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.
The 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.
This 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.