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Gilded Serpent presents...
My Dance Career’s Dark Side:
As seen through a fog of murky emotion
by Najia Marlyz
First published on Snakeskin.com11-20-98
Revised December 27, 2006

Will recounting my dark stories help me to purge them?  Should one forget those special moments of insult and bad human behavior that all performers face?  Should it be a priority to forget them, I wonder—to balance out what could easily become memories of a perfectly satisfying career in dance? Let’s drag them out of the murky past, scrape off their barnacles, and see if the process will diffuse some of the hurt they have caused for too many years.

At the same time, perhaps this will become a warning or wake-up call to new dancers:

as warm and invigorating as the experiences of performers can be at times, the performer makes herself vulnerable to the very public she entertains and for whom she labors. 

Not all who follow dance are worthy of a dancer’s open heart: perhaps that is why so many public figures and celebrities end up taking harmful drugs and indulge in other counter-productive behaviors. Performers often make misdirected attempts to stop the pain of easy marksmanship—from a few critical blog writers or chat room frequent chatters who, more often than not, contribute nothing beyond the superlatives they save for their friends and the epithets they gratuitously heap on their competitors.

Vignette #1: When Did I Become an Old Broad?
With my second dance of the evening finished, and as a relatively new dancer in my mid thirties, satisfaction in creativity caused me to feel giddy—after dancing to a new selection of music—in a new costume of my own design. The applause, smiles, tips, and requests for lessons from the patrons of the Moroccan restaurant felt more than gratifying. I never could have anticipated what was to happen next: 

An older, gray-haired patron, sporting his dapper plaid leisure suit, strode across the room and in a loud voice (modulated for all in the room to appreciate) proclaimed, “Not bad for an old broad!”

Vignette #2 Do You Know Where Your Children Are?
In a Greek folk dance tavern featuring international folk dance lessons and live music, a woman at a front table roughly grabbed my wrist, pulling me toward her, yelling rudely into my face, “Young lady, does your mother know where you are this late and what you are doing?”

At first, I was stunned; she was serious!  Then, as kindly as possible under the circumstances, I replied, “No, I do not think that I should have to phone home at the age of 32 to tell my mother what I am doing each night—especially as I am a married woman!”

“Oh,” she said in a lower-level and now sheepish voice, “ You look as though you are under 18!”

The point is not that perception becomes reality for audience members but that dancing often gives dancers a youthful quality that mystifies audiences. How can a dancer, whom they perceive as so very young, perform with (apparently) such little possible experience? Appearances can be so deceiving among performers of any age!

Vignette #3 Guess Again
It is a special birthday banquet for an old grandfather’s birthday.  I over-hear one woman say to another, “Well, I don’t care what you say; I say that that dancer has to be at least 35!”  My true age, at that time, was 48; so, my smile was extra toothy at the end of my performance.

Vignette #4 My Cooties
Part of the job description at this particular restaurant was to compel as many people as possible to leave their plates of food, getting up to dance.  Perhaps it was not entirely a bad idea, because, in the truest sense of things, people are more entertained by their own actions and the actions of those they love than by any “dancing girl”—no matter how beautiful she looks and with however great skill she may dance!

 A man held his hand out to me, and sharply, his wife warned him (so that all at the table could hear), “Don’t touch her, John! You don’t know where she’s been!” She was not attempting to be humorous.

Hiding my dismay, I smiled at him and said, “Have a nice evening,” and moved away to another table quickly. There was no need to drink the poison of anymore sick comments of this irritating, judgmental, and most probably, jealous ignoramus!

Vignette #5 the Dance Star
At a pre-wedding party, in which the women hiring me had assured me that both women and men would be present (otherwise, it would have been termed a “Batchelor Party”) I experienced a few extremely tense moments: to my complete surprise, they had lied through the deception of purposeful omission.  All the women were partying in the garage while they expected me to dance inside the house for the men only.  I was foolish enough to think that since I was there, I should simply do a short performance and quickly leave.

However, I could not stop myself from saying to one young man, “If you touch me again, this dance is finished!”  He smirked, pointed at the diamond star necklace I was wearing, and taunted in a singsong voice, “Nice Jewish star you are wearing, little girl!” 

“Thanks,” I said, adding, ”but you should know that the Jewish Star of David has six points.  This five-pointed star symbolizes stardom and someone who believes I am a star of dance gave this to me. That is why I am wearing it with my dance costume.”

Vignette #6 the State Senator
While dancing at a famous restaurant in San Francisco, to honor the birthday of Senator J. U. who was an honored guest at a luncheon, I encountered some particularly depraved behavior.  (He was a California state politician who has been dead a long time now; so, it would serve no useful purpose to use his name, thereby sullying his family’s memory of him.)   Senator U. grabs the hem of my skirt, pulls it up and tries to grab at my knickers.  I exited — up-and-over a table – and I ended my performance in haste. Sometimes, the show does not have to go on! Within the spirit of this moment, I learned that a dancer should make constant eye contact with members of her audience for reasons of dignity preservation, if nothing else!

Vignette #7 the State Governor
It thrilled and somewhat honored me to have been hired to come from out of state to dance at Greek Orthodox Church fundraiser in the state of Nevada.  The Nevada state governor happened to attend that evening because he was of Greek ethnicity.  One of the governor’s aides approached my manager and pleaded with him not to let me dance anywhere near “Governor Ethnically Greek Guy” because it would be political mayhem for him to be photographed with a dancer—much less, a Belly dancer!  He received our pledge, but the truth was, since I came from California, I would not have been able to recognize him if he were squarely in front of me. 

“So, which one is the Governor?” I had to inquire.

Vignette #8 My Family Reunion
A few years ago, I attended a family reunion of my father’s family in Sacramento.   This is Evelyn’s daughter, the Kutch dancer--you know, the Hootchy-Koutchy dancer,” my auntie said as she introduced me to new members of our family, wiggling her fanny and making hula-like hand gestures!  A mental joke to myself occurred to me: Someday, I ought to print up special business cards for such occasions. The special card will proclaim:

Najia Marlyz, (Evelyn’s Daughter)
Specialist in Hootchy-Koutchy Dancing

When the cards are ready, I plan to distribute them everywhere—proudly and with a secret smile.

Vignette #9 Ted’s Loft Guest
Holly was a vacuous, bleached blonde-haired young woman, and we were both in Bert Balladine’s dance class together.  She followed me into my dressing room after my performance and exclaimed shamelessly, “I hear there is a loft in here; where is it? Can I see it? I hear your boss lives here in the restaurant and sleeps in the loft.” 

I pointed, “It’s up there, up the ladder.”  She scrambled up the ladder, and peered down at me through her lovely, curly blond tresses and announced, “I am going to sleep with him and get your job!” 

“Tsk, tsk,” I clucked my tongue and challenged her, “Be his guest!”  

The following week I could not wait to ask my boss, laughing, “Has Holly got my dance job, yet?”   A funny look crossed his face and he chuckled, “Is that what that was all about?   Nope!  I want a dancer with class in my place!  You dance; she can play in the loft.”  That was the last time I ever saw (or heard) anything about Miss Holly.

Vignette # 10 the Dance Sisterhood
In an Arab-owned restaurant where the dressing room wall did not extend to the ceiling, restaurant patrons could not peer in, but the dancer inside could hear clearly the conversations at the tables nearest the dressing room.  A local dancer ripped my dance technique to shreds in criticism for the benefit of her date.  Next, she called the restaurant owner over to her table, and said, “Tell the dancer I am here, my name is (Blank), and I am borrowing her costume because I didn’t bring one. I want to show my guests how I dance.”  

Mr. Employer knocked on the dressing room door and inquired, “Well, did you hear?”

“Yes,” I answered, “Please tell her, if she wants to dance, she will have to dance in her street clothes. I wouldn’t dream of asking a dancer to loan me her costume that she spent hours designing, beading, and fitting to herself just so that I could show off in front of a date...” 

With a sheepish grin, he dutifully told her what I said, and she exclaimed, greatly miffed, “Najia obviously knows nothing about the sisterhood of all dancers!  I would never turn down a request of a sister dancer (whom she had just maligned)!”

As I left my dressing room, I turned to her and said, “Nice to see you here tonight, (Blank)!”   Whatever she muttered back, I did not hear and did not want to hear; I just kept walking.  At closing time, Mr. Boss-man asked me why I was so uptight about loaning out my costume to a “sister dancer”!

“Would you loan a stranger your clothes to dance in and sweat on?” I asked—in answer to his question.   “Oh, I guess not,” he said.

Vignette #11 the Strip-Tease that Didn’t Happen
The woman who hired me to dance at her party wanted her dancer to wear street clothing to the gig so that her surprise would be complete.  Her instruction was to use the back bedroom as a dressing room. 

I began to set out parts of my costume on the bed, and I heard subdued, muffled, male voices just outside the window of the bedroom.  “Oh, no, no! —I am not doing a strip tease for voyeurs tonight!” I thought to myself.  I walked to the wall-switch, flicked off the light, and dressed in total darkness—while lying on the floor between the two beds. 

After my performance, I left the venue, still costumed. I reminisced, coldly, about the sleazy Walnut Creek restaurant (now gone) where we dancers all knew that there were peep-holes bored into the wall of the dressing room as well as the ladies’ restroom, and we dispassionately stuffed paper into all of them before using them.

Vignette #12 the Stupid Little Bitch
My dance went really well for me and a second party from another dining room of the same restaurant asked me to dance for their party, too.  I explained that I did not work for the restaurant, but for a private party.  However, if they wanted to hire me, I would send over my manager since I was already there and already in costume.  They and my agent agreed upon a suitable price, and I danced again—just for their party. My manager went to collect my fee and returned quickly, telling me that the new clients want to pay me in person, and they expected me to meet “the lady” in the women’s lounge/restroom.  I went there and she informed me, “We have decided to pay you with a toot (a snort of cocaine).”  I was appalled.  I reminded her that we had had an agreement for a specific price and that price was in dollars! Furthermore, I informed her that I was not a user of drugs.  She turned red and hurled her purse against the plate-glass mirror in the restroom, shattering it into a million pieces. (I was lucky that she did not throw it at me.)  My agent managed to get my payment from another person in her party and the restaurant management billed her for the mirror on the restaurant check.  However, I never have forgotten the look on her face when she threw the purse nor have I forgotten her epithet to me: “You stupid little bitch!”  

Vignette # 13 the Fountain in the Floor
My agent obtained a booking for a private birthday party dance in a beautiful downtown San Francisco basement restaurant called the Marrakech.  Awaiting my introduction, I stood in the foyer across from the entrance, listening for my cue, a handsome man entered alone and looked across the room at me, appearing somewhat stunned as well as startled. His reaction caused me to feel powerful, and beautiful in that moment, ...and then he stepped forward—directly into the tiled fountain full of water sunken about one foot into the ornate floor.  

The poor fellow laughed at himself and said aloud to me, “Well, I was hoping you were real, and I guess you are!” Then he squished away in his water filled shoes, both of us glad that he had not fallen down or been injured. I think I will never forget his dignity in the face of adversity and embarrassment, and I will remember him always when I think of my dance career moments that were unforgettable.

Vignette #14 the Naval Officer
Among the quality gigs my agent managed to book for me was one especially unforgettable occasion.   A private party of co-ed Naval officers in San Francisco at a formal party wanted a dancer for a senior officer.  Truthfully, however, one officer in particular made a horse’s patois of himself, obstructed my dance and disrespected me.  I asked him three or four times to please return to his seat, and though officers were rolling their eyes, none arose to help diffuse the situation. 

When he disregarded my request again, I danced over to one of the several female officers present and whispered, “Can someone please get this drunk idiot under control?”  She hissed through her teeth, smiling a phony smile while whispering back, “None of us can do anything; he is the highest ranking officer here!”  I told her with regret, “Please give my regrets to the honoree, but I have to end the dance before this gets any more embarrassing than it is already.” 

I received a carefully worded apology in the mail a few days later. I wish I had kept it—I would have shared it with you here—if only for laughs!

Vignette #15 the Dancer’s Drug
Once I was thinking to myself as I danced: “Of all the music I have ever danced, this is the most complex, passionate recording!”  I thought, “Music certainly connects one to the ear of God!  Similar to the red ballet slippers in Hans Christian Andersons’ tale, ‘The Red Shoes,’ this music causes me attempt incredible feats of dance I might not otherwise attempt!”

In that moment, a plump, blond matron sitting at a nearby table turned to her husband and exclaimed, “Believe me; without taking drugs she could never dance!  She’s completely stoned—I can see it in her eyes!”  Her statement shocked me personally because, unlike some Berkeley people with whom I have danced (and one or more of our ex-politicians, who smoked but never inhaled) I inhaled the music but never once did I feel that it was necessary to smoke or sniff in order to get high on dance. In an odd fashion, I felt honored by her comment.

Vignette #16 Time Flies!
“Young Lady!” a red-faced woman snarled at me in the women’s restroom. “I just want you to know that we all are disappointed in you!  We drove for an hour and a half to get here to see you dance because we heard about the unusual and beautiful dance performance you put on.  We got here early just so that we could sit up front, and then, you only danced for ten minutes!  I am going to complain to your employer!”  

I was, at first, puzzled and speechless, and feeling defensive.  Then I recalled that I had just danced to canned music, and I knew—and could prove—exactly how long I had danced! I had recorded and danced with a tape cassette that ran according to my employer’s standards exactly!  My cassette tape had played fully 39.5 minutes, at least, and perhaps longer—with inclusion of the extra music I added to the end for audience participation. I managed to squeeze out through my strangled vocal cords (full of shocked and defensive emotions), “M’am, I dance with music on a cassette tape.  My cassette played for well over a half hour—closer to 40 minutes or more.  The proof of a good dance is that it can seem to make time speed up for an audience... That’s why the old saying is ‘Time flies when you’re having fun’!”

“Can’t have been,” she grumped, and stomped away, still angry.

I remember muttering to someone who had overheard our conversation, “The fact is, time flies whether you’re having fun or not!”

The time has flown, and I have had fun.  These 16 vignettes are only a few of the experiences in my dance treasury.  There are many more—some even more baffling and too weird for public consumption.  While reflecting upon them, I sometimes ask myself why I wanted so much to be a performer!  Why are dancers so willing to suffer the insults and the risks to their emotional and physical being? My only reasonable answer is: there were many more incidents that happened that were heart-warming, funny, uplifting, and even inspirational.  Sometimes, even negative happenings have added learning and drama to my life and given it meaning.  What more could a performer ask?

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