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?