Author performs at the Ibis in NYC

Gilded Serpent presents...
From Cabaret to DJ
Bellydance in New York: An Overview, 1988 - 2007
by Nina Costanza (Amar)

Controversy: Changes in Dance Style
The End of Cabaret
Changes in Venue = Changes in Style
The Other Belly Dance Booms
Finding Center

Habibi Magazine, in existence for approximately 30 years – and once a major dance publication – not so long ago altered its format and content from that of a more culturally conscious and academic journal to one, modeled after contemporary yoga publications, that focused on fitness. In one of its last issues, the magazine featured a cabaret-clad exercise guru – a non-dancer – Kathy Smith on its cover. A national magazine, Time, fairly recently featured an article, “Belly Dance Boom,” chronicling a new fascination with an old Arabic art form as a great form of exercise. Crunch, New York Sports Clubs, Reebok, Equinox all have classes in Middle Eastern dance during lunch hours and after work. Classes are packed with (mostly) women of all ages seeking to learn bellydance, become the next stars of local hot spots, or acquire a new aerobic regimen. Bellydance teachers of varied experience, and sometimes questionable professionalism, abound. When I was hired to start the bellydance program at New York Sports Club in 1998, I was hesitant (and a bit snobby): Why would I want to teach a dance art in a gym? My generation learned in dance studios. Today, the motivation to learn dance and to perform is slightly askew from what personally inspired me; but apparently that is no matter. As the author of the Times article stated: At least it gets them in there. Bellydance is now popular and “mainstream” . . . in some respects. Not so long ago, New York dancers could actually make a living as performers.

But the primary forums for dancers, the major New York nightclubs, have closed their doors. Cabaret is gone; it is the era of the DJ. And the new dancer has to have another job.

This article is based mostly on personal experience as a New York cabaret dancer (since 1988). I was in a sense a “transitional” dancer in New York dance history. I had the opportunity to perform in the night clubs (Ibis, Darvish, Cedars, etc.) as part of their “staff” at the tail-end of their existence and was a long-time member of the Yousry Sharif Danse Ensemble. Also, as editor-in-chief of Arabesque (1989-1997, under publisher, Ibrahim Farrah) and associate editor of Habibi (1998-2005 with publisher, Shareen el Safy and subsequently Jennifer James-Long), I learned from wonderful, established artists, many who pre-dated me, and was continually exposed to many of the beginnings of those transformations that have brought us to our current dance world. As a dancer, instructor, writer, choreographer, and director of my own troupe, I continue to witness and be directly involved in the dance’s progress from an artistic perspective as well as in its commercial implications.

Controversy: Changes in Dance Style
When discussing recent changes in dance styles, typically noted as lacking in genuine Middle Eastern sensibilities, often it is new dancers or newer teachers that are fingered: new dancers who have (inadvertently) compromised (unknown) standards and new teachers who have barely studied themselves and seem to have little relationship to the cultural milieu from which the dance is derived. The dumbing-down of criteria is proclaimed, along with blaming the mainstreaming of the art form (once sought after as a measure of artistic elevation and acceptance). These changes, however, of which many experienced dancers are legitimately concerned, are not initiated by new dancers or new teachers or club managers and DJs, who have little exposure to the indigenous riches from which this dance developed and little opportunity to experience the “authentic feelings” of live performance within an Arabic context. Newer dancers are not purposely ignoring what came before (and not so long ago), they just don’t know about it, experientially, and they have little reference even to recent New York dance history; so it is difficult to place all the responsibility at their doorstep.

It is also not about the new versus the old. In art, there is no old-new dichotomy. Artistic development is a continuum of genres which borrow concepts across historic categorizations and from all available influences.

Fusion is not to blame either. Fusion is neither a detriment nor new; it is an exploration due to colliding social forces, one being the right of an artist to investigate new voices. Even Mohammed Abdel Wahab used jazz and Western harmonies in his now classically-acclaimed Oriental compositions, dating back to the 1950s.

But which comes first: changes in style (based on personal choices) or the socioeconomic and global-cultural environment that necessitates adjustment and engenders change? I suggest that change in dance style is an inexorable result of the modern temper. I could say, it’s the economy, stupid (does not sound very civil, though a frequent cliché); I prefer, it’s the context, baby.

A significant manifestation – and perhaps a fundamental cause – of recent changes in styles is the transformation of primary performance forums in New York City.

The move from cabaret to DJ, a major change of venue, contributes significantly to what is being perceived – critically by some experienced dancers – as a change in dance style. I suggest that the change in venue necessitates a change in style and reflects changes in audience “imaginings,” that is, what the audience wants from a performer. Changes in available venues alter everything from audience population, musical choices, dance styles and interpretation, to a dancer’s motivation and objectives. The immediate cause of this transformation is economics. Clubs that started with a seven to ten piece “orchestra” gradually whittled it down to a keyboard player and tabla (no wonder CDs, with their more elaborate orchestrations, have taken over – they are affordable and widely accessible). The other causes are complex and refer to the sociocultural world we inhabit:

Tastes in music and dance inevitably “progress” through globalization and its partner, fusion, which habitually arouses controversy and the perpetually-argued ambivalence about preservation and evolution. Additionally, recent and younger immigrants from the Middle East want to be part of cutting-edge, more universal, trends and began to view the established clubs as a place their parents would frequent – not them.

Author performs at Cedars in NYC. click for larger image
Musicians: Ramy Nasser, Maurice Chedid, Hana Mirhije and Gaby Tawil

Where a dancer performs is paramount. Changes in venue inevitably influence who dances (who is selected and hired) and who wants to dance (the performer’s motivation). The where involves more than just physical space (though that is also significant). It inevitably affects many performance aspects of the dance, a sort-of trickle-down effect: How it is taught and choreographed; how it is perceived; who can maintain interest in seriously pursuing and studying a dance with a now-limited potential as a life-style – and what kind of interest; and how dancers can acclimate their expressions to different kinds of spaces. Performers now, for example, are more often dancing between tables than on a stage, and typically not for a patronage who really “gets” the dance (as part of their culture), but for those who want to “groove.” A certain, frenzied momentum is expected, and volume must be high, not acoustic.  Pianist Van Cliburn stated that no performer can be 100% onstage: he/she is 50% onstage and 50% in the audience (or of the audience). This transaction means that who comprises the audience affects the performance, at least to some degree.

The dancer today, then, has no choice but to be other than the cabaret dancer. 

She will not be doing the five-part show. A real beledi will not likely arouse the crowd. How many new dancers have had a chance to dance to a live mizmar taksim, for example? How many have the opportunity to hone their unique expressions and fine-tune their entertainment skills through daily performances, establishing on-going and vital relationships to the music working with the same musicians on a nightly basis, and a recurring audience? Performance-repetition – and knowledge of dance history – is imperative in developing and maintaining a professional, dancing life and in becoming a strong dancer.

The End of Cabaret 
The closing of the New York Arabic clubs (by 1998, approximately) did seem sudden, traumatic, and difficult to comprehend. Few limped along in New Jersey, a couple lingered in Brooklyn, and some kept opening and closing within short periods of time, hoping to recapture what was lost. But New York’s financial empire won out, and this small slice of an authentic, immigrant subculture evaporated. Many still ponder why? Was it 9/11? (No.) The magnitude of these closings was unpredictable, and its repercussions – unforeseen at the time – are still being felt particularly by dancers who know how different and more exciting it is to dance nightly, to improvise to a live band in a specifically Middle Eastern milieu, in a dramatic atmosphere where the dancer not only had to exhibit prettiness and glamour, but had to be good, have a signature dance personality, comprehend the Middle Eastern vocabulary and sensibilities, and know how to entertain and relate to musicians and the club’s largely Arabic audience. The dancer was hired as staff, which meant a monthly schedule of regular performances.

Today is not the first time belly dancing has been in vogue. During the 1980s, belly dancing was also “booming” but in an entirely different way.

It was one of those “best kept” secrets, practiced in Manhattan’s Middle Eastern nightclubs. This dance “scene” was tremendously popular to a New York subset, a subcultural phenomenon that brought American dancers into an Arabic world and where “regulars” — customers from all over the Middle East — intermingled with American celebrities, such as Anthony Quinn, Chita Rivera, and Robert Plant, and a New York intelligentsia, who relished “pretending” they were in the “Orient”. Arabic night clubs, such as Club Ibis (East 50th Street), Darvish (West 8th Street) and Cedars of Lebanon (West 30th   Street) were packed every night till the sun rose —and not just on the weekends. Sometimes the entertainment continued on, with wealthy customers inviting the entire band and dancer to perform at an after-party. The live bands were replete with experts on the kanoun, keyboard, accordion, nai, mizmar, tabla, def, tabl, violins, and oud, some straight from Egypt’s Mohammed Ali Street. We were able to work with such fine musicians (who cared about dance and the show) such as Eddie Kochak, Simone and Nagib Shaheen, Hana Mirhije and his brother Michel Merhej, Ramy Nasser, Tony Hajjar, Nabouiyah, Tony Albajian, Maurice Chedid, Gamal Gouma, Gamal Shefik, and Hammoudah Ali (to name a few) and renowned singers including Charbel Saab, Tony Frangia, Youssef Kassab, and Fahim Dendan. Many had performed with famous dancers – Sahar Hamdi, Nagwa Fuad, and Sohair Zaki – before venturing to newer opportunities in the West. Often famous artists from “over there” joined the band on select evenings. There were usually three-four shows per night, with different singers and dancers, or with the same artist booked for several shows that evening. Those who actually danced in the clubs at that time comprised a relatively small population . . . maybe ten dancers, accepted as models of Middle Eastern dance style, who frequented all the clubs. Except for Ibis, which was more commercial and Las Vegas-like, most nightclubs were family-oriented. It was not unusual for a couple to bring their newborn to the shows, even if the music was loud and it was after 1 AM. The nightclubs were the best learning experience. We could learn from experienced dancers, great musicians, and the Arabic ambiance.    

During that time, a dancer would work all weekend (and even all week), traveling from club to club and party to party (sponsored by Arabic customers who knew the artists personally and their styles). Dancers did not have to advertise or have websites; once a dancer was accepted into the nightclubs, it was an automatic ticket to engagements at parties and shows.

Customers would see the same dancers each week, and vice versa, and would hire dancers they knew or dancers they had just seen perform. It was a small enclave where everyone knew each other, a small town in a large city, and it was exciting. Shows were often designed particularly for each dancer, permitting performers to perfect their show while experimenting with new moves or expressions. Dancers could establish long-term artistic relationships with the musicians: The musicians would know an individual dancer’s strengths and musical preferences. Except for the weekends, the “big” night was Wednesday. Frequent visitors from Saudi Arabia or Japan contributed large enough tips in one evening that could possibly pay a dancer’s rent for one or two months, and club owners were raking in the money. Dance classes and studios, in the mean time, where American dancers could learn the traditions of the cabaret, proliferated, taught by masters who had learned “over there.”  Many performers frequented Fazils Dance Studio (soon now to give way to new construction in the ever-expanding tourist center of Times Square) and were protégés of Ibrahim Farrah or Yousry Sharif or from Serena’s popular studio. Our studies did not seem derivative. With the nightclubs populated mostly by the Arab community, Americans dancers ventured into a world that replicated the night life of the Middle East.

The generation of dancers before mine (late 60s to early 80s) had even more opportunity to perfect their shows. Musicians and dancers actually regularly rehearsed in the clubs prior to shows. (That is real artistic development!) The dance was regarded more as a real show, crafting complete reviews (the original Ibis and Darvish). Gradually, the clubs became more interested in making money and less interested in expending for rehearsals and special presentations. Subsequently, the art of performance became one dependent completely on the improvisational instincts and training of dancer and musician. The clubs started to short-change artists monetarily and aesthetically in deference to the commercial interests that eventually contributed to their demise. This coincided with the beginnings of what Ibrahim “Bobby” Farrah called, “the three-year career girls” – dancers who became momentarily enamored with the “scene,” were hired for their looks to keep a burgeoning and regular Middle Eastern crowd amused, and eventually quit or were let go after the audience tired of their ineptness. Dancer and musician still were close, but it was an intimacy established onstage and in performance. For me, who did not have the opportunity to rehearse, the surprises and challenges of live performance were stimulating. Thinking-on-your-feet in real-time was an amazing experience that truly depended not only on instinctive talent but also on considerable, preliminary training. Bottom line still was: you had to be good and you had to dance and comprehend Middle Eastern style if you were to establish any kind of career-longevity. 

This magical slice of Middle Eastern life in Manhattan — enormously captivating, regardless of the frequent fights (usually over a woman or padded checks), which sometimes resulted in short-term police closures, and all the soap opera and related gossip inevitable in a close-client community who socialized nightly — is gone.

It was a wonderful time-warp when American dancers collided with an acculturated Arabic scene, where the dancers submitted passionately and totally to the dictates of this mini-Arab culture (in terms of art of dance – studied and practiced daily – and accepted social behavior, for the most part), and the Arab audience accepted the American dancer as a provisional representation of their culture. As American dancers, transported to a Middle Eastern milieu and heavy nightclub environment, we could always safely move back into our American culture by day. And then, seemingly suddenly, in the late 1990s, though the signs were already there, the clubs disintegrated. Disks supplanted the orchestra.

Other developments contributed to the end of the cabaret: New casinos in Atlantic City provided free entertainment of the top singers for Middle Easterners (Lots more fun to gamble, look rich, and see famous Arabic singers for free); Gentrification and real estate greed, with its dismantling of affordable residential and commercial rents, are continually and quickly changing the social fabric of a once immigrant-rich New York. New York is less and less affordable or welcoming either to immigrants or artists; additionally, those who managed the clubs also often mismanaged, attempting to make quick financial gains which amounted to corruption typical in nightclubs and often led to the club closing for illegalities. The Gulf War, several intifadas and 9/11 further reduced interest in Arabic entertainment – only to some degree. A Palestinian friend, stating understandable empathy to the trials of relatives and friends after the more recent intifada said, “We cannot have dancers at our parties any more. We do not feel like celebrating. Besides the dancers now are just about sex.”

The end of the nightclubs has modified the dance scene in New York (and possibly beyond) irrevocably. One famous Egyptian teacher, who resides in New York, stated: “It goes in cycles. The clubs will come back.” But I don’t think so. Vaudeville is gone forever, and so is the Middle Eastern cabaret in New York.

Changes in Venue = Changes in Style
My observations here are generalized and are more about questions than answers. Most new dancers do not know what it is like to dance 20-40 minutes to a melodically and rhythmically intricate five-part composition for a knowledgeable Arabic audience. Most do not know how each section correlates to a different mode, rhythmic variations from different geographic areas, or how to build an entire dance composition. Most will never see dancers of their prior generation construct a complete dance composition of more than ten minutes. The sensual art of Middle Eastern dance is now more about sexy MTV imitations or acrobatic technical executions to an underlying, synthetic, four-count American drum beat than it is about conveying that subtle, dynamic and visceral sensibility with all its rhythmic changes that is Middle Eastern – because that is what is known, seen, heard, and shared. The period of the New York Arabic cabaret was immensely intriguing, with artistic objectives seemingly without end.  We, as dancers entered “their” world. Now, the audience enters the dancers’ world, wherever that may be.

While the closing of the clubs is due to a complicated combination of reasons; primarily, it is the economy that initially forced the clubs to close; and economy has forced alterations. When the venue changes so does the art form. Space affects movement. Money affects length of show: A ten-minute show costs a lot less than twenty minutes; A DJ costs a lot less than an orchestra. Hiring DJs instead of musicians automatically changes the construct of the dance composition. Audience population affects the type of show.

In a world where sound bites have more impact than documentaries and jingles are more memorable than symphonic themes, dancers performing in brief segments have more chance of keeping up with the shorter attention span of a younger, more American audience, than those performing the dramatic, climatic, more introspective 20-40-minute compositions.

Aside from spatial and economic considerations, the aesthetics and content of performance adjusts to different “imaginings” of the audience. Presentations of the dance today are more about audience participation: Everyone wants to be of the party, not just a voyeur. In cabaret, initially, the dancer did not invite audience members to dance with her/him, except for certain segments. In fact, we were asked not to do so. (There were many explicit and non-spoken social rules of behavior, dictated by remnants of the cultural context.) If an audience member joined in, it was usually to throw money, dance a short while and respectfully leave the stage so the dancer could execute her or his show. If (usually a) “he” did not leave, the manager would intervene and politely escort the transgressor from the stage. Arabic audiences came to see the singer and dancer and to celebrate symbols of their art and homeland. For the American audience, it is certainly also a celebration, but the social dictates are completely different: American audiences want to perform (think karaoke), and adhering to this, managers will request the dancer to make sure there is ample audience participation. All of this adds up to an entirely different process of performance. Choreography, too, is an entirely different art from improvisation, and dancing to CD is an entirely different process than dancing to a live band. These alterations signify a necessary change in dance style.  

Yousry and his ensemble with Amar

The Other Belly Dance Booms
Belly dance is presumed to have been introduced to the United States first through a World Fair in Philadelphia and subsequently in the 1863 Chicago World’s Fair where Sol Bloom brought “Little Egypt” to perform the “hootchy-kootchy” considered scandalous as it was not presented as a cultural representation as much as a titillating, sexual display to accrue audience attention (and money). Hence, belly dance started in the US as a semi-burlesque form of dance with a fabricated history of the harem girl or myths of “Little Egypt.” Hollywood loved the scenario, and old films abound with harem girls dancing to entrance the male species and other goddess-nonsense. And then, there was the “Dance of the Seven Veils,” not really of the Bible, but imaginatively translated into legend by Oscar Wilde. All this — seen by some as denigrating and a platform for protest — is mostly a playful stereotype based on rather natural human whimsies of sex and entrapment.” Bellydance fit a pre-existing fantasy. Much like Sicilian mob stories: Is the mafia a criminal organization; a righteous, political protest; a fabrication demonstrating prejudice against Italians; or a romanticizing of primal spirit of family unity and loyalty – all of which fascinates both fans and its detractors? How many seek to become bellydancers because of its myths which permeate our collective psyche? It’s a little bit play. None of this is so grave, if those who are serious keep the real stuff distinct, potent and alive.
Belly dance encompasses many of the paradoxes of human sexuality and the spirit of women, archetypes of human imagination and desire. Yet, aside from the universal element of belly dance, which entices male and female alike, it must not be forgotten that this is a dance, not just an imaginative concept, rooted in Middle Eastern culture, derivative of the sexual and social conflicts of that culture, and ultimately a theatricalized version of Arabic folklore. It is here where belly dance harbors its heart.

New York in the 1960s to late 70s/early 80s, as the Mecca of immigrants it used to be, a city that welcomed ethnic diversity, was resplendent with Mediterranean-oriented nightclubs. The night clubs on Eighth Avenue, referred to as “Greektown,” were frequented by Middle Eastern and Turkish immigrants and featured live orchestras, immigrants from “over there” who lived here and worked together night after night with dancers who were primarily of Turkish heritage and/or American. The bands were an eclectic group from Greece, Turkey, Armenia, and the Middle East who played music mostly of an Armenian-Turkish flavor. Apropos of New York then, the customers also were a mixed bag of Arabic, Greek, Turkish, Armenian, Persian, Israeli, and American heritage. Serena Wilson, Morocco, Jemela Omar, Ozel Turkbas, Sabah Nissan, and Soraya Melik were among the famous American dancers who meshed this dance with their own individualistic expressions. They were (and are) marvelous performers who knew the Arabic vocabulary and used the technique to create their own personas, fashioning wonderful recreations of Middle Eastern dance in America. “They had faces then.”

In the late 60s, Serena Wilson and Bobby Farrah opened the first schools in New York: Bobby, the first to teach Middle Eastern dance in an accredited dance school, at the International Dance School at Carnegie Hall (Elena Lentini, Phaedra, and Jajouka, principal dancers in his company and soloists in their own rite, joined Bobby’s teaching staff) and Serena at “Stairway to the Stars.” Shortly thereafter, Anahid Sofian and Morocco followed with their own studios. Bobby founded the Ibrahim Farrah School of Middle Eastern Dance at Fazils and, in 1981, engaged Yousry Sharif as a major instructor. When Bobby retired (around 1996), Yousry created his Egyptian Academy of Oriental Dance to continue the legacy of teaching dance and how to perform. When a student attended these classes, she/he was privileged not only to learn the theatrics of cabaret but the folkloric foundations of the dance. It was imperative that the student pursuing a professional career not only acquire the entertainment values of costuming and glamorous appearance, but also knowledge of Middle Eastern music and technique. If lucky and talented, a student could be asked to join the instructor’s troupe, which meant dedicated time for rehearsals. All the leading teachers established active, wonderfully talented troupes comprised of members who were soloists in their own rite; the most renowned being Farrah’s Near East Dance Group.

In the mid 80s, a newer immigrant wave of Arabs from Lebanon, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Palestine, and Egypt became predominant.

Middle Eastern clubs with a more Arabic flavor opened and flourished, culminating in the immense popularity of Club Ibis, Darvish, and Cedars of Lebanon. But still, this was largely an “underground” culture, known mostly by the immigrant community and serious dancers. There were satellite “circuits” that coincided with these centers: a few, still well-attended Greek and Turkish clubs that engaged dancers trained in that style; and the restaurant circuit which, at the time, mostly hired beginner dancers, hobbyists, or those not selected to dance at the clubs. Club management, unlike today, knew the difference between new and experienced dancers and usually scheduled dancers appropriately, with new dancers getting fewer monthly dates till they learned their craft. There were always exceptions, of course – like, if someone dated the manager.

The dance has gone through many evolutions in its history on the American soil. Its latest derivation — sports clubs and DJ nightspots — signifies less of the Middle Eastern flavor and more of a fusion between East and West and a mimicking of other disco moves. This new interest, or, more precisely, “renewed” interest, in “belly dance” has created some controversy in its ranks: It has been embraced by new dancers and chastised by many of its established professionals who are perplexed or disturbed by the emergence or divergence of “bellydance” from “classical” Oriental dance. Belly dancing today, along with its inseparable companion, Middle Eastern music, inevitably reflects globalization and gentrification.

What results is a fusion of Western and Eastern sounds and movement – both across geographical borders and musical genres (hip-hop and rap have been incorporated into Middle Eastern sonorities and vice versa) – the best of which is novel and compelling, the worst of which is an insipid mess or just plain boring in its repetitive shallowness. And the music impacts the dance; so does the performance venue. Newer dancers can’t help it.

Today’s world music exhibits continual sharing of ethnic genres. Amr Diab, Cheb Mami, Alabina, and Hakim, as prime examples, blend Western harmonies in their songs. One can hear them on American radio and even on the loudspeakers at record stores, which at first completely shocked me. Shakira implements Middle Eastern dance moves in her songs. (Many beginning students have said to me they want to “dance like Shakira.”) El Clon, a popular television series in South America, included Middle Eastern music and dancing. The results of these global inclusions have exposed Middle Eastern music and dance to a more widespread audience, and it has been electrifying a cross-cultural interest. Many new dance students not only come to the sports club for exercise, but also have been influenced by these pop singers and El Clon. (Another “context”: worldwide media exposure.) Others, who become impassioned with the dance, may venture forth into dance studios that offer a more serious, in-depth study of the dance, its music, and Middle Eastern culture and find teachers who they recognize as having knowledge and artistic depth.

Finding Center
While beginners flock to classes, full of naive exuberation and anticipation of unexplored sensual and glitzy frontiers; knowledgeable and experienced dancers despair over a lack of standards in its teaching, presentation and interpretation: its watered-down fusion-laid vocabulary, disconnection from its folkloric foundations, t-and-a orientation, and pseudo-sensationalism, all of which advocate artificiality at the cost of genuine artistry. Others welcome its natural evolution, viewing its latent popularity as a positive development that merges cultures and ensures longevity. So herein lays the eternal question or paradox between popular and “high” art. 

The cabaret genre in America has been reassigned from its former position of cutting-edge (“popular”) new presentations of Middle Eastern song and dance – an active part of the lives of Middle Easterners in America and the dancers who participated – to the role of the classic (“high”) relic – something to be mimicked and studied in an American environment, but with little to no opportunity to live it and actively explore it.

If I were to be starting today, I probably would not. The Arabic component in the venue is essential for me. For me, the Middle Eastern subculture, being privy to participate in their world, is what attracted me to this art. I wanted to be it, not act it. I personally am not moved by what I consider the “appendages” of the dance – exercise, acrobatics, myths, costumes, allure – these components, while lovely and important, are now out of context. What inspired me I presume likewise stimulated my colleagues (and those before me): an opportunity to learn the specific technique attuned to the unique Arabic feeling and to develop one’s own special style – within that context. The change in venue obviously attracts a different kind of dancer and exemplifies a different motivation to dance. Bellydance is essentially a solo art, and narcissism and ego manifestation, as in all performance art, are basic elements of communicating art expressions.  But only a part of it, if one truly wants to disseminate the art. In our modern temper, however, narcissism reigns supreme (American Idol, Reality TV), and the desire to be star, even for only fifteen minutes, is an imperative for self-definition and acknowledgement. New dancers are attracted to the bling, the glitter, the sex, the attention, the accessibility of stardom in the local watering hole – the appendages – as those components are now more accentuated and accessible than comprehending the original culture: New venue, a new context, new motivation.

And so, this art can be taught in a gym. I am not knocking this: I am observing it. It is an adolescent stage.

The bellydance community today is sometimes described as being fragmented; but I think the real issue is that it lacks a “center.” Without a “center,” establishing standards and criteria that experienced artists adhere to, wish to incorporate for the newer community of dancers, and to forward for preservation of this dance art, is extremely difficult. There is little in the way of frame of reference for new dancers or for experienced dancers to congregate. There are only a few worthy dance publications. Anyone can make themselves “famous” through advertising: vending videos, YouTube, and internet sites. Another more serious liability in the current dance world is that dancers are beginning to look the same, doing the same movements. They are robotically expert, but devoid of the rugged edges of individuality that make each artist distinct, simply because newer dancers have access to all the same video sources and little access to what was. The prolific-ness of dance videos and instructors, while marvelous on one hand, is devoid of cohesive criticism and few know what to choose, what is valuable. With the loss of Bobby Farrah, New York lost a crucial “center” for critical aesthetic assessment. Thankfully, there are still active and knowledgeable instructors in New York who maintain their own and remain deeply invested in propagating the art, through  new choreographies, on an international scale, at seminars and concerts – Yousry Sharif, Elena Lentini, Phaedra, Anahid Sofian, and Morocco, amongst others.

New and experienced dancers, if serious, have responsibility toward Middle Eastern dance. Newer dancers need to take the time to learn about the foundation of the dance so that their fusion is created from an informed basis and to learn from dancers who have preceded them. Without regarding those who preceded them, there is no depth and no possibility of creating a new “center.” Experienced dancers need not only to educate and present this foundation but also to welcome its inevitable transformations.

future fusion fantasy princess

As the social fabric changes, the art form is reflective of that transformation. These changes are not consciously driven, but evolve. Rather than be critical of these forces, it is most productive and most interesting to observe these changes in the dance itself; try to comprehend what elements circumscribe the new bellydance and its so-called “boom”; examine why they occurred; adjust; and re-direct, if needed. All involved, living artists must respond to the changing atmosphere, those developments which we cannot control; and most dancers, who want to remain “progressive,” have. While many have worked hard, over decades, to bring Middle Eastern dance to the forefront as a legitimate art form; this works inevitably hand-in-hand toward making it mainstream.

Once mainstream, elitists either have to relinquish some of their critical stronghold on its maintenance or accelerate it.

In becoming mainstream, something is lost and something is gained. One thing that has been gained is a proliferation of dancer-sponsored workshops and shows, theatre productions, and new studios. The “scene,” once controlled by the Arab nightclub community and management, is now more dancer-directed. From the closing of the clubs and diminishing of “real” opportunities, dancers are learning to create their own venues – outside of what was formerly mostly a Middle Eastern enclave – often re-creating their own semblance of the cabaret.

I am continually impressed by both new dancers who forge ahead in an economically-challenged profession, making adjustments they do not even know they are making, courageously doing their art in a virtual, cultural vacuum; and experienced artists who perpetually re-invent new ways to keep the art alive, the classical culture invigorated, and novel means to bring their art to broader audiences. With the advent of more dancer-directed programs, theatre productions have increased. The dance is bigger than the individual and bigger than the era we live in. But, still, – in New York – what can replace that rugged terrain of unadulterated, artistic exploration that was the cabaret?

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3-15-08 Love Stories…The Choreographies of Raqia Hassan, by Astryd Farah deMichele
A new feeling emerged about how the music truly is the dance, it creates the dance…the feelings behind Egyptian music, the soul of the music, are that which we experience as artists and dance to; for performers, so that it can be visually displayed.

3-13-08 Enduring Open Criticism: A Student’s Question about Feeling Humiliated by Najia Marlyz
What is wrong with our form of dance today is a direct result of the current trend for treating dance students as if they were in therapy or grade school (or both).



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