Wednesday, April 2, 2014

SMALL FRY: DANCING FOR CHILDREN


 In the past month, I’ve gotten two of the best tips I’ve ever received in over two decades of belly dancing.  They  weren’t  crisp hundred dollar bills,  large bouquets of flowers or earrings made of 14 karat gold… though I’ve been lucky enough to get all of those and more. One of the tips was a grubby Sponge Bob  pencil eraser, tucked into my belt by a five year old boy. The other was a small piece of pita bread offered by a toddler, who was imitating  the  behavior of the adults around him.

Children are the best audiences ever- they’re my  favorite audience!

 Throughout my career, I’ve danced for thousands of kids.  I often joke that most of my biggest fans are the smallest people- kids under the age of  ten- but it’s true! When I tell people I love dancing for kids, sometimes they look at me oddly… for a couple of reasons.

First is that in addition to performing straight-ahead Egyptian-style belly dance, within the belly dance community, I have become known for  my fusion performances, and some of them have been considered very controversial.  But I never  perform anything other than  family-style show unless I know for sure that there will not be children present.

Second, outside of the  belly dance world, many well-educated people still  fall prey to the usual  stereotypes, marginalizing our art as either a seductive ritual or cheesy novelty.  Whether male or female, I can literally see their  “civilian” brains  going into over-drive, conjuring up  images straight out of a  Sinbad or James Bond movie.  They imagine me doing “The Dance Of The Seven Veils” in shadowy, smoke-filled hashish den while leering villains in ornate turbans throw solid gold coins, making plans to carry me away on their flying carpets to a life of slavery in an exotic harem…yeah, right!

I explain something that probably doesn’t need to be clarified here: in  Middle Eastern and North African cultures, the movements of belly dancing are performed by non-professionals as a an integral part of weddings, family gatherings and baby christenings, and women’s parties. When they hear I, like most belly dancers, usually do shows for families, including children, their jaws drop a few inches.
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Since I am still  the featured performer in  the same restaurant that gave me my very first job  almost twenty-five 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 goes for every kind of performing art.  They 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 simply  don’t have the pre-conceived notions that adults do, they  just love being entertained. They know nothing of sexualized stereotypes or judgments that have to do with weight, age, racial  or cultural  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 been called Princess Jasmine more times than I can count, but some of the exchanges I’ve had left me laughing for days.

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!

 Another time, a little boy ( 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?”

 And speaking of being an aunt, I discovered that my baby niece Olivia  had definitely gotten the belly dance gene.
 When she was a toddler, her vocabulary only consisted of an only few words…or so we thought. One night she shocked our entire family with her first full sentence.  As I walked into the room, she cheerfully greeted from her high chair with:

“Hi Auntie-big earrings!”

 Visiting Disneyland when she was three, we almost got kicked off  “ It’s A Small World.” As our boat floated by the Middle Eastern countries, she jumped to her feet, scrambled on top of the bench, pointed at a veiled mannequin and screamed,

“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,

“THE CHILD MUST SIT DOWN!”

 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 went to another room to get our jackets, she pouted obstinately,

“I DON’T WANNA GO TO THE SWINGS!”

   I was about to placate her the way one normally would with a four year old, but   almost had a heart attack as I re-entered the room.  She stood in the middle of the living room, completely naked… except for one of my rhinestone tiaras sitting askew on her head. Her play clothes lay in a heap at her feet.  In each hand, she held an unsheathed sword- my full-sized, heavy, sharp scimitars. They were bigger than she was, and she swung 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! Can you put the swords down for Auntie?

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 allowed me to pose for my driver’s license photo while wearing a large  rhinestone tiara. When I whipped this out of my wallet as “proof” of my royal lineage, she 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 LA with his family, visiting relatives. 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, his 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 it 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 if I would perform again.

 Of course, I obliged. When the music started, his excited squeals could be heard throughout the entire restaurant.  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 an earth-shattering shriek that could probably be heard down the block and then he yelled,

“MOMMY! THE LADY LET ME HOLD HER BLANKET!

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Photo & design by Maharet Hughes/ Graphic Vibe LA



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