We were already seated, drinks had already been ordered, when we realized to our horror that this particular restaurant had a belly dancer in it.

Now this is a mistake I almost never make. Decades of aversion to public spectacle have instilled in me an almost preternatural ability to suss out the wedding MC, the door prize, the strolling violinist, the birthday party clown. I have a sixth sense about restaurants, plays, concerts, and boardwalks, and yet now it had failed me. I grew rigid and watchful, eyeing the door. Drinks or no drinks, we would obviously have to leave.

Like a fool, my dinner companion stopped long enough to put on his coat and then she had us. She was right beside us now, dancing. I would rather have a leprous beggar under my table than a belly dancer beside it. I felt a raw physical revulsion and the crazed impulse to press my wallet into her hands and beg her to just take my money and leave.

The last time I was in this position I had been talked into going to a teppanyaki–style restaurant with some friends in China. We sat around a semi-circular table with a griddle in the middle of it while the chef chopped and tossed and sweated his way through some sort of culinary performance. And what were we supposed to do? One can’t very well hold a regular conversation while a man is performing for your ostensible pleasure only a foot away. So we should do what – watch him in silence? Include him in our conversation? Smile and nod while he watched us eat the food he had prepared? At one point the chef created a sort of volcanic cone of onion rings and set it alight with a small burst of flame and a sad little flourish—so should we clap? Who claps in a restaurant?

But if knife tricks are mortifying, dancing is a thousand times worse. Especially sensual dancing. Do people like this? I have never met anyone above eight years old who seems genuinely amused by tableside antics, strip clubs excepted. I cannot patronize a restaurant that will engage belly dancers, mariachi singers, or god help us, magicians. (Unamplified musicians are okay so long as they stay firmly perched on their raised platform and make no attempt to make eye contact with me.)

And when you leave the restaurant, it’s only to find yourself on a public street, prey to sweltering fur-suited sports mascots and mimes suffocating under a layer of gleaming silver body paint. Los Angeles, of course, is full of street-side entertainers, juggling and doing “The Robot” and dressing up like The Green Lantern, driven by twin desires for public attention and spare change. I know that theater is a tough profession, and I know that drama majors don’t have it easy. Nor do Medieval Studies majors reserve the right to throw stones (unless it’s some sort of Society for Creative Anachronisms thing). But I don’t think it’s so unreasonable to ask those who sacrificed their youth to the performing arts to follow the lead of us writers and poets, where your two career options are marrying a lawyer or slowly starving.

If restaurants and sidewalks are unsafe, theaters are a thousand times worse. Now I will concede, one does go to the theater to be entertained. However, I strongly prefer to be passively entertained. Any audience involvement, from raising my hand to choosing a playing card, is my own version of the Theater of Cruelty. For reasons as much aesthetic as psychological, I tend to favor plays that are unlikely to include audience participation: “The Cherry Orchard,” say, over “Tony and Tina’s Wedding.” One reason I love the opera is that I’m pretty sure no one will ever ask me to jump in and sing the mezzo part.

I know not everyone feels this way. Some people like making a spectacle of themselves, and for those people there exist pie-eating contests and reality TV. They are the ones who’ve just been waiting for someone to call out, “I can’t hear you!” But my opinion is not so rare, either; I know many people who agree with me. (One clever acquaintance always chooses his theater seats by making sure that there are no house lights anywhere above him – a genius idea I have since adopted.)

We the easily mortified are easy to spot: we sit up too straight, lean slightly forward in our seats, and wear a common facial expression of nausea and terror. So to actors, dancers, clowns, and mascots worldwide, I say, take pity on us. Call on someone else. Surely in your years of the Meisner Technique you picked up enough interpersonal psychology to be able to tell when someone despises the very sight of you. So why not ask that woman furiously waving both hands in the air and shouting “Me! Me!” to join your improv game?

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SUMMER BLOCK has published essays, short fiction, and poetry in McSweeneys Internet Tendency, The Rumpus, Wheelhouse, Identity Theory, DIAGRAM, Monkeybicycle, PANK, and many other publications. Her story "Hospitality" won the 2010 MWA award for short fiction. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, two dogs, three chickens, and two-and-a-half children. You can find more of her work at www.summerblock.com. Some people follow her on Twitter.

11 responses to “Barren Spectators”

  1. Greg Olear says:

    Marrying a lawyer or slowly starving. Ha!

    I guess we’ll have Brad kibbosh the TNB plan to have Bono pull you onstage during the U2 show at Staples…

  2. Irene Zion says:

    I’m with you, Summer,

    I avoid all places with belly dancers, violinists, mariachi singers, jazz piano, anything like that.
    I like to eat in a quiet place and talk to the people I’m eating with.
    I don’t need to be entertained away from the people I want to be with.

    • Gloria says:

      Really, Irene? See, I would have guessed differently. I mean, you don’t seem like an attention-getter yourself, necessarily, you just seem to do so well with me them. Now I’ll have to nix the plans to bring my castanets when first we meet.

      • Irene Zion says:

        Oh Gloria,
        You misunderstand me.
        You would be one of the people at the table.
        Your castanets would be welcome, because you are a friend.
        I don’t cotton to unknown people with castanets disturbing our dinner.
        We have music to play together.
        Nix nothing.

  3. Nathan Pensky says:

    Yeah, it’s a known fact that exactly how embarrassed a person gets by stuff like this is a fairly transparent determiner of the coolness of said person. And by “cool,” I mean “sane.”

  4. Becky Palapala says:

    Does this mean you don’t like dinner theatre?

    What if you don’t like the people you’re at dinner with? That happens to me sometimes. Then you can sic the mariachi band on them.

  5. Brad Listi says:

    summer….hilarious as always…and rings true for me. i’m the exact same way. the part about feeling the reflexive need to press your wallet into the belly dancer’s hands, just to get her to go away — i know that feeling. i’ve thrown money, personal belongings, you name it, into the hands of street performers and table singers. the other thing i do is offer them beverages. “here. have this beer. drink it. over there. away from me. please.” and it’s not even necessarily new beer. in some cases it’s my beer.

    they make me afraid. of what, i’m not entirely sure.

  6. Gloria says:

    I’m just never sure what I’m supposed to do with my hands. Or what facial expression is the appropriate one. I’m pretty sure the answer to that is not “horror.” Otherwise, I’ve no problems with performers. Sometimes I take great pleasure in trying to get the silver guy to move.

  7. M.J. Fievre says:

    Hi Summer, I’m afraid I’m one of those who are “genuinely amused by tableside antics [and will] patronize a restaurant [with] belly dancers, mariachi singers, or […] magicians.” 😉

  8. […] piece first appeared in The Nervous Breakdown. Tags: entertainers, mortification, spectacle, summer block, theater LEAVE A COMMENT Click […]

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