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Prostitution the Eastern Block and Belly dance

By Salome


It's a subject that continues to crop up in the American Belly dance community; Eastern European prostitutes advertising 'the goods' under the guise of belly dancer in the Near and Middle East.

I am an American Oriental dance artist that performs in the luxury venues of Africa and Asia. I am married to a Ukrainian/Russian and lived in Ukraine for three years, in between engagements. I met, interviewed, researched and performed with Ukrainians and Russians. In addition, my brother in-law is a professional dancer and dance company director who owns an international talent agency. Because of my multifaceted contact I'd like to share my perspective on this topic.

Oriental Dance in Ukraine and Russia
Here is the quick and dirty version of what is happening there. The bellydance.ru and beledi.ru discussion forums have members numbering in the thousands. Most members say they were inspired to study Belly dance after seeing "The Clone". A soap opera that features Belly dance performance during the Moroccan themed scenes. (Oriental dancer, Galina Savyelyeva pictured left)

Egyptian Oriental dance, or an interpretation thereof, is the foremost style pursued by enthusiasts here, and the favored folk dances are Raks al Assaya and Raks al Nash'ar. Students learn via video, visiting Arab teachers, and local dancers that sojourn to Cairo. All political and financial impossibilities 15 years ago when Soviet citizens weren't allowed out, information wasn't allowed in, and private business was illegal.

I lived primarily in Kharkov, a large city, about an hour away from the Russian border. The Belly dance community there is small but developing. You can find Egyptian costumes in the malls and coined hip scarves in the kiosks. Music is a bit harder to come by but it can be had. There are schools, clubs, competitions, recitals, theater and restaurant performance in most large cities, most notably Kiev and Moscow. Many dream of performing in Cairo and some of Russia's stars have reached that pinnacle, like Nour and Natalya Strelchenko.

To get a feeling for Oriental dance in this region visit Vasilisa Prekrasnaya's video clip gallery, a full twenty eight pages of video clips!

Show Ballets
The international entertainment market is saturated with Ukrainian and Russian performers, the bulk of which are show ballets. A show ballet can be a soloist but is more often a group, usually numbering 3 to 5, of female performers in their twenties. The education of show ballet participants vary radically, some are extensively or barely trained in dance (sportdance, ballet, jazz, folk), or gymnastics or circus or have no training whatsoever.

How it works. There is a show ballet creator, usually a mature woman retired from performance. The creator makes a set of choreographies each with a specific theme - Entre (Showgirl), Oriental, "Gypsy", Latin, Russian Folk, Modern dance to rock and a Cowgirl dance! Show ballet soloists may perform one theme opposed to the combo platter and "Oriental" is commonly requested.

The creator may be trained in one western genre of dance or even none. She may be a retired show ballet dancer recycling the choreographies she was taught. In any case the Oriental and "Gypsy" dances tend to be inaccurate and I will leave it at that.

The creator selects a group and teaches them the choreographed show. She also designs and makes a distinct costume for each choreography. Costuming for the ethnic dances can range from inappropriate, to attractive but off the mark, or occasionally on the money.

The Dark Side
And I'm not talking Star Wars. From Hollywood to Bollywood, the entertainment industry has an underbelly. There are those that troll the industry to exploit for profit. One means of exploitation is called "consummation". A venue owner (typically independent nightclubs) hires dancers for his venue. They may perform once, not at all, or possibly several short routines throughout the night. What they will be expected to do is work the floor - sit with the clientele and encourage guests to buy them cocktails. For every cocktail a guest buys the girls earn a percentage of the sale. Often hustling drinks is a front for hustling period.

Interesting to note that in "A Trade Like Any Other, Female Singers and Dancers in Egypt". Karin Van Nieuwkerk says "in the nightclubs of the 1920's and 1930's the main task of the female entertainer was to sit and drink with the customers. Usually they sang first or danced on the stage. This system of sitting and drinking with the customers was called fath from the Arabic verb to open. The female entertainers received a percentage of the profits made from the drinks they and the customers consumed". Though she noted prostitution was uncommon.

Some venue owners are up front about consummation duties and the 'possibility' of prostitution when advertising or soliciting women. Among those, there is no pretense of dance performance. For example, in Japan, this type of venue advertises "hostess" positions with succinct job descriptions. In other regions, an owner will indicate something along the lines of - she only needs to know one dance and have one costume in case the police come to inspect my club.

But this frankness is rare. Typically a venue owner will seek out a show ballet and offer them a seemingly legitimate dance performance contract. Once the show ballet has arrived all bets are off and the nightmare is in full swing.

One girl said that after every guest bought her a cocktail, she'd drink it, then go to the bathroom and make herself vomit, so that she could get through the night of 'complimentary' drinks. I've heard girls say everything from "I was locked in my room until I agreed", "he threatened to cancel my air ticket home if I didn't" to "I chose to have sex for 100 bucks rather than drink and vomit all night for 5".

This exploitation is successful because this group has no financial recourse. An American citizen can go to an American Embassy and our government will buy you a return ticket to the United States. It's a loan. They put a lean on your passport barring international travel until you pay it back. But even if you have no friends, family or resources to help yourself you have that option. Not so for Ukrainians and Russians.

Why Dancers Risk It
There IS a thriving, albeit competitive, entertainment market in Africa and Asia. Cruise lines, 4 and 5 star hotels, extravagant private gala's... And a huge demand for show ballets, especially in Egypt and Turkey. In fact, Lucy (star of Cairo, Egypt) employed a Show ballet for her nightclub "The Parisiana". Shira wrote an article in which she describes the show ballet at "The Parisiana" along with pictures of the show.

The average salary in Ukraine and Russia is 50 dollars a month. 50 dollars is not enough for basic needs. People here are consumed with how they are going to make it day to day. At a minimum, show ballet dancers get food, housing and pocket money. On the high end they get living needs + a 1000 USD monthly salary. This is an enormous sum that is unattainable in their native country. Even if they are getting paid squat they have the security of a place to live and food to eat.

Prostitution
An article I read recently makes the following statement "many Eastern European and Russian dancers have infiltrated the Beirut Bellydance scene, but they are doing anything but Bellydance; they have not studied the dance, and even if few have it is a cover for something else: prostitution".

It is undeniable that Russian and Ukrainian women work in the sex trade, both in and outside of their countries. And there are some Eastern block sex workers in the Belly dance industry but anymore so than Arab? My Arab sources in the Middle East say no.

In a prostitution report covering Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Tunisia detailing where sex workers are accessible (both Russian and Arab) nothing specific to dance or entertainment was cited. What was reported is that Russian sex workers visit these countries "in chartered trips, under the cover of tourism for two weeks and leave immediately after". They and Arab women work in specific areas of cities where prostitution is prevalent. They gain clients through hotel staff that discreetly facilitate prostitution for guests. Through Hotel nightclubs and independent Nightclubs that they frequent as 'guests'. Through nightclub staff, maids, and taxi cab drivers that facilitate prostitution. And in Tunsia (prostitution is legal) and Lebanon, they work in brothels and massage parlors.

In any event, allow me to leave you with several points of consideration.

Many of us have experienced prejudice personally. Be it related to race, religion, culture, sexual orientation... Perhaps we can work toward understanding that many truths exist simultaneously rather than making blanket statements about an entire group.

When a dancer is engaged in consummation or prostitution it is very probable that she is working under coercion.

When consummation or prostitution occur willingly should that not rouse feelings of compassion at the poverty and desperation these women face?

If the quality of dance and/or costuming of a group or individual is sub par that doesn't mean the dancer(s) are prostitutes. It can be just as likely that it's not a particularly talented show ballet.

The Lebanese, Egyptian or Turkish venue owner is the entity importing women with the express purpose of pimping them. Perhaps our disapproval would be better aimed at those who create demand and arrange its fulfillment.

Lebanon, Egypt and Turkey are all source countries of Oriental dance. Native people should be given credit that they know enough about their own cultures to differentiate between a sex worker and an Oriental dancer.

While Belly dance is generally enjoyed by the people of the Near and Middle East it is not a respected profession. Dancers are looked upon as 'fallen' women. The sentiment springs out of ideals that women be chaste, and modest. Of which dancing in public for a mixed gender audience as a profession is neither. Even if prostitution linked with Belly dance were successfully stopped it still would not be a respected profession in that region.

Long before Ukrainian and Russian women 'infiltrated' the scene, many Turkish and Arab women, did and do, use Belly dance in conjunction with prostitution.

Food for thought...