Sign of the times

I remember as a ‘baby dancer’* my first belly dance teacher, Leea, would have student nights about 4 times per year for her dancers to perform. She had beginners, working pros, and everything in between, and quarterly we would all come together to support one another and be inspired by one another. This was still a time, albeit the tail end though we did not realize it, when live music was the norm for dancers, and from the beginning I was out there with musicians that I did not realize at the time were incredibly accomplished and experienced in the field (as I grew and developed as a dancer, I would later have opportunities to work with many of them professionally as well and realized how lucky I had been right at the start of my experience as a teenage wannabe…whoa!).

Once a year our studio would also have what Leea called ‘alternative music night’, an evening of in-studio performances where we could dance for one another to non-Arab/Egyptian/Turkish/Greek/MiddleEastern/Mediterranean/Belly Dance music. It was a hoot. People would pull out random stuff that they listened to in their daily life to perform to, from metal to bluegrass, or sometimes people would choose things like rai music—-music from the regions our dances were inspired by, but that normally would not fly for belly dance performances. It was a night to be silly and have fun and let loose and show another side of ourselves. It was understood that it was indeed alternative and not the norm for our normal style of dance.

How things change! Within our subculture of global belly dance, fusion styles and folks utilizing belly dance movement separated from the music and cultural expression have exploded in popularity in the last 10 to 15 years. Today there are communities and studios where having an occasional traditional music night is the alternative to the norm!

The wheel of fortune idea reminds us to think in cycles.
The wheel of fortune idea reminds us to think in cycles, not necessarily linearly.

The problem is that movement separated from music and cultural knowledge or expression can often look like (bad) jazz dancing or poorly trained contemporary dance, or look like some sort of burlesque (I use the term here to mean a caricature of sorts). This is certainly not to paint fusion dancers with the same brush—-there are dancers working under the umbrella of belly dance fusion who are doing interesting work of which I am a fan. It is meant to be a general observation and shared memory of how things have changed, and perhaps a small reminder not to assume that because something is newer or developed in a certain place that it is somehow better.

Sign of the times, eh?

*affectionate term for new dancers common in the 80s and 90s

P.S. I chose a photo of Samia Gamal playing a genie named Kahramana in the 1949 film Afrita Hanem, as in the film she portrays various characters, often through dance and costume, as she playfully manipulates the character played by Farid Atrache. An original concept of alternative for modern “belly dancers”, perhaps?

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بدلة

I’ve long loved the fact that the Arabic word for the modern, but now ubiquitous, two-piece belly dance costume is bedla, which means suit. It made me feel like a worker as a dancer. When I would go to a gig I’d put on my suit and do my job. Even though it was my living for a while it was not taken seriously by many people, even those I worked alongside. But no need to fret or worry or doubt myself, I would think — I was in a suit!

“I’m a worker. I do the work to communicate, and I want people to embrace it, and when they do I’m happy.” ~Patti Smith

Badia Masabni
Badia Masabni, one of the innovators of “belly dance” as we know it today.
P.S. The featured image above says ‘Al Fanana Hermine’ (The artist Hermine).

I have a new 6-week fundamentals course starting in mid-June, and I’m starting to work on the details since I have time off of my other teaching work right now.

It’s funny, the idea of starting to work on something, as if it is going from 0 to 60 in 21 days or some such thing. What it really is is a culmination of years and years, decades in fact, edited and culled and put together in a hopefully cohesive manner to present in what will ultimately be 6 hours to a diverse group of random people (random in the sense that they are folks who know who I am and are interested in my classes, and are able and willing to pay a certain amount of money to be in a certain building in a certain city at a certain time over a six week period). But I begin by putting the goals of the course on paper, and working backwards to figure out how to get the group to the point I can say goodbye, and leave them feeling they learned something of value to their own dance work, and also leave them wanting more, knowing how much more there is to learn and having it feel accessible, exciting, and worth continuing with me, or with their other teachers present and future.

This is why I always have to smile a bit at the concept of an overnight sensation. The people who seemingly come out of nowhere have likely been at it for a long while, were prepared, and recognized (and took, or created) opportunities. Of course, in our modern technology driven world the concept of fame has to be redefined a bit, as one can become (virtually) known by many in a relatively short period of time.

Movie Poster for 'Overnight Sensation'
I have not seen this movie, but doesn’t it add something nice and visual to my post?

In the US belly dance world there has long been a teeny element of ‘I am famous because I say I am’. Pre-internet days there were the names that got around, and luckily it was indeed mostly due to talent, but also it was due to the folks who put themselves out there–took the ads out in Habibi, went to the workshops (they used to be called seminars!) or the very few annual festivals that existed and taught, performed, or made the scene. There was a sense of really being able to check people out that brought us all to those annual events—-we had seen their ads in the zines, heard their name from our teachers, maybe even met them, or maybe they were one of the very few who put out VHS tapes of performances from Egypt, or their performances or classes—-but the proof was in the pudding when we got a chance to see them dance. Sometimes it was amazing and I was sure never to miss their show or a chance to study with them, and sometimes it was disappointing. We also had our local dancers who worked in the clubs—-when there were clubs that paid, and not a dancer on every corner willing to dance for their supper. (Note: I am not bitter, I promise, but I sure am glad I am out of the club scene!) They were sometimes better than the ‘famous’ dancers, but they were often busy working, and promoting yourself as a dancer was very different then…you worked, you got gigs from your other gigs and from word of mouth and from colleagues and club owners and bands, and you worked and worked and worked!

I remember when it went from using business cards supplied by the booking agents or your teacher when you went out on a gig to suddenly folks slowly starting to have their own business cards. It was a bit strange! Then we had the med-dance list (an early listserv that was amazing in connecting dancers). I remember one of my teachers asking me about it, “Wait, you sit at a…computer and read things other dancers wrote?! Why?!” Then bhuz.com came along, and there was a visual element to the online discussions rather than a textual one, and dancers started getting their own websites at a rapid pace (I got mine started in 1999 thanks to some geeky friends!). And then in what felt like an overnight shift, to be a dancer of value you had to have a slick website and an image, and to be hip and savvy to the whole scene!

And so it goes. We are lucky that there are lots of amazing dancers out there, as there probably always were, and we can see them immediately via you tube, websites, and social media. Hype still exists, of course, but it is much fancier, and a bit harder to get away with.

The teaching part of the work has not changed that much, though. I go through what I have learned from reliable sources, what I have seen with my own eyes, and what I have experienced, and then I parse out what I want to share and figure out why, and how it all fits together. I honor my teachers past, present, and future, and ultimately, I head into the studio to see who wants to try it all out with me, open to the experience and questions and energy they bring with them that day.

This zigzaggy little trip down memory lane is brought to you by three of my favorite things: Procrastination, Living in the Past, and Coffee!

P.S. I’ll be at Belly Dancer of the Year this coming weekend—-I’m a judge! Check it out if you are in the Bay Area!