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Tattooed Cabaret Dancers

By Sonya Hohmann

Tattoed Cabaret Dancer For many years, I have read numerous articles published in both belly dance periodicals and tattooing trade magazines alike that discussed American Tribal-style (ATS) belly dancers. Invariably the focus comes to mention the dancer's tattoos. Unfortunately, the statement has been made time & again that Tribal belly dance is the only acceptable medium for the tattooed belly dancer. While there may be some truth in the statement that more heavily tattooed dancers tend to gravitate towards the tribal-style, it is incorrect & narrow minded to assume that there are no successful Oriental-style or 'cabaret' belly dancers that are more heavily tattooed. I find offense because I am living proof that there is.

In Chicago I have been a professionally studying all facets of Oriental dance since 2000, went full-time in early 2002. I had been a principle dancer with Jasmin Jahal's dance company, 'Ward el Sahara' beginning 1998 as well as a member of her previous troupe 'Desert Moon' since 1996. This opportunity enabled me to aid the mission of promoting the beauty of authentic middle-eastern folkloric dances with quality performances throughout the mid-west. I have also performed in numerous large theater productions, which promoted folkloric, classical & interpretive styles of oriental dance. Currently I teach nine belly dance classes a week at my own dance school, Arabesque. I also instruct monthly workshops & costuming clinics in Chicago & abroad. In addition, I host seminars, focus on creating & performing my own choreographies as well as running my on-line custom costuming business, SonyasSouk.com

Further, I am a former tattoo artist-turned-professional body piercer. I spent 1995 & 1996 tattooing & piercing full-time in a tattoo shop before I gave up tattooing to further pursue body piercing. Being a body piercist afforded me the luxury of time and money to dedicate to my love of oriental dance. Both belly dance and tattooing exist within subcultures. Men & women of every walk of life get tattooed, just as women from every walk of life find love in the ancient art of belly dance. Every ethnicity, age or body shape can find community in their subculture, be it tattoos or belly dance or BOTH. As for myself, I have my entire right arm covered in a love-mural, a filigree heart in the center of my chest, a garland of exotic flowers adorning my lower back in a "V" shape that comes up onto the back of my ribs, three life-sized lilies on an ornate scimitar down my right upper thigh & various other soft, inconspicuous pieces. I also wear 2 tiny rings in my nostril, a labret (small ball below my lower lip), my tongue is pierced, and 2 garnets adorns my navel. In addition, my earlobes are stretched in the traditional fashion to 5/8" diameter which I wear large pieces of semi-precious stone or abalone shell earrings in, accented with my various other intricate ear cartilage piercings. None of this has ever kept me from getting a belly dance job.

For most of the history of tattooing and piercing, the general view of the public has been to degrade tattooed & pierced people. The average person might've been mildly intrigued by the 'counterculture', but for the most part regarded tattooists as only mildly better than criminals, if that! By way of comparison, for many years the public perception of belly dance was similarly distasteful, at least here in the U.S. Belly dancers held no more regard than sleazy go-go dancers and strippers (both of which have enjoyed a sort of renaissance of late!). A popular record album in the sixties was 'How to Belly Dance for your Sultan', sometimes sold with the equally distasteful 'How to Strip for your Husband'.

Today, the art of tattooing & body piercing has elevated into a true art form, and with it so many talented artists, highly skilled with the tattoo machine and fully educated in sterilization techniques & cross-contamination, have taken over the skin-art business. One is now able to see photo portfolios of prior done (healed) work, have your dreams custom-designed for you and can rest-assured to the cleanliness of implements (thanks to the city health department guidelines) with a little bit of research. If one wants a certain species of flower in such a full bloom that it seems to yawn up to the sun - it can be done! Almost gone are the days of crude bulldogs & anchors; with some imagination, patient local research & the gumption to sit down to actually do it, anyone who wants quality can have it.

The same is true of today's belly dance community. While it is true that some women still cater to the harem-girl, 'I dream of genie', belly dancing stripper image of belly dance, there is a reemergence of true professional Oriental dance. With a touch of higher standards and respectful taste, the restaurant owner can opt for a consummate professional who will dance correctly to proper rhythms, play wonderful zils and offer a more family-friendly show, rather than embarrass the audience for the dancers' faux-pas. There are numerous highly trained & disciplined performers out there, worthy of respect and dignity.

Being non-middle eastern & heavily tattooed professional oriental dancer I often wonder what difference it would make to both an American audience as well as to an Arabic audience. I tailor a performance to maximize the enjoyment for the majority of my audience. In light of this, should I showcase my tattoos or not, and does it really matter? I prefer a dance-educated audience regardless of ethnicity, but my goal from the first day has always been to dance, not show off my arm or other adornments. I've honed technique in efforts to not be remembered only as the one with the most tattoos in a show; why not the proficient technician, the creative choreographer or the spellbinding stage presence OVER the 'schtick' of being tattooed? I also would prefer to wow the audience with my knowledge of the music, the rhythms, zils, customs & costuming paired with the disciplined skill from years training with masters of their field, making the tattoos a mere side note. I believe I lose fewer performances because of my tattoos than others good dancers might for being overweight, flat chested, too short or tall or too (heavens forbid) 'American-looking'!

I have danced many cabaret solos, a wide variety of authentic folkloric dances, parties, at weddings, seminar shows, outdoor festivals, university demo-lectures and 5 full-blown theater productions. My tattoos have neither helped nor hindered my growth as a professional dancer or as a troupe member in my career. I donít want to be so narrow-minded as to think my opinion is the only one, but the more belly dancing gains popularity while tattoos become more mainstream, the more heavily tattooed dancers & students I meet. This is a growing number that cannot be ignored!

Sonya is a Chicago-native, who began bellydancing in 1995. Within 2 years she was invited to apprentice into Ms Jahal's dance troupe, Desert Moon, which gave Sonya a myriad of opportunities to perform at venues throughout the Chicagoland area, as well as universities abroad, demonstrating the beautiful folkloric dances of the Mid East. Sonya was promoted to costume designer in 2000 for the new dance company in which Sonya had become a principle dancer, Ward el Sahara (Arabic for 'flowers of the desert').

She began her foray into dance-instruction with six weekly classes at the Jasmin Jahal School of Authentic Mid East Dance 2001-2004. Sonya strives to follow the work of those that came before her, to promote the art of belly dance with beauty, dignity and grace. This dedication to her art & her students cultivated Sonya into the disciplined dancer she is today, enabling her to open her own 2-studio dance school "Arabesque" in late 2005. (www.ArabesqueChicago.com)