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Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

There's a rumor circulating among my friends that you can't be popular in the belly-dance scene unless you "party." Not like the Nevada brothel Moonlight Bunnyranch's iteration of the word. I mean the rollicking good time, slur your speech, show up hung-over and bemoan the bright lights kind of party. You gotta be good-natured and smiling, probably a vegetarian, and willing to talk to anyone. Maybe it is more like the Bunnyranch than I thought. This cool-kid mentality grinds my nerves. I understand about the schmoozing, the friendly talking, the hand-on-the-shoulder, I'm-just-your-friend-from-California-and-I-love-to-share-my-personal-details acquaintanceships that mean you sign every e-mail with "I'm so excited to see you!" I understand that image is part of this art form, as much as we wish it wasn't. If we didn't want image to be part of what we do, we'd stay at home and dance in the shadows, or become authors, who are supposed to look grimy, unsettled, and homeless.

This is why Miles Copeland is so damn effective with the BellyDanceSuperStars, the only regularly touring belly-dance company. He knows that image is about 80 percent of what you're selling. Before you can get people to watch something, you have to make them WANT to watch something, and in a community where people already kind of want to watch belly dancing, you have to make them want to watch YOU. That means being nice, being open and friendly and bitchy in the right way, and basically doing all the things that none of us knew how to do in high school because we were too busy reading Tolkien at recess and getting our heads dunked in the toilet. Being a professional belly dancer has as much to do with belly dancing as being a professional chef has to do with killing a cow. They're related, but so totally not the same.

So why isn't it enough for pro dancers to just be friendly and open and nice without having to drink people under the table as well? Going out till all hours to show up and teach class hung-over (or still drunk) is treated like an understandable quirk, rather than a job-losing situation, as it would be in most other professional venues. (Try going to a Powerpoint presentation wobbling around with big circles under your eyes and see how well that works out for ya.) Why do we insist our stars resemble a frat party more than professional dancers? Where are all of the dancers who don't like that attitude, and why are we playing to the rest of the market?

I think everyone wants to believe they can party with the star. She's just like you and me; she enjoys a drink, smoke, whatever, but oh, she's a vegetarian, so she's healthy. If I hang out with her, maybe some of that fame will rub off on me, and I'll be famous too. Say I don't approve of what she's doing, I'll act like I do, and then she'll smile at me, she'll love me, some of that will spill over, and I can be in the spotlight too.

Fame is amazing. It makes people do ridiculous things (Michael Jackson, e.g., both the star and the parents who sold him their children), and nobody blinks an eye. Our religion has turned from God to movie stars, from golden gateway to silver screen. Belly-dance "stars" are on film and TV, magazines, and the big stage, looking all perfect and then letting their hair down to "have some fun." They're as close to gods as we've got.

Belly-dance fandom has started to go overboard. I heard that world superstar Rachel Brice recently received a glass hand-painted with her own image on it; it reminds me of those painfully earnest macaroni sculptures people give actors at science-fiction conventions. It speaks to that little hidden part of ourselves that none of us wants to admit we have, the part that wanted to be a movie star when we were eight and still buys People magazine every now and then.

The editor of US Weekly said that she revamped the magazine to show more pictures of stars doing everyday things: walking their dogs, brushing their kids' hair, eating french fries, because that's what people want to see. They want to see the world behind the mask, and they're hoping it's close to theirs, because then you can think, "There but for the grace of a casting director go I." They're not so different from me. That could be my cell phone, Blackberry, movie deal.

So maybe that's why we want our drunken belly dancers. The surface is so shiny and pretty, we like to believe such beautiful things can be dirty and human. There but for the grace of fame go I.


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