The Burly-Belly Dilemma

OhMaya performs sometimes in shows hosted by burlesque groups. I love burlesque, even though it's not my discipline of choice. I love the girls who do it locally, I love the aesthetic, I love the art, and I fully support the idea that it can be very empowering. And the way it's taught here in Newfoundland absolutely embodies everything I love about it. So OhMaya (and sometimes just me) performs in local burlesque shows.

I 100% respect any performer's decision to perform with, or not to perform with, whomever they choose. There are tons of reasons why a belly dancer might not wish to perform with burlesque dancers, and vice versa. All valid. But I also think it's ok to feel like the two can be presented in one show without destroying social progress. I don't feel that burden when I perform.

I know that belly dance is not burlesque. I also know that a lot of people don't know that. But whenever I try to work through the logical conclusion of that argument in my head I feel like I'm breaking a cardinal performer's rule-- don't underestimate your audience. They might not know that belly dancing and burlesque are different, but why can't they learn? Who are these intellectual rejects who I need to condescend to and why am I performing for huge crowds of them and no one else?
  • No audience member has ever communicated the belief to me, through words or actions, before or after a performance, that I am a burlesque dancer, or anything other than a belly dancer. I have only been exposed to that level of ignorance in every day life, and not as often as you'd think.
  • No one has ever yelled anything inappropriate at me while I have been onstage at a burlesque show (e.g. "take your clothes off", "hey sexy" or even the relatively harmless "shake it!")
  • The audience at a typical St. John's, Newfoundland burlesque show is about two thirds to three quarters female, and they tend to be the type of women who will also love belly dancing once they've been exposed to it.
  • I have always been properly announced as a guest belly dancer and never with any "inappropriate" adjectives (e.g. "hot", "sexy", etc.).
Burlesque and belly dancing might sound sort of similar to a non-dancer in theory (bared midriffs, hip cirlces, chest circles, frequently a higher degree of audience interaction than in other dance forms) but seeing both onstage one after the other can really show the differences. The truth is they're both about using the female body to create art, but the motivation and the aesthetic is completely different.

One of the most repeated arguments that burlesque and belly dance should not be presented in the same show is idea that it makes it harder for dancers in Middle Eastern countries to be recognized and legitimized. I absolutely support women's rights all over the world but also feel that chaos theory or no, no burlesque and/or belly dance show in Newfoundland is going to change the Middle Eastern gender perspective. I don't believe that North American acceptance of belly dance as legitimate will be/has been immediately followed by Middle Eastern acceptance.

For that matter I feel that burlesque is a legitimate art and have no desire to throw it under a bus to reach a real or perceived degree of mainstream acceptance at its expense.
I always be willing to lend a shimmy to burlesque shows, and I'll always be more than happy to invite them to mine. :)


  1. You go Heather-Sara! That's the best way I've heard that argument put together. You have such a nice way with words.

    I do believe, however, that for a bellydancer to perform a burlesque piece in bellydance attire (or vice versa), it is somewhat pushing the limits. While I can appreciate the fantasy of a bellydancing burlesquer, I think it sends a wrong message, of both beautiful art forms, and THIS is where the confusion may come from.

  2. I think that's a totally reasonable limit, and a sensible place to draw the line. It's so blurry that I find it hard to draw it anywhere, if that makes any sense. I struggle with stuff like this a lot, because I love all art. :)

    Now you made a bra like mine and I made a blog like yours! We're matching bra blogging belly dancing buddies. Alliterative!

  3. Your argument has a lot of merit, Heather-Sarah.

    However, it's not about insulting the intelligence of the "audience" at the show. It's about the larger public perception. People who are not enlightened enough to come to such a show see bellydance and burlesque advertised together in the same show and they make that connection without actually seeing the difference. None of our troupe have had inappropriate comments at shows either, but we've had people ask if bellydance is like "stripping" or if we teach pole dancing classes, a common experience among the bellydance community. This is the perception that is problematic.

    And, while the more extreme version of gender issues may be evident in Middle Eastern culture, they exist in existence in North American culture too - more subtle perhaps, but still existent.

    I don't think bellydancers want to obliterate burlesque just because they don't feel it's appropriate to dance at burlesque shows. Both are legitimate dance forms. But for many, it's making the lines between the two far too blurry. The decision has to be a personal choice, and that choice, whichever way you go, should be respected.

  4. I think your opinion is completely valid, Lori.

    There are certainly a lot of fine lines here, without a doubt. I feel like the belly dance community in the West tends to be on one side about this issue, and being on the other, I wanted to express why.

    As far as drawing lines goes, seeing burlesque and belly dance advertised together could theoretically be confusing, but I don't feel any more so than seeing an advertisement for bedroom belly dance classes. Both could contribute to a person linking sex and belly dance in their minds, or reinforcing the belief that the two are already connected, although that's not necessarily the intention in either instance. I think both are great additions to the local belly dance community and I'd absolutely hate to see either type of event downplayed because some people misunderstand it.

    In any case, I absolutely agree that a performer's choices should be respected, which is why I made it so clear at the outset of my entry. I would never expect my opinion on this issue to fall into the majority and I really appreciate you taking the time to leave your thoughts here!

  5. It's my opinion that there's a very big difference between offering a workshop that encourages women to explore the sensual side of bellydance in a private performance for a loved one, which is how our workshops are promoted and conducted, and performing bellydance in a burlesque show. However, there's obviously plenty of room for debate on this issue, so I guess we'll agree to disagree.

  6. I definitely think both are totally different in execution, but the advertising could lead a person to a similar conclusion. The assumption that your argument against burlesque and belly dancing presented together was predicated on a person only seeing the advertising because they wouldn't attend the show. I do absolutely agree that there is room for a variety of opinions and I am perfectly happy to respectfully agree to disagree.

    Again, I'm glad you took the time to read and comment :)

  7. I've been wanting to post a response to this for at least a week now(mostly in response to the comments) but I still can not find the words I need to say to get my point across with out getting angry, upset or in the very least extremely long winded. So for now I'd like to thank Heather for her very open minded post and for opening up the discussion.

    I've posted a link to a blog written by a respected bellydancer and even though it does not encompass everything I'd like to say I thought it might be more openly received by her then me.

  8. :) Thank You Helen. That made me smile!

  9. I really, really appreciate you reading, Helen. And I'm happy you took the time to give us some of your thoughts. I think sometimes when belly dancers are up in their ivory towers talking about issues it's easy to forget that burlesque dancers are artists with opinions too.

    So thank you.

  10. Hey Heather!

    I wanted to liken this to poets and novelists, both artists in the habit of manipulating words, sometimes in such a way that the line gets blurred. Have you ever read a book that moves along so beautifully it feels like poetry, or a poem so static and choppy it feels like conversations from some short play? I think when we are truly artistic we find ourselves more and more in the blurred category. More and more able to choose aspects of something we like and add to it something we love! I love bellydance and since I have not found an available amount of hours to devote to burlesque will rate my feeling towards it as like for now...this may change as soon as I finish the first workshop, LOL! But if I blur the two and my costume looks a little burlesquey, or my music is a cutsey reminder of my ultra feminine side, or I decide to drape myself in veils only to flirtaciously take them off to reveal my costume, that's when true art happens! If we constantly attach a static view of what something is supposed to be to anything; be it that poetry should always rhyme, bellydance should never enthrall audiences by using costumes or moves reserved to a strict idea of burlesque,vice versa, or even with ourselves, if we attach an idea of who we are and never allow it to change; we are stifled. Vibrancy comes from blurring lines, from putting your hands in the paint and moving them around to create a masterpiece. If we stand with one color paint on our hands at all times, we create the same image each time we slap them unto the canvas. What gallery wants a room full of blue handprints on white canvas?


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