Due to a recent blog post asking the question, “What is the proper etiquette for a belly dancer at dinner?”, I have written this post with the purpose of educating the general public on what to do if a belly dancer does appear at your restaurant at dinner (and a little bit about belly dance history and belly dance itself). This is an excellent question, and one that, as a professional belly dancer who has danced in restaurants, I am qualified to answer. What do you do when a belly dancer comes to dinner?
Don’t worry about the length, there’s a summary at the bottom for retention and for the TL;DR folk.
What is Belly Dance and Why Is She Coming to My Table?
Belly dance is a beautiful art form from the Middle East. Its exact origins are vague and beyond the scope of this post, but know that Egyptian, Lebanese, Turkish, and Greek dancers have been dancing a very long time. Belly dance was filmed at the World’s Fair way back in 1893, by Edison himself. It has changed a lot since then, with sparkly costumes, ballet movements, and some amount of standardization in techniques added to the more folk-style dancing seen in those films.
Middle Eastern restaurants like to hire belly dancers as part of the atmosphere of their establishments, and many famous dancers can draw large crowds of educated consumers to come and enjoy good food, good culture, and good dancing. Dancers may perform for the audience in general, if there is open space enough or a stage available, or will approach individual tables so that customers can admire the exquisitely decorated costume (usually from Egypt or Turkey) and the lovely movements up close. Some of these movements may be too subtle to be seen from a distant stage.
Belly dance is a part of Middle Eastern culture, and many dancers spend many years studying the movements, music, and culture in order to give you as an authentic performance as possible. Many dancers have B.A. degrees (or higher!) in dance or some aspect of Middle Eastern culture and language. Others may be movement specialists, with degrees in kinesiology or certifications in personal training, massage therapy, yoga, and/or Pilates. Some dancers may just enjoy experiencing a culture different from their own, and have other degrees or interests (shameless plug, I have a B.S. in microbiology and do cancer research, and I have obtained a certification in massage therapy).
Why is the Costume so…Sexy?
Belly dance, while it is somewhat misnamed because dancers use much more than their bellies, actually does use the belly! How else would you be able to see the fine muscle control that the dancer has developed over years of practice and study? Belly dance is not specifically meant to titillate, as with other performances such as burlesque, but the movements are beautiful and sensuous. There is nothing wrong, dirty, or scary about a woman’s body.
Americans tend to be nervous about women’s bodies because women are taught to hate their bodies unless they are perfect (which they never can be, because even the models have cellulite, blemishes, and rolls that are airbrushed and Photoshopped away). Belly dance is a beautiful art form that celebrates women’s bodies in a way that is powerful and empowering for women. The costume is part of that, though it is also part of the long history of belly dance (again, beyond the scope of this post).
But I’m Embarrassed to Watch!
That’s okay! Again, Americans are trained to find women’s bodies embarrassing or repulsive unless they are Photoshopped into “perfection,” and this is merely a symptom. What’s the cure? Try belly dance yourself!
But that doesn’t help the embarrassed patron of a Middle Eastern restaurant! Not to worry; if you are too embarrassed to watch, the dancer will not take it personally. Merely ignore the dancer as you would a waiter that is not your own, and likely she will get the message and not dance at your table, and more importantly, not be offended. If you are open minded enough to want to watch the dancer, smile, watch the movements she is doing, clap for her, and then go back to enjoying your food. If you find that you enjoyed watching the amazing things the dancer can do with her muscles, many dancers accept tips, so consider tipping the dancer for her hard work in entertaining you that evening. (Tipping etiquette is complex, so please see the following link here for more information; if in doubt, watch the other patrons. It’s all part of experiencing a different culture!)
If you find it too embarrassing to even have the dancer in the same room with you, don’t go to the restaurant when the dancer is present. Typically, restaurants will have general performance times posted quite visibly, and if it’s Friday or Saturday night, it is very likely a dancer will be present at a Middle Eastern restaurant. Most restaurants want the largest crowd possible for the dancer, so weekends during the peak hours will be when she performs. If it’s a slow night, the dancer may go on later, when there is a larger crowd, though this will depend on the restaurant, the management, and the dancer.
Isn’t Belly Dance the Same as Stripping?
No, it is not. The performer will never remove her costume. Costumes are expensive (anywhere from $200 to well over $1500, depending on designer, country of origin, and complexity; costumes are hand-beaded) and easily damaged; a dancer would not want to risk losing or damaging a costume that expensive by dropping it on the floor or leaving it somewhere in the restaurant.
While there is nothing wrong with stripping, belly dancing is not the same thing, and dancers risk confusion, anger, embarrassment, and bodily injury when the two are mistakenly interchanged. Uneducated restaurant customers may try to manhandle the dancer (the risk is more than it’s worth–you can be thrown out of the restaurant or, worse, touch a sweaty dancer), or a dancer may be hired with the expectation to remove her costume at a private party. This can be awkward, and possibly dangerous (due to an irate patron), to the dancer. Ballet dancers would never be asked to remove their costumes, and the same should be true for belly dance. It is not part of the dance. Let’s all try to educate ourselves so that cultural misunderstandings do not happen.
So What Do I Do?
Enjoy the performance! Your dancer is there to entertain you, to make the wait for your food more enjoyable, and to provide atmosphere for your Middle Eastern dining experience. You can ignore her or watch her as you please, as you would any performer at any other restaurant, whether it be a jazz singer, a band, or a dinner theater performance. Clap for her when she is done, tip her if you thought she was good (tip her well if you thought she was great!), and bask in the knowledge that you experienced something outside of your own culture.
If you want even more culturally relevant information on being a good audience member for belly dance, go here. Shira is a treasure-trove of belly dancing knowledge!
- Belly dance is a culturally appropriate entertainment for Middle Eastern restaurants.
- Dancers train for years in order to perform authentically and often have advanced degrees in Middle Eastern studies.
- Dancers will approach your table in order for you to admire her costume and see her movements, some of which are impossible to see from a stage, up close.
- If you are uncomfortable watching the dancer, she will not be offended if you merely ignore her.
- It is perfectly okay, and desirable, for audience members to watch the intricate movements of a dancer.
- Tipping the dancer is a complex process, but often appropriate and desirable. Watch other audience members or go here for more information.
- Belly dance is not stripping and is not meant to titillate. It is a cultural art form performed in the Middle East (and elsewhere) that takes years of study to perform.
- Education is better than ignorance.
- Being culturally sensitive is also desirable.
I hope this blog has helped to answer the question of what to do when a belly dancer comes to dinner. Please feel free to comment below, though I will say this: let’s all be adults and learn something from one another!