What is the difference? Trying to say it is hopeless. It consists of motives, meanings, and balances. There is nothing one can point at and say, "This you will find in stripping but not in belly dancing." In fact, I would have to guess that stripping devolved from belly dancing the way rotgut booze devolved from fine wine, the way every religious herb, even tobacco, has been secularized into a recreational product and vulgarized in the process.
The belly dancer dances for herself. The dance originated in the harem as a women's entertainment. It began as a way for women to celebrate their integrated physical and spiritual identity, their sense of self worth. There is extraordinary joy in good belly dancing, joy and pride. It is no accident of history that belly dancing originated in a milieu of patriarchy so obsessively anti-feminine that the treasured sex objects were chocolate-eyed boys.
So men are welcome to watch. And what they see is not the lasciviously curled finger ("You want some?") but a display of the woman as a sexual creature, a woman asserting her sense of worth, including but not confined to her sexual identity. Not an offer but a display, a vision.
With nude dancing, if men are paying attention, it is to "see the secret" rather than wide focus on the whole experience. How deep will the seeing go? In an Esquire interview between Norman Mailer and Madonna (talk about a marriage made in heaven), he keeps coming back to the fact that she allows herself to be photographed naked butand I can't remember how he puts itnever with her legs spread. No looking "inside." The male need to "see inside" is fundamental to nude dance parlors. That is the thing about those bizarre Japanese places where women squat before patrons armed with mirrors, flashlights, magnifiying glasses, and glass cigar tubes. They cater to the desire to see "everything," which is a truly male obsession.
The professional stripper/nude dancer exploits this obsession by seeming about to show, but not showing, then showing a little but not everything, then more but still not all of it, then more. The whole dynamic is different from belly dancing, in which the nakedness is not the center idea but a convenience. I suspect that the dance was invented "in deshabille" because it was invented by women for women, in the privacy of their baths and boudoirs and harem commons. It's not about showing the body, but about freeing it from confinements.
The sexual content of belly dancing is not its essential meaning; it is in a sense a side effect. When I say it is not the meaning of the dance, I am not denying that belly dancing is 'sexy', and I am certainly not going to exclude 'sexual' from its content. Perhaps I should say, it is not the whole meaning. Stripping reduces the larger meaning to something less. The belly dancer removes a few veils; the stripper takes off as much as the law allows. The belly dancer moves like a woman who likes sex; the stripper moves like a woman who has been fed Spanish Fly.
A person who likes to watch animals in the wild is actually less likely to go to the zoo or the natural history museum. The mind that invented stripping wouldn't understand that; after all, the animals are holding still and you can see them better.
Yeah, yeah, I know, gypsy dancers, pick your pocket, sell a little on the side, etc., etc. I said it was hard to distinguish. If you read interviews with the girls who dance in the nude bars, they will tell you they take pride in their performances, that they dance for themselves. But that is a way to protect themselves; some of them even say so. They talk about the men who come there to see women degraded, to roll in their superiority over women like dogs grinding their shoulders in roadkill.
And I've been in those bars, far less frequently than I've seen belly dancers. I wrote about one in my story, "Still Life with Python." I'd go more if what I saw was celebratory, women who would do what they are doing even if they weren't getting paid for it. I've seen what I'm describing here, a stripper who could dance, whose nakedness was as proud and self-assertive as the best belly dancers (and, tellingly, with a hard edge I've seldom seen in a belly dancer, an edge of anger, and contempt for the men who want her degraded). I've also seen the things I associate with stripping: dance reduced to making flesh jiggle, 'high points' accomplished by bending over into the clinical gaze of a spotlight. A stripper can be an artist by aspiring to what I described; when a belly dancer provides nothing but an avaricious, manipulative display, when her dance is not purpose but means, she betrays her art.