Friday, April 24, 2009
A belly dancer without a veil is like a butterfly without wings. When I was a beginning baby belly dancer, veils entranced me…but I was also scared of them! It all seemed so complicated, like it required so much technique and co-ordination… and of course, I was convinced that veil work was a skill a mere mortal such as myself would never master! Downtrodden and frustrated, I dragged my veil out of my dance bag and doggedly started to practice. As a last resort, I shyly asked a few seasoned dancers if they could help. Thankfully, they took pity on me and generously taught me some tricks, and after a little while…veil work actually began to be fun!
Now, seventeen years later, one of the first things I teach to my beginner classes is basic veil technique. Many of the movements are easily mastered, therefore instantly gratifying, and a way to counteract the feelings of frustration and clumsiness beginning dancers may experience. A roomful of adult women playing with veils is usually as giggly and delightful as a bunch of little girls at a slumber party. Veils give you permission to play while you dance, and can become an extension of your on-stage persona. They will bring out all the different facets of your personality, whether goddess, seductress, fairy princess, temple dancer, or vamp.
For thousands of years, dancers using flowing veils were depicted in the art of ancient civilizations. From statues found in Egyptian tombs to Grecian mosaic tile work, from East Indian wall carvings to frescoes painted in Constantinople, diaphanous fabric and the female form in motion seem to be constant companions. Today, as Oriental Dancers continue the ancient tradition, using veils to add an air of mystery and allure to an already hypnotic dance form. We use our veils in many ways: to draw attention to the area of the body we want the audience to look at, to momentarily flirt with and connect to the crowd, or as a swirling, colorful frame for breathtaking spins. Some dancers like to enter a stage with a veil flying behind them, others like to enter traditionally wrapped in their veils. If you
Plan to discard your veil after using it onstage; make sure to throw it well out of your performance area or dance-path. There’s a good reason for this:
A veil can actually become a safety hazard. A veil and a slick wooden floor are a dangerous combination- if you step on your veil, you can actually slide unexpectedly on it; and if you happen to be dancing in a restaurant, it’s Murphy’s Law that waiters and diners will step on directly on top of it. Personally, I don’t know how anyone would assume that a brightly colored piece of sheer fabric laying in the middle of the floor is part of a restaurant’s décor, but this is a common occurrence!
A veil should conceal and reveal – it should flow around the dancer and move with her like a magical rainbow. Veils are used extensively in Turkish and American Cabaret belly dance, though Egyptian dancers typically only use a veil for entrances. Because of this stylistic difference, many Egyptian veils are heavily embellished with beads and sequins, making working with them an exercise in futility- they get caught on everything: your cymbals, your hair, the fringe on your costumes. But since most Westerners think that veil work and belly dance are synonymous, many Egyptian style dancers in the US and Europe will add in a few extra flourishes, due to “popular demand”. I will use my beautifully decorated Egyptian veils for photo-shoots, but swap out a much easier to work with plain silk or chiffon veil when I really want to get down to business onstage. There are many types of veils to choose from, rectangular, semi-circular, full circle, embellished or plain, natural or synthetic fabric. Most professional veils are about two and a half to three yards long- depending on what feels most comfortable for you, or the desired affect. Many dancers have mastered the use of double veils, or four-yard veils, both of which are stunning in performance.
With a bit of practice, your veil can become your best friend. Another perk to think about is that veil work is marvelous for the muscles in your upper body. Try holding one up and moving with it for a few minutes- you will not believe how heavy a few ounces of silk or chiffon can become! Veil work is great for toning and sculpting your shoulders and upper arms. Please remember to always warm up thoroughly before you practice and perform in order to prevent injury!
Tuesday, April 21, 2009
Though fan dancing is not considered traditional in raqs sharqi, due to the increasing popularity of fusion, many Oriental dancers are exploring blending the many styles of fan dancing and belly dance with stunning results. When used onstage, fans are FAN-ciful, conveying various emotions to an audience, as well as being a spectacular visual treat. They can be dramatic and stately, or coy and flirtatious and are always a crowd pleaser!
About eleven years ago, I became interested in dancing with fans, and when I became proficient in dancing with single and double fans of many types, then began experimenting with incorporating fan use into my belly dance shows. I am not alone: many well-known belly dancers are known for using fan work in their routines.
To get into an overview of history, fans have been used for thousands of years, and have been a part of every culture on the globe. Archeologists have uncovered murals and statues depicting fan use from ancient Egypt, Greece, Assyria, and all over Asia. Fans have been used extensively in everything from traditional and folkloric dances as well as in theatrical, classical, fantasy as well as ritual pieces. They have been used by solo dancers as well as in choreographed group pieces,as well as props in non-performance social group dances, such as the 17th and 18th century court dances of Europe.
Before the days of climate control and air conditioning, men as well as women routinely carried fans and used them to keep cool. The folding fan was invented in Japan, in the 8th century, and later taken to China in the 9th century. Fans used in the Renaissance period of Europe had lavishly decorated handles, which pre-dated hand fans. Folding fans were not introduced to Europe until the 1600’s, and were in high demand among royalty and the upper classes, due to their exquisite craftsmanship.
Flirtatious females always knew the power and allure of fans. In Victorian times, there was even a “language” of gesturing with fans, with various positions (open or closed, held again the face, snapped open or fluttered- etc.) serving as a secret social “code” between women and their suitors these silent movements got the point across in a non-verbal way that also preserved the fan’s owner’s appearance and social status.
Throughout Asia, fans have been used in court dances, ritual presentation and classical and folkloric theatrical shows. In Korea, dating from about the time of the Choson ( sometimes spelled “Joson”) Dynasty (1392-1910 AD) traditional fan dancers pose and move in circles portraying flowers, swaying gracefully. Chinese dancing fans - sometimes known Mulan fans- are unique because they have a ruffle, which extends beyond the bamboo tines of the fan and flutters beautifully when manipulated correctly. Fans are also used in Asian martial arts practices as well- Tai Chi fans have traditional patterns and designs (dragons, phoenix birds, etc.) embroidered or printed on the material, and on authentic fans, the staves are made of steel or some other metal…which I do NOT recommended for stage use in a dance performance!
Traditionally, fans have been used in Spanish Flamenco as well as various other Rom (gypsy) rooted dances from all across Europe. The Flamenco fans, known as pericons, are typically made of lace, sometimes combined with another type of decorative woven material, or light, hand-painted silk, and are used in the Sevillanas style of Flamenco. In North America, folding hand fans are used in Mexican Ballet Folklorico, and flat-feathered fans with rigid handles are sometimes used in traditional sacred dances of various Native American nations.
Perhaps the best known and the showiest use of fans also stems from America. Burlesque legend Sally Rand appeared at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair and instantly became an overnight sensation with her fan dance routine, in which she appeared nude (or possibly wearing a full-body stocking) using two gigantic luxurious fans made of ostrich plumes to conceal and reveal her charms. Born in 1903 in Missouri, Sally Rand had been a circus acrobat and performed on the vaudeville and burlesque circuits. She also appeared in over twenty silent films, as well as in talkies, including her famous fan dance sequences in the films “Bolero” and Cecile B. De Mille’s “King Of Kings”. It is said that she “saved” the World’s Fair, attracting a huge crowd with her fan dance…small wonder she attracted such a crowd: she was notorious for her “scandalous” shows and had been arrested a number of times. She performed the very same fan routine almost exclusively in her rich career, which spanned over fifty years. Her legacy lives on even now, and her fan dance has become a part of theatrical history, as well as a burlesque staple. Today, the gigantic, impressive ostrich fans used worldwide are still referred to as “Sally Rand Fans”.
If you would like to start using fans while belly dancing, I would recommend a lot of practice before adding them into a stage routine. Not only are fans a prop, they should function an extension of your bodily movement and expression ( like zills) and cannot be merely flung away, like veils. Practice with smaller fans at first- the constant movement of the arms and shoulders can really take it’s toll on your muscles! See what type of fans you like, or choose those that make sense with your dancing. Experiment with using fan technique from different cultures and traditions: haughty flamenco snaps, coy geisha poses, and dramatic gypsy attitude. Incorporate sweeping turns with the fans aloft, use the burlesque / tease premise of “conceal and reveal”. Use the fan to frame your face or your abdominal technique or hip work, use two fans for full-body poses.
Here are some different fans you may want to play around with:
Made entirely of lace or fabric, and in many cases, a combination of both, these hand fans are strikingly beautiful, often intricately hand-painted and hand-crafted and sturdy, they can be snapped open and shut quite easily.
MULAN FANS & FAN VEILS
Fan veils are a modern version of the traditional Mulan Fan has recently become a very popular prop with Cabaret, Fusion and Tribal belly dancers… the fan's tail- sometimes a yard or longer in length- flies through the air dramatically during spins and turns. These fans are usually made of 100% silk because a synthetic blend won’t cause the fan to float and “defy gravity” the way it should.
These large hand fans are made of marabou feathers, often tipped with peacock and pheasant feathers, and though fragile, can look great onstage.
SALLY RAND FANS
The reigning royalty of stage fans, Sally Rand- style theatrical fans have been a classic staple in burlesque performances for decades. Mounted on strong plastic staves, these fans open and close fairly easily, but still will not snap open because of the bulk of the feathers. These beauties can have a single row of feathers, or can be layered with up to four rows of large ostrich plumes. Because of the relative heaviness of the staves, the large circumference ( or “wing span”) and the potential bulk of the feathers, these fans may be difficult to handle at first, and may take a bit of getting used to. Also good to know: because of the large size of these fans, the slower they sweep through the air, the better they look; but slow movements with such a large, weighty prop will definitely work your muscles, and you may experience some muscle soreness when you first begin to work with Sally Rand fans. These fans are hand-made and don’t come cheaply- expect to pay anywhere from $250.00- $600.00 new per pair, depending on the size, craftsmanship, amount of feathers and even the colors or custom dying of the feathers…and you thought belly dance costumes were expensive!
When using any sort of fans, make sure to do a complete warm-up of the hands, wrists, arm, and shoulders, in addition to your usual warm-up.
SHAMELESS PLUG: I have an instructional DVD called "FAN-TASTIC", which gives instruction for all types of fans... and has tips on fan care and repair, plus performances! You can order it here: http://www.princessfarhana.com/video_fantastic.htm
Photo Credit: Don Spiro
Saturday, April 18, 2009
I may be one of the most glitter-addicted, rhinestone-afflicted, bring-on-the-bling belly dancers on the face of the planet. I was trained extensively ( in the USA and Cairo) in the neo-classical Egyptian raqs sharqi style. I have absolutely no background whatsoever in ATS, ITS, or just plain old Tribal belly dance. But for the past few years , roughly half of the events where I’ve taught workshops, performed, and judged competitions are Tribal and Alternative dance festivals . Many dancers wonder how- and why- this came to be.
My professional belly dance career began in 1991. Enchanted by the dance in all it’s forms, whether Egyptian, American Cabaret, Turkish, North African folkloric, Rom, Persian- you name it, I studied it. I took classes and workshops, saw as many dancers as I could ( both live and on video) and did as much research as possible in those days, long before the Internet made that part easier. I was obsessed! At that time, Oriental dance was in a kind of limbo state. The first Gulf War was going on, and anti-Arab sentiment was strong in this country. The huge belly dance fad that had swept the nation in the Eighties had died down, and the art was only being kept alive by a few die-hards- wonderful, experienced women who’d been teaching and performing professionally for years, and a small handful of enthusiasts who were mostly ( in Los Angeles, at least) housewives.
I stuck out like a sore thumb: I was a tattooed and pierced rock and roll chick with bleach- striped dreadlocks who wanted to be Fifi Abdo….Whaaaaaaat?
Nowadays, that doesn’t seem so weird, but back then, well, let’s just say I was an anomaly! My tattoos were always hidden when I performed nobody knew I had them. I had to borrow my mom’s clothes to go to Arabic clubs, because all I owned were leather mini skirts and ripped fishnets….and any money I had was going directly towards Egyptian costumes, so I could live my crazy dream!
Back then, there was really no such thing as alternative belly dancing, at least not in the massive way there is today. I wanted to experiment with my newly-beloved art form, and make it completely over-the-top and dramatic.
I had literally grown up in the theater. Dad was an entertainment writer, mom was an ex-chorus girl, dancer and singer who worked in the theater department of an Ivy League school, and directed musical comedy when I was a kid. It being the late Sixties and early Seventies, while I was in my formative years, I got the education of a lifetime on that campus! Let’s just say I was no stranger to outré, experimental dance forms. But there was no outlet for me to do this in my chosen discipline: Oriental dance. Whenever I mentioned my cockamamie ideas ( like raks shamadan to the Door’s song “Light My Fire”, or doing an homage performance to Mata Hari ) other dancers seemed to think I was just plain crazy. But I had know- how about putting on shows, and began to use it.
In 1993, I co-wrote, directed and performed in a show called “Common Threads: Women And Oriental Dance”, which had two sold-out runs at LA’s Highways Theater, and was later tapped for MECDA’s Cairo Carnivale evening show. It featured cabaret and folkloric styles of belly dance, acting, spoken word voice overs, and many numbers that were pure fantasy, and would now be known as Fusion. The cast included Zahra Zuhair, Sahra Saeeda, Anaheed, and a then- up and coming performer, Jillina.
Around that time, I saw Fat Chance Belly Dance at a tattoo convention, and was blown away. I remember thinking, “If I ever move to San Francisco I should join up with those gals!”
Coincidentally, at that time, I began a correspondence ( through the US Mail, thank you very much!) with a student of Carolena Nericchio’s, and we got on like gangbusters because we both couldn’t believe there was another person who loved belly dance as much as punk rock…and we were both writers! Talk about sympatico! Her name was Kajira Djoumahna. We stayed in touch and visited with each other for years.
As belly dance began to change with the advent of the Internet and more access to knowledge, World Music and fused musical forms began to get very popular. I believe it was Alabina’s first recordings in the mid-to-late Nineties that took the Arabic dance world by storm, prompting a mania for Flamenco Arabic Fusion. After that, the doors blew wide open. As time rolled on, there began to be more and more performance avenues for me to perform my “crazy experiments”, which I did, with passion. By the turn of the last century, I was regularly performing adventurous pieces ( some of which became quite controversial) and many others were, too. Tribal belly dance had exploded, and dancers were beginning to have myriad outlets for their own creativity within the context of the dance.
In the “olden days”, belly dance seemed to be divided into two distinct camps: Egyptian and Turkish…and many times those factions seemed to be at war over which was better or more “legit”, similar to the neurotic division of sentiments towards Los Angeles vs. New York City, or Classical Music vs. Rock ‘N’ Roll. After a while, the teams became “Cabaret” and “Tribal”, each side with vehement supporters, many of whom dissed the other practice. This seemed strange to me, since I admired both forms, but many dancers seemed to take sides steadfastly.
When Kajira Djoumahna first asked me to teach at Tribal Fest Four (May 2004) many people were astounded. Even I myself wondered what would happen when I went up there- how would I be received? But it was Kajira’s idea and she was confident in her motives, and adamant that I teach. I even had to make a costume specially for the festival, because everything I owned was covered in rhinestones and fringe, and there was a strict costuming “dress code”. I remember my class gasping in surprise when I removed my sweater, revealing my tattoos… how was it possible that a cabaret dancer could be covered in ink? The whole thing was a bit controversial: I wasn’t pretending to be Tribal, I was straight-up Cabaret. Some Tribal dancers were skeptical that they would be able to learn anything from a Cabaret performer, and almost felt violated that there was an “outsider” among them. Many Cabaret dancers felt like I’d betrayed them and shamelessly “gone to the other side”-it was almost like a belly dance version of “West Side Story”!
Nevertheless, as an experiment, it was a success, and I have been asked back to teach there every year since then, which has lead to my teaching at a number of other Tribal festivals. Always insightful, Kajira insisted I would become a belly dance version of what the music industry refers to as a “crossover artist”, and I did. Other early supporters of my trans-genre work were Tempest, and the women of the troupe Devadasi , now Blue Damsel.
I love Tribal style for many reasons: it’s mesmerizing and a joy to watch, of course, and there are many amazing artists in the field, many of whom are now close personal friends. But probably the main reason I love working at Tribal festivals is that there is a sense of daring and adventure that is not always present with practitioners of Cabaret style dance. Personally, I attribute this to Tribal style being an American invention: the dancers do not have to live up to a certain traditional, ethnic standard in performance, costuming and behavior, and so they feel free to play around, letting their own unique personalities and frame of reference inform their work.
Conversely, I believe that I have given many Tribal dancers an inspiration to explore theatrical presentation as well as traditional cabaret stylings such as veil work, fan dancing, Egyptian technique, not to mention get in touch with their inner Glamour Puss, through burlesque. Though my years of activity in the field of burlesque has long caused raging debates ( and yeah, a lot more controversy) with Cabaret dancers , Team Tribal embraces the genre as the art form that it is.
Initially, I used to joke that I was going to “pollute” the Tribal world with my love of glitter and glitz. I couldn’t see why there was such widespread distaste for anything sparkly or shiny.
I even had a concept: On any continent, at any time in history, if a bag of Egyptian fringe and rhinestones were dropped into the midst of a group of Indigenous Tribal Peoples, are you gonna tell me they weren’t gonna use it to adorn themselves?! HELLO- we’re talking about folks who would sew smashed bottle caps onto their clothes and adorn their hairdos with zippers! A couple of years ago, Rachel Lazarus Soto came up to me and gleefully reported that she’s been picking all the glass out of her antique Afghani jewelry and replacing it Swarovsky crystals…and now many other dancers are following suit!
When I teach abroad, there doesn’t seem to be as much of a divide between the two belly dance genres , and even here, thankfully, that is now changing. Cabaret and ethnic folkloric dancers regularly teach at Tribal festivals; events that were previously Cabaret-only have come to welcome ATS, Fusion and Alternative dancers, and many brand-new events dedicated to the Alternative ( like California’s Hips Of Fury or Arabia Exotica,Tribal Throwdown, or Philadelphia’s Fuze Fest) have recently sprung up.
We are in the midst of a bona fide belly dance boom- and performers of all stripes are heading up the revolution! Whether Tribaret, Raks Gothique, Belly-Burlesque Fusion, Asian-Arabic, Bollywood Fusion or just plain old Cabaret and Tribal…we are all united in dance, and that is truly something to kick up your heels about!
** Pictured: A Kookie Kaftan sandwhich: me with Lynne and Julie Chapman, two of my favorite dancers in the UK. We're wearing shirts that Lynne's hubby Alan designed. Cute, no?
Friday, April 17, 2009
Tomorrow, my tabby kittens will be exactly four weeks old!
Sphinxie is a GREAT mama, especially considering she was feral when she came to me. My boyfriend Dirty and I made a kitten condo out of three huge packing boxes, and the "Tabby Hooligans", as the are now known, live there, at the foot of my bed.The babies' eyes opened about two weeks ago and they are all strong and healthy and insanely active...and so damn cute you need a straight jacket and duct tape over your mouth to keep from screaming when you see them play! In the past week, they have learned to pounce, though they have such fat little tummies they usually wind up rolling onto their backs from gravity. The also do a super-fantastic "Halloween" pose, really ferocious spit, and are constantly wrestling with each other, and chasing a tiny ball. Their movements are so jerky they look like a vintage Mac Sennett short or turn-of-the-century newsreel, all comic and spastic. We are going to start the weaning process later this week, introducing them to soft kitten chow , and let them explore the house....which I've valiantly tried to "kitten-proof", though that's a gigantic chore with all the belly dance paraphenalia laying around. They will need total supervision!
Tuesday, April 14, 2009
The “Siren” costume was one of the most complex sewing and construction projects I have undertaken in a long time.
In August of 2008, Hollywood Music Center invited me to be a part of their “Tales of Desire” show . The themed event- each dance had to somehow interpret “desire”- took place December 6, 2008. It was not only a live show in a 500-seat, state-of-the-art theater, but also a DVD shoots. In addition to myself, the cast included some of the most innovative, inventive performers around today, both in terms of dancing AND costuming…like Unmata, Mira Betz, Atash Maya, Aubre, Elizabeth Strong, Sherri Wheatley,Kristina Canizares, male dancer Arish Lam from Puerto Rico and Tjarda from Holland’s popular troupe The Uzume, among many others.
So… there was not only the challenge of interpreting the theme performance-wise but also creating a costume that would look as good on film as it did on a large stage under bright lights. Though I am Egyptian-trained, and perform cabaret-style on a regular basis, I also do a lot of fusion and experimentation, but my roots are in traditional belly dance- not Tribal. The fact that the show was billed as Tribal Fusion informed my choice of costuming materials and the look as well- so I wanted to honor the look and feel of the show while staying true to my blingy, sparkly self!
My piece was titled “Siren”, the music I used was HMC’s moody “Sapurey’s Mantra”, from the “Serpent’s Garden” CD. I played a character that was rejected by her lover and gained vengeance by using desire itself as a weapon. I opened my show with a modernized version of the traditional Persian raqs-e bazak, a dance featuring a pantomime of a woman applying her make-up. Since this is performed seated on the floor, I needed skirts ample enough to do floor work without giving the audience more of a “show” than they bargained for! I searched through my closet to see what I had in the way of large skirts, and found something amazing which I’d forgotten I’d owned- a huge multi-panel full circle skirt I bought used from LA-based cabaret dancer Anaheed nearly twenty years ago, when I first started dancing.
The skirt, with ridiculous amounts of yardage, is exquisite. It’s hand-made, constructed of iridescent burgundy chiffon, vintage Indian Sari material, with metallic embroidery and shades of fuchsia, bright yellow gold and hot pink; golden metallic trim and incredible lavender antique Persian Lace - the type used probably hasn’t even been made in over forty years. I used a royal blue chiffon circle skirt for an under-skirt.
I decided to go with an old-fashioned “harem concubine” look that would be equal parts Hollywood 1940’s Oriental fantasy
(Think Hedi Lamar in “Sampson And Delilah”) mixed with ideas from Golden Age Egyptian films and a little vintage Bollywood thrown in. The color scheme of the skirt informed my bra, belt and accessory construction.
I wanted to use a lot of metal, but didn’t want a coin costume, so again I went “shopping” in my closet and found a brass 1980’s South Western chain-link Concho belt in bright gold. I sometimes wonder why I save this kind of stuff, but it always comes in handy! The belt had oval Conchos attached by heavy links, which I removed with a pliers. I “antiqued” the Conchos, painting them with black nail polish, wiping each panel so the polish stuck only to the engravings.
With craft glue, I attached over-sized round “lapis lazuli” stones to the center of each Concho, surrounded by large magenta cabochon stones and Swarovsky crystals. This took THREE DAYS to dry. The centerpiece of the belt is a large metal flower-shaped buckle off a 1970’s belt purchased at a garage sale for a dollar; I covered all the “petals” with small Swarovsky crystals.
I constructed a belt and bra and covered them in antique gold lame’ overlaid with gorgeous hand-made vintage lace, which I dyed lavender to match the skirt. Following the patterns on the lace, I traced the shapes of flowers and leaves by gluing on assorted sizes of aurora borealis Swarovsky crystals. The bra and belt were both out-lined with vintage magenta and gold sequin trim I picked up at a going-out-of-business sale.
For the center-piece on the bra, I took a quite tarnished-but perfect for the vintage look- Egyptian Dowry necklace, and picked out the turquoise stones, replacing them with crystals and cabochons, then secured it to the bra; and also covered two antique gold earrings with rhinestones, attaching them to the middle of each bra cup. I sewed the Conchos and belt-buckle onto the hip-band with dental floss- an old trick I picked up from theatrical costumers. Floss is much sturdier for holding heavy pieces in place, and these metallic bits were definitely weighty! The belt was finished with two layers (royal blue and gold) of 2” fringe to retain that “old-fashioned” look. I added six 8” heavy drapery tassels, made of gold bugle beads. I bought four more 10” drapery tassels, in buff and magenta, and covered the knots in golden faceted crystals. I wanted these to hang from each hip to about knee-length, so I hand-braided long strips of glitter-dot fabric in lavender, magenta and antique gold, attached the tassels, and secured them to the belt.
The accessories were also time-consuming. I made felt medallions covered in cabochon and crystal stones, and attached them to stretch-sequin trim in dull, brushed gold, creating different-sized bands, three for each arm, one for each ankle. The wrist pieces were fashioned from oval-shaped crocheted antique doily lace which I cut up and mounted on felt, covered with crystals, with bands made of flesh-toned elastic straps, which I salvaged from the bra, attached with snaps instead of clasps. I took a huge pair of older, tarnished Egyptian costume-jewelry earrings, and blinged them up with Swarovsky crystals in blue, red iris and aurora, and did the same with a necklace I already owned. For the tiara, I bought a net bridal tiara form, and cut up gold appliqués,gluing them into place jigsaw puzzle style. They looked too bright, so I sprayed the whole crown with antique gold paint for a retro look, and again traced the designs of the appliqués with crystals, and added the “lapis” cabochon stones, and crafted forehead bindi’s in matching rhinestones. I even used magenta glitter on my lips, and magenta nail polish.
The whole process was a huge under-taking, but it was all more than worth it when I heard the audience gasp in unison as the lights came up on my performance!
By the way, I just visited with Mher from Hollywood Music Center and found out that “Tales Of Desire” will be released as a two DVD set in early June 2009. Yay!
Friday, April 10, 2009
“ARE YOU THE EASTER BUNNY?”
This question was screamed at me top volume from about thirty feet away by a homeless person of indeterminate sex, as I sat at an outdoor café on LA’s trendy Vermont Avenue, sipping a latte. The person inquiring was not only pushing an overloaded shopping cart and had leaves in their hair, they also had a cleft palate or some similar speech impediment, so it took me a few pointed hollers to realize that the question was being asked, was, in fact, if I was The Easter Bunny. I will attempt to reproduce what said question sounded like phonetically:
“AAAH NYEW NEE EADOR BUNNEE?”
In my “Flashdance” style cut-off sweatshirt and Melodia sweats, hair piled on top of my head in a sloppy bun and men’s aviator shades, I really didn’t look anything like The Easter Bunny, or the other patrons of the café… who were beginning to stare at me, wondering what my answer was going to be. It was perfectly clear to everyone that this question was being hollered directly to me.
I’m not sure exactly what it is about me that invites attention from the mentally unstable, but whatever it is, I’ve got it in spades. Luridly made-up bag ladies routinely cross busy streets just to strike up a conversation with me; blackout drunks at Mardi Gras stagger blindly through police lines to give me beads, and I’ve been the subject of plenty of unsolicited amorous attention from colorful individuals that law enforcement officers would probably classify as “the criminally insane”. In the two most memorable cases, this, for some reason, has something to do with Easter.
The question was screamed at me again.
“ARE YOU THE EASTER BUNNY?”
Having now attracted the attention of passers-by as well as the other café patrons, I figured I might as well answer.
“Um, no…” I said sheepishly, regretting having inadvertently disturbed everyone’s tranquil spring afternoon, including my own.
Yet this didn’t daunt my inquisitor.
“WELL,” it continued, “ DO YOU HAVE AN EASTER BUNNY COSTUME?”
It was now clearly too late not to engage in this bizarre exchange, so I answered,
“As a matter of fact, I do!”
“WITH BUNNY EARS?”
“Uh, yes, of course with ears.”
With this, the person broke into a manic, jubilant grin revealing many missing teeth, and yelled,
“MEET HE HERE ON EASTER MORNING- AND BRING A BASKET WITH CHOCLATE EGGS!”
“Okay,” I managed weakly, hoping that it wouldn’t shatter the dream when I didn’t show up as promised.
Not too long after that, I was walking along Hollywood Boulevard, minding my own business, when something similar occurred.
“ Hey Pretty Lady, Pretty Lady! Hey can I ask you a question, Pretty Lady?”
I ignored the smooth “playah” cadence of this pick-up artist’s voice, kept walking quickly hoping to ditch him, but to no avail. Pretty soon, the dude got into step right beside me. Even though my eyes were focused straight ahead, I could tell he was tall, and slowing his pace to match mine.
“Hey Pretty Lady! Are you single, do you have a boyfriend? Are you married? You sooo pretty, Pretty Lady!”
This went on for at least a block. Persistent motherfucker, I thought to myself. Hopefully he’ll see some slutty tourist with a fake tan and a tube top and forget about me. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught glimpse of his leg as he strode alongside me. He was wearing tuxedo trousers, black with a satin stripe down the sides, with black jazz shoes…. but they were totally filthy, caked with mud.
“Hey Pretty Lady! Wanna have some coffee with me, Pretty Lady?”
He wasn’t relenting so I figured I should just stop and confront him.
“Pretty Lady! Let’s have some coffee and talk about our future, Pretty Lady!”
I halted dead in my tracks and before turning to look at him, I yelled,
“ I’m married!”
“Oh, Pretty Laaaaady,” he sighed dejectedly.
When I turned to look at him, he was indeed tall. Like, Los Angeles Lakers tall. He was a striking African American man, and indeed he was wearing a tuxedo. But the suit was so rumpled and covered with caked-on mud it looked like he’d been run over by a tractor.
He also had on a pair of brand new white plush bunny ears with pink satin lining, AND was sporting a child’s white plastic “Phantom of The Opera” mask!
For an insane moment, I briefly considered taking a cell-phone picture with him and maybe even going out to coffee to see what in God’s name this get-up was all about, but then I got a hold of myself, mainly because he smelled so horrible.
“ARE YOU THE EASTER BUNNY?” I yelled as loudly as I could manage, before skipping away as quickly as I could.
Monday, April 6, 2009
This June 2009 marks the tenth anniversary of what is perhaps the world's largest belly dance festival: Ahlan Wa Sahlan in Cairo, Egypt. I am stoked not just to be attending this year, but also to be teaching at the Festival. it's something I never would have ever dared to dream when I first began belly dancing...in fact, I am still pinching myself to make sure it's real!
I first met the Festival's mastermind, Raqia Hassan, in the early 1990's, on her first trip to America. I attended an LA workshop, and was just a baby dancer- imagine me in a room with a plethora of pro dancers, not to mention Raqia herself! Over the years, Raqia has been a wonderful teacher as well as an inspiration to me. When I am in cairo, she is like my belly dance Auntie. We took this picture together in her atelier, in between my costume fittings.
For those of you who may not know her, Raqia Hassan is a living legend whose astonishing career has spanned nearly four decades. Many have credited her for single-handedly keeping the art of Egyptian dance alive. From her debut as a folkloric dancer in the hey-day of Egypt’s world-renowned Reda Troupe, she later morphed into the Grande Dame of Raqs Sharqi- and is widely considered to be the top oriental dance choreographer in the world. Over the years, she has trained generations of performers. Many of Madame Raqia’s current devotees and/or former students are literally “household names” in the global belly dance community, including Egyptian stars Dina, Randa Kamel, Aza Sherif, Dandash and Mona El Said, as well as non-Egyptian dancers such as Russian-born Katia, and Americans Jillina and Zahra Zuhair. Her work with these top-notch performers is comparable to that of George Balanchine or Mikhail Baryshnikov in the world of ballet.
Madam Raqia also is the brains and life force behind the Ahlan Wa Sahlan Festival. One of the largest events of it’s kind, the festival has been held every June for the past eight years in Cairo. The weeklong event draws both avid belly dance enthusiasts and highly trained professionals from fifty-five countries; in 2007 the registration brimmed with over twelve hundred dancers. The teachers at the festival are mostly stars and legends in their own right, such as Mona El Said, Nagwa Fouad, Morocco, Dina, Lucy, Dr. Mo Geddawi, Josephine Wise, Randa Kamel, Diana Tarkhan and Amir Thaleb…. to name just a few. The sheer orchestration of mounting a festival on this level is staggering.
Though many would be content to sit on the laurels of such an impressive career, Madame Raqia shows absolutely no sign of slowing down. She oversees Ahlan Wa Sahlan in way that could only be termed extremely hands-on, and in spite of being a doting grandmother, also finds the time to travel extensively. In the past year alone she has visited Japan, Korea, China, Spain and Sweden, and have course, the United States. Even a broken leg (sustained in early 2008) has not managed to stop her! I spoke to her on the phone this morning, and she had just retruned from a month in Spain and was on her way to Kazhakistan! One of her latest endeavors is opening up her own costume atelier- but more on that later.
Though it’s one thing to read about her accomplishments, experiencing Raqia Hassan live and in action is an entirely different animal-just ask anyone who has ever taken one of her workshops, private lessons or had the good fortune to spend some quality time with her. She is every inch the diva, but smashes the superstar stereotype of being aloof and remote. A vibrant bundle of non-stop energy, she is a force to be reckoned with. Swathed in her signature leopard print, her brown doe-eyes sparkle with enthusiasm at a volume that is not quite upstaged by her flashy earrings and dangly charm bracelets. Her facial expressions are numerous and animated; her laughter is loud, uproarious and constant. This genuine joie de vivre extends into her connection with the dance, which is clearly why her work is so often labeled with adjectives like “passionate” and “magical”. Every time dances to a piece of music, it seems as significant and fresh as though it was brand-new to her, and not the whatever-hundredth time she might be teaching or performing it. Not only that, her unique feeling is contagious, so anyone around her is immediately affected-or infected- with her love for the art form.
Her spacious flat is undeniably the nerve center for belly dance in Egypt. On a recent visit to Cairo, Jim Boz and I spent a lot of time there. Boz being a ‘Cairo virgin’, he was practically speechless at the non-stop activity that transpired in Madame Raqia’s world on what would be termed “an average day”. Her abode is cluttered with baroque furniture and low tables covered with crocheted doilies; in June there is still a gay Mylar banner reading “HAPPY NEW YEAR!” spread across a doorway, cartoons blare from a television in another room, and her beloved lap-dogs are constantly underfoot. Madame Raqia can usually be found ensconced in a throne-like arm chair, cuddling a grand-daughter or her Chihuahua, Chocolata, chatting animatedly and endlessly on two cell phones at once, in both Arabic and English. The mobiles and the landline phones never stop ringing- EVER- and neither does the doorbell.
French/Algerian dancer Chirin is staying here while she waits for her dance license to come through. She’s on the couch along with recently married (and newly retired from performing) Egyptian star Amany- they are busily engaged in painting Raqia’s five-year-old granddaughter’s toenails. Next to them is Russian belly dance star Katia, glamorous with her cascading dark hair and a rhinestone Chanel T-shirt. Katia is sipping coffee and also on a cell-phone, talking in Russian (as well as Arabic and English) trying to sort out the details for her next-day trip to the Ukraine to judge a belly dance contest and teach workshops. The doorbell rings and acclaimed folkloric artist Mr. Shalaby jumps up to answer it. Fresh from a Pilate’s session, legend-in-the-making Sorraya sails in wearing gym clothes, clutching a Betty Boop handbag. She is here to work on Andalusian choreography with the Reda Troupe’s Doa, who hasn’t arrived yet. Sorraya gets out her mobile phone and begins a conversation in Portuguese. Housekeeper Aza constantly scuttles in and out of the room with trays of mint tea, Turkish coffee and bowls of the traditional Egyptian macaroni dish koshary.
“Eat, eat!” Raqia yells to no one in particular, holding a cell-phone up to each ear, “But you must eat!”
The doorbell rings again and Mr. Shalaby opens the door to Italian belly dancer Dalila, who has been working in Cairo for the past year. Tonight she is doing a wedding at the Five Star Hotel Concorde in Heliopolis, and has come here to make arrangements about borrowing Randa Kamel’s orchestra. She greets the other dancers with double kisses, talks on her mobile phone in Italian and Spanish, simultaneously conversing with Madame Raqia in English and Arabic. The doorbell punctuates the cacophony again and Doa sweeps in wearing a long gypsy skirt, her “ tweenage “ daughter in tow. Doa turns on Andalusian music loudly in the adjacent studio, and then swirls around the living room with Sorraya, demonstrating kicks and turns.
Slightly shell-shocked, Boz is half-way through his bowl of koshary when Madame Raqia declares we must leave now for our final fittings at the atelier- the elevator, which in true Cairene style has been broken for days, is finally working again.
“Yella, let’s go!” declares Raqia, amidst the chaos.
After a hair-raising kamikaze ride with Madame Raqia and Katia through Cairo’s crowded streets blasting Mahmoud El Leity’s new cd, we arrive at the atelier, where the scene is much the same as it was at the flat. The staff is in a flurry of activity preparing for Ahlan WA Sahlan, and costumes in every stage of completion are draped over all available surfaces. Bolts of shiny spandex fabric printed with everything from stars to flowers to silver sunglasses stand against each wall, and are flanked by racks of dazzling balady dresses as well as the standard two piece costumes. A boy sits at a table with huge veterinary-sized hypodermic needles full of glue attaching crystals to bedlahs, while his co-worker is draping a rose colored, feather- accented dress over a mannequin. The new style is clean and spare-it’s all about draping and fit- not a lot of fringe.
Veiled women sit on the couch with bowls of beads on their laps working busily. The whir of sewing machines competes with a tinny radio loudly playing Abdel Halim Hafez; the girls doing the hand beading are humming along to the song. Madame Raqia, in a brief break from both her mobile phones, explains that everyone in the atelier has their own specialty, and that whatever they do – from fitting bra’s to embellishing- is the only thing they do.
Raqia’s brother is on his mobile phone and of course the landline is ringing. Madame Raqia’s sister, with a measuring tape around her neck and pins in her mouth, grabs Boz and me by each hand and hustles us into a back room. Someone fetches us coffee and water while somebody else clears costume pieces, bags of rhinestones, butt-filled ashtrays, belly dance magazines, pin cushions and beaded appliqués off a table, swiftly covers it in newspaper and prepares a spread of lentil soup, aish balad (fresh pita) and cheese for us, while the veiled girls swarm in and begin undressing me and pinning costumes onto my body in place of my clothes. I’m commanded to stand on demi-point while Raqia’s sister cuts the hem of my skirt. At the same time, my fitter Heba hoists a halter around my neck. Someone else is shoving gauntlets onto each of my arms. A smiling woman proudly brings in Boz’s “Tarzan” costume (an affair of turquoise velvet and shiny leopard-print studded with beadwork) while Raqia crows her approval. I’m now in a gold lame’ Pharonic number, embroidered with chunky aurora borealis crystals and metallic beads, swags of royal blue tulle snaking from hip to hip attached with rhinestone buckles. Fingering a half-finished made-to-order acid-green costume, Katia looks up at me, exhales a thin stream of cigarette smoke, declares it “perfect” and then goes back to her cell phone, while Raqia playfully slaps me on the butt, giggling,
“ This one… marvelous!”
Later, back at our hotel, Boz is exhausted from jet lag, not to mention the frenetic day we’ve spent with Madame Raqia.
“That was… intense”, he sighs weakly.
As we relax watching Egyptian music videos on the telly, I privately stress about the amount of costumes I’ve ordered… it’s not like I need them! I succumbed to the above-mentioned Pharonic one as well as a leopard and teal costume, a midnight blue animal print- and- lame’ with a Spanish skirt, an Art Deco-style leopard number dripping crystals with naughty cut-outs, and one made of glittery, see-through camouflage print material- yes, really.
That night, Boz and I accompanied Dalila and Randa’s band to their Concorde wedding performance, and she wore two of Raqia’s creations. The next night, we catch Sorraya’s show at the Cairo Marriott Zamalek and she’s wearing three different Madame Raqia showstoppers. All of the costumes feature stunningly fitted bras, beautiful beadwork and impeccably gored full skirts that swing delightfully. They are so gorgeous I realize I’ve made the right decision in ordering many of them for myself.
Yes indeed, I came home with a lot of costumes, and many hot new Oriental combinations to boot. But the main thing I brought back to the States with me was another candid glimpse into Madame Raqia’s world…just enough to inspire me and tide me over until the next time I experience the gift of her presence.
For more info on this amazing woman or Ahlan Wa Sahlan, please visit www.raqiahassan.net