Belly Dance

Burlesque and Belly Dance: Differences and Similarities

Brazilian burlesque

As a dance lover, even though raqs sharqi is my favourite form of expression, I always try to train in different dance genres, as I think that any of them can add to my repertoire and enrich my experience. One of the dance forms that I have been learning recently is burlesque. Also, I have come across quite a few belly dancers who practise burlesque as well. In this article I will try to highlight what these two dance forms share, what the differences are, what connections there were in history (if any) and what benefits belly dancers can have from practising burlesque and vice versa.

Before I go any further though, I need to stress that these are two completely distinct dance forms with completely different geographical and cultural origins, completely different costumes and music and different ideas to convey. Also, there is no removal of clothing whatsoever involved in belly dancing. In burlesque it is the norm, but it is not compulsory either; one could just remove gloves and a boa, for example, and still be in the spirit of burlesque if it is done in a teasing and/or cheeky way.

Of course, although belly dance and burlesque are two clearly distinct genres, it is always possible to create fusion and there are a lot of examples of fusion performances. This is fine as creativity and innovation is a good thing, as long as it is stated clearly that was is being presented is neither pure burlesque nor pure raqs sharqi but fusion, something different inspired by both.

What these two dance forms have in common though, at least in the way they are practised nowadays, is the fact that they make women feel more self confident and more at ease with their bodies (whether they end up performing either genre or not). This is what I have noticed in every belly dance and burlesque dance class I have attended. This must be because, for whatever reason, these two genres both promote a healthy body image, rather than an impossibly slim ideal of the female figure. (By talking about the benefits for women of belly dance and burlesque, I do not mean to be sexist and not to acknowledge that some men perform these dance genres; it is just that benefits for men may be different.)

Brief history of burlesque

From theatre and parody to community dance and empowering women – Burlesque has a long tradition with its roots in the history of western theatre in comedy. Originally, it was a way of making fun of something, a parody. Modern burlesque originated in Britain, in the 1800s in theatres as a way for the working classes of making fun of the upper classes. At that stage it did not involve women taking their clothes off. When it was imported into the United States, in the late 1800s, it became part of cabaret shows where humour was always important, but scantily clad women became more and more popular, until burlesque eventually came to be identified with women taking their clothes off. However, this has always been done with wit and sense of humour. Burlesque was popular until about the 1940s and then it went out of fashion for a while.

Since the 1990s burlesque has gradually started becoming popular again, thanks to performers such as Dita Von Teese, and nowadays it is practised in the community by women of all ages. Women around the world now practise burlesque as a way of feeling empowered and confident in their own bodies, in a supportive environment developing a sort of camaraderie with other women. Burlesque is taught in classes and sometimes ladies who learn it perform as well, but always in a very friendly and supportive environment where the audience is mostly made up by other women who are involved in the burlesque and dance community.

Still to these days, burlesque involves a certain amount of humour and the performers, although they feel sexy and liberated, never take themselves too seriously. Also, particularly in the UK, telling a story is an important part of a burlesque performance. Undressing must be contextually relevant, as Viva Misadventure (teacher, choreographer and performer in the UK) likes to stress in her classes. She also often says: “Burlesque is telling a story through the means of taking your clothes off”.

Group photo

When the two dance forms crossed

It all started in 1893 at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, USA. World expositions started being held in the second half of the 1800s with the first two taking place in London and then Paris. These were opportunities to show everything that was new from a technological point of view, as well as all that was exotic from different countries around the world. In 1893 in the Chicago’s Exposition there was a dancer called Little Egypt who performed Middle Eastern dance (there are various theories on what her real identity was, but none can be proven beyond doubt) and she was quite a sensation. Some people loved this exotic dance form, others hated it (as they could not understand the movement vocabulary of a dance that came from a different culture and considered it vulgar), others were intrigued and started imitating some of the moves.

Among those who imitated Little Egypt’s dance movements, especially of the hips, were vaudeville performers and burlesque acts. Also, a type of dance started, called hoochie coochie that was an imitation of belly dance but often portrayed as authentic belly dance. This was the start of a long history of misconceptions around belly dancing, being confused with stripping and with sexual innuendos. Therefore, many belly dancers now want to distance Middle Eastern dance from burlesque and any sort of cabaret dance and rightly so because it has been and still is so hard for some people to take raqs sharqi seriously, due to the original racism and cultural misunderstandings that originated in the 1800s. Anyway, that is history and the fact remains that burlesque has incorporated many belly dance movements into its dance vocabulary and that, at least in western countries, some people practise both dance forms and do not see any contradictions in this.

Shared movements with burlesque

There are a few movements that raqs sharqi and burlesque share in their vocabulary, although they are done differently. Below I have listed the main ones.

  • Shimmies: both shoulder and hip shimmies are used in burlesque. Shoulder shimmies are especially useful for twirling tassels in burlesque, whereas in belly dance there is no tassel twirling and bras are never removed. As for hip shimmies, they are pretty much the same but in burlesque they are not necessarily isolated like in belly dance.
  • Hip circles, figures of eight and hip accents: in burlesque they are less isolated than they are in belly dance. In burlesque movements can be bigger and ‘wilder’. Foo Foo La Belle (a performer, teacher and choreographer based in Cardiff, UK) when she explains to students who have also done belly dance how hip figures of 8 are done in burlesque, she defines them as ‘bad belly dance’. This is not to make a negative judgement of burlesque movements but just to make students understand the concept better, as in belly dance dancers always learn that they have to isolate every movement, especially when they are first learning. In burlesque, movements can be bigger and bolder if needed.
  • Props: one example of belly dance prop that I have seen recently in burlesque performances are the Isis wings, while I have also seen belly dancers using feather fans, which are usually a burlesque prop.  See below a video, where Jiva performs a tribal belly dance fusion routine with feather fans:

Things that you can learn from burlesque

As a belly dance practitioner, what I have taken out of burlesque is the attitude. Burlesque always has a sense of humour and a cheeky attitude, even when it is sexy. Also, in burlesque the acting part is very important, including facial expressions. Belly dance also is a very expressive dance genre, in which it is very important to convey that one is having fun and sometimes it is also important to convey the emotions in the songs that one performs to. A ‘cheeky attitude’ is also very useful for performing styles such as shaabi or raqs baladi, which are social types of dance, performed for fun in celebrations and informal gatherings in Egypt.

As for burlesque practitioners, they can perfect their movement vocabulary and practice their hips ‘bump and grind’ technique and shimmies by taking belly dance classes. Also, from a creative point of view, they can get new ideas of different movements, as well as the use of props.

Further reading

I have found a couple of interesting books on Amazon, for those who want to find out more about the history of burlesque and/or how belly dance and burlesque crossed path.

The first book is ‘Horrible Prettiness: Burlesque and American Culture’ by Robert C. Allen, where the author analyses burlesque as a cultural phenomenon.

‘Imagining Arab Womanhood: The Cultural Mythology of Veils, Harems, and Belly Dancers in the U.S.’ by Amira Jarmakani analyses the orientalist, exotic and fictional idea of Arab womanhood in the west, including how it was represented in belly dancing from the beginning of the XX century.

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Valeria is a dance researcher completing a PhD in dance and heritage. Valeria also teaches and performs as a belly dance but also enjoys learning ballet, jazz dance and other dance genres.

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