Monday, February 23, 2009


As a child, I had wild dreams of glamour, glitter and luxurious pageantry. But since my allowance of a exactly quarter a week got in the way of my high-falutin’ show business aspirations, I had to come up with some pretty creative ways of putting on my extravagant productions. Since I grew up in New England, I was ingrained with the old Yankee proverb “Use it up, wear it out, make it do”- and boy, did I ever!
By the time I was ten, I had become a full-blown theatrical impresario. Hence, my living room production of “Swan Lake” saw the ‘corps de ballet’ wearing dime- store Indian headdresses (they were still feathers, riiiiight?) and the backyard circus featured tigers (a few very patient domestic cats) were housed in ‘cages’ made from discarded orange crates decorated with crayon scribbles and crepe paper streamers left over from a sibling’s birthday party. My budget NEVER stopped me from putting on a show.

As an adult, when I began to belly dance, I tried to channel the same creative energy into my shows and costumes. Even though I can now afford professional costumes (and actually have a costume collection that most would consider an embarrassment of riches) I still love to make costumes of out odd or discarded items.

At first, I made my own costumes cause I had lots of imagination…but no cash. But what used to be called “ghetto” is now called “green”, and making stage-wear is a challenge, a pleasure, and really gratifying as well as being a way of recycling!

One costume of mine that seems to get rave reviews whenever I wear it is my Mata Hari/ Theda Bara/ 1920’s style costume. People comment on it all the time- dancers see it on one of my YouTube clips and email me questions about it. I pored over vintage Orientalist photos and costume sketches from The Ballet Russe- all available in plentiful images on the Internet. Then I went to work.
To create 1900’s- 1920’s style hair, I took and old tangled fall that had seen better days, and secured it onto a Styrofoam wig stand. I parted it in the middle down the back, and wound each side into large cinnamon-roll style buns, which would position over each ear. I secured them in place with large bobby pins and tons of hair spray, since I would’ve tossed the wig anyway. and didn’t mind wrecking it. Originally, I wanted to dance with giant feather fans, which I own, but needed something portable, so I bought two $3.99 hand fans in Chinatown and spray painted them metallic gold, to cover the Chinese dragons, and edged them in gold glitter.

Next came the costume. Since I wanted that “naked” look, I bought a remnant of flesh-toned swimsuit material- three yards for a dollar, and more than enough to make a straight skirt and cover a bra and belt. I sewed a straight hip-band, and covered it with the swimsuit material. I didn’t even bother to cover the flesh-colored bra, since it was the matching color, but I did sew the straps securely so they wouldn’t stretch once I began decorating the costume. Then I made a simple straight skirt by laying the left-over material on the floor, folding it so it was a rectangular shape, and hemming it, making a casing for elastic at the top, and leaving one side open so the skirt had a deep slit on one side. I wanted the bra and belt to be covered in gold lace, so that the flesh-tone would show through underneath… but when I took a trip to the fabric store; the cost of metallic lace was outrageous. Determined to make this costume as cheaply as possible, I went to my fabric bin, and pulled out some lace remnants by boyfriend had gotten from a dumpster behind a clothing factory.

Unfortunately, though the lace was gorgeous, it wasn’t gold, as I had envisioned, for the costume. It was pink. Wishing for gold lace, I suddenly had an inspiration: what if I spray-painted the lace itself? I thought it would still be easy to sew through, since it was basically made of net. I got out the paint I’d used on the fans, and sprayed the lace. After it dried, it was a beautiful antique gold, and still flexible enough to sew through, so the bra-cups and belt got covered in the lace. I then cut out about fifty of the raised lace rosettes (ok, I admit it, I’m completely insane) and glued them with a dot of fabric glue to the skirt, so it now looked like flesh-colored East Indian sari-material, scattered with raised gold flowers.

Now it was time for the embellishments. I gathered up all the Mardi Gras beads and plastic pearl Christmas-trim I could find. I have lots of this stuff lying around the house (because we have now firmly established that I am out of my mind) but it can be purchased very inexpensively at craft stores. I sorted out the colors and lengths that I wanted- in this case, gold and pearls, and cut the trim to the desired length.

I collected all the leftover rhinestones that I’d used on previous costumes. I then traced one large circle and three smaller ones onto felt, cut them out and covered them in the flesh-toned material I’d used on the belt and skirt. Into the center of each, I glued rhinestones and pearls, so each became a flashy medallion, and trimmed the edges with small pearls-by-the-yard. Then I hot-glued them to the center and sides of the belt, using the biggest circle as the front centerpiece. I sewed hooks and eyes to the back of the center piece to fasten it, and then draped the Mardi Gras beads and pearls from medallion to medallion (sewing them on the underside) so they draped over the side of each thigh and made a centered “butt swag” in the back. I made smaller medallions for the belly-drape hanging from the front of the bra in the same way, and fasted them together by draping and sewing pearls, and attaching them to the bra. I trimmed each hanging medallion with a gold tassel.

Next, I randomly glued the multi-colored rhinestones all over the bra and belt, for extra sparkle under the stage lights. Finally, to make the upper arm-bands, I cut the flesh-colored elastic off the tops of fishnet pantyhose, cut those in half, and sewed them together to make the arm-bands, and then trimmed each with the gold flower rosettes I’d put on the skirt.

For the stage, I finished the 1920’s look with my make-up, with a “rosebud” mouth done in maroon lipstick (“Dark Side” by MAC) and by heavily rimming my eyes on both the upper and lower lids with black eye shadow. The music I used to carry on the theme was a vintage Turkish taxm, from and excellent cd called “Istanbul 1925”. The costume- and the entire piece itself made its debut in October ’05 at Shimmy Fest in Fayetteville, Arkansas. We all know how good stage lighting can transform even the most mundane costume into the height of glamour, and that was the effect I was hoping for. Apparently, the costume looked so good onstage bets were placed in the audience as to how much the costume cost- and one woman even guessed $1,000!

I almost didn’t have the heart to tell her that with everything considered- bra, materials, etc- the cost was maybe $36.00… but then I went ahead and wrecked the illusion, proudly blurting out that the entire thing was made from found objects and recycled items! Oh, well!

Monday, February 16, 2009


I have a rather intense relationship with make up.

To me, cosmetics are an obsession…and the only reason that obsession can’t be
classified as a fetish is that it is a socially acceptable obsession.

Like Peter Lorre in the classic cinema noire movie “M”, I should have to carry that letter as a mark to warn others of my degenerate predilection. In the film, Peter Lorre was a child molester and murderer, and the letter M was surreptitiously scratched on the back of his shoulder in chalk by a concerned citizen who wanted to warn others about the danger he presented. In the movie, he wasn’t aware that he was a marked man being stalked by an angry mob.

My letter would also be an M (for make-up, of course) and it’d undoubtedly be scrawled in crimson lipstick across my fore head, although it probably wouldn’t look too out of place among all the other paint I usually wear. Any clerk at a make-up counter definitely wouldn’t need to see an M on me to discern my true nature. They could easily read it in my hungry eyes.

I’m so bad can’t even look at cosmetic ads in magazines without feeling an illicit pleasure- I get all warm and tingly – and get a simply perverse rush at the possibilities and uses of the product being touted. The ad copy for most cosmetics reads like porn: breathlessly descriptive paragraphs about adorable little pots and tubes of color using wanton words like “silky”, “transparent” and “playful”.

Those MAC ads with Beyonce looking like a bronzed deity, a tawny Mary J. Blige dripping honey lip gloss, or Christina Aguilera’s eyes paved with lime green glitter make me weak with lust- not for the women themselves, but for their make-up! A publicist pal once pulled some strings and got me some gratis MAC make-up for a DVD shoot I was doing. It was like hitting a jackpot in Vegas, I was literally beside myself in disbelief. Hell, I almost proposed marriage on the spot!

To me, MAC make-up is worse than heroin or crack cocaine. Remember back a scant few years ago, when the terrorist plot at Heathrow Airport was foiled, and there were news clips of airport personnel at security checkpoints not just confiscating carry-on bags and plastic water bottles, but also relieving female travelers of their cosmetics bags, all in the name of safety? I was watching that on television, with a number of other people, as it happened.

“Oh my god, that’s HORRIBLE!” I shrieked, my hand flying up to my mouth in shock and dismay, like a heroine in an old-school love comic.

”It’s just awful!” everyone else agreed, “Thankfully, they caught it in time!”

I was way too ashamed to tell them that the shock I was feeling I wasn’t in reference to the terrorist plot, but the fact that the security people were commandeering bags full of make-up! It was simply barbaric! Take away a woman’s make-up, are you fucking kidding me???

Had I been there, I would’ve rebelled without a second thought, and definitely landed my ass in a dank English jail cell. I never, EVER would’ve willingly surrendered my MAC…those efficient security agents would have needed to pry my precious cosmetics case out of my cold, dead hands! And speaking of airports and MAC, I’ve heard no less than nine flight attendants-on as many airlines-proudly refer to themselves as “MAC Ho’s.” Once on a Jet Blue flight from LA to New York, I had every stewardess in the cabin clustered around my seat sighing in wonder and admiration over my brand new MAC products, including an otherworldly, Disco-overdrive, silver-prism cosmetic glitter. They were blithely ignoring their own beverage service- not to mention other passenger’s repeated requests for extra pillows- so they could take a guided tour through the stash of stage make-up I had in my carry-on bag. Nobody wears more make-up than flight attendants, unless you count beauty queens, professional dancers or female impersonators -or me. I travel all the time, I think I can safely state that MAC make-up is the first choice of most flight attendants on major airlines. As a matter of fact, on my frequent trips to Egypt, I have noticed an un-written law in Egypt Air's Flight Attendant Dress Code. It seems that no less than five shades of eye-make-up must be worn, at any given time. If an employee can't or won't comply, they are grounded!

My fascination with make-up is so all encompassing that when a Sephora opened up at a mall within a mile of my house, I “flagged” myself, cutting myself off the way a bartender would a drunk. If it were possible to self-issue a restraining order preventing me from venturing within five hundred feet of the store, I would’ve taken that precaution, too.

The way some folks view their favorite movies over and over, I used to watch the late night info-mercials for “The Alexis Vogel System”, a line of products and instructional DVD’s by make-up artist Alexis Vogel, who specializes in the frosty, uber-highlighted, diffused’n’ air-brushed-looking faces of movie stars and Play Boy Bunnies alike. Alexis Vogel is the LA make-up artist who made Pamela Anderson look as a slick Super She-Ro. To me, Alexis Vogel, as an artist, is on par with DaVinci. I wouldn’t even allow myself out of the house- even to go to the grocery store- until I slicked on my lip-gloss and blended pearly shadow just below my brows, until I was fully Vogelized!

Once I stole a copy of “People” magazine because it had a feature on “Dancing With the Stars”... Sure, I’m a fan of the show, but the reason I swiped the magazine was because in a backstage photo of dancer Karina Smirnoff, I recognized the work of my favorite make-up artist, Linda Sammut, who has done my face in movies, still photos and DVD’s for years. Linda wasn’t even in the photo- only her hand was- but I identified her by the signature beaded bracelet she always wears; I am used to seeing that bracelet out of the corner of my eye as she works her magic on my, making me gorgeous.

When I get anywhere near a cosmetics counter, I feel the way I’m sure a sex addict must standing in the doorway of a brothel. Free sample? If they were passing out a sample of everything in the whole line, it still wouldn’t be enough! It’s like what they say in rehab programs, about controlled substances: one is too many, a thousand not enough!

If you think I am alone, you are crazy. This obsession is shared by millions of women.

We hurry past beauty supply stores trying to be “good”. When we’re at malls, the stronger of our ranks steer clear of stores like Mac, whose sales people are made up like perfect dolls, presiding over rainbows of shadows and bouquets of brushes. I try to ignore Sephora, with it’s endless rows of lipstick lined up like soldiers at attention; it’s walls of perfumes, counters chock full of pencils and pots of sparkly powders and glosses… but sometimes I can’t-none of us can! Our darker side takes over. It’s the Reptilian Brain in action. Throwing caution to the wind, we enter, blindly fumbling through our wallets for our credit cards…like a subject in a hypnotist’s act, or a pre-programmed Manchurian Candidate.

Like a junkie.

So what if we already own twelve shades of baby pink lipstick or seventy plus colors of shadow for only two eyes? It’s that dizzying feeling of being about to get sucked into a black hole of pleasure… a black hole of glitter and riotous colors, dual-finish powders and false eyelashes as thick as a mink’s tale…of metallic eyeliner in a plethora of chrome-infused colors, palettes of shimmering hues and cunning, cathedral-shaped nail polishes lined up like a tiny rainbow chorus line… darling little retro bottles, pots of candy-like gloss, divine smelling potions and… please excuse me, dear reader: I have to get online and see what’s new at MAC Pro. Actually, I can’t believe that site is free! They could charge for that shit! I would gladly pay to gain access…sigh….

Friday, February 13, 2009



Valentine’s Day… just the thought of it makes me queasy. I’ve had so many weird, surreal and downright hellish Valentine’s Days, I often entertain the fantasy of going into hibernation on February 13, and then just pop out emotionally unscathed in the wee hours of February 15 and shoot a lingering sidelong glance at my shadow. Come to think of it, my shadow has probably been the most stable and enduring relationship I’ve ever had.

Don’t get me wrong- I’ve actually been very lucky in love and love gettin’ lucky, but in my regards to the day itself-and my surviving it- it’s a wonder I haven’t been a recipient of the Purple Heart, for sheer bravery, valor and life-threatening battle wounds. In fact, the military-slogan-bearing T-shirts stretched across the buff chests of our country’s off-duty armed forces can best sum up my personal Valentine’s Day experiences:


Or better yet:


I remember one Valentine’s Day when the only item in my mailbox that even remotely resembled a heart was a red notice from a utility company. As if that wasn’t bad enough in itself, my evening was packed with shows that only served to rub my “single” status in my face: every damn place I danced was so full of cooing couples, I felt like I was performing on Noah’s Ark!

Then there was the February 14 back in the early Eighties, the date I picked, as a hopeless twenty-year-old romantic, to be my Wedding Day. My groom and I, in our sole nod to tradition, arrived separately (and not too hung over) at the hall where our ceremony, which had been booked for the better part of a year, was to be held. I was a vision in an ivory Fifties strapless organza gown, with an over-lay of French lace embroidered with seed pearls. My hair, bleached White Minx, was in a fetching Monroe bob, and under my Goodwill steal of a Juliet veil, I sported my customary Revlon Cherries In The Snow lipstick. As I daintily stepped out of the car, gathering my train, I was astounded to see dozens of buckets of white carnations, which had been dyed baby blue.

As I wondered who’d Dumpster-dived the Flower District in honor of my wedding, I spotted legions of Low Riders, uniformly bedecked in powder blue Polyester double-knit tuxes…tattooed tears and pompadours covered by homeboy hairnets abounded. The four hundred or so bridesmaids were a symphony in ruffled dresses so tight and shiny they looked like they were auditioning to be the Shark’s molls in a special baby blue colorized version of Westside Story. Just as I was starting to realize that this was not the result of my hangover or an LSD flashback and that Ted Turner hadn’t been invited, the Unitarian priest who was to be presiding over my ceremony came rushing out to explain to my groom and I (and three quarters of East LA) that the hall had been double-booked.

Tension ran high for a moment, and finally we all decided that a coin-toss was in order. While disgruntled guests from both camps fumbled for their quarters, I heard the Best Man whisper to my groom that he had a full tank of gas, a fifth of Scotch, two hundred bucks… and that The Border was only three hours away. Before my betrothed had a chance to answer, someone pulled out a coin, we won the flip, and had our ceremony first, amongst the blinding neon blue riot of dyed flowers. Speaking of first, I should’ve taken the scheduling snafu as an omen- that turned out to be just my First Wedding. If there are any photos that somehow survived being cut-up or burned, I can assure you they are predominantly baby blue.

Many years later, I foolishly accepted a Valentine’s Day date with Art Boy, to his first major gallery opening. Why I did it, I’ll never know: I was in the throws of an obsessive crush on my best friend, the sexually ambiguous Collegiate Art Department Head, whom Art Boy and I had met in happier times at The Blacklite, an infamous Hollywood dive bar, frequented by a lurid parade of trannie hookers.

And there was another little glitch: Art Boy and I had been… just a teensy bit broken up -oh, excuse me, I really meant to say hostile and incommunicado- for months. But hearing Art Boy’s cajoling, honey/silk voice, I magically seemed to forget all of that… as well as the fact that when Art Boy and I had originally embarked upon our passionate and certifiably insane affair three years previously, on February 14th, it had resulted in the spectacularly gut-wrenching dissolution of my Second Marriage. But Art Boy poured it on shamelessly. He really missed me, he was just dying to see me belly dance again! I caved.

So of course I went to Art Boy’s opening, dressed for sin in a skin-tight black velvet cat suit and sky-high red platforms, glittering sequined hearts scattered throughout my ass-length, teased-up Pricilla Presley hair do. Art Boy was there, of course… but I hadn’t anticipated the busty redhead that was hanging all over him.

Realizing I’d been used for a free performance, I bit the bullet and decided to dance anyway, since I was already there, not to mention the potential tips. In my frazzled state, I started downing multiple plastic cups of the cheap swill that was barely passing for Merlot. Starting my fifth drink, I was rudely hustled by the disinterested gallery owner to a filthy, closet-sized bathroom, the only place in the gallery where I could change into my costume, since the owner wouldn’t allow me to use his office.

I didn’t realize that the toilet had been over-flowing until my gig bag had been sitting on the floor for quite some time… because there was no light. Foul mouthed drunks-people drunker than even I was, if that was possible-banged on the door. While I performed, the hem of my costume got drenched in the puddles of beer that had formed on the cement floor, and someone burned a hole in my veil with a cigarette. When I finished my show, Art Boy was macking ardently on the new gal. Instantly, drinks and insults were flung from both sides. My recollection is fuzzy, but I do believe I was the one that started it.

My oldest, most-trusted friend Bobby, who was visiting from Memphis, quickly escorted me out of the melee like the Gallant Southern Gentleman he always has been. Somehow, we wound up at The Blacklite. Collegiate Art Department Head was already there, much to my delight. Much to my dismay, he was there with a date…but by the end of the night, I was infatuated with The Date, who looked like a cross between a gorgeous ‘70’s glam rock fag and 6’ 6” Hitler Youth, with the longest, blackest eyelashes I had ever seen- and they were real!

When the din of the jukebox died down, I detected a Euro Accent. I was madly drunk and melting from lust…and apparently, he was too. That Valentine’s Day, we began or affair- and also a five year long merry-go-round of love, lies, sex, heartbreak, stalking, drug abuse, violence, and psychological torture between Department Head, Tomorrow Belongs To Him and lil’ ole me. You name it, we experienced it. It was a Love Triangle Of Bermudic proportions.

Thank god, all that Valentine’s Day insanity ended over a decade ago. I’d like to say I’ve learned from my experiences… but I know better. I seem to feeling a little drowsy …wake me up when it’s over, will you?

Thursday, February 12, 2009


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,

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,

Wednesday, February 11, 2009


“I’ll sleep when I get home!”
For years, that’s been my motto when I’m on the road. But nowhere does it apply more than when I’m in Cairo, where even the major belly dance shows in the Five-Star hotels don’t get rockin’ until well after midnight. My most recent visit left me not only extremely- and quite happily- sleep deprived, but gave me an insider’s view into the surreal world of Cairo’s seedy cabarets. Oh, I’d been to the city’s less-glamorous, off-the-beaten path nightclubs like Cave De Roi and The Sunset before, but the places I experienced this time made those venues look positively tame!
My immersion into Cairo’s underworld started innocently enough… it began with a movie trailer, of all things. One of my oldest Cairo pals is Russian dancer Katia, who began her career in Egypt fifteen years ago, as a protégé of world-renowned choreographer Raqia Hassan, and is now a huge star in her own right.

Catching up with Katia, she showed me the trailer for a new Egyptian film in which she was featured called “Cabaret”. No, it’s not a remake of the 1972 Bob Fosse film starring Liza Minelli. Directed by Sameh Abdel-Aziz and featuring a number of Egyptian stars, “Cabaret” is a high-budget action drama with a huge cast, centering on-you guessed it- a sleazy Egyptian cabaret club.

The trailer featured hooded thugs with automatic weapons, implied prostitution, kidnapping, drug use and showed risque love scenes…along with-of course- plenty of singing and dancing. I’m no authority on modern Arabic cinema, but “Cabaret” looked so dark and transgressive that I was quite intrigued! The trailer ran constantly on Egyptian TV stations, but unfortunately, the film opened the day after I left, so I never go to see it. What I did do was start bugging Katia non-stop to take me to a cabaret like the one in the movie so I could see what it was really like. Call me crazy, but I’m a gal who really appreciates a good dive bar- even in Cairo!

At first, Katia demurred, because in Egypt, a dancer of her status being seen in a “low class” place could cause tongues to wag in an unfavorable way. But she finally relented, and took my travel companion Jim Boz and I to one of the “best of the worst” as it were, to Amoun, in the Mohandeseen district. Katia chose Amoun because, in her words “It’s no so bad”, and because an acquaintance of hers, Egyptian dancer Dahlia, was performing.

We walked in at 3:15 am, and the vast, dark, low-ceilinged club was only about a quarter full. A few Saudis in white robes and traditional shumaq headdresses sat against the walls behind tables groaning with mezza, smoking sheesha pipes. The thirty or so musicians and singer onstage out-numbered the audience, and then some Western-garbed twenty-somethings jumped onstage and for some dirty dancing that raised even my jaded eyebrows. Katia gestured towards them and screamed over the music,
“Thees nothing! Thees place do not really get going until around 6:00 am!”

Dahlia breezed in with her band, stopping by our table to say hello, and seemed slightly surprised to see Katia. As the bands changed (every dancer or singer brought their own orchestra, and most had over twenty five members) a trio of waiters began fluttering about our table.

I have never experienced anything like the service at Amoun-ever-it was beyond attentive to the point of being almost ridiculous! Because the music was so loud, we began rolling up paper napkins to use as makeshift earplugs. As soon as we did that, a waiter proffered a box of Kleenex and began folding the sheets into little triangles, dealing them onto the table like a deck of cards, precisely fanning them out at each place-setting. With a flourish, he conveniently positioned the box against our wine-bucket, in case we needed to use it again. Katia’s cigarettes were on the table, and at one point, a waiter took one out of the package, placed it in my mouth, and lit it for me!

Dahlia’s orchestra in place, she began her show. It was a good show, but unremarkable except for the fact that she danced through the audience flirting at the tables in the back, getting showered with cash, something that would never happen at a Five Star club. Her orchestra was incredible. And the music only got better with the next band change. To my amazement, the vocalist who appeared was my new (as of this trip) favorite singer, Mahmoud El Leity! The place was filling up now and his set was as sublime as it was raucous, the stage packed full of sweaty people getting down. As El Leity strode into the audience like a younger, swarthier Tom Jones, he grabbed my hand and yelled something to me in Arabic.
“He wants you dance onstage for the next song!” Katia translated at the top of her lungs, “ He will do Om Kalthoum.”
As the strains of “Weh Deret Al Ayam” filled the smoky club and the audience waved their napkins in ecstasy, I checked with Katia to make sure I wouldn’t embarrass her if I got up and danced.
“Go!” she hollered, “Have fun!”
When I returned to my seat, a Saudi guy dancing in the aisles slipped fragrant strings of fresh jasmine around my neck. Sweaty and with my hair full of loose flower petals, I headed to the Ladies Room to freshen up. The scene there was even more mind-boggling than what was going on outside. The air was actually humid with hair spray and perfume. Young women crowded around the mirror applying gobs of lip-gloss and heavy eyeliner. The door opened and shut constantly with a steady influx of girls.

“Come, lady, English Toilet !” the attendant declared, her arm snaking around my shoulders, ushering me in.
She swung open a bathroom stall and made a huge display of liberally spraying the entire stall and commode with enough aerosol disinfectant to cause a Hazardous Chemical Disaster. She quickly wiped off the seat, laid sheets of Kleenex down upon it, handed me the box and made a sweeping presentational gesture as though she’s just created a masterpiece. As I washed my hands, I was astounded to see fully veiled women coming in, peeling off their dark robes and headscarves, and depositing them nonchalantly into a wicker basket. What was underneath their wraps was a pastiche of lurid make-up, glittery costume jewelry, and pierced noses, tube tops, mini skirts and insanely high heels. After a quick mirror check, these chicks made a beeline into the club, and I spotted many of them later, dancing on stage or on top of chairs!

On previous trips to Egypt, I’d been alone in a room full of females, and seen veiled women disrobe when they’d discerned there were no men around…but this was definitely something else.

Katia explained that these nightclub habitués normally didn’t veil, but used the garments as a disguise so that when they were leaving the cabaret in the glaring sunlight, they wouldn’t be hassled on the street.

We left well after sunrise, and just as predicted, the very long line to get into Amoun was as crowded and chaotic as the admission line outside of any American rock club or concert- except, that is, for the predominance of the “conservatively” veiled patrons!


After having whet my appetite during my mind-boggling evening at Amoun in Cairo’s Mohandeseen District, I was on a mission to experience as many “locals only” type late-night Egyptian cabarets as possible!
The next night, my friend, Ahmed, a merchant from The New Khan Al Khalili Bazaar took me to The Lido.
“You will LOVE this place”, he promised, making me swear that if I did, I wouldn’t go there on my own, because “Sometimes bad people go here”.

He also told me that on one occasion, he’d brought the legendary Egyptian dancer Fifi Abdou to the Lido and she had a great time, although none of the regular patrons thought it was really she…
”You will see why!”, he said, arching an eyebrow.
We took a cab to Pyramids Road, and the Lido, which is located in the lobby of a slightly run-down hotel. Walking through the dark, open-air lobby/patio, many people greeted Ahmed, while I took note of the surroundings: groups of men and veiled women sat around smoking shisha, their attention directed towards two television sets: one a modern big screen TV mounted near the ceiling, the other a static-ridden vintage black and white model with “bunny-ears” antennae sitting on the counter of an un-manned front desk.

It was a little after 2:00 am when we nipped through a doorway into the club. As my eyes adjusted to the dim light, I noticed a sea of crowded tables and chairs, gargantuan shisha pipes cluttering the narrow aisles, their hoses providing an obstacle course for the waiters bustling around holding chairs over their heads, or darting precariously through the crows with pans full of glowing orange live coals for the pipes. The walls, some of them carpeted, were decorated with swags of disco lights tacked up in swirly patterns. The decibels were almost deafening in the tight space, but the band on the stage that dominated the room was great, consisting of an organ player, a violinist, two tabla players and a riq (tambourine) player. Whoever was singing the mournful shaabi had an amazing voice with a break in it - not unlike Hakim’s- but as I scanned the stage, I couldn’t seem to find the singer. I assumed he was walking around performing from the audience until I happened to look down. My jaw dropped when I realized the booming voice was coming from a tiny, barely two foot-tall dwarf! Clad all in white, he smiled and joked with the audience, clambering up on chairs between numbers to shake hands and high-five the patrons at their tables.

Seeing my reaction, Ahmed laughed and assured me I would also not believe my eyes when I saw the dancers. As if on cue, the tiny shaabi singer’s sister, also a little person, joined him onstage. In a red and gold beledy dress and coined head scarf, she danced exuberantly as her brother sang, performing an energetic drum solo as women from the audience joined in to dance along with her, towering at least three feet over her head!
Amidst the din, Ahmed ordered drinks and food, which arrived on an elaborate aluminum-foil-covered platter, resembling a cross between a spiky metallic UFO, and a miniature Mosque fashioned from tin foil, minarets and all.

Between the thick smoke in the air, the loud music, insane food display, the hot coals constantly brushing past me behind my back, plus the sheer amount of bodies pouring into the cramped club I almost felt as though I had entered a an alternate dimension, like Alice through the Rabbit Hole into Wonderland… or an Egyptian version of a John Waters movie- but things got even crazier.

Identical twin teenage dancers entered, their eyes and lips lined like Los Angeles-style “lowrider” gang-banger chicks. Both eschewed traditional bedlahs, clad in Western-Style “hoochie girl” dresses and high heels. At first, I thought they were audience members, but Ahmed assured me they were not. They appeared bored as they danced, cracking their gum in time to the drums and basically keeping their eyes on their own reflections in the mirrors lining the stage. At this point, the owner’s pre-teen daughter made the rounds of the club, serving beers. When I commented that this would NEVER happen in the States, we had laws against minors being in bars and nightclubs, I was told she had literally grown up in the cabaret! Indeed, she worked the crowd like a pro, laughing and joking with the customers, dispensing gum and candy to her favorite customers. She threw her arms around Ahmed’s neck as though he were a beloved uncle and greeted him affectionately.

The belly dancing twins were followed by a singer with two-toned bleached hair and long hair extensions, who was in a white 1980’s style fringed leather jacket, many studded belts and over-the-knee boots. She belly danced as she sang, and many female audience members joined her onstage to dance, including the owner’s daughter. More house dancers in crazy nightclub wear, not the traditional bedlah, followed the singer. One finally came on in an actual costume, and Ahmed buried his head in his hands.

“ Oh, no…” he moaned, gesturing towards the owner’s daughter, “She HATE this dancer!” he exclaimed, “Watch this!”

The little girl bounded onto stage, and began performing along side the oriental dancer, imitating every move - down to the dancer’s facial expressions. The little girl knew the dancer’s whole set-only she performed it better. Whenever the dancer looked away, the girl would stick her tongue out or make a hideous face in the dancer’s direction, lampooning and exaggerating the dancers seductive moves much to the delight of the audience! Apparently, this impromptu “show” was a regular occurrence at the club.

Once again, by the time we left, the sun was rising, and the Lido showed no signs of slowing down.


I was looking for a new accomplice in my quest for adventure in Cairo’s seedy cabarets because my travel companion Jim Boz was suffering from severe jet lag, so I was delighted when my friend Aleya showed up. Aleya and I both cut our teeth in the Los Angeles belly dance scene in the early Nineties. A great dancer, and always tons of fun, Aleya had come from Hurgada, and took me by surprise, announcing she was in town to apply for her dance license and was moving to Egypt! Aleya quickly became my “partner-in-crime”- we made a date for the next night. Her friend Mr. Mohammed, a costume exporter, agreed to escort us to the clubs in Cairo’s Downtown district.

Downtown or Central Cairo is a lot like the inner-city areas in many major US cities, in that it’s a sort of a forgotten neighborhood. Densely built up and populated by with over-crowded apartment buildings, three-star hotels and businesses catering to local- not tourist- trade, Downtown Cairo’s streets are teeming with activity, but as a tourism area, it seems to have been all but abandoned in favor of suburban flight. Areas like Giza, Mohandeseen, Zamalek and Heliopolis now house the modern hotels, trendy restaurants, boutiques and souvenir shops. Nevertheless, the city’s 19th Century, European-style Belle Époque architecture, though in need of a major face-lift, is still lovely to look at, and Downtown Cairo is full of history. It was the stomping grounds of Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz, who celebrated Cairo and its labyrinthine inner-city streets in many of his highly acclaimed books. Compared to Dickens or Tolstoy, Mahfouz ‘s writing is so much a part of Egyptian culture he is a literary equivalent to Om Kalthoum. The Downtown district was also a hub for Egyptian intellectuals and ex-patriots from Europe, and Sharia Alfy specifically was known in the 1940’s as the nerve center for theaters and nightclubs, which featured Arabic music and belly dance. I was eager to see what-if anything- was left standing.

The first club we went to, Shahrazad , was located on Sharia Alfy. It was a little after 1:00 am as we climbed a flight of stairs, and as we did, Mr. Mohammed informed Aleya and me that it had been one of the most famous clubs in the city, and that Naima Akef and Samia Gamal frequently graced the stage. As soon as our eyes adjusted to the dark, it seemed pretty clear that he wasn’t making that up. Though it had definitely seen better days, Shahrazad’s interior reflected the faded grandeur of a bygone era. Under a ceiling easily thirty feet high, there were intricate gilt Arabesque motifs on the walls, and it was not hard to imagine the grande dames of Cairo’s Golden Age whirling on the large proscenium stage, which was edged in golden, hand-carved wooden mashrabiya. Unused and decked in twinkling fairy lights, it served more as a backdrop, because a smaller stage with a catwalk was set up in the middle of the room, surrounded by tables populated by a few veiled women and men attired in Western garb. A small band played, and there was a competent dancer, who was joined onstage by many audience members, but the club’s most impressive feature was definitely the architecture.

We ventured across Sharia Alfy and down a narrow dark alley off Sharia 26th Of July and found ourselves in Palmyra, which has been mentioned numerous times in guide books as a “must see” Cairo dive. Located in the lobby of a low-rent hotel, Palmyra seems to have last been renovated in the late 1950’s or early 1960’s. Crudely painted, luridly colored Pharoanic murals covered the crumbling stucco walls; buckets of Stella beer sat on the paper-clothed tables. On the large, low stage, a five-piece band was playing through tinny speakers, but managed to sound great in spite of the bad equipment. A parade of severely made-up, gum-cracking dancers attired in bell-bottoms and halter tops and clear Lucite-heeled stripper-style platform shoes took the stage one after another. Though most of them appeared bored or lacked stage presence, many of them danced well and they definitely all perked up when fistfuls of Egyptians pounds were thrown at them! This happened often, and a stagehand frequently swept the money off the stage, depositing it into a locked wooden box kept near the Western-style drum kit. Many of the belly dancers pranced through the audience (as did the singers) stopping at tables to perform, and a string of tipsy-looking club patrons- both male and female- jumped up on the stage to dance in wild abandon while the dancers performed.

I snapped many photos of the dancers in their outrageously tawdry attire, and soon a hulking man in a traditional Saidi galibiyyeh, wearing a backwards baseball hat like a hip-hop thug, came over to our table and began roaring in a threatening manner at Mr. Mohammed. The argument escalated alarmingly, with both men yelling and gesticulating wildly, but it was over as abruptly as it had started. I guess I wasn’t too off-base in my assessment of the thug-like fashion statement of backwards baseball hat…it turned out that, like shifty characters the world over, the man got angry when he assumed he was being photographed! Wiping his brow in relief, Mr. Mohammed explained he had to tell the guy repeatedly that Aleya and I were dancers from America, and I was taking pictures of the dancers, not him. The man lightened up considerably a short time later, when Aleya was pulled up onstage by one of the singers. The singer grabbed a wooden dowel and handed it to Aleya to use as a cane while the band launched into “Al Ein”. As Aleya performed a flawless raks assaya, the baseball hat guy eventually cracked a reluctant smile, and even got up to dance with her!

Soon we headed back to Sharia Alfy to hit the New Arizona nightclub for the dancer Dunya’s show. According to Mr. Mohammed, Dunya is not only a popular performer, but also an entrepreneur. She rents out the New Arizona and puts on her own show, rather than being hired as an employee of the club itself. Though it was after 4:00 am, she hadn’t yet started. Even though it was June and we were in Cairo, the stage was festooned with strings of Christmas lights, and a large plastic Santa Claus was mounted on the wall above the drum kit. Though a band was playing a top volume, a number of scruffy cats lounged casually on the stage, while others wandered up to the seats in front, begging for scraps. Patrons enjoying mezza platters obligingly threw bits of cheese to the kitties. The club’s owner, who had stopped by our table to say hello to Mr. Mohammed, saw us watching the cats and told us that many of- as he put it- “the most famous animals of Egypt” had lived inside the New Arizona for generations.

Finally, Dunya arrived. Heavily made-up and wearing a skin-tight cat-suit, she took the stage and sang, danced, joked with the audience and emceed as other dancers- once more wearing outfits that looked more like street-wear than dance costumes- performed. Many of the dancers not only made the rounds of the audience, but jumped up on chairs and tabletops to dance. One even picked up a half-full bottle of Heineken from a customer and danced the rest of her set with it balanced on her head!

Once again, by the time I got back to my hotel, it had been daylight for quite some time. I was dead tired from my night of crazy clubbing but amped from my wacky experiences. I was leaving Cairo early the next morning and still had to pack and say my goodbyes… so, as the saying goes, there would be “ no rest for the wicked”!

Tuesday, February 10, 2009


Welcome to my world!

It's a world so filled with Swarovski crystals that you will need to wear sunglasses to protect your retinas from the blinding glare!

The Royal Palace is a wondrous Hollywood abode filled with diaphanous silk veils in a rainbow of colors, luxurious hand-made costumes dripping with fringe, boxes containing yards and yards of yet-to-be-used sparkly fabric, drawers full of beads, wheels of stretch sequns and packages of sparkly trim, Tupperware containers full of rhinestones hair-flowers, and shelves groaning with the weight of way-too-many rhinestone tiaras and crowns.

It's a magical place where feathered showgirl headdresses hang on the walls alongside vintage belly dance album covers; a place where the bathroom mirror is literally so covered with used bindi's it's hard to see your face and the neighboring shelves hold enough make-up to rival a a major branch of Sephora.

It's also a place where visitors can barely navigate due to the proliferation of gig bags, suitcases, vintage hat-boxes housing wigs and hair-pieces and plastic storage containers chock full of blinged-out stage-wear.

It's a place where vacuum cleaners are rendered almost completely useless due to the stunning amount of coins, sequins, sheesha mirrors, shed boa-feathers and broken beaded fringe on the floor. I went through three of them last year- all damaged beyond repair.

It's a place where multi-colored glitter is prevalent, even in the cat's litter-box.

I knew things were getting bad a few years ago, when I watched one of my cats defecate almost seven inches of royal blue single-sequin trim ( kitty was ok thankfully ) but oh...shitting glitter?!?!? THE SHAME I FELT! Did that stop the insanity? No- I just vowed to be more careful, but somehow, it never worked.

Every surface in my house is literally COVERED in glitter- as I am. As is my bed, the yard, my car and every hotel room and air-plane I set foot in, even for a second. Body glitter has a longer half-life than Uranium, Plutonium or any other radioactive element- I can certainly vouch for that!!

Tonight, I tried to make good on a New year's Resolution... namely to re-organize my costumes. Only the belly dance costumes, for God's sake not all of them...not the burlesque stuff, the Carmen Miranada outfits, evening gowns, Indian ( both Native American and East Indian) headresses, pirate tricorns, sombreros, Santa Hats, sailor caps, shoes....awww HAy-yell no! Just the belly dancing stuff.

I actually managed to make some progress, about three hour's worth. I sorted through them weeded a few out for sale, put some in a "repair" pile, and organized them as best I could. Organizing and cleaning are not really in my skill-set...but making a mess is truly one of my talents!

The I took stock, so here's the inventory:

64 FUNCTIONAL COSTUMES ( justified junkie-style by the fact that I probably do about 320-345 shows in a given a year for the past fifteen or so years)



4 COSTUMES FOR SALE ( as of this writing)







*This list does not include an accurate count of stray skirts, veils, choli tops, Melodia pants, OR the two costumes ( just realized) sitting in my gig bag, OR the random veils, hip scarves and student-loaner cymbals in my class bag.

It's much worse than I thought. Perhaps i should read re-read my own first post.



In this day and age, we can all speak freely and without shame about our dysfunctions. Anger management? Substance abuse? Gambling? There is always a support group in place to help you. But there is one serious problem that society hasn’t yet addressed, and it’s affected a growing number of individuals the world over. The problem is BELLY DANCE ADDICTION. Has belly dancing taken over your life? Does it dominate your thoughts and prevent you from performing simple daily tasks? Will it ever be possible for those who suffer from this affliction to lead a normal life? Have you hit Balady Bottom? The first step towards a full recovery is to admit that you are powerless over your addiction. Please spend a few minutes to take a long, hard look at yourself and assess your lifestyle. Answer these key questions as honestly as possible to determine if YOU are a Belly Dance Addict!


You open your costume closet and its contents are equal to the down payment on a large house.

You have no idea what the works of Bach or Beethoven sound like, but can easily identify the work of Abdel Halim Hafez or Farid Al Atrache.

You own more “bling-bling” than any chart-topping hip-hop artist.

Your hair-do is larger, more elaborate, flower and feather-filled than a Las Vegas showgirl’s headdress.

You cannot identify designs by Gucci, Versace, Prada or Dior, but can readily tell the difference between designs by Amira El Khattan, Bella, Madam Abla and Eman…from across the room!

You talk about Dina and Fifi, Suhaila, Kajira, Sahra and Aziza so much that your confused friends politely ask if those women are your family members.

On a visit to a crafts or sewing store, you need to bring along a “safety buddy” to give you a “reality check” and prevent you from going on a wild spending spree.

After a visit to a crafts or sewing store, you are consumed by shame and guilt and in tears, actually cut up your credit card.

Your cell phone has a specially downloaded Om Kalthoum ringtone.

You have the call-in line for Rakassah on speed-dial.

Solace is not merely emotional comfort, but your favorite band.

You hone your shimmies while waiting in line at the bank, post office or grocery store.

During tax season, your accountant pointedly asks you how it is possible you spent over $700.00 last year on make-up alone.

You don’t live in your Levi’s and a T-shirt…you live in Melodias and a Choli.

…Actually, you don’t really wear street clothes any more!

You mass e-mailed everyone you know to inform them that you FINALLY mastered a down hip 3/4 shimmy.

Your wallet is held together by a rubber band because it’s routinely over-stuffed with tip money.

You are not familiar with popular television shows such as “Lost”, “American Idol” and “Desperate Housewives” but can recite- from memory alone- the running order of any IAMED live show DVD.

You believe that a stop at a traffic signal is the optimal time to perfect your belly rolls…and for practicing your “air zills”.

You’ve been seriously pondering the idea that mastering a 9/8 cymbal pattern could lead to carpal tunnel syndrome…and as you ice your wrists, you wonder which came first: the Turkish coffee or the time signature?

The word “understated” would never apply to your personal fashion statement…and is no longer even a part of your vocabulary.

To you, “pop music” doesn’t mean Justin Timberlake or Gwen Stefani… it means Nancy Ajram or Hakim.

Your movements can easily be traced…. Just follow the trail of glitter!