Mid-Rift Crisis

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If there's one thing we've learned from our current leadership, it's the infallibility of America's worldview. We characterize the French as weak-willed surrender monkeys because they are--simple as that. Russians drink to excess; Brits need a lesson in proper dental hygiene; and Africans, well, they just serve as safari guides.

Therefore, it seems unusual for Americans to misconstrue the habits of a distant culture.

Yet somehow we missed a couple of things over the centuries. Belly dancing, for one, did not begin as a seductive performance to entice men into...you know. Neither does "harem" refer to a seedy sex chamber of some polygamous sultan.

Sorta makes you wonder what else we've failed to grasp.

No one really knows the origins of belly dancing, although ritual performances have been a part of human existence since before recorded history. It first gained notoriety in this country during the Chicago World's Fair in 1893, when "Little Egypt" shocked the prim moralists of the day by revealing bare ankles and shaking her unmentionable regions. Silent films capitalized on the R-rated popularity of the affair by featuring sultry dancers and seedy harems--even though in traditional Muslim cultures men and women lived in separate worlds (the term harem refers to the woman's section of a house). Indeed, in many cultures women performed the dance only for other women. And indigenous definitions of the dance contain no mention of the word "belly."

"Raqs sharqi," the Arabic phrase, means "dance of the Orient," explains Meleea, a local performer and instructor (www.beledi.com).

No one knows just how we managed to turn raqs sharqi or its Turkish translation, oryantal tansi, into "belly dancing." Some blame the French, naturally. Others mention the similarity between Middle Eastern words related to ritual dancing, such as beledi, and the English version.

"There's controversy in the belly dance world about how it became known as belly dancing," Meleea says. "They argue about it all the time--but who cares? It's beautiful and wonderful."

Even labeling all such performances "belly dancing" obscures variations unique to different Mediterranean cultures. One style emerged in Turkey, another in Egypt, Lebanon and other countries. "When it came to the nightclubs, it changed," Meleea says. Dancers had to account for male tastes and entertain families. They introduced gimmicks, such as pouring water from one cup to another using only their stomach muscles.

Still, most dancers see nothing wrong with a bit of pizzazz. "Americans have the most fun with the dance," says Neenah, an instructor (www.belly-dancing.net) who often performs at area restaurants. "Turkish dancing is more raw. Egyptian is more precise." For the U.S. market, she explains, "there's less structure."

Taking advantage of American tastes means some dancers expose more skin than tradition demands or allow patrons to stuff wads of cash near their naughty bits. Should Christian fundamentalists complain, however, we'll just point to one of the Psalms: "Let them praise his name with dance." And since members of the Burning Question crew weren't certain whether that particular biblical passage referred to the Big Man Upstairs or to the "little man," we first opted to respect the latter...by visiting a few strip clubs.

The striptease as an...um...art form gained popularity in the same era as belly dancing. In subsequent decades, exotic dance redefined itself as burlesque and go-go before settling on the modern "gentlemen's club" façade.

For the record, strippers we spoke with during our "research" excursion hold belly dancers in high regard. "What they do is pretty sexy," says Heidi at The Men's Club. "Belly dancing is sexier," agrees another Men's Club standout, Raven. "They have more covered, so men naturally wonder. We're obvious."

So, where does one locate these hidden treasures?

We visited Al-Amir and Café Istanbul. The former is a massive place featuring up to six dancers from Wednesday through Saturday. Manager Haitham Alsemih even plans a few Vegas-style floor shows with 20 performers onstage at one time. Café Istanbul is a more intimate experience and limited to weekends. The Burning Question crew failed to reserve a table for Café Istanbul one Saturday night and found, to our dismay, no bar and an hour wait. Sixty excruciating, alcohol-free minutes later...well, most of us lasted about three minutes before declaring our research complete and heading over to Hibiscus.

Other spots include Stratos (Saturday), both locations of Velvet Hookah (Friday and Saturday), Hedary's (Saturday) and Kostas Café (Sunday).

And when you've had a bellyful...no, even the Burning Question crew can't complete that thought.

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