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?