Archive for the ‘Belly Dance History & Lore’ Category

My Battle with the “B-Word”

February 3, 2012

Last week I was doing an informal talk on bellydance at a bookstore. A woman came in, not even knowing there was one scheduled. She heard the Pandora bellydance station playing on the store sound system and did a little dance to herself as she waited for the clerk. She dropped in to chat with me. It turns out that this woman, who was in her 60’s, used to dance with Anahid Sofian in New York City when she was in her 20’s. She shared many stories of the New York scene in its heyday when people like Morocco were headlining clubs, backed by fabulous bands.

When she first walked in, I didn’t know her background of course.  Thinking I was talking to a complete civilian, I told her we were going to talk about some popular ideas and misconceptions about belly dance. She replied, “like the word bellydance itself.” Oh yes! Myself, I’ve had a very ambivalent and reluctant relationship with the “B-word.”

When I started studying about 15 years ago, I didn’t think much about the word and accepted it on the face value of what I understood it to be in the general public at the time. For me, this was minus the stripper notions because I’d seen plenty of classy cabaret dancers growing up in the Philadelphia area. My parents loved live entertainment of all sorts and took us to tons of ethnic events and restaurants. It may have been a year or two into dancing that I even became aware of the unfortunate and uninformed association between the two.

After I’d been in the sparkly mix for about 5 years, I started to explore the folkloric roots and cultural information. At this point, I developed a distinct dislike for the world “bellydance” because even in its best general public definition, I felt it really didn’t convey the culture and tradition of this worthy dance style. At its worst, it did convey a lot of sexpot stereotypes.

When I began to teach and do more culturally oriented performances, I made a concerted effort to not use the word “bellydance” on my advertising, website or in conversations about what I personally was doing. I used terms like “Middle Eastern dance”, “raks sharqui” or “Egyptian dance” to try to get my message across. Face to face conversations usually went something like this:

Joe Public:  Oh, you perform! What do you do?

Me: I do Middle Eastern dance.

Joe Public: <blank stare>
(Maybe he’s not the brightest crayon in the box.. I wait for him to process this.)
<still staring>

Me:  You know, like bellydance. <grits teeth>

Joe Public: <lights up in recognition> Cool!

Me: <sigh>

I swam upstream with this for about 2 or 3 years. Yes, I am stubborn. Eventually I realized that right or wrong, this was really a losing battle – and one that was not very pragmatic from a business standpoint. So I reluctantly, and carefully began to include the word “bellydance” on my cards and in my conversations. There was definitely still some teeth gritting going on at first.

Perhaps I think too much, but for me I really needed a way to live and dance peacefully with the “B-word.”  In the bigger world at the time, Bellydance Superstars was becoming more visible on the pop culture scene.   I absolutely have some gripes with the project, but at least it wasn’t a stage full of scantily clad belly-bunnies.

My personal paradigm shift happened around year 12. I decided to accept the word “bellydance” and use it openly and with conviction. I decided that I would claim and wear the badge with integrity and be the best example I could be of the culture, grace and joy our dance has to share with the world. And if the masses want to call me a “bellydancer”…. well, I will do my part to help them redefine it.

Now the conversation goes more like this…

Joe Public: Oh, you perform? What do you do?

Me: I bellydance professionally. I teach and perform the dance styles of Egypt and around the Middle East – the ones you’ve probably seen as bellydance and the folkloric styles also.

Joe Public: <no blank stare!> Cool!

“BELLYDANCE” Do you love the word or loathe it? Have your feelings about being identified as a “bellydancer” changed over the years you have been involved?  

I know you’ve got opinions!  Tell us in the comments below…


“She’s Got Hips” Podcast – Episode #5

January 31, 2011

SGH Episode #5

Episode #5: Interview with Rukshana aka “The Costume Fairy” with advice on buying bellydance costumes in person and online – what can be fixed and what’s a deal-breaker. Review of “Looking for Little Egypt” by Donna Carlton, event news, and Greek music from Cosmos.

Links from this episode:

“Looking for Little Egypt” by Donna Carlton

Music from Cosmos – Mediterranean Fusion band

The “Daily Bellydance Quickies”

About That Story They Told You…

January 28, 2011

I finished the first book on my 2011 reading list and as promised here’s my review of “Looking for Little Egypt” by Donna Carlton.

So, did we find her? No. It turns out that the convenient pocket-sized story so many dancers are  told about how Sol Bloom introduced America to bellydance by presenting Little Egypt at the 1893 Chicago World Fair is, shall we say, a misrepresentation.  The facts are much more convoluted, and in some respects darker than the familiar anecdote. Orientalism as it played out on the Midway was mean and degrading. The display of world cultures seems to have been there primarily so that the fair-goers could reassure themselves of their superiority.

Carlton presents quite  a bit of evidence in the form of historical photos, fair programs and posters as well as newspaper articles from the period. Her description of the site, together with the photos really help the reader appreciate the scale and grandeur of the exposition grounds. Her documentation shows that the Midway Plaisance entertainment included both authentic folkloric dancers (Ghawazee and Ouled Nail)  brought from the Middle East and “hoochie koochie”-type dancers who were more titillation than tradition. What’s that you say…not much has changed?

“Little Egypt” is perhaps more accurately described as a phenomenon that lingered after the World Fair closed. Bands of performers traveled the country capitalizing on the success of the Streets of Cairo exhibit, spawning the traveling circus, burlesque and vaudeville. Ashea Wabe was the dancer who was most notoriously known as “Little Egypt” in the post-fair years but she was not ever part of the fair’s entertainment lineup. It was likely Farida Mazhar, a Syrian dancer, who was the controversial fair star, but she was never billed as “Little Egypt” on the programs.

Although that’s the main topic of the book, there are many other interesting side topics for the curious dancer. Political scandal, the origins of the raks sharqui style costume, the iconic and silly “bellydance melody” and how Ruth St. Denis got inspired. I won’t give it all away because I think this is a worthwhile read for any dancer that is interested in the roots of bellydance in America. It is essentially a research book- you’re not likely to find it a page-turner keeping you up into the wee hours of the night dying to find out what happened next- but it isn’t textbook dry either.

I give it 3.5 Shimmies out of 5 – more for the quality of the research than for its entertainment value.

An “Interesting” Experience

November 10, 2010

Last weekend my student troupe and I performed our newest choreography, a multi-part Saidi, at our MECDA chapter’s annual festival. They were very excited about it and deserved to be – they worked on it diligently for months, aligning cane angles and synchronizing their spins. Their post-show glow took a rude hit in the dressing room unfortunately when another dancer approached them and said, “Your piece was…. interesting.”  When she told me later my student did a look-down-the-nose, raised eyebrow imitation of the person who delivered the comment. Wow.

As much as I’d like to believe the best of people, I doubt this was meant as a compliment. “Interesting”? I did my homework and the piece was traditional from the music selections, to the costuming, to the movement vocabulary. We used some ingenuity in the multi -person cane tricks but even those were inspired by formations done by the Reda folkloric troupe in their choreographies. Even our addition of a Raks Balas segment didn’t venture too far out there.

Keeping that in mind, what do I think about that comment? I think the problem here is not only a shortage of politeness but narrow knowledge base. Before I go on, let me say that I wasn’t able to identify the speaker from what my students told me – and I’m glad I can’t.  Really, I don’t want to know. I probably know the person and I’d rather just skip the whole forgive and forget thing.

We had a similar experience last year at the same festival, but thankfully it was handled a lot better. My dance partner (yes, the crazy one) and I did a traditional Khaleegy piece. We did not include any cultural information in the introduction. Later a good friend of ours, a tribal dancer, told us she didn’t “get” what we were doing with the dresses or our hair so we explained the basic Khaleegy facts. With this cultural frame of reference she “got” it and recommended we include an introduction next time we perform it so the audience could better appreciate it.

We took her advice when we next performed it. In speaking to the show organizer, a very well-known dancer with a lifetime of experience, I requested it be introduced with some background information. I told her about our friend’s reaction and she agreed wholeheartedly. In fact, she told me years ago she saw a dancer wearing a short trashy dress, doing sloppy veil work and chewing gum on stage! She couldn’t believe it and thought she was a hot mess. Years later, she learned it was  – you guessed it – a Melaya Leff. I’m certain she was far too gracious to ever walk up to that dancer and tell her it was…. interesting.

I felt really bad that my students had to weather this little rain cloud on their parade. Being relatively new to performing, they haven’t yet developed the necessary thick skin and selective hearing we sometimes need in the bellydance world. If they wanted a comeback for an uninformed – and unsolicited – comment like that in the future, I suggested they reply with “You’re not familiar with that style?” and fill them in on the background.

They say a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. If a dancer keeps her world small by studying one style with one teacher and not exposing herself to other styles, regional dances and folkloric elements, she’s bound to think odd things when something new comes into view. If  we choose to specialize in one style, we should keep our minds open to being familiar with other styles – even if we choose never to dance them. At the very least, a dancer should be willing to consider that she may be looking at something she knows nothing about.  If all else fails, remember what your Mom told you… if you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything.  Then go home and Google it.

If you’re on Facebook, you can see our “interesting” performance.

She’s Got Hips Podcast – Episode #4

July 19, 2010

SGH Episode #4
In this episode:
Interview with Morgiana on her nearly 40 years teaching and performing bellydance, review of Middle Earth Ensemble’s CD “Passage”, a report from the International Bellydance Conference of Canada in Toronto, and upcoming event news.
Show Links

Middle Earth Ensemble

Fat Chance Bellydance Intensive

Cool Summer Workshops in Flagstaff
Fall Festival of Music & Dance

Completely Classics
One with the Music

Arab-American Festival

Mahin on Facebook

Daily Bellydance Quickies

Mahin on Twitter: MahinBellydance
Daily Bellydance Quickies on Twitter: DailyBDQuickie

DBQ Facebook Fanpage

She’s Got Hips Podcast Episode #3

April 8, 2010

LISTEN HERE : Yasmina of AZSGH Episode #3

Interview with Yasmina on her bellydance journey from cabaret to tribal fusion and her adventures in between.

Podcast Episode #2: Interview with Helena Vlahos

April 6, 2010

Interview with Helena Vlahos on her 30+ year career as professional bellydancer, performing from coast to coast.


Show Links

Helena’s Website:

Featured Music by Cosmos:

Phoenix First Ladies of Bellydance Show:

Daily Bellydance Quickies:

Tucson Spring Workshops:

Int’l Bellydance Conference of Canada: