Thursday, 7 April 2011

The Kodak moment: photographing belly dancers

Back in 2005, my then-teacher (who was Iranian/Iraqi) organised a trip through Jordan, Egypt and Turkey for her students. It was a couple of months at Easter time, so I guess the six-year anniversary is coming up - yikes... Anyways, the "highlight" was a series of classes in Cairo with Aida Noor. I was having a nostalgia trip the other night and wound up watching a couple of sketchy videos featuring Aida attempting to teach us choreography. Two things dawned on me: 
  1. I am an infinitely better dancer now than I was then, even though I still suck.
  2. It is HARD to look consistently great when captured on 'film' (or digi), be it a moving or still image. 
To back this second point up, I found a series of photos I'd taken of three dancers who performed the night we went out in Istanbul to this über-cheesy cabaret restaurant, The Orient House. Think bus loads of tourists with their national flags parked on the tables. Yeesh. Not my thing. At All.

Let me be clear about what follows: these women were fantastic dancers. Amazing. And, as these pictures prove, drop-dead gorgeous. Though the crowd behind them may look a bit indifferent, you can take it from me that, in general, these are faces of rapt attention, not abject boredom.

But here are some things to bear in mind the next time someone pulls out the old Polaroid while you're shaking your stuff. First up, lessons from The Yellow Dancer:

Are your breast implants about to make a desperate bid for freedom?

Does the ornamentation on your costume make it look as though your breasts are crying/vomiting?

How's that deodorant working out for you?

Nothing bad to say about this one - I wish it was of me!

When dancing on the table, make sure you keep your balance. (N.B the towering perspex platforms she was wearing are sadly not visible in any of these photos.)

To sum up, even though these photos may not be the most flattering or professional The Yellow Dancer has ever had taken of her, let's learn the lessons: A great costume (with or without nipple pasties), good grooming, excellent posture, honed technique and an easy smile that makes you look like you're having the best time ever will ensure that even the lousiest tourist snap of you will make you look phenomenal. Which she was, and that's why I have more photos of her than the other two dancers. Thank you, Yellow Dancer!

Next up, The Red Dancer. Let's give her a big hand:

Great costume? Check. Mesmerised Korean guys? Check.

Even in a still photo, this is obviously a hip drop in mid-drop. Got technique? Check. How those mesmerised Korean guys doing? One's smoking, but they're still paying attention. Double points!

That is the smile of a woman happy in her work. Good job! And the Korean guys seemed to have turned to stone which is, uh, unsettling...

Body glitter coming off like a sheen of perspiration? Yeah, but who cares? Not that Korean guy.

Toothache causing an involuntary shoulder hunch? Oh no! It was all going so well!

And now it's time for our final act, The Pink Dancer. Come on, we know you'd rather not but dancers who don't dance don't get paid:

I didn't say anything. Please don't come over here and cut me. Your costume looks lovely, though I'm not much of a one for pink. No, no - don't hit me! I love pink. Honest. Please do keep dancing.

I didn't mean to make you cry, Pink Dancer. I'm sorry I upset you.

For a serious take on how professional photographers feel about photographing belly dancers, please check out the thread on the Pentax Forums and the excellent series of posts on Peter Phun's site. My friend Maëlle recently had some beautiful photos taken of herself dancing, and when I complimented her on them she said, "Yes, there are a lot of photographers who know how to use Photoshop to make you look good, but not many who understand belly dancing well enough to know when you're going to turn, when you're going to do something beautiful with your arms and hold the pose. I've had so many so-called pros give me a series of shots taken just when I look at my most awkward and graceless."

Good tip for those of you looking to pay good money for studio photos, no? And also, if you have some bad photos of yourself dancing, put them to good use by sharing them with the delightful and vanity-free women who set up the very funny Bad Bellydance Pictures page on Facebook.


  1. Just peed my pants laughing. Rule number one, make sure your "cups" are the right size.

  2. Ya know, Koreans aren't the most expressive people on the planet. Some of my Korean friends are absolutely poker faced that sometimes I don't know if they're joking or not.

    On a more serious note, I had the most unfortunate experience of hiring male photographers for our annual recital. They ended up taking pictures of the better looking dancers. I had a hard time sorting my photos since I almost had no decent picture.

    One photographer came to the rescue, though. And she (yes, a girl!) has good taste.

    In the future, I will only hire female photographers. After all, there are times when photos look better than videos.

    And I always insist the photographers and videographers to come earlier to catch us during rehearsals, so at least they know what to expect. Obviously even the most intelligent ones can't memorize the choreography that fast (and that many) to remember when the dancers are going to turn or do something fancy that'll look good in pictures. But seeing the rehearsal gives them the idea of the real show.

  3. Both excellent points! @RetroKali: there's a link in this post to a dancer falling out of THE BOTTOM of her costume (nice, builder's bum ...) and @famousfeline, I can't believe that it had never occurred to me that some dance photographers only go for the totty. Food for thought: I can tell from my stat tracker that already these images have been downloaded, and who knows what purposes they're being used for.

  4. Hello Raqasa,
    I was checking on backlinks to my blog and came across your funny, witty and interesting blog. I appreciate your kind words.

    As a photographer, I always strive to make my subjects look their best. Whenever hired to shoot a show or event, I make sure I shoot everyone I'm supposed to regardless of how "good" they look.

    It takes hardly any effort to get good pictures of great-looking people. But to make someone who's not so... now that requires a photographer to have patience, skill and a genuine pride in their work.

    I don't know diddly about Belly Dancing, but I do know what appeals to me being a heterosexual man. That, hopefully helps. But I do watch and anticipate well, being a former news photographer.

    I shoot a lot, but I don't shoot as if I'm shooting video. I also light my dancers whenever possible for control.

    Most folks who are conscious of their looks are often realistic about how they look, so they are often more than happy with a flattering picture.

    Any sort of "live performance" dancing where there is an audience is a challenge. I welcome it. It seems no 2 performances are ever the same too. The energy from audience feeds the belly dancer, no?

    Use "belly dancer" in the search field on my blog and you will find more blog entries on the subject. Thanks again!