April 17th, 2006

Brad @ Burning Man

I Am SO Done with the "Feminist" Belly Dancing Fad

Friday evening I spent a couple of hours at this year's St. Louis Venus Envy, the annual multi-city women-only art show. The venue was even convenient for me, being right on top of a MetroLink stop; it took up most of the 3rd and 4th floors of the disastrously poorly designed and all-but vacant St. Louis Center mall. Well, convenient to get to and from, anyway; getting to art venues on the 4th floor of a mall with only one tiny elevator that does not itself serve all floors, when all but one of the escalators was out of order, was less fun than it might have been. And my god, is a dead multi-story mall a soul-less venue for art. By comparison, the long-abandoned and fallen to ruin Lemp Brewery factory complex where it was years ago was less depressing. Dead malls age worse than dead factories do, in my opinion.

I saw a lot of amazing art. I wish I'd taken notes; many of the cooler pieces I saw weren't in the catalog, so I can't give you the artists' names and the titles. There was a huge display of beautiful hand-blown glass sculpture that was especially striking, and some beautiful uses of digital photography. Not a lot of multimedia stuff, which suits me well enough; I've liked some of what I've seen done in that venue, but it veers towards the boring and pretentious in most people's hands. I was also surprised, I guess slightly pleasantly, at how apolitical or at least un-strident it was. I'm absolutely okay with overtly feminist art, but in past years you could count on at least a couple of artists' work being displayed that was on the far side of strident and well into murderously hostile. If anything, this year they tilted perhaps too far back away from that; what most of the artists were concentrating on was the shared experience of being a woman and of girlhood and femininity.

But the real disappointment for me, the thing that very nearly ruined the show for me, was the performance parts of the show, which were overtly embarrassing. I lost count, so these are best recollections, but I think they had at least five stages going at all times. And at any given time, at least two of those stages and more often three or more of them, were showing the same thing: amateur "belly dance." I put it in quotes for a reason. For one thing, no more than two of the dozen or so troupes seemed to know more than two or three moves between them. For another, all but two of them were performing to hip-hop, not traditional north African or southwest Asian belly dance music. The bulk of the dance moves were straight out of BET videos, too, as were the girls themselves. News flash, children: When Pink sang, "What happened to the dream of a woman President? She's dancing in the video next to Fiddy Cent," that wasn't a compliment. And for that matter, when Sir Mix-a-Lot mocked those kinds of background dancers as "knock-kneed bimbos dancing like ho's," that wasn't a compliment either. The catalog also let the cat out of the bag about one of the other performance venues. Every ten minutes a group called Defying Gravity was performing a "feminist" pole dancing "acrobatic" routine. Critics loved it. Critics left out what was actually said in the catalog, on the off-chance you couldn't figure it out on your own: Defying Gravity is a group of east-side strippers. And, of course, for all that Venus Envy is routinely billed as a feminist event, the stripper and hip-hop background dancer troupes had easily three or four times the crowds that the actual artists had, and held their crowds rapt for easily twenty or thirty times as long as any of the artists were able to. The few friends I saw down there kept wanting to wander over to and ogle the dancers; I kept having to wander away within minutes of the beginning of each performance lest I say something really snarky.

Lest you misunderstand where I'm coming from, I used to work in a strip club myself. I'm enthusiastically on the side of professional erotic dancers. But when nearly all of the performances at a feminist art show are by and of strippers and wanna-be hip-hop video background dancers, I've got a problem with it. And when the local feminist community and the local arts community can't or won't more than a couple of women's music and/or dance and/or poetry and/or theater performances, but chooses to instead fill up five or more stages full of hip-hop background dancers and strippers, that's not what I went there to see. And when that many untalented hacks flood in thinking they can do it as well as the trained professionals and semi-pros like Aalim Dance Studio (and no, my criticisms do not extend to them, I have tremendous respect for them and their art) and think that that's the only form of women's performance art that they're interested in learning or performing, it tells me two things. First of all, it tells me that we've somehow missed out on teaching these girls that there's more to life than trying to get men to ogle you. And two, it tells me that the field of self-proclaimed talented artistic belly dancers is so saturated that the fad has peaked, and will (by the grace of the god) be over soon, and not soon enough for me.

(Unrelated post-script: the last 3 panels of today's Home on the Strange pinched me in an uncomfortable place. Ouch.)
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