Bellydancers and the Chair: The Four-Legged Elephant in the Room

If you’re a bellydancer who has done even a handful of professional performances, chances are you’ve encountered, “the chair.” This four-legged elephant in the room can be the embodiment of an antiquated stereotype. When a male guest of honor is seated directly in front of a female dancer while she performs, it can feel a little “harem girl/seduce the sultan/oriental fantasy-ish,” with shades of lap dance. Personally, I don’t have a problem with empowered women making their living from erotic dance, but I do think we need be to be careful not to blur those lines. A dance rooted in culture that’s a physical expression of celebration has a very different intention. Early in my career, when I danced in front of “the chair,” I saw lots of confused faces when I didn’t dance lasciviously for the  seated male. Fortunately, I’ve gotten better about changing the expectation by having more thorough pre-gig conversations (where I specifically request no chair in the middle of the room) and a bit of on the spot strategy for those times when an audience member decides it needs to be there.

downloadThe vast majority of the time, people are well meaning and have no intention of offending a performer.  In fact, sometimes it’s the women who get the chair out for the guy. But, I find it interesting that the chair never comes out when the guest of honor is a woman (at least, not in my experience). Perhaps there is some inherent understanding that women celebrating birthdays don’t need to be in the “personal space” of the dancer. The dancer’s role is to bring joy to a party and create a memorable experience; not to titillate. The dancer is there to get people up to dance after a certain amount of time showcasing her skill; not to embarrass anyone.

Sometimes the chair comes out and I don’t feel it’s the right thing to stop my show and educate people on why I don’t like it, so I make the best of it. I introduce humor. I’ll put the sheath of my sword on the guest of honor’s head or engage in something that will give the audience a chuckle. I can count on one hand how many times I have been blatantly objectified (it rarely happens), but when it does, there is a chair involved.

EmptyChairThis is what I say to clients when they decide to go forward with hiring me for a show; namely for a birthday party when the guest of honor is male:

“Now that we’ve discussed all of the performance details I just want to mention one other thing. Sometimes a well-meaning audience member gets a chair for the ‘birthday boy’ to sit on and places it in front of me. This actually makes me a bit uncomfortable. I’ve worked hard to represent this dance in the most professional way and that’s just something people associate with lap dances.”

In 100% of cases where I’ve brought this up, the person hiring me thanks me for bringing it up and appreciates the request. That being said, sometimes, we’ve got to roll with the punches and listen to our own “spidey sense.” If the people are down to earth and I feel respected, I may let it slide. If there is any doubt in my mind or I’m being looked at in a way that doesn’t jive with my intentions, I’ll ignore that chair and look for a child to dance with. . . or a spunky grandparent.

My advice is to follow your instincts. Don’t perform in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable. If you enjoy dancing for the chair, hey, great. I’m not here to impose my opinion on anyone. But we should all understand that in the age of event photos going on Snapchat, YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, FB and any other social media du jour, consider what messages a performance sends to people who don’t have the context of seeing your entire show.

We shouldn’t vilify women who dance for the purpose of arousal, but if that’s not what we are doing, we have to make sure the public knows that.

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Considering Bellydance for Your Holiday Party Entertainment? Read This.

Disclaimer: I cannot vouch for every bellydancer who promotes him/herself as a professional but, by and large, this is what you can expect if you’re looking to book a dancer for your holiday party.

Rashmi_Masquerade_Ball (604) In the NY Metropolitan area, we’re in the midst of a heatwave and summer humidity has a relentless grip on those of us who must venture outdoors. It doesn’t seem to be the right time to talk about winter months, and yet, holiday party bookings are starting to come in. Most savvy planners are well in the throws of booking venues and Rashmi_Masquerade_Ball (1179)entertainment for their holiday parties so I thought I would share some of the most common questions I receive.

  1. There really is no such thing as booking too early. I’ve been booked up to 18 months in advance for some weddings. The benefit of booking early is that it allows time for the performer and host/event planner to establish rapport and cover every preference in detail. For people have a vision, say, a Moroccan-themed party or a cultural event, the dancers will bring this theme to life. By making inquiries early, you can be as selective as you like. Take time to watch the dancer’s video clips or have conversation with some of your preferred dancers to get a sense of their professionalism.
  2. Is it Family-Friendly? 100% yes. In some cases, clients prefer to have dancers were a “belly drape” to cover the abdomen. The costumes we wear are designed to accentuate the movements of bellydance. Children, in particular, are usually the first to get up and dance. The performances are joyful, elegant and interactive (unless requested to be more of a staged show). We have all worked hard to dispel lingering stereotypes that portray our art in an overly seductive manner.Rashmi_Masquerade_Ball (1197)
  3. What does a typical performance involve? Generally speaking, performances are customized to fit neatly into a variety of circumstances. However, most sets are 25-30 minutes and include an entrance, a balance prop (sometimes a tray of candles or sword), a dynamic drum solo and songs for audience participation which is gently encouraged, but never forced. Performances can be solo, duet or groups. For larger venues, multiple dancers is the best option to ensure that all guests can see a performer at all times. It instantly elevates the experience to watch group performances.
  4. What is the fee for a performance? This varies, depending on location and specifics. A general rule of thumb is to expect to pay $250-$300 per dancer for holiday parties. If a show requires rehearsal time, travel, etc… the rate may go up. Our fee is based on 90 minutes of prep, time spent crafting a culturally appropriate playlist and planning the show, travel to and from venue, time spent posing for photos, to off-set wear & tear on expensive costuming, insurance costs and all correspondence leading to the event. Some dancers may charge less but in NY/CT this is a fairly standard rate. This is the part of an event that will shape people’s experience and leave a lasting impression.
  5. How will the audience react to seeing bellydancers? This is a common question I receive from people who are new to working with dancers. It is not possible to say with 100% accuracy but, in the years I’ve been performing, most audiences tend to clap, smile and say very kind things. Even if an audience is on the reserved side, they warm up quickly.

This is a celebratory art form that has lasted thousands of years. It is infectious joy. Holiday parties and events are a perfect pairing for this beautiful dance. If you have questions, would like to book Infinity Bellydance a duet, or a solo performance with Tava, please visit http://bellydancebytava.com/contact/ to make an inquiry.

The holidays will be here before we know it. In the meantime, let’s make the best of the summer temps!

Infinity Bellydance is Mariyah, Sira, Layla Isis and Tava. They have performed as soloists and in troupes for over 15 years, for stage, movies and television in New York and abroad. Driven by the passion to present bellydance as an art that is elevated, exceptional, and authentic, they have collaborated in countless theatrical productions, instructional and performance DVDs and taught workshops around the world. They perform regularly in a wide variety of settings as entertainers, cultural ambassadors, and artistic educators.

Bellydance for Weddings

The elegant artistry of bellydance and wedding receptions are paired together for very good reasons.  Every bride and groom want their guests to experience the best food, beautiful atmosphere and high-end entertainment to create a lasting memory of their day.  I look at posts from my dance colleagues and through my own albums and I see pure joy on the faces of the guests.  From the sweet little kids who get up to dance with us to the elderly grandfather who gets roaring enthusiasm for having a surprisingly awesome shimmy, the list goes on and on.

Couples will often ask what is the best time during the wedding reception to have the bellydancer perform.  Of course the answer varies, but more often than not, I start my show just as dinner is winding down and the dance portion is about to be revved up.  Bellydancers, like all performers, are skilled at transforming the energy in a room.  This means that if the atmosphere is elegant dining with the band playing Sinatra and standards, it is our job to bring it to the next level and have people on their feet clapping and excited.  People have already had a few drinks so their mood is more conducive to having the party experience.  I’ve tried to identify the various options below to make the decisions easier for couples and wedding planners:

1. Cocktail Hour:

We are sometimes asked to reinforce a wedding “theme” by supplying the ambiance to kick off the wedding reception.  This is, in most cases, less of a full on show and more of a bellydance greeting for guests as they arrive.

Bellydance by Tava performs at a beautiful wedding in CT

2. Enter the Bride and Groom:

Not necessarily a formal Zeffa (Arabic wedding procession often led by a bellydancer) but a way of ushering the newly married couple into the reception.  This style of performance is a way to showcase the bride and groom; building excitement for their first appearance as husband and wife.

3. After dinner dance:

This is what I referred to above where the bellydancer creates the transition from dining to “party time.”  It is usually a show style performance with respectful attention paid to the bride and groom, followed by engaging key members of the wedding party and any extroverted guests who are willing.

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Tava engaging the groom in the balancing portion of her show

3. Let there be cake:

The party is already in full swing and out comes the bellydancer to really amplify the fun.  Immediately following or show, or (in some cases) as part of the show, the cake is presented. I have been asked to be involved in how the cake is presented which can be a lot of fun.

Tava presenting special groom's cake

Cake time!

Important note: My dancer friends and I have learned (the hard way), that in spite of our intentions it is not everyone’s cup of tea.  There are religious and cultural preferences that are important to consider and an experienced dancer will know what questions to ask to try and avoid offending people.  No matter how conservative a costume, the very nature of bellydance can cause some groups to literally turn their backs to the dancer or leave the venue until she is finished.  Thankfully, this is rarely the case but please take a “group pulse” when deciding to hire a bellydancer for your wedding.

I think I speak for all of my professional bellydancer colleagues when I say that we are honored to be a part of a day that a couple will never forget.  This is not something to take lightly.  We want to create the best experience possible to add sophistication, elegance and joy to an already happy occasion.  If you would like to hire a bellydancer for your wedding, please be mindful that performances generally start at $300 in the NY, CT and NJ area.  We give several hours of our time to prepare, practice, account for cultural considerations, etc. and while there may be dancers who are willing to perform for less than the established rate, this may not be the best area to search for a discount.  Respectfully, I ask all couples and event planners to honor the established rates of performers and not to reward the under-cutters in any industry.

To hire Tava to perform at your wedding, please feel free to contact her via her website.  Performances generally in CT, NY and NJ but she will occasionally travel beyond that area.