Although most women take up bellydancing for a hobby or for exercise, many bellydancers end up doing some public performing. For some bellydancers, it’s performing in amateur shows or at parties just for fun, and for other dancers it becomes a full or part-time profession. No matter what your reason for being ‘on stage’, chances are you’ll run into the tipping dilemma.
What is the tipping dilemma? It’s the decision each bellydancer has to make as to whether or not to allow members of her audience to stuff tip money into her costume during or after her dance. It’s a more complicated issue then it may seem on the surface.
Contrary to popular belief, the custom of placing tip money on a bellydancers’ body, by stuffing it into her belt, bra strap, or cleavage, did not originate in the East, but right here in the USA. It appears to have started in America around the mid 20th century in restaurants and nightclubs where bellydancing was a featured act. Club owners happily promoted this new custom as a way to help subsidize the dancers’ pay (he could then pay her less). Often clubs would also take a percentage of the bellydancers’ tips to help defray the cost of musicians, staff, and overhead. Many bellydancers, most of who weren’t getting that much salary to begin with (and no benefits such as medical, sick leave, retirement, etc.) embraced this form of tipping as a way to earn extra income. Some bellydancers didn’t have a say in the tipping matter; it was a condition of their employment to dance into the audience and solicit tip money. In any event, by the time the U.S. experienced its first big boom in the popularity of bellydance in the 1960’s and ‘70’s, this tipping custom was firmly entrenched in American bellydance clubs and restaurants.
So, what’s the problem with that? Well, if a waitress and a bellydancer are working in the same restaurant, can you imagine the waitress’s reaction if someone tried tipping her by stuffing a few bills down her cleavage, or even in her pocket? She’d probably smack them good and no one would blame her. So therein lies the problem; the waitress’s body is considered off-limits and the bellydancers’ is not.
The only other type of performer or employee who is routinely tipped on their body is a stripper, lap dancer, or some other kind of sex worker. Rightly or wrongly (we each have the right to form our own moral opinion on this), sex work is still stigmatized in our society.
There’s a distinct difference between a stripper and a bellydancer and this tipping custom obscures that distinction. The main purpose of a stripper, lap dancer, or other type of sex worker is to arouse sexual desire and elicit a strong sexual response from their audience. The main purpose of a professional bellydancer is to use the art of movement to express the beauty and power of music, usually for a family audience. Bellydancing is sensual (as is any other physical activity performed well – ballet, gymnastics, athletics, etc.), but sensuality is different from overt sexuality. One type of profession is not necessarily better than the other (depending on your point of view), but most bellydancers don’t wish to be lumped into the sex worker category.
So, this is where it gets complicated for the bellydancer. Invariably, if she’s doing public performing, some audience member (almost always with good intentions) will present a bill to tip in her costume. The audience member usually means well, thinking that this is the traditional way of showing their appreciation. They don’t realize that the bellydancer would probably prefer being handed the tip after her performance (or having it dropped in a tip jar provided for that purpose).
If you’re planning on bellydancing publicly, you’ll need to decide in advance on how you wish to handle the tipping situation. If you don’t wish to be tipped in your costume, it’s best to set up a tip jar (or tip basket, or some other method of collecting tip money) ahead of time. Even so, you can still run into some audience member who wants to stuff you, and all you can do without making a scene or disrupting your performance is to accept the tip good naturedly and try to direct their hands to the least off-limits part of your costume.
On the other hand, if you don’t mind being confused with a sex worker or you’re happy to take the chance of strangers copping a feel, that is your right. However, it’s been my experience that the vast majority of bellydancers are proud of the hard work and dedication they’ve spent in mastering the art of bellydance and don’t wish to be confused with other professions. In addition, most bellydancers don’t want to deal with the unfortunate stigma that comes with being mistaken for sex workers (one reason we’ll accept far less pay for our performance than the average stripper or lap dancer).
So if you’re planning on performing in public, prepare to be confronted with the tipping issue. In time, if enough bellydancers break with the old tipping ‘tradition’, we can acclimate our audience to a new tradition. With forethought and planning, you can say “Take this tip and stuff it – into my tip jar, please”!