Wednesday, March 4, 2009
MY, HOW TIMES HAVE CHANGED!
I also have a major birthday coming up in a couple of weeks… so it’s causing me to reflect on everything. I have been a professional belly dancer for eighteen years, and since belly dance has literally been MY LIFE for almost two decades, it’s gotten me to thinking.
The world of belly dance has changed perhaps more in the past decade or so that it did in the many decades previous…. or maybe even the past few hundred years!
Nearly twenty years ago, when I began dancing “just for fun”, I had no idea that my entire life would screech into a 360-degree turn-around and become dominated by Oriental dance. If you had told me at that point that I would become a professional belly dance performer and instructor who traveled the world dancing and teaching, I would have laughed you right out of the dance studio!
Women that are beginning to dance today have no idea what it was like starting out a couple of decades ago. How times have changed!
(Here, the violins swell up and dominant the soundtrack…. Get out your hankies, girls!)
IN THE OLDEN DAYS, WE DANCERS HAD TO WALK TWELVE MILES BAREFOOT THROUGH A RAGING SANDSTORM JUST TO GET A LOUSY HIP- SCARF!
But seriously- even though time line-wise I am not even closely on par with the pioneers that were performing Oriental dance generations before me, when I started out, there was no Internet. Not only did that mean that research meant spending hours at the library, it sometimes meant relying upon hearing cultural info or dance advice via word-of-mouth.
Not only that, if you wanted to translate the lyrics to an Arabic song, you had to find a waiter at an Arabic club or restaurant who could understand the dialect, and if you were lucky, could tell you what the song meant. …Or somebody’s Syrian grandma at a wedding which song was playing!
Videotape footage of Egyptian stars like Nagwa Fouad, Mona El Said, Aza Sharif, and Fifi Abdou were few and far between. There was hardly any footage of American dancers, either! You would hear tell that Dahlena, Shareen El Safy, Fahtiem, Cassandra, Dalia Carella, Morocco, Ibrahim Farrah, etc. were great- but you couldn’t really see them unless they came to your town. That’s how far our technology has come. Hello, YouTube! And speaking of visiting dancers, the workshop circuit wasn’t what it is today, either. I remember the first time Raqia Hassan came to the States- droves of dancers came from all over to attend her few workshops, teachers and students alike.
Back in the early 1990’s, there were no CD’s of course, so you had to try your luck at what I used to call “ Arabic Cassette Roulette” and hope that the tape (with the picture of Sohair Zeki on the cover) that you bought at the Lebanese grocery store actually played, let alone had some “decent” danceable music on it; something that you could use for a show. And, I might add, there was no such thing as burning CD’s; you had to make tape recordings for shows. I remember when Arabic pop first came on the scene- we were all delighted that there was some up-beat, short songs- easy for playing sagat to- finally getting produced! The first Arabic pop song I ever heard was “Ei Yanni” by Amr Diab, who was a newcomer back then. I remember we were all marveling at how “modern” it sounded!
I live in Los Angeles, and even though that is a major metropolis, there was practically no Oriental dance scene. Well, there actually was, but networking was HARD, and small cliques existed. There were Arabic clubs of course, because LA has a huge Arabic, Armenian and Persian population, but the clubs were small and geared towards an ethnic audience- they didn’t ever advertise in American papers. To find them, I practically had to go on a treasure hunt! There were only a couple of yearly events occurring: MECDA’s Cairo Carnivale, and Tonya and Atlantis’ Belly Dance Of The Universe Competition.
We saved our tips all year long so we could attend these events and load up on pricey Madame Abla costumes, “rare” music and accessories; it was the only shopping opportunity available! The costumes then cost way more than they do now, and that’s just base price, not even counting inflation. These few and far between events were virtually the only place one could see multiple dancers, as well.
Showcases in Los Angeles were practically non-existent, except for Anaheed’s legendary Wednesday night ‘do at The Middle East Connection. This weekly event featured live music and sign-up dancing and nurtured beginning performers such as Veena and Neena Bidasha, Jillina, Rania, and myself- plus countless others- in our early forays into performing Oriental dance. A little after that, Hallah started a Tuesday night showcase at the now-legendary Arabic club Al Andalus. Both of these nights were like Bootcamp for aspiring belly dancers. they featured live music and were a way to see many dancers, hear amazing musicians, and lean your performance chops.
Egyptian style dance was present in LA, but only a couple of artists were teaching it then. Sahra Saeeda was still living and dancing in Egypt; Zahra Zuhair was working in clubs and not really focusing on teaching, she was holding pro-level classes that were tough and sweaty. It was pretty much only Aisha Ali who taught the Egyptian style and back then most people was dancing American cabaret or Turkish Style. There was no such thing as Tribal or Fusion styles- hard to believe now, but those genres didn’t even exist! Laura Crawford’s groundbreaking troupe, Flowers of The Desert, of which I was a member, was the first fusion troupe ever, and even that got its start in 1995!
Being a chick that comes from a rock and roll background, I owned plenty of vinyl miniskirts and fishnet stockings, but nothing conservative enough to wear to attend dance events. I actually had to borrow my mom’s clothes (yes, really!) to go see dancers at Arab clubs. There was no such thing as an alternative belly dance scene, so I traded in my motorcycle boots for nice heels, substituted pink acrylic nails for my chipped royal blue “manicure”, and cut off my dreads, dying my peroxide blonde and orange-striped hair back to its original dark brown in order to be hired as a dancer. Even in a city as urbane and sophisticated as Los Angles, I was the very first belly dancer to have a pierced nose!
Everyone told me I’d never be able to get a job with my nose-ring in… but I reasoned that Bedouins, Berbers and East Indian women wore them, and stubbornly flaunted mine, and miraculously, the club owners never said anything. I did have to keep my extensive arm and shoulder tattoos covered. I wore costumes that had sleeves attached, or would custom-make little shrugs to hide the “offensive” tattoos. Today, the general public considers them artful, and many dancers of both cabaret and Tribal persuasion proudly sport tattoos. Many dancers now also have neon colored hair, dreadlocks, facial and belly button piercings, too.
I used to joke about wanting to perform raks shamadan to the Doors song “Light My Fire” and people thought I was completely insane! I was roped into Samba choreography in Flowers Of The Desert cause I was the only performer who would even consider performing in a Samba costume…and show my fishnet-encased butt onstage. I was like, “Do I get to wear a headdress?!?!” Nobody would consider wearing anything to dance in other than a bedlah or beledy dress to dance in, though recently, Melodia bell-bottoms, hot pants, and any manner of outré apparel counts as stage wear. Nowadays, imaginative costumes and using non- traditional music, as a sound track to Middle Eastern dance- be it rock and roll, hip hop, industrial, Goth or whatever-is completely accepted! We now have Pirate Belly Dance, Raks Gothique, Steam Punk, Burlesque Fusion, etc etc etc. Nowadays, even Fatchancebellydance Tribal style looks “archaic”!
Having written all of this, I practically feel like a Grandma recounting ancient history…Yes, things have changed!