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Safie” by William Wontner, circa 1900
Gilded Serpent presents...
Antique Textiles:
Renewed Life for Dance
 by Najia Marlyz
March 3, 2007

In 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. 

There 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 and destroyed.

I was 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.

For 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.

In 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.

One 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! 

Since 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.)

So 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.

1. Learning how to search for a neglected or abused treasure:
Finding 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! 

What was a common occurrence was that people tried to wash out their silk pieces without realizing that you could not use any hot water. 

Additionally, 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. 

Here 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

I was 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.

However, 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.  See photo 2 below

When 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

Therefore, 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

After 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!

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2: Preparing a fringed item for the wash:

First, assess the dirty tangle. See photo on right. If your fringe is very dirty or stained, you will want to prepare it into smaller bunches or bundles. Pre-wash each bundle (by hand, of course, in cold water) and then group them into larger bundles. Try tying each bundle in several places along the length of the bundle so that each strand will not have an opportunity to move around or to escape the bundle.  At the French laundry, they even enclose these bundles in little sacks so that they receive further protection. See photo 5 below

After you wash the fringe, squeeze the bundle by rolling it into a Turkish towel; then, carefully untie the bundle.  You will find that the wet strands seem to want to tangle; so, separate them by combing them with your fingers only. See photo 6 below

Allow the fringe to partially dry. Then, taking your wide toothed comb, pretend that you are combing out a child’s hair to braid.  (Incredible as it seems, though, I have seen Mothers start with the brush at the top of the child’s head and just yank the wet hair until the tangles break off a wad of hair strands.  Okay, I think that is child abuse—what about your defenseless fringe?  The child can grow more hair, but your fringe is not so lucky.  Once you have jerked the tangle, even a little, it will have become a bonafide knot and you have just ruined your project!) See photo 7 below

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3: Finishing up:

All this manipulating has a way of tightening or loosening your knot at the top of the tassel or piece of fringe.  Now you will see that the end of the fringe has become uneven in length.  Simply lay it down, comb it once more, and then, take out your shears and clip it so that most of the ends are even (not as short as the shortest of the strands, however, or you won’t have much length left!). See photo on right.

Here are some finished pieces that I used in my dance costume:

See photos 8, 9, and 10 below

In Part Two of Antique Textiles, I will show you some of the strange costume pieces that I made using recycled antique pieces and other oddities from a bygone era. It may not have been authentic, but it constituted over half of my journey into dance.  I loved every piece of costuming that I made because it caused me to feel connected to the artistic and creative part of our dancing and showbiz ancestry.

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*For dancers who would like to do some research on fine art paintings that center on an Oriental theme,
here is a partial list of Orientalist painters in my files
:

Bakas
Bakst
Baurenfeind
Bernard
Bida
Bouchard
Boulanger
Bridgeman
Cassas
Chase
Clairin
Comerre
Crawford
Debiefie

Delacroix
Dicksee
Dinet
Descart
Eisenhut
Ernst
Eschemen
Fabbi
Falero
Farquarson
Fasce
Fesquet
Flint
Fortuny
Fossey
Frere
Frey
Fromentin
Gabarit
Gentz
Gioja
Giardet
Goodall
Green
Gyula
Henri
Haber
Ingres
Ismailowicz
Kemp
Lear
Lebran
LeComte
Leleux
Luoit
Lewis
Long
Marinilli
Masriera
Mayer
Merson
Monsted
Morcillo
Muller
Nicholls
Odelmark
Outin
Pavel
Pavy
Pearce

Perrault
Philpoteaux
Pilny
Pollak
Pressler
Prosper
Pils
Reggi
Regnault
Regnier
Renoir
Richter
Roberts
Rodriguez
Rosati
St. Pierre
Sargent
Signorini
Simonetti
Simoni
Solomon
Stiepevich
Stylka
Tissier
Tissot
Tprmao
Toulmouche
Tray
Trouillibert
Turner
Valerie
Vernet
Weiz
Wenzlick
Wontner
Wyburd
Zatzka
Zo


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