Return to Belly Dance
by SARAH HASSAN
Every Wednesday night, something wonderful happens at Je’Bon Sushi & Noodle Shop in the East Village: Belly Dance. Kaeshi of ‘Belly Queen’ and the ‘Belly Dance Superstars’ and the Brooklyn-based band Djinn, host a night of experimental belly dance and live music. What seems like a strange venue for a traditionally Middle Eastern art form, Je’Bon offers an intimate space for an equally intimate dance beneath its restaurant in the form of a boxy, low-lit party basement complete with a raise stage and separate bar. The staff is friendly, the prices are reasonable, and the food is complementary to the expectations set by the minimalist décor.
I descended into Je-Bon’s underground with its see-through ceiling – giving new meaning to the term ‘fish bowl effect’ as patrons upstairs could literally watch the goings-on below – and took my seat among the sparse audience members. In between wolfing down satay, I was on the look out for my friend of ten years and fellow dancer, Isis, who would be performing that night with Aviva Khadra.
I was playing the part of the Prodigal Daughter; after four years of training in the Harem Belly Dance studio now run by Aviva and featuring classes by Isis, followed by a brief hiatus that led to Flamenco lessons and then four years of college without ever stepping foot in a studio, capped off by seven months of work overseas, I was finally returning to the ‘don’t quit your day job’ addiction I had fell into at the age of twelve. This would be the first belly dance show I would watch as a mere spectator in years, not having to worry whether it was my turn to go on or if someone needed my help at the door. It came with the wonderful feeling of nerves that comes with encountering an old flame, when the two of you are better versions of your former selves. In true fashion, Isis arrived late and clad in black leather, her dark hair pinned to the top of her head in a dramatic fall. I was on my first glass of Cabernet Sauvignon when she came in and then sauntered over for a kiss.
“I’m going to need your help with my costume,” she said. “Bring the wine.”
I was no stranger to this line; in the early years of dancing, when I was the literal baby in a studio filled with either pre-menopausal soccer moms or wild party girls resistant to embracing the prospect of their thirties, I learned to make myself useful until I reached an age when eyebrows wouldn’t raise over the idea of me dancing alone in a sequined bra and belt. I became a backstage Girl Friday during the interim, snapping photos, pinning belts, and touching-up makeup, getting dizzy off the smell of heavy perfume, baby oil and sweat. Being exposed to so much bedazzled flesh in between frantic costume changes at an early age set the foundation for shamelessness that usually reveals itself in college. So when my first-year roommate, a former ballerina, was whipping off her clothes and sleeping in a thong, it felt like coming home.
When I went to part the curtain that partitioned the bar from the hallway filled with empty boxes, Isis promptly pulled me into the bathroom, swinging her shoestring belt of old coins and Turkmen pendants against the plastic paper dispenser. The clattering was awful, but comical as Isis, fully made-up in iridescent glitter on her cheek bones and dark purple pout, eyes lined with blue and black in the likeness of her namesake, struggled to hold her costume together while bending over to retrieve the belt, trying not to hit her head on the toilet. Think Buster Keaton does burlesque. I eased myself up against the sink and took a swig from the glass I faithfully brought, holding it out to her in sisterly offering. Isis grinned and downed the rest of it, one hand cupping her breasts beneath her velvet bra trimmed with tassels.
“The problem with this tribal shit,” she started, tying the bra straps around her neck, “is that there are too many layers.”
Tribal-style belly dance, as opposed to cabaret, is known for it’s multi-textured look that combines old fabric, heavy metals and shimmers of old-time show girl influences. It is one of the first true fusion dance forms, taking from African, Indian, Roma and Native Americans traditions of movement, along with the occasional popping and locking, to create a unique blend of Middle Eastern dance vocabulary interpreted through the lens of anthropology. ‘Experimental’ can now be substituted for ‘Tribal’ in the belly dance lexicon, especially when dancers shy away from all those camel tassels and thick black eye make-up and are more interested in performing in a way that doesn’t suggest dollar bills being shoved in between their breasts.
Originating in the core and lower-half of the body, belly dance was created to ease the pain of women during childbirth and only after British explorers in Northern Africa saw these dances being performed by street girls in bazaars, did the idea of “Danse Oriental” truly hit with all the “sexual mysticism of the East.” It can happen quickly, deliberate like setting off a row of firecrackers, or with the sudden unexpectedness that comes when hair tumbles over shoulders after being unclipped from the nape of the neck. When people used to confuse “belly” for “ballet” after asking me what kind of dance I did, I used to set them straight by circling the air with my finger. The geometry of dance is simple; Ballet is a line, the perfect 90 degree angle slashing across the page, whereas belly dance is a curve, the upward slope barely gracing its parallel neighbor.
Belly dance has only recently begun to be put on the stage, and by recent, I mean in the last twenty or thirty years, which is a start for an art form that goes back to the time of the Pharaohs. Thanks to Miles Copeland and his ‘Belly Dance Superstars,’ an evolving roster of dancers who get more lithe and slim every year, belly dance has become a global phenomenon, covered by international newspapers and talk shows, with dancers performing everywhere from the Vegas strip to Marrakech and Taiwan. What was once a practice reserved for publicly embarrassing its audience – “Once I went to this restaurant and the dancer wouldn’t stop trying to make me get up and ‘shake it’ with her” – is now an institution elevated to the heights it has always deserved, but was unsure of how to get there.
Now it’s not uncommon to see dancers performing to The Velvet Underground – “Venus in Furs” is an Isis staple – to electronic artists such as Bassnectar, or Middle Eastern pop such as Oojami and Hakim, feather fans in hand or an elaborate Shamadan aglow on their heads.
There are few dancers in the community who have not been affected by the ‘Superstars,’ since belly dance had always been a practice without a company to aspire joining, though not everyone is eager to jump on the Copeland juggernaut. Ballet has its American Ballet Theater, New York City Ballet and Marynsky, modern dance has its Martha Graham, Paul Taylor and Merce Cunningham companies, and belly dance has its innovators of the form and respective groups, such as Carolena Nerricio of Fat Chance Belly Dance, Jill Parker of Ultra Gypsy, Rachel Brice and The Indigo, Jehan of New York City, and Suhalia Salimpour, daughter of the legendary Jamila Salimpour, who was the first dancer to implement a certification course for Middle Eastern dance.
But there was never the expectation of nervous dancers lined up in hip scarves waiting to be push around for a chance at stardom. You joined a troupe, performed with them, perhaps became a local celebrity, and that was mainly it. For more New York City-based dancers, the money was in the nightclubs run by overbearing men with names like Fahd or in high-profile restaurants where Wall Street executives could bring their arm candy to prove they were for the ‘women’s movement.’ I remember hearing the gossip of dancers during class at the Harem, shit-talking the latest owner to ask to feel them up in between sets.
Belly dance, traditionally, was, and still is, found in Egyptian and Turkish supper clubs, with a few Greek and Lebanese family restaurants taking the bait from time to time. But shish kebab doesn’t automatically guarantee a Taqsim with your meal, so whenever you feel like satisfying your curiosity, call ahead to the joint of your choice and make sure there are dancers. And no, you don’t have to get up in front of your parents, significant other or mistress and shame yourself at the expense of a pushy performer.
Wednesdays at Je’Bon are a sure bet, with new dancers and Djinn promised every week, save for freak snow storms, and the emphasis is more on performance rather than inter-personal humiliation. Aviva Khadra was the first dancer of the evening, and I watched her from the ‘wings’ behind the bar, more focused on making sure Isis’s costume didn’t fall apart. The good-natured cat-calls from the audience signaled things I could have already assumed, having seen Aviva, a seasoned professional and by no means a slim belly Barbie, before more than once before.
While Belly Dance is one of the more forgiving art forms when it comes to different body types, its empathy for all sizes can be tricky. A dancer, no matter how much ‘junk in the trunk,’ can pull off the movement if she – or sometimes, he – knows how to truly accentuate and flatter their shape. A strong hip lock done by a 250-pound dancer with perfect lower-body control looks quite different than when done by a dancer of the same weight just standing on one foot and hoping for the best. The dance can transcend size because when performers with more to work with know how to work it to their advantage, the idea of what makes a perfect body just melts away in the mind and all that remains is the feeling that something incredibly important just happened. Aviva embodied this, and I was able to focus more on her dancing than her belt size.
I took my place for Isis’s veil entrance, and enjoyed feeling the ground shudder as she moved and writhed to the music, strong arms led by deft fingers along her hips, making eye contact with her entranced onlookers. Finally settled as an audience member, with Isis’s sequined belt around my hips, I was able to enjoy Aviva’s second set involving sword work. As such an obvious symbol of masculinity and other – ahem – things pertaining to men, the sword comes undone when in the hands of capable dancer. Aviva, in the words of Nabokov, 'caressed the divine details’ of the blade, the handle, and of her own outline cast on the floor. She balanced the blade on her chin, arching into a back-bend from the stage so the audience could get a good view, and then she let it rest on her head, perfectly still as she rolled her hips out with exquisite breadth. Djinn provided the sultry details, the harsh inhale and exhale of beat-boxer Pete List laying over the slow doumbek of Brad Mack.
But to see beyond the description and to get to the core of the dance, one has to throw out the catalog of time. Forget comparing belly dancers to winding rivers and whipping blades of fire; those images have been done before. Every performer has been juxtaposed against those stock photos of rising moons and setting suns. It’s just too easy; the goddess-thing, the earth-mother thing, the temptress-come-to-enslave-you thing. Soon dancers who believe their own gimmick will be right back where they started, no better than navel-baring ‘harem hussies’ of antiquity, waiting to do to Sultan’s bidding.
Improvisational belly dance is the true delight of a typical show, which is most evident when paired with a closing drum solo or upbeat ditty. Djinn makes the switch from slow and seductive to bright and sharp with no apparent double-take. Isis and Aviva slinked in-between the tables like dolled-up cats on the prowl, making their way from table to table, chair to chair, undulating against happy on-lookers who whipped out their cameras.
“Don’t sit on my belt,” Isis hissed sweetly as she shoulder-shimmied over me.
Isis and the author’s arm opting for a photo
Big on audience participation, that is, non-performers dancing in a circle around the stage until they can’t breathe, Djinn coaxed each of us out of our seats with fast licks and clean breaks, allowing us to unleash our inner hip circles of fury. It was better with a small audience; no one was embarrassed, no one uncomfortable. It felt like a slumber party gone awry in the basement of your edgy friend’s house.
Djinn was formed in 2006 and was originally just Carmine T. Guida and his cǘmbǘş with Brad Mack on percussion, Pete List sitting in occasionally to beat box. Then a hurdy-gurdy bearing lass named Melissa Kacalanos showed up and the four of them started performing together regularly at My Moon, a warehouse-cum-restaurant space in Williamsburg at the request of Sera Solstice, one of the most sought-after tribal fusion dancers currently working. I had the opportunity to see Djinn perform at My Moon for Sera in those early days, literally ‘before they were famous,’ I knew them when. Even then, Djinn had a powerful new sound, a mix of traditional rhythms and urban appreciation, setting beat-boxing to doumbek over the exotic strain of the hurdy gurdy. The newest addition to the group is Chern Hwei Fung, a violinist who I have now seen twice perform and brings an unexpected punch to the music with his off-putting ferocity on an instrument more often associated with chamber orchestras.
Sera Solstice performing with Djinn
While Carmine and the rest of his band mates are well-versed in the traditional music of the Middle East and the whole Belly Dance canon – I’ve heard them play Ya Gameel and Haudouni Haudouni with ease – they didn’t set out to change the landscape with a shtick; “Middle Eastern Music for Dummies Who Can’t Be Bothered To Listen To It.” Their music and most of their original compositions were born from improvisations, a kind of audio contact that took place between instruments in the heat of the moment. Carmine described dancers giving him slips of paper before a show describing the type of music they wanted in the form of writing prompts, such as “a raindrop becomes a tsunami” instead of “slow-fast-fast-slow-fast.”
Djinn is very much a belly dancers band. Certain songs on their two albums, The Middle East Side and The Silent D, were written for specific New York City dancers, such as Darshan and Susan Frankovich. They exist not to compete for audience attention with the dancers they perform with – there have been times where I was certain bands were trying to punish me for existing while I danced to their live music – but to provide an elaborate and eclectic backdrop of sound to delight any one who listens, whether a seasoned performer looking for new material or a listener unaware that such material existed in the first place. The familiarity of the electronic overtones paired with the traditional rhythms is an excellent introduction to the mash-ups affecting the global template for music and dance. The arts and culture of the Middle East are fertile grounds for such changes to take place during a time when it seems the entire region is under fire, offering a fresh perspective on the traditions that are grossly misunderstood and negatively represented.
Shaking out my last shoulder shimmy under Je’Bon’s hot house lights, I wiped my slick forehead and gave an exhausted sigh of relief. Casey Bond, a fellow audience member and professional percussionist, laughed and wiped her own forehead in sympathy as Djinn finished their third encore of the evening. “We sweat, we are women,” Casey proclaimed. The circle disbanded and then she divulged the secret: “We carry on.”
"Scars" - Allison Iraheta (mp3)
"Pieces" - Allison Iraheta (mp3)
"D for Dangerous" - Allison Iraheta (mp3)