All / Originally Posted on Skirt

The Politics and Poetics of Halloween Costuming. (Or, Should I Wear It?!)

This is what comes of being a graduate student: I analyze EVERYTHING.  In fairness, the costume I want to wear for Halloween is particularly related to my PhD, being a belly dance costume.

I’ve gone as a belly dancer for Halloween for the past four or five years, ironically apart from the year I was actually in Cairo because I didn’t have any of my costumes with me.  I do feel a bit like I’m cheating, because I actually am a belly dancer.  You are supposed to go for Halloween as something you’re not, surely?  It’s your one chance in the year to be something other than yourself without people holding concerned whispered conversations behind your back.

But that’s not really the major issue.  In the past I didn’t really think about it, but this year it occurred to me that dressing up as a belly dancer for Halloween would be me perpetuating every stereotype about belly dancers that they hate.  If I’m just dressed up AS a belly dancer, rather than doing some actual dancing, then it’s just playing on the mistaken understanding of belly dancers as sexy exotic creatures in revealing costumes trying to get attention from men. 

This is not generally how dancers perceive themselves, and any dancer or person claiming to be a dancer who perpetuates such stereotypes through wearing inappropriate costumes or making inappropriate choreographic choices (doing moves that are “too sexy”) is generally censured by the international belly dance community. 

Of course there are some who challenge the majority discourse and do approach dance in a sexy way.  In the past I didn’t care so much about what other people might say–I’m just one person, it’s one single event, is anyone actually going to care if I wear my dance costume to a party, even if I’m not actually dancing?  

But now, now my choices make a bigger difference.  I am writing a PhD thesis on belly dancing.  I spend chapters and chapters discussing these issues at legnth, using very long words.  And I have a definite opinion: dressing up AS a dancer is not empowering for women, whereas actually dancing IS.  (I spend a lot more time talking about why this is in my thesis, but that’s the gist of it, really.)  So if I then decided to flout the conclusions I myself came to after literally months of analysis, what kind of hypocrite would that make me?  Who among the dance community could take me seriously?  (The academic community already doesn’t take me seriously, so I’m not as concerned about them.)

However, I also spend a lot of time talking about the value in playing with social conventions, both those held by the social majority as a whole and by the majority of the dance community.  I think people should challenge things–this is how every endeavor, social, artistic, or otherwise, progresses.  But I’m not entirely sure that me wearing a dance costume for Halloween is an actual challenge to prevailing dance conventions; I rather think it’s just me making a straightforward and un-challenging use of some negative stereotypes about dance.  Or at least that is how it would be percieved.

Other reasons not to wear a dance costume this year are purely practical: I bought a really nice, professional caliber costume from a friend.  Wearing it to a party means risking indelible stains, almost certain smells of smoke, and the possibility that somebody will erroneously perceive it as an invitation to touch me.  (Though I could probably make them cry, in that last instance.) 

After all this discussion, I’m still tempted to wear it, principally for two reasons: I am not a professional dancer, and though it would be nice to save my fancy, industrial-stregnth costume for an actual show, that is unlikely to happen any time soon.  There is the real risk that my beautiful costume will spend its life in a drawer wrapped in a piece of cloth.  A dance costume does not want to do this.  It wants to get out a bit.  It wants to be worn, seen by people, it wants to move!  There is only so long that spangles can stay hidden.  Second, my dance costume is a red bra-and-dress set (dress cut to the navel so you can see the bra bit) that is TARTAN TRIMMED.  It is the best thing in the history of things.  I am going to a party hosted by a dear Scottish friend, to celebrate her birthday as well as Halloween.  I would like to share the Scottish belly dancing joy with her. 

My reasons for wanting to wear a costume to my friend’s party are entirely personal, they are not about self-objectification or showing off.  But still, I need to be aware of the kind of message wearing such a costume outside the context of a dance show could send to others and seriously consider whether I want to take that risk (as well as the physical risk to the costume itself.)  Can the dance community take me seriously after that?  Can I take myself seriously?  

You bet your candlesticks and cobras.  I’m wearing my tartan costume for Halloween…there might even be some dancing.