Thursday, February 12, 2009
IT'S A SMALL WORLD AFTER ALL!
Children are the best audiences ever and they’re my favorite audience. Throughout my career, I’ve danced for thousands of kids. In fact, I often joke that most of my biggest fans are under the age of ten… but actually, that’s probably true!
Since I am still the featured performer at Moun Of Tunis, the same restaurant that gave me my very first job eighteen years ago, I not only dance for children on a regular basis, but I’ve have had the extraordinary privilege and pleasure of seeing a good portion of my audience grow up, go to college, get married and have their own kids! It’s impossible to estimate the amount of autographs I’ve signed on paper napkins, and for years my refrigerator has been plastered with primitive crayon portraits and misspelled fan letters painstakingly written in block letters.
Children are the world’s most pure and unsullied audience, and that go for every kind of performing art. They certainly don’t need any sort of suspension of disbelief to be moved by a belly dance show; they are happy enough with a swirling pastiche of dancing women, sparkly costumes, loud music and excitement. Children also don’t have the pre-conceived notions about belly dance that many adults do, they just love being entertained! Kids know nothing of sexualized stereotypes or judgments that have to do with weight, age or racial prejudice. They let out wild squeals of unbridled joy the moment a dancer appears. Not only that, because of their candor, kids will often left you know exactly what they’re thinking.
Due to “truth factor” in relations with kiddies, sometimes the biggest obstacle for me when I’m interacting with or performing for the small set is to stop myself from bursting into laughter because of their totally logical - yet completely innocent - observations! As the Sixties-era television host Art Linkletter used to declare, “Kids say the darndest things!”
Thanks to Walt Disney, I’ve probably been called “Princess Jasmine” more times than I’ve been called “Princess Farhana”, but it’s worth it! Some of the exchanges I’ve with children have left me laughing for days- no, make those years!
I remember a seven-year-old girl who visited me in my dressing room after a show one night. While she played with my finger cymbals, she very regretfully told me that she could never be a belly dancer because she didn’t have “those round things or those black things”.
I told her that those “round things” were called finger cymbals and explained that anyone, even she, could have them because they were a belly dance accoutrement that anyone could purchase.
“ But I still don’t have those black things,” she sighed forlornly, shaking her head.
“What black things do you mean?” I asked, utterly confused.
Rolling her eyes as though I was the stupidest person on earth, she pointed directly to my false eyelashes! When I told her that they were fake, just a part of my stage make-up, and explained how they were applied, she leaned in very close to me, cocked her head towards the dining room and whispered conspiratorially,
“Everybody out there thinks they’re real!”
Standing costumed in a hallway just after a show, a little charmer of about five gave the once-over to my sword partner Samra and me and observed,
“You guys look just like genies… but with legs!”
It took us a moment to realize that she meant legs…. as opposed to the smoke rising from a magic lamp!
Samra’s toddler daughter Anisa, completely- and charmingly- disrupted a theater show I did recently. As I finished my dance, Anisa wouldn’t hear about the fact that I was leaving the stage- she seemed to think that like a DVD, I could be re-played over and over. To the amazement of everyone seated near her, she loudly hollered “AGAIN!!!” over and over, as though her sheer will would change the course of the show!
Another time, a little boy who was the nephew of another dancer I worked with frequently, burst into our dressing room to visit us before we went on. Unaccustomed to seeing his aunt in costume, he stared at our Egyptian finery with his mouth hanging open in shock and exclaimed,
“Hey, where’d you guys get the all the diamonds?”
I myself am a doting aunt, and my niece Olivia definitely inherited the belly dance gene.
When she was a toddler, her vocabulary only consisted of an only few words…or so we thought. One night at dinner as I walked into the room, she cheerfully greeted me from her high chair, shocking us all with her first full sentence:
“Hi Auntie-big earrings!”
Visiting Disneyland when Olivia was three, we almost got kicked off the ride “ It’s A Small World.” As our boat floated by the Middle Eastern countries, Olivia jumped to her feet, scrambled on top of the bench, pointed at a veiled mannequin and screamed,
“ Look! It’s my Auntie!”
As if on cure, the ride ground to a halt, the music cut out, and a booming voice came over the loudspeaker,
“THE CHILD MUST SIT DOWN!”
Olivia’s obsession with the dance continued to grow as she did. We’re talkin’ about a little girl who got elaborate hand made mini-costumes for every birthday…but somehow, it just wasn’t enough! We were spending a cool spring afternoon together, about to go to her favorite park. As I left the room to get our jackets, she pouted obstinately,
“ Auntie- I really don’t wants goes to the swings!”
I almost had a heart attack as I returned- Olivia stood in the middle of the living room, her play clothes lying in a heap at her feet. She was completely naked except for one of my rhinestone tiaras sitting askew on her head, and in each hand, she held an unsheathed sword- my full-sized, heavy, sharp scimitars. Each one was longer than she was tall, and she brandished them around dangerously.
“I just wanna stay here and play dress up with you!” she whimpered.
Feeling my face drain of color, I cajoled,
“ Ok, sure honey! Whatever you want! We definitely don’t have to go to the swings! Can you just pleeeease put the swords down for your Auntie? “
Luckily, she obliged me!
Once, at a wedding, a little girl of about nine asked if I was really and truly a princess.
“Why, of course I am,” I answered, not wanting to wreck the illusion.
Growing skeptical, hands on hips, she asked me to prove it. I knew what would verify my claim. Unbelievably, the California DMV had allowed me to pose for my driver’s license photo while wearing a large rhinestone tiara. I carry it proudly to this day, and it’s surprised many a bank teller or TSA official.
When I whipped this out of my wallet as “proof” of my royal lineage, the little girl gasped sharply, her eyes widening as she meekly asked,
“ Do you live in a real castle? Can I visit you?”
Backpedaling quickly, told her that when I was “visiting” California, I lived in a regular house, just like everybody else!
Far and away one of my most cherished memories is of Timmy, a Canadian four- year- old whom I met while he was in Los Angeles, sightseeing with his family.
Timmy fell in love with me at first sight. He swooned as he watched me pass by in costume, and scrawled illegible love notes to me on placemats, which he sent to my dressing room via a very patient waiter.
When I came out to dance, Timmy’s eyes bugged out of his head. He grabbed fistfuls of his own hair, held a hand over his mouth as if to stifle a scream, and bounced uncontrollably in his seat. He snatched dollars from his mom and ardently stuffed them into my belt, and when he ran out of his own money, he picked money up off the floor as well as personally soliciting it from diners at other tables, much to their amusement.
Later in the evening, his apologetic mom asked if I would dance once more, as he’d been pestering her throughout the entire meal, asking her if I would perform again.
Of course, I obliged. The minute the music started, Timmy’s excited squeals could be heard above it, echoing throughout the entire restaurant, as well as into the kitchen and dressing room. Making my entrance, I decided to make him feel special by draping my veil around his tiny shoulders. The moment I did this, he let out another earth-shattering shriek that could probably be heard down the block, and then he yelled,
“MOMMY! THE LADY LET ME HOLD HER BLANKET!