by William Wontner, circa 1900
Renewed Life for Dance
a sense, we western performers of Oriental dance were much
more free to create an artistic statement with our dance
than are the current dancers because so much is available
to dancers nowadays—straight from Cairo and Istanbul! The
majority of our audiences in the seventies had never seen
a Belly dancer anywhere at any time in any country, so they
were more accepting of our efforts in creative costuming
and the infusion of a bit of this and that dance movement
into our early performances. I rarely had to account for
odd choices in musical selections, which I tied together
willy-nilly into my dance sets, with great difficulty.
were no cassette recordings at that time—only vinyl and
reel-to-reel tape that had to be painstakingly and physically
spliced by cutting on an angle, matching the ends of the
tape and adhering them together with special splicing
tape. Only in this method, could one’s musical set be
free of audio glitches and extraneous noise from vinyl
record grooves that continual and careless usage scratched
assisting a Berkeley group that helped to produce light
shows, employing projectors, photographic images, and laser
beams during the late sixties when first I got the bright
idea that I might like to learn about the “ancient art of
Belly dance.” Therefore, I had access to many sound devices
that were not common in many households of the era. It
seemed only natural to me that I should begin to collect
music that was “real” in the sense that it was truly foreign
and that it was recorded on a high fidelity, stereo system
and that it was spliced into a non-stop show set, simulating
real middle eastern dance shows.
my efforts, I received recognition early in my career
when most dancers were either dancing to a zourna
and drum (played by two or three Americans who had never
studied music formally) or a worn-out record whose tone
arm leaped and skipped numerous grooves if the unwary
dancer danced too close to the turntable.
fact, we often danced for many little luncheon gigs in offices
and other places as a surprise birthday gift—to the music
of our own solo sagat. Now, that is
a skill that I have never seen anyone repeat since the early
seventies! Necessity was a progenitor of creative anachronisms
at that time. I was already dabbling in anachronisms before
I began to Belly dance—thus, at first the dance seemed just
another notch in my macramé belt. In fact, Belly dancing
offered me the opportunity to continue and enlarge my collections
of interesting items that I could mend, amend, and reclaim.
I searched flea markets and antique stores for items that
I could convert into costumes. The pieces I found seemed
to appeal to my artistic abilities in the flavor of the
famous fine arts images with which I was familiar. Cabaret
dancing and cabaret costuming rarely entered my realm of
thought at that time.
example of the Oriental style paintings that caught my fancy
was “Safie” by William Wontner, circa 1900. I noticed
several things that pleased me about the painting: Safie
wore a hip tie with long cloth fringe. Her costume included
tassels, lacy, embroidered fabrics, gossamer fabrics, and
a small vest, open over the bosom, which we sometimes called
a “weskit.” I thought, “I can put all that type of
costuming together using antique fabrics and re-using fancy
handwork!” I could not wait to get started!
we had no videos, no accessible photographs, except for
National Geographic and engravings that constituted illustrations
in literature about the Middle East, and we had limited
access to Arabic or Turkish movies, the parameters of possibilities
were endless! Let Wontner, Matisse, Delacroix, and Gerome
be my guide! (*See
footnote for a listing of more Orientalist artists.)
began my adventure into learning how to repair and care
for these antique fabrics, pieces of beadwork, crochet,
lace, and jewelry that became a major source of pleasure
in my performances.
Learning how to search for a neglected or abused treasure:
something you can afford to purchase, and that you can afford
to lose if your efforts fail, is part of the adventure.
I wanted to employ Safie’s hip tie and that would have been
an easy accomplishment if one had about $75. to $300. to
spend on that alone. However, it was very possible to find
damaged, fringed, and hand embroidered shawls and piano
throws that one could cut in half if one part were torn
or stained. They could survive a washing—if only one knew
how to do it without destroying the piece!
was a common occurrence was that people tried to wash
out their silk pieces without realizing that you could
not use any hot water.
it was not commonly known that how the official “French
laundries” took care of the fringe tangle problem. Silk
and cotton fringe and tassels are not like human hair.
Their threads, when wet, swell and grab each other making
tangles, which are unbelievably tight.
is an example of a discarded scarf that apparently, its
owner could not deal with the mess she had made of it. -
See photo 1 below
incredibly lucky when I came across a beautiful silk, hand-embroidered
shawl—sans any fringe at all. Someone had washed it and
tangled the fringe so badly that her solution was to simply
cut the fringe off completely! I do mean all of it! She
had clipped it off just below the bottom of the first row
of knots. I bought the shawl from her for $25, and she
suggested sheepishly that, probably, I could still use it
for a piano throw.
I had other plans for it: I planned to dance wearing it
and spinning it. I re-washed it in cold water, and when
it was dry, I began to untie row after row of knots that
had previously made a deep lattice border around the shawl.
I accomplished this un-knotting process with my fingernails
and two pairs of ordinary tweezers. (It took several weeks
of patient un-knotting, during which I learned that knots
are much easier to undo when they are dry and the fingers
are patient.) Next, the whole knot can be wiggled looser
until, finally, it will come undone more easily when one
loosens one or two strands, then pulls them out of the knot
first. Here it is when I was finished un-tying 6 rows of
knots along the entire border of the shawl.
photo 2 below
you untie a bunch of knots, they leave you with a curly
handful of strings that threaten to tangle and that will
inevitably, get into your work area if you do not get them
under control. See photo 3 below
I found it best to keep a spray bottle of water handy to
dampen (not wet) each one after I got all the strands free
of each other. See photo 4 below
unraveling several hundred knots on my blue silk shawl,
I hung the piece on a line, and I wet the entire row with
my spray bottle and combing them all with a big-tooth comb.
After the row dries, you can continue to the next row of
knots. However, it would have been so much simpler if the
person washing the shawl in the first place knew how to
prepare it as the French laundry would!