Or…how to be more welcoming and inclusive to dancers of all body types.
A lot of attention has been on the trans community recently. There was my own coming out to the belly dance community, the reveal of Caitlyn Jenner, the death of Holly Woodlawn, etc. For some, this sudden-seeming change can be confusing. I have gotten some questions about inclusiveness, and I have seen others starting to come out of the woodwork asking about inclusion for queer people in the belly dance world.
First, what, exactly, do I mean by queer and trans? It is out of the scope of this blog and this post to give you an entire run down on these terms, but I will sum up. These words are umbrella terms, and so have many meanings to many people. Queer is a term that is often used to describe the entire LGBTQ+ movement, but does still have some negative connotations to some people. Not all LGBTQ+ people will want to be called queer (though the “Q” in the alphabet soup does stand for “queer”), and that’s fine. It can refer to either a person’s sexual orientation (who they are attracted to sexually or romantically) or to their gender identity or expression (which are not always the same). Personally, I am genderqueer, which means that my gender is neither male nor female. Trans (sometimes written as trans*, though this is falling out of favor) is actually a chemical term meaning across (cis is the corresponding term for something that is on the same side, so cis gender people are those whose gender identity/expression corresponds to the body they were born into). In general, a trans person is someone whose anatomy doesn’t always match with the gender they are. Sex and gender are two different things. There are more than two sexes (look up intersex). Not all trans people are “trapped in the wrong body” and not all trans people will “transition.” Gender identity and expression are HIGHLY INDIVIDUAL, which is what makes this all so confusing for many people.
For the purposes of this article, I will mostly be talking about trans and genderqueer people.
So what does that mean for you, reader? It depends. If you are a student, it may mean that you will share studio space with a queer or trans dancer. If you are a professional performer, it may mean that you will share dressing room space, take classes with, and possibly tour with a queer or trans dancer. If you are a teacher, it may mean that you will be teaching a queer dancer. The needs of the queer dancer will depend on your relationship to them and how open (or out) they are about their identity.
How do we go about creating a more accommodating space for queer and trans dancers? I’ve outlined some tips below, though this will not be exhaustive. Again, every queer and trans person is different. Just as though you have to accommodate for dancers with bodies of different sizes and shapes, so you will have to accommodate us in your spaces. Some people won’t like it, and that’s unfortunate. But the tide is changing, and you can decide to stand against it or go with it.
This is the big one. Recently, Houston lost its Equal Rights Ordinance due to hate groups spreading misinformation (and downright lies) that the ordinance allows men to go into women’s bathrooms in order to assault women and girls. Of course, no one wants that (and assault in bathrooms was, still is, and always will be illegal). But trans women are not men, just as trans men are not women. It is not your job to police the bathrooms. Let me repeat that. It is not your job to police the bathrooms. If you find someone who “appears” to not belong in the bathroom, it’s not your business. They are merely using the bathroom that they feel most comfortable in. Believe me, they are there to pee and that’s it.
For studio owners, you will probably have to check your city or state’s laws regarding bathrooms. Some states or cities allow for “one-holers” (bathrooms that do not have stalls, but are self-contained bathrooms like the one you have at home) to be labeled as unisex. Obviously, this is probably the best option, since it alleviates the discomfort of gender non-conformists in forcing them to choose a bathroom (and risk being called out for using the “wrong” one). If you do have bathrooms with stalls, they usually must be labeled “Men” and “Women.” If that is the case, please be aware that the people who are in that bathroom might have different plumbing than you, but that doesn’t mean they don’t belong there or that they are there to stare at you (or assault you). They are there for the same reason you are.
Or you can defy state law like Etsy has…
I’m going to get a little judgmental here, and I’m only a little sorry about that. If you are a professional dancer (or are aiming to become one) you really should get used to having dressing rooms that are unisex. That’s show biz: small changing rooms, fast changes, no time to look at other peoples’ junk. Dancers are not there to ogle other people’s bodies. They are there to get changed and maybe warm up. I find it a little disturbing and outrageously unfair that so many of our male dance friends are forced into broom closets or bathrooms (which a female dancer would rightly pitch a fit over) to get changed because the women are not comfortable getting changed in front of them. I understand that to some degree…but if you are a professional, you should act like one. Changing rooms are rarely designated by sex, and it’s been that way since the beginning of theater. Get used to it. That said, most queer and trans dancers would probably feel more welcomed if we didn’t think we were going to be judged on our bodies or relegated to a bathroom stall to get changed. So some people might be more comfortable with a changing space where they can be alone. If you have space to offer a choice, that is probably ideal.
Of course, not all trans or queer people will want to be forced to change alone, but be allowed to change with everyone else. We should be willing to accommodate that. It is cruel to force someone to change alone, away from the camaraderie of the dressing room. How would you feel if you were asked to change somewhere else because of the way your body looked? We, as a dance family, should get used to the idea that people have different equipment. We claim to be a body positive movement, and we should act like it. People have different bodies. There is nothing wrong with that.
There are a few things that can be done to make queer and trans people more comfortable in class. First of all, use the name they give you, even if it’s different than the one on their credit card or ID. Dancers have no problem referring to each other by stage names, so it really shouldn’t be a stretch to refer to someone by the name they give you, even if it is not their birth name. Don’t give out their birth name (or their sex assigned at birth!) if you know it. That is horribly invasive and rude.
Generally speaking, it is best to refer to them by the pronouns that match their gender presentation. However, with some queer people it may be difficult to determine just by anatomy (and, to be honest, that’s a creepy way to determine someone’s gender anyway). Some trans people do not medically transition (take hormones or have surgery) and our dance wear usually leaves little to the imagination. If you are not sure if someone is a “he” or “she” (or a “they”), either politely give them your own pronouns and see if they are willing to give you theirs or discreetly ask. Most queer and trans people are okay with this, but there will be some people who will get offended that you have to ask. Be prepared and be polite.
Try to avoid “gendered language.” Instead of addressing a class as “Ladies!” try “Dancers!” instead. Not only is this more welcoming to our male students, but also to genderqueer and other gender non-conforming dancers who may feel left out or offended at being called a lady.
Also avoid saying things like “Women’s bodies are built this way.” Actually, this is an untrue statement even completely ignoring the erasure of male and gender nonconforming dancers. Not all AFAB (assigned female at birth) women’s bodies are built the same. I have fallen afoul of this way of speaking myself, and it just isn’t true. So don’t erase your AMAB (assigned male at birth) female dancers by saying something like this.
These all seem like small changes, but you would be surprised at the push back I have seen for being more accommodating of queer and trans dancers. I have heard dancers flatly state that men do not belong in belly dance, and that trans women are men and don’t belong. This is horribly near-sighted and offensive. If we want belly dance to be the body positive community we claim it to be, then we really need to walk the walk. If we want belly dance to succeed as a dance form, to be accepted by the mainstream as an art form, we should be looking forward not clinging to “traditional” forms of thinking. These days, many young people are throwing off out-dated ideas of gender and are choosing not to identify as male or female. I have seen many belly dancers lament that no young people are coming to their classes, that belly dance is aging and dying out. If you want to attract young people, you are going to have to be willing to move with the times, and that means being accepting of queer and trans people.
If you have any thoughts or questions, or suggestions, please comment below. But know that I have a comment policy. If you disagree and want a discussion, that’s fine. But if you hurl obscenities and insults your comment will be deleted and not acknowledged.
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!