Wednesday, March 31, 2010
The security line at Dallas-Fort Worth Airport was ridiculously long, and the TSA officials seemed to be ultra-paranoid, checking and re-checking toddler’s bottles, tearing apart everyone’s well-packed quart baggies, patting down old ladies, and treating everyone in the queue with suspicion.
I was sweating bullets, for no other reason than because I was already insanely late for my plane to Los Angeles.
During the weekend belly dance show I’d performed on in Grapevine, Texas, I’d been hanging out my new friend Tamra Henna, a fantastic local belly dancer whom I’d recently dubbed “Tex”.
Tex and I had gotten along like gangbusters, so well that she’d offered to drive me to the airport. Over lunch at a taco stand, we discussed everything from vintage Egyptian cinema and our favorite Arabic songs to stage make-up and the craziest, weirdest gigs we’d both been hired for. Since it seemed like I had plenty of time until my flight, and we were both hopelessly addicted to glitter in general and belly dance costumes in particular, we mutually made the executive decision to stop at Little Egypt Imports.
“You will NOT believe this place!” Tex promised, as she barreled down the highway,” You’re totally gonna lose it when you see all the stuff they have!”
She suddenly swerved her car into a driveway and parked in front of a huge building with rusted corrugated metal siding.
“Here we are!” she exclaimed triumphantly, while I wondered how this giant airplane hangar could possibly have to do with belly dancing.
As we stepped through the door, I realized that the entire place was Little Egypt Imports. It was as though the entire Valley of the Kings had been teleported into this colossal Quonset hut and then dropped directly onto the Texas heartland. One room was full of gleaming, enormous pieces of heavy, carved wooden furniture decorated with hieroglyphics and cartouches, gaily painted in a rainbow of colors, strewn with hand-woven, tasseled brocade pillows. There were seven foot tall statues depicting Isis and Osirus, Horus, Hathor, Queen Hatshepsut and Bast; gold-leaf busts of Nefertiti, blue ceramic scarab and hippotamus paper weights, and an over-sized reproduction of King Tut’s sarcophagus, which, when opened, revealed an interior decorated as sumptuously as it’s outside shell. I was flabbergasted…I never even knew stuff like this existed outside of an actual museum!
Breathless with excitement, I tore over to the rooms that featured the belly dance costumes, and promptly immersed myself in the endless racks of Swarovsky Crystal-embellished goodies. Tex and I each tried on countless costumes, sighing over the Egyptian finery, longingly fingering the hand-beaded details. In our frenzied process, we promptly lost our street clothes amidst knee-high piles of glittering chiffon hip-scarves, their coins jingling merrily as we literally trudged through them, looking for one of my shoes.
Though now a staple on the belly dance scene, Isis Wings were hard to come by in those days, practically no dancers had then unless they’d been custom made- Little Egypt had scads of them, in every hue. Seizing the opportunity, standing at the counter still minus my missing shoe, I negotiated a great price and selected a beautiful gold lame’ set of wings for myself. They were packed up for me in a darling little custom carrying case, which resembled a long, blue vinyl tube with handles. Suddenly snapping back into reality and realizing what time it was, Tex and I made a mad dash for the car and then she drove like Nascar champion to DFW airport.
Since I had only brought a small suitcase to the belly dance event, I decided to check my bag and carry my coveted, fragile wings into the plane’s cabin with me, rather than cramming them in along with my costumes. Tex reassured me that I was making the right decision- the wings were simply too rare and delicate to relegate to a checked bag! We quickly said our good byes at the loading zone curb and I sprinted for my gate after checking my bag.
So there I was in the TSA security line, tenderly stroking my newly purchased wings, stressing about whether I’d actually be let onto the plane, which was scheduled to depart in about twenty minutes. The line was moving at a snail’s pace, and I was still not through security.
Finally, it was my turn, and I lovingly slid my wings safely into a plastic bin and sent them on their way down the conveyor belt into the X-Ray machine. A seasoned traveler, I had removed any accessories that might have set off the metal detector and passed through easily.
But the moment I thought I was free and clear, an obese female TSA agent began carelessly waving around my Isis-wing carrying case, screaming in a nasal Plains twang that could only be described as The Trailer Trash Accent, yelling:
“WHO DIS BELONG TO?”
As I stepped up to claim my precious package, she demanded an explanation as to what it was. I realized immediately that I’d be much better off not mentioning anything about belly dancing, assuming she’d somehow equate an Egyptian dance accessory with Arab Terrorists. As she gave me the stink eye, looking at me with a mixture of contempt and distrust, I noticed the perspiration rings under her tightly fitting uniform…apparently she took her job very seriously. I also saw that she had an inordinate amount of dandruff, not to mention an IQ that was probably just barely in the double digits.
She repeated her question, blowing breath that reeked of Corn Nuts directly into my face,
“WHAT IS THIS?”
Keeping an even, cheerful tone, I said as nonchalantly as possible,
“Oh, I’m an actress from Los Angeles, and those are just a set of big butterfly wings, I use them in a play, they’re part of a stage costume.”
“WELL IT HAS RODS IN IT!” she huffed,
“WHY THEM RODS IN THAAAYR?”
Beginning to seriously panic, with the seconds ticking away til my flight departed, I thought fast.
What I needed was damage control- otherwise I was going to be spending the night on the floor in the airport.
“Why those aren’t rods,” I said as sweetly as I could muster,
“Those are just like…little, tiny, skinny balsa-wood sticks… you know, like for a paper airplane? Just little… Popsicle sticks! Those aren’t rods…. They’re just pieces of craft-wood, light as a feather!”
My voice trailed away as she regarded me sternly, as though I was a seasoned Plutonium smuggler, or some crazy criminal who just happened to be plotting a Skyjacking with a set of newly purchased Isis Wings.
“WHY DIDN’Y YOU CHECK THIS?” she snarled, as though I was trying to bring an automatic weapon on board with me.
Breathe, I kept repeating to myself… just breathe…. you can DO this.
“Well, ma’am, it’s just a very delicate stage costume,” I said quite earnestly, “I was afraid to check them, because I thought they’d get ruined.”
“AHMONNA HAFTA CALL A SUPERVISOR!” she bellowed, and immediately made an announcement on the loudspeaker.
More time went by as we both waited for the supervisor to show up. Finally, I saw him coming. A dyed-in-the-wool Good Ole Boy, he ambled up to the security line, his TSA uniform augmented with cowboy boots, a straw cowboy hat, and a fancy silver rodeo belt buckle. He was rolling a wooden toothpick around in his mouth.
“JES’ WHASS GOIN’ ON AROUN’ HYAAAR?” he asked, hooking his thumbs into the rodeo belt, cocking his head to the side as he sized me up.
Immediately, I knew I had to play The Belly Dance Card. To someone like him, a true redneck, the mere words “ belly dance” would get him all warm and fuzzy…or hot ‘n’ bothered as the case may be…bringing to mind fond memories of wet T-shirt contests and bachelor-party pole dances. Though usually annoying, the general public’s misconception of Oriental Dance sometimes does, indeed, come in handy!
Standing straight up and thrusting my chest out so he had a direct sight-line to my cleavage, I said in what I hoped was a tone of voice that sounded like I was a bonafide Reality Show Bimbo,
“Hi Sir! I’m a belly dancer!”
He looked me up and down, through narrow eyes, chewing contemplatively on his toothpick.
“A BELLY DANCUH, HUH?” he grunted.
“Oh yes!” I answered, batting my eyelashes and twirling my hair flirtatiously.
“WELP, SHE SAID YOU HAD SOME RODS IN THAAYR, MIND IF I TAKE A LOOK?”
“Oh no sir,” I simpered, “Please go right ahead.”
He un-zipped my case, and began palpating it, before pulling out yards…and yards…and even more yards of pleated, metallic fabric.
Finally, he narrowed his eyes and addressed me, scratching under the brim of his cowboy hat.
“WHUD YEW SAYS THIS WAS AGIN?”
“It’s a stage costume, sir!”
I wiggled a little to drive my point home before throwing a beaming grin in his direction.
As he fingered the material thoughtfully, suddenly it looked like a light bulb went off in his head.
“HEY! I KNOW WHAT THISSY-HYAAR IS!” he smiled,
“THIS IS JES’ LIKE ELVIS, INNIT IT?”
I didn’t have the foggiest notion of what he meant by that comment, but eager to please him, and more than eager to maybe actually make my plane, I nodded enthusiastically. If The King was something that would get me on my flight, I’d be more than happy to accept the comparison!
“Yes! Why, yes it is, its EXACTLY like Elvis!” I agreed.
“OH,” he grumbled to the female TSA agent,
“SHE AIN’T GONNA DO NUTHIN’ WITH THIS! LET HER BE!”
With that, I grabbed my wings and ran like hell to my gate. I was of course, the last passenger to board the flight.
Puzzled by the entire thing and mulling the incident over in my head, it wasn’t til our aircraft was over Phoenix, Arizona that I realized what that man had thought my wings were: those Super-Hero circle-shaped capelets that Elvis had worn over his jumpsuits, towards the end of his career, when he was in his fat phase.
Now, years later, every time I don a pair of Isis Wings before a performance, I breathe a silent prayer of thanks to The King!
PHOTO: PRINCESS FARHANA AT LEELA'S "ARABIAN SUMMER", August 2009
Friday, March 26, 2010
If you follow this blog, you may already know I am vastly entertained by the key words and phrases that people from all over the world type into search engines, which in turn lead them to this site. There have been some doozies in the past, including hilariously misspelled words and perverse fantasies... and the recent batch is just as stellar in it's sublime surrealism!
Here they are, exactly as typed, in all their twisted glory:
BELLYDANCERS HAVE SLAVES
ARABIC STRIPE DANCE
PINK PUNK PRINCESS FEET VIDEO
CATFIGHTS IN DRESSES WITH BELLY PUNCHES
ABBOT & COSTELLO OWNED NIGHTCLUB IN SANTA MONICA, CALIFORNIA
MELODIA PANT OVVER PRICED
CARNIVAL CLOWNS OUTFIT
NUDE FACE DANCING
THREE CRAZY BROTHER IN KHAN AL-KHALILI
MOVIE AIRPLANE PICTURE SHAKING PANIC LADY
Pictured: An approximation of afore-mentioned "Carnival Clowns Outifit"
Monday, March 8, 2010
In the Oriental Dance community, there has always been the debate: Choreography Or Improvisation? Every dancer has her preference, and of course, there are things to be said for and against both sides. Choreography is polished and precise, but improv is more organic, genuine and “in the moment”. Improvisation can look sloppy or repetitive, but choreographed pieces can look robotic, especially if the dancer seems to be counting beats or concentrating on her movements measure by measure, rather than feeling-and embracing- the music.
Choreography in belly dance was not regularly implemented until the last century, until the dance came into theaters and nightclubs, as well as into the movies. Until then, group folk dances were performed with simple, repetitive movements, easy for everyone to master and follow.Solo raks sharqi dancers usually worked with live musicians, and this meant that even though everyone performing had probably rehearsed and knew whatever particular song was being played, it was never played exactly the same way twice!
Once, years ago, on a trip to Egypt, I had the amazing opportunity of seeing Dina dance every night for a week. A friend of mine was working as a dancer in Cairo, and shared a Nubian singer with Dina. He not only took me along to his gigs with Dina night after night, but I was allowed to sit in on their rehearsals as well. Dina’s music and set-list was always theoretically the same, but it never really was. Drum solos or musical phrases were played with variety, and her movements corresponded. She watched the band, and the band watched her, and together, they created something new every time a certain song was played.
As a dancer who came up performing during a time when Arabic night clubs regularly featured live music, improvisation was a necessary skill that I had to learn to use right away. It was pretty daunting for a baby dancer, it was sink-or-swim time.
Even though I would request a certain piece of music, it didn’t mean that it was going to sound like a recorded version of the same piece of music.
Sometimes, there was a language barrier or a mis-understanding… once I’d asked for “Sharouk” but the band thought they didn’t know the song I’d requested, because they called it simply “Saidi”.
Other times, I would ask for a specific song by name, but there had been a “pick-up" or substitute, a new player brought into the mix... and since he didn’t know how to play the song I’d requested, the band would make the executive decision of substituting a similar piece. And then there was always the possibility of error or mistakes on the band’s part: a musician would think the song was going to a chorus, while everyone else would be at the bridge…and so on.
Occaisionally, I would wonder why the “short” taxim I’d requested was going on for such a damn long time, and then I would notice that the whole band ( minus whatever musician was soloing) was taking an on-stage cigarette break!
Even Tribal style belly dance used to be improvisation-only, but today this is no longer strictly true. ATS or ITS (Improvisational Tribal Style) dancers still use group improv format, with a chorus and various dancers taking turns leading, but many tribal troupes or tribal fusion dancers – both soloists and groups are now using set choreographies.
Some dancers are literally scared of improvisation because they have only ever learned choreographies, while other belly dancers (of all genres) firmly believe that choreography exists just so that when practiced, the performer appears to be doing a seamless improvisation!
Either way is fine, but strong improvistional skills will certainly help when you have to suddenly do a performance "in the round", or are gigging at a restaurant with customers and waiters walking around, or working at a party.
The main problem with improvisation seems to be one of fear, of mis-trusting your own skills, and because there are dancers who simply do not know how to apply technique and movement vocabulary in an improv situation.
This cannot be taught per se, because everyone’s musicality and interpretation of the music is different, however, the following exercises will get your creative juices flowing, reduce the intimidation factor and help you to develop your improvisational skills.
LISTEN TO ARABIC, MIDDLE EASTERN , NORTH AFRICAN & TURKISH MUSIC CONSTANTLY:
There is no better way to learn song structure! If you want to dance to this music, it is imperative that you learn about the structure of the music, which is very different from western style song structure. You must immerse yourself in the music you want to dance to. This way, it will become ingrained in your psyche, and you will feel more confident in your own personal interpretation.
And certainly, if you are not using music from a specific ethnic genre, (such as electronica, Gothic, any type of Western or New Age music, etc.) then you should still listen to the song you have chosen until every musical inflection and nuance becomes second nature.
THINK OF THE MUSIC IN VISUAL TERMS:
Try to “see” the piece you are using, and translate it into physical terms. Go through the song once matching your movements to the drums- in other words, keep the beat with your hips and feet. Now, try this exercise again, but moving to another instrument- say an oud or a violin. Then, dance to the piece a third time, and try to alternate between dancing to the rhythm and the melody
USE YOUR PERFORMANCE SPACE –AND YOUR BODY-FULLY:
Think in spatial terms- full stage circumference, as well as movements going backwards and forwards, on diagonals, and in circles. Level changes count as well- from high to low or vice-versa, and using unexpected changes in speed, such as slow-into fast movements will also add variety.
REPEAT MOVEMENTS FOR CONTINUITY:
For example, if you do something on the right, do it again on the left. Or, if you know you will be using certain moves for a repeating chorus or phrase, use them every time, to keep up the continuity.
Know that when you are onstage, time will pass differently for you than it does for the audience. You may think you are appearing ‘repetitive’, but be aware that it takes at least 8 counts for the audience’s eye to full absorb what you are doing. You can stay on the same movement, but vary it’s appearance by turning slowly, or using the movement for traveling or by layering a shimmy on top of it. Your body looks different to the audience from every angle and sight-line, so your movement will, too. Nothing says ‘nervous dancer’ or ‘absolute beginner’ like a series of frantically paced, jumbled steps. Try to relax into the music. As a practice excercise, pick three or four movements and dance to a piece of music using ONLY these movements, nothing else. Vary the look with level changes, layers, direction changes, and by using different arm and hand positions to frame your movements differently.
MARK YOUR SONG:
To allow room for improv, “mark” your song instead of choreographing the entire piece. Decide when and how you will do certain movements, and allow yourself to be free to wing the rest of the song. For example, you may have a series of movements you like to do for a certain phrase, or during the chorus. Keep these "locked in”, but experiment with what you will do with the rest of the song.
You may have impeccable technique, but whether you are doing a set choreography OR improvistion, if your face and emotions are not “dancing” as well, you will not engage the audience’s interest.
Have fun, and the audience will, too.