, as intrigued as she is. What a concept. I wonder what that would be like.
Blissful is what it would be.
Not that I find anything wrong with strippers or prostitutes. Those are just different professions in different environments with some key different intentions from mine, and I get tired of people making the ASSumption that I'm going to take my clothes off, give them a lap dance, let them dip their hands inside my costumes, or have sex with them if they wave a few green pieces of paper my way.
Between thoughtful sips of her tea, she has trouble putting her overseas experience into words, but she speaks to a difference in the way women carry themselves, in the way they interact with men, and the way men interact with them. Obviously this doesn’t apply to every single person in Turkey, but in a generalized sensation of walking down the street, eating, shopping, conversing, and especially everything that happened once the music started up and people began to move to it.
She says that it wasn't as if belly dancers there had completely shed the classic stigma--that you'd never bring one home to marry--but there was a different energy as far as treatment, respect, and feelings of safety.
I wonder if it’s similar to what I experienced in Italy last year, especially in Rome. So many of the women there walk like belly dancers. It’s not overt. It’s not vulgar. It’s relaxed and sensuous. It’s liquid and vibrant. It’s like honey walking down the street in heels and a curve-hugging dress. But it was nothing I would ever call down. It was just confidently, unapologetically feminine.
And yeah. It was sexy.
But that didn't mean it was an invitation.
It gave me permission to try it out. To stop walking like a jock, like a dude, like a curveless plank for fear of getting catcalled--which I certainly did in Italy. (3) But it was nothing like the horror show of disrespect and harassment I'd been told it would be. Even though it was a far more frequent occurrence, the energy behind it was so different from the majority of times it's happened to me here in the States.
Upon arriving in Rome, at first it made me really nervous, especially when there was a bit of following. But then I looked into their eyes. There was no expectation there. There was certainly no demand. It was unmistakably in-your-face and on-your-tail, but not to grab. Not to corner. Not to interrupt or halt my day.
Best of all, there was no menace in it. It wasn’t a means to scare a woman into being smaller. Diminished. Ashamed. Afraid. There was no pressure, cruelty, mockery, or threat underlying the rock and the hard place: “If you respond positively, you must be a worthless slut I can fuck, whereas if you ignore or reject my advance, I’ll enjoy getting to be pissed and calling you a bitch."
I did ignore.
Not once did I receive a nasty comment for it--or worse: "If you ignore or reject me, I might hunt you so I can show you what an ugly, worthless bitch you are."
(Worthlessness is always implied in this game, no matter which way a random woman on the street swings, because she is not YOUR woman. YOUR daughter. YOUR mother. YOUR sister. Therefore, it's Kobayashi Maru.)
But much to my shock, I didn't receive one terse word or even a glower of "bitch" over the course of three weeks in Italy. When I ignored them, they didn't stalk me. Didn't threaten or holler insults. Didn't lay the tip of a finger on me, much less grab my anything. They didn't even bat an eye about it.
And on the few occasions when I tried out playing with it, smiled, winked back--same deal. There was no pressure for it to mean anything except a little flicker of flirtation between strangers, and then we go about our day.
It certainly wasn't what I've experienced so many times since I was a teenager: "If you react positively to my attention, you obviously want sex from me. That gives me license to pursue, pressure you into giving me your number, try to get you to go off alone with me, take what I want whether you want me touching you or not. And if you welcome me touching you, you’re a whore. Just a piece of meat upon which to spank it and then forget you. Treat you like shit. Drop you off on the corner and brag about it to my friends so they’ll all feel like they can do the same thing to you.”
That’s not how it felt in Rome, and yeah, I’m sure there are plenty of examples of Italian guys who would drop me on the curb and call me down if I went to bed with them out of wedlock. I'm sure there are plenty who are truly menacing, harassing, expecting, and of course assaulting, just like there are anywhere.
But the ones who catcalled me didn’t do any of that. Not a single one. In that sprawling web of an ancient metropolis with a gazillion meeping mopeds and zooming cars, with its people jammed up nose-to-hair in the subway and sometimes on the sidewalk, while we came and went from our hotel in what we had been told was one of the "most dangerous neighborhoods in Rome," I felt perfectly safe and societally empowered--for the first time in my life--to publicly let my female hips do what they do in a natural stride.
Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock.
That’s all the main belly dance hip motion is. An exaggeration of a natural tilt amidst walking. I played with that motion during the whole trip to Italy. It felt organic. It felt liberated. It felt really good. As good as the cappuccino warming my belly and the gelato cooling my tongue and the music wooing my heart as it wafted in on the night air through the flung-open shutters.
When I returned home and passed through downtown Colorado Springs, I was still walking that way. But suddenly, my hackles went up as I stepped into that crowd--such piddly numbers compared to Rome. I knew that I wouldn't be catcalled even a third of the amount as I was in Italy. Didn't matter. The old tension returned. Tight shoulders. Nervous gut. Eyes wanting to do a back-and-forth sweep but knowing how much it looks like prey.
The homeless guy blocking my path on the sidewalk, then following me and growling insults after I’ve squeezed past him without giving him anything. The early-twenties trio of guys jumping up from their bench to crowd and menace me as I take the shortcut through the park alone. The doomsday proselytizer jumping down from his concrete perch to follow and harangue in my ear until I can escape into the crosswalk. The entitled gaggle of clickity-heeled shoppers refusing to adjust their four-abreast chitter-chatter and swinging bags on a packed lunchtime sidewalk. The lone, entitled suits doing the same thing on their cellphones with their elbows braced wide, striding down the center of the walkway and refusing to move for anybody so you either have to barrel into their shoulder, shift onto the precarious curb, or scrape your hip on the corner of the cafe table.
Assholes. Encroachers. Harassers.
Demanding. Taking. Menacing.
I don’t dare let my hips tick-tock on the street here at home. That’s a quick way to have to deal with an issue, and I have enough of those in my life without adding another magnet to them.
Over a second cup of tea, Shifrah and I talk about these differences, about what it means for us as women in our own culture, and as sexual creatures in such a polarized society. In these two camps, sex is either demonized as something to fear, revile and control, or it’s something to be exploited and degraded. Flirtation--or even being friendly--is too often assumed to be genuine sexual invitation by the recipients themselves as well as the popcorn-eating, gossip-spreading onlookers.
Eventually we get back to talking about what all this means to us as dancers. Same thing. You can’t be a belly dancer without having to deal with this issue all the time.
We’ve really been opening a lot of minds for the past few years, doing those benefit shows in our small, rural towns. It’s a lot of work to introduce what we do to people who have such deeply rutted, preconceived notions and prejudices. A huge part of that is what we wear.
We never go without pants under our skirts, unless those skirts are streamlined and fitted at least to the knees.
The videos Shifrah has brought back from Turkey me remind me of all the warnings that have been drilled into my head by the majority of my teachers--except my first one, and one of my most recent, Eva Cernik. (2)
Of course Eva’s style has a huge Turkish influence.
On Shifrah's TV screen, this nightclub dancer is wearing a two-inch wide, gold hip belt with a profusion of semi-sheer strips hanging off it. Some of the strips have been tucked up into the belt to provide flounce. Others hang and sway. Her movements are so vigorous that the green-and-blue fronds constantly part to give us glimpses of her bare legs--miles of tanned skin, straight up to her shimmery gold panties.
That’s exactly how my first teacher dressed me, except the skirting was panels, not strips, and we were barefoot, not in three-inch gold heels.
When this dancer spins and does that famous Turkish drop--BOOM! Straight onto her knees--the strips fly out and there she is, facing the table of patrons straight-on. Her knees are spread wide apart. Her hips thrust up and then slam back down, crotch almost on the floor. The nearest man’s foot is only a few inches away. They’re all grinning and cheering her on, men and women alike, but it’s just like Shifrah said.
There is no lechery in their eyes. Neither is there degrading objectification. They’re all just playing with her and she’s playing with them like I used to do with my favorite restaurant patrons while playing “can’t catch me” with my hips a-fly to the drums as they tried to put a tip into my belt--something I had never been comfortable with, and eventually stopped doing except with a basket. (Which actually earned me bigger tips.)
These patrons don’t tip. They simply clap and hollar and smile and bounce along with the rhythm of the drums and the dancer’s driving hips.
She stands up and strides to another table. Her hips swivel and her hair swirls in a way that would, at our shows, get her lambasted as "a stripper who needs a pole," especially in such a skimpy costume. I think she's gorgeous.
But I could never let myself do that in a costume like the first one I ever wore--especially now that I'm not a nineteen-year-old, glassy-eyed ingenue, barely a step-and-a-half out the virgin door like I was back then. There's experience behind these hips and eyes now.
So I don't need to give the claw-swiping cats even more reason to spread malicious gossip about me. I've ridden that train too many times in my life to ever want to hop on it again.
I've also heard the awful rumors and criticisms that get thrown around about some of the rising-star dancers up north. It's all "pornstar lips" and "bump-n-grind hips." It's all "whore-hair" and "slutty writhing" and "I would never want them in my show." Exactly what happened to my first teacher, just more overt, instead of Minnesota Nice's innuendo and closed-mouth non-smiles. It's cruel and catty (and it's only made me curious about them).
But where I dance, I could never let myself move or dress like that.
Rather I should say that I could never move or dress like that if I want to be able to keep performing and teaching. I'm already banned throughout Colorado, thanks to all those lies another dancer told about me after I got hit by a drunk driver. “She’s faking it all. I’ve seen her medical files because I work at her chiropractor’s office…”
I could have sued her for slander--would have, if I hadn’t been up to my eyelashes in the criminal and civil lawsuits for the car wreck itself, plus battling to get my case out of a paltry traffic violation and filed as the Vehicular Assault it was. And...you know...just a small issue of trying to heal enough that I could ever dance again while learning to live with a permanent brain injury.
Some years ago, that smear campaign got me blacklisted from resuming my old spots at the restaurants as well as all the stage events from Colorado Springs northward, and it cost me most of my students. Now the only places I can perform are the shows I produce in Pueblo and teensy Florence, or in far-flung, rural towns like the one I'm visiting right now.
And you do NOT bare your legs and panties in these kinds of places!
Well, we outcast and hick belly dancers must be doing something right. We just sold out Pueblo's Runyon Theater and had them packed in there at standing room only in the balcony again. Before that, our benefit show for the fire victims was a huge success. So many people came up to us afterwards to say how they couldn’t believe what a tasteful show--an artistic show, a quality show--we put on. We get the same thing down here in the Four Corners and on the Western Slope.
But that would never happen if I allowed myself and my students to dress in gorgeous, skimpy costumes. If I didn’t actively remain conscious of every look in my eye. If I wasn't meticulous about the direction I’m faced during floorwork, pelvic drops, even bodywaves and hip circles. If I didn’t try to stifle the natural quivering of my breasts with every shoulder shimmy, and make sure to keep an innocuous, even demurely playful look on my face during rib circles and undulations.
All of that got pounded into me as well, particularly during my years of medieval reenactment in the SCA.
Every move in this dance style has to be so carefully curated to reduce the polarized onslaught of lechery and disgusted reactions. It has to be so tentatively executed while still putting everything I have into every move I do and pretending that I’m 100% in the moment, not in my head. After more than a decade, I mostly am. All that curation was honed during the years when I first learned the moves. Now it’s just part of my show-face and technique.
Lift the chest in a circle: avert the eyes.
Arc the hips forward in a bodywave: shift the foot forward-and-in to block the crotch, angle the hips to the corner.
Chest pop: tee-hee, I’m cute and innocent.
Chest up-down-up with a layered shoulder shimmy: I’m super-skilled and super-serious. I’m moving my chest and shoulders, NOT shaking my tits.
Shimmy and pop to every brrrrrr and tek of the drums: I am performing technical feats of biological wonder, NOT shaking my ass.
Swivel the hips in a gooey figure 8: I am sensual, soulful, serene, NOT sexy.
This Turkish dancer on the video breaks so many of those rules, yet nobody is looking at her like they're going to follow her to her car while harboring expectations or like she's doing something awful. To me, she's not. She's glorious, skilled and creative.
I really loved Eva Cernik’s Turkish workshop the other year. I obsessively watch Artemis’ VHS tape, from the sparkly, glamorous Oryantale numbers to her Romany pieces. It's actually my exuberant blathering about this style that inspired Shifrah to go on the trip with her.
So many of the dancers I’ve always gravitated toward--now I understand that it’s because they had a lot of Turkish influence in their dancing. Either that, or they were jazz-influenced technician queens. Those two dichotomous extremes are always what does it for me. Precision technique and unbridled passion.
Ever since I started belly dancing, there has always been so much flack hurled at the nightclub dancers in Turkey, but as I watch this woman on the video, I'm so fed up with that crappy prejudice. Her technique is outstanding. Jaw-dropping. Her smile is joyful and playful. So is her audience.
Honestly, it would never occur to me to say that everything she does is "all about sex." But yet, at the same time, yes it is. Because sex IS Life. Energy. For me it is both passion and prayer.
It wouldn’t matter. So many dancers I know wouldn’t be able to watch this amazing performer without calling her down as "slutty."
I find that as aggravating as I ever did, back when I put away my glitzy, and especially my skimpy cabaret costumes out of guilt that "showing so much skin was degrading to me and the Dance."
Because to me, there has never been anything wrong with being sexy, just like there has never been anything wrong with sexual acts outside the purpose of procreation and the sanctification of a religious sacrament. To me, being sexy or even sexual is just one in a myriad expressions of sensuality, and we all know how voracious I am about the Senses.
Unfortunately, if I want to keep dancing anywhere other than in my kitchen and living room, I have to keep that side of me on the down-low. Good thing I'm used to that from growing up in a place even more rural and conservative than a lot of the places where I perform.
My audiences and the people who hire me reinforce these restrictions in a myriad different ways. Most are polite about it, but not all. "I had no idea. What you do is so different from what I've seen in Egypt...in Turkey...at other belly dance shows...at that one restaurant. You're such a breath of fresh air--such a classy dancer. Not like...well...you know."
Not like THOOOOSE dancers.
Little do they know what they're looking at, because deep down, I am one. I am both, and I have never understood why sexy and classy have been pitted against each other into enemy camps. It aggravates me that my skin has been equated to sacrilege. That the parts of my body that a bikini--or my first skimpy belly dance costume--would cover have been degraded as sinful.
Every time someone tells me how much more they love my dancing because it's so tasteful, so moving, so artistic, so elegant--I mean, those descriptions are my intention, and I have an immense appreciation for it every time someone notices that beyond the sex appeal of my body.
But why do these two things have to be anathema to one another?
I can't help but wonder how different the reactions would be if I did the exact same dance with the exact same facial expressions and energy in a costume that showed what color panties I was wearing when I spun. I mean, that was certainly the case when I switched out my skimpy cabaret costumes for the concealing layers of my SCA coats.
In the converse, how would people react if I did a salacious, writhing dance in fluffy pants, a shapeless, long-sleeved gown pouffed up at the hips with a simple scarf, and a huge face-veil that shielded the view of my head and upper body except for my eyes?
Would the smolder in my gaze tell them what I was doing? If they couldn't see the curves and the skin, would they mistake that heat as focused intensity? Would they take my dance as a strange artistic piece? A Modern Dance fusion? Some ancient, sacred snake-rite? Or would they accurately discern that I was being intentionally sexy--even slutty under there where nobody could see it? Would they find that realization even more horrifying than if I'd worn the standard skimpy uniform for my sluttiness?
What precisely is it that people find so awful, distasteful, degrading, disgusting?
Watching these videos has put a burr on my hem. When I shift on my seat, it pokes me in the calf. Occasionally it bites me in the ass. I might be sitting here calmly over supper before the big picture window, gazing out at the mesas as their silhouettes are painted in sunset hues. After we're done eating, I might go practice my pieces for the show this weekend--pieces I will dance in my classy-pants with my huge, infectious, innocuous smile everybody loves so much. I love that smile, too, and I love my pants.
But I love everything they're covering up just as much.
They're covering up ME.
This quandary is on my mind now. It's under my skin. One of these days I'm going to have to peek under there and take a long, deep look at it, dance with this demon a bit more intimately. There's just one major problem that has nothing to do with rumor-mongers, blacklisting, or conservative crowds.
My brain injury obliterated my sex drive.
I miss my sex drive. Sex hasn't been a consistent part of my life since I was twenty-six and embarked on a year-and-a-day vow of celibacy and singledom to really figure out what I want from that aspect of life. Well, after about six months of cold turkey--no sex, no dating, no flirting even--it became a really nice habit that turned into severe pickiness, so it wound up being a year-and-a-half before I went on my first date.
Actually, you know what? No. The ever-increasing dearth of sex in my life has been more like since I was twenty-four when I got my repressed memories back from the rape and domestic violence I experienced in my first year of college. Finally dealing with those memories after a couple years of ostrich-head and "lalalala, I can't heeear you!" was a huge part of why I declared that vow of celibacy. Now that I really think about it, the awful night I got those memories back was the last time I was truly, gloriously comfortable with sex.
Well, that chakra cleanse, the Artist's Way, learning to meditate, and finally researching Tantra did all that trauma a world of good. It felt like the pipes got cleaned out.
Unfortunately, when I started dating Galen, it was only six wholesome Sunday afternoons, one glorious birthday date, and a knee-melting birthday kiss before being rammed by a drunk driver blasted all semblance of sensuality, allure, vibrance, and smolder from my being. So mustering up enough fire to actually get to the point of sexual?
It took four months before I could physically accomplish the most sedate and passive of sex acts because my spine couldn't take the contortion or the jarring. I have a vague memory of this little flicker of heat when Galen and I finally broke the seal. But it didn't take long before the issues started. The issues are all mine. Between brain damage, chronic pain, and old trauma, sex is just something I find meh-to-repulsive.
This loss is yet another thing I've been grieving since Winter Solstice 2000. I have no idea what to do about that, so I guess I'll drink tea, love my thigh-and-ass-enshrouding dancey-pants, and keep doing my fun, playful, joyful pieces. My serious, sword-slashy pieces. My tasteful, artistic, classy dances.
Not like I can risk flirting with the sexy line anyway. Not if I want to keep getting invited to perform and selling out theaters in conservative towns.
So I shove my sex-quandary onto the shelf between my first neatly folded, sequined panel-skirt with its black-and-gold panties, and my favorite Turkish song that "quality dancers" don't dance to.
As it turns out, my sex drive was not obliterated by my brain injury. Not one little bit. But in 2006, I didn't yet know that because I still wasn't consistently converting my days' doings into memory overnight. I also hadn't yet read my journals enough times to discover and then remember the incidents that had caused that shut-down. That wouldn't happen for a few more years.
Amidst a nerd-out conversation with a gorgeous man in a gladiator outfit, I would realize that my sexuality was just as active, just as pouncy and purry, just as deep and sensuous a pool down there in the base of me as it had ever been.
So once again, when I was home alone with the curtains closed, I started dancing the way I wanted to. And occasionally--okay, who are we kidding?--more than occasionally, it was all cardamom spice, sandalwood oil, and superheated honey.
CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE
--UP NEXT: BELLY DANCE IS *NOT* ABOUT SEX! - Why Can't You Be More Sexy?
--OR: PASSION *IS* PRAYER - Courtesans, Gorillas & the Roots of Eve-il
--OR: All my writing about the arts & influences that MADE MY DANCE STYLE
--OR: All my writing about SEX, LOVE & VIOLENCE
--THE NAVIGATION TABLE OF CONTENTS
2) Eva Cernik
3) Why some of us don't respond well to catcalling.