I’m taking a break from ‘Confessions’ with this vignette from bellydancer life.
I was at some party or other in Austin, TX. This was twenty years ago, and the hostess, one of my occasional students — she was perhaps in her early 50’s, attractive but riddled with concern for her appearance, probably a therapist, I don’t quite remember, and definitely living in a lush if not terribly tasteful fashion — introduced me to a couple, also in their 50’s. I was at the time a very young-looking and hip 40-year-old. She told me their names, then said, “This is my bellydance teacher, Dunya,” as if holding out a surprise prize bird. It was unmistakable, the slight but absolutely intentional derision in the undertone of her tone. She might as well have said ‘whore.’ As well, I was synonymous with my exotic profession while the other couple was not similarly unveiled. The wife faded behind her skin while the husband’s smile took on a leering patina.
You know how you meet someone, have been chatting, feeling your way through to see if you like this person or not or any degree in between, taking tiny mental notes, reading body cues while exhausting observations about the weather or your surroundings, then you ask the fatal question of what they do and they say, “I’m an attorney.” Attorneys always say ‘attorney’, not ‘lawyer.’ And suddenly your brain whirs through Perry Mason and Boston Legal and your divorce(s) and eviction notices (if you have lived in a rent controlled apartment in NYC) and parking tickets as well as family friends who are lawyers and squander money on senseless overpriced leisure ‘toys’, and now you are barely hearing the person because you are pulling yourself back, uncertain, a little worried you might say something not quite smart enough because lawyers are portrayed as smart, though they aren’t always, or because the whole profession is intimidating, dealing as it does with law, so even if the lawyer is not the sharpest knife in the drawer, they usually know byzantine legal stuff you don’t know and somehow, unlike scientists or other scholarly professionals who when you meet them keep their expertise to themselves so that you feel utterly untouched and therefor unpressured by their wealth of knowledge, this legal stuff can touch you, impinge on you, and effect your days and is, therefor, worrisome. All of this flashes through you in a nanosecond and suffuses your skin and you pull away.
Back to my Austin party. The man is smiling at me differently now and his wife is slipping away inside her body, and soon she slips her body away from the conversation, going off somewhere to get a drink. And the hostess has moved on to connect other hapless guests. I am left with the leering man who now has no incentive to cover his attitude. He slathers his assumptions about ‘dancer’ and ‘bellydancer’ all over me and there is not one polite thing to do about it other than bear it for a moment or two before moving off myself. Did this sort of attention ever entertain me? No. Every piece of it was a nuisance, from the hostess’ poison dart through the wife’s frustration with her philandering husband to the husband’s societally acceptable insults. Attitudes are swift, subtle, entrenched. Challenging them is a huge amount of work.
You might think, “Oh this is nothing. You’re not dealing with genocide or horrifying racism.” No. I’m dealing with sexism, and this middle class party from the post-Women’s Lib mid-90s is hardly a hot item. But it was not an isolated experience. When I told men my profession, whether modern dancer or bellydancer, I was almost always pushed to the bottom the totem pole. I never said what I was thinking which was, “You stupid fuck!” because I was brought up not to say truth to men. (Though to give this Austin party man a little credit, he looked faintly out of character, as if he had been assigned a role that was conveniently superior yet somewhere in him the Golden Rule rankled, and he couldn’t quite figure out what to say because he was at a peer party and this dancer was a guest and not the entertainer, and it was confusing and awkward, and where was his wife and why had the hostess dumped this situation on him which was only briefly pleasant but now he wanted a drink…)
Is all this elaborate, dreadful hatred and exclusionariness — the stuff holding ‘isms’ like racism and sexism together — just a bit of need in one person to feel that they are better than another?
It is hard to be at party.
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