Belly Dancing in the 1970's:
An interview with Azur Aja
Aja (Sharon Wright), a belly dancer
from the Nashville Tennessee area, is endearingly known
as ‘The Lady With The Veils’. Her career has spanned
over thirty-five years, and her style has been influenced
by some of the most recognizable names in American belly
dance history. Most notably: Bert
Salimpour, Aziz and Morocco of
New York. She is an Egyptian style dancer, with varied
skills that include: zills, ropes, sword, cane, candelabra,
pot of fire and double veils. She also maintains that
she delivered the first bellygram (ever!) to both Aziz,
and to ‘The Sultan’ Ibrahim
Turman. She shared part of her long and storied
dance career with me via several phone conversations,
in which I found her to be warm, open, funny, honest
and a total delight to speak to. I think you’ll agree.
. . .
What inspired you to get involved in belly dance?
Azur Aja: I remember when I was about ten seeing an old Egyptian movie—kind
of a cloak and dagger type—and there were several belly dancers performing
in a large room when the star of the film entered. All of the dancers were
so beautiful, they really caught my attention. The lead dancer just fascinated
me with her movements—the head slides and the snake arms—and I thought her
dancing was so beautiful that I thought, even at that young age, that I had
to learn to do that.
Question: What was the next step in your evolution as
Azur Aja: Skipping ahead to the early 1970's, my husband saw an article in
the local newspaper that an instructor, named Adora—located
about thirty miles away—was offering belly dance classes. And he, knowing of
my dream, suggested that I take lessons. So I did.
Question: What were your first impressions of Adora?
Azur Aja: I thought she was beautiful, with long black hair and big dark eyes
. . . just the way I thought a belly dancer should look. I wanted to learn
how to do this dance so bad, I was glad that she was everything that I expected.
But what hit me when I first saw her dance was how simple it looked. Boy, was
I in for a surprise! Learning to move my body properly was hard work! It was
fun, too, but it wasn’t nearly as simple as I thought.
Question: Tell me about your first lesson.
Azur Aja: As far as clothing, we stayed covered; all she required was that
we bring a scarf to wear on our hips. She, however, wore a pair of lounging
pants and a cropped-top to show off her mid-section. Our first lesson was a
basic shimmy, but I really remember that she had us do a lot of warming up.
So much so I wondered when we were going to learn to dance.
Question: Did she influence your first costume?
Azur Aja: Oh, yes. She also taught us a great deal about costuming. Her personal
suggestion to me, because I’m short, was to wear a full circle skirt. She also
gave me a pattern for a bolero-type top with sleeves that worked well for me.
Question: How strong are your memories of your first performance?
Azur Aja: That’s something you never forget! It was after only about ten weeks
of lessons with Adora, which was early for a student to want to be on stage.
But the reason I felt ready to perform was that I practiced so much at home.
I turned my music on and I danced every day for hours! It was actually a student’s
night recital that had a very good response of almost 150 people. I did my
own choreography, chose my own music and to me it was a dream come true. Though
I was a nervous wreck, my performance was very well received. I think the reasons
why is that I played zills, and nobody else did. Not even Adora. She taught
me the basics of zills, but she didn’t play them when she danced.
Question: How did you choose your unusual stage name?
Azur Aja: In college I had the nickname: blue. So that explains the azure—I
just dropped the e. Aja name for Capricorn, which is
my rising sign. And the Middle-Eastern translation of Azur Aja means
blue sky coming to visit.
Question: There must have been some issues, especially
in the 1970's, of being a belly dancer in the heart of the Tennessee
Bible-belt. Tell us about that.
Azur Aja: The first stigma that I faced was the age-old one of having people
thinking that I was a stripper. The way I managed to combat that image was
to perform at civic centers and nursing homes, and anywhere I could to educate
the audience on what belly dancing was really all about. And in time people
looked at me with respect, rather than shame.
Question: Was your costume a problem for some people?
Azur Aja: Not really. I just had to wear more conservative costumes than you
might have seen in larger cities. I tended, depending upon where I danced,
to have my middle covered, and I never showed my legs. My arms, my neck and
a little of my upper chest area were all I exposed, unless I was in a night
club. Then I did the traditional 2-piece bra and belt combination, as expected.
Questions: Did you enjoy working nightclubs?
Azur Aja: All except one very embarrassing performance, early on, when I had
a bit of an accessory problem. You’ve got to remember the time frame; back
then it was expected for the dancer to wear a belly button jewel. I didn’t
mind; in fact, I thought it was really cute to wear a jewel in my stomach.
But the problem was that since I have a really deep belly button, I could not
get the jewel to stay in place. One night, running very late and rushing to
get on stage, I used too much eyelash glue on the jewel and a few minutes later,
while dancing, I came up out of a backbend, still covered by a veil, I saw
a big white glob of glue in the middle of my stomach instead of the jewel.
I kept my back to the audience and used my veil to wipe off the glue, so no
one noticed. Later, when I told another dancer about that ‘incident’, she told
me to use spirit gum to hold the jewel, not the glue. So I tried that, and
it worked great. Actually a little too great! After using the spirit gum, I
couldn’t get the jewel out of my belly button! (Laughs) I went home after that
performance and I still couldn’t get it out. Finally, three days later, in
the shower, it popped loose and that’s when I decided that they were just too
much trouble for me. I didn’t care how cute they looked, or what the audience
expected to see, I gave up on wearing belly button jewels forever!
Question: Tell us about the first time you went to a seminar?
Azur Aja: It was in 1976, in Atlanta, my first professional workshop, and that
was quite an event for me. It was also the first time I met Bert Balladine.
When I walked in, here was this little guy, about 5' 4" tall, and he had this
big fuzzy head-full of hair, a moustache and he wore a checker shirt and blue
jeans. I thought he was a farmer. Now, this was the first time I’d ever seen
a male dancer, but he has such an aura about him you couldn’t help but love
him. Then I walked into the room, into this great big ballroom, and there were
250 or 300 women in there. I was flabbergasted; I had no idea there were that
many women involved in the dance at that time. So that event opened up a whole
new world for me. To have my first workshop with Bert, watching him directing
all of these women was incredible! It was like a concert, and he was the orchestrator.
When I had the chance to talk to him, Bert, with his heavy accent, said: "I’m
just a farmer-boy from California. I raise goats and chickens and ducks. .
. ." There was no pedestal for Bert; he never let his successes go to his head.
And I learned so much from him, I’m eternally grateful for having met him.
Question: I know you’ve got a comical story about Bert. Tell us about
Azur Aja: This happened one of the times we taught a workshop together, in
Eureka Springs, Arkansas. We had decided that because Bert used to be a fire-eater,
and since I did a specialty dance with fire, we should do an act together.
Also, this wasn’t the first time we performed together—I think this was maybe
the third time. Anyway, on this occasion I had to fix my fire-pot myself. Now
you need to understand that it had live, liquid fuel in it that must be mixed
in a certain way, the right amount of chemicals together. And if you don’t
mix it right, your fire gets a little more enthusiastic than what you would
like for it to be. It works very well, but it’s hard to blow out. So we did
our performance, together with the fire-pot, and Bert lit his torches off of
my fire, which was very dramatic. Then I went back stage, but I couldn’t blow
my fire-pot out. When Bert came back, I told him what happened and he said
he’d blow it out. So he took a huge breath of air and stuck his face down by
the fire and tried to blow it out. But the flames, because I mixed it incorrectly,
went up around his head. Fortunately he didn’t get burned, but I kept smelling
singed hair. At first I thought I’d burnt myself, but no, it was Bert hair
that I smelled. When I told him that he’d been singed, he started slapping
at his head and face and said: "Oh, oh. I hope I have enough hair left to go
to Europe!" But all that was affected were his eye brows and moustache. Actually,
he was fine; he just smelled funny for a while. But from then on he introduced
me as the dancer who tried to set him on fire.
Question: Tell us about your most memorable performance.
Azur Aja: That has to be when I went to Indiana, on a Friday, and met George
Abdu and The Flames of Araby. You have to
remember that shows were different then. The Friday night performers were not
the stars; the ‘name’ dancers performed on Saturdays. Anyway, I didn’t care
what night it was as long as I got to work with George Abdu. So I danced with
my zills, my veils and my fire-pot, and it was one of those nights when everything
worked perfectly. After I danced, while standing back stage, here came George
Abdu. And he said the nicest, most complimentary things to me, especially about
my veil work. Then he insisted that I do the same performance on Saturday night,
too. It ruffled a few feathers, but I got to dance again on Saturday.
Question: Do you still teach and go to seminars?
Azur Aja: Not many. I do private lessons and I’ll travel to workshops to teach.
Question: Don’t you have a group of dancers you occasionally perform with?
Azur Aja: I do, and we call ourselves: The Baladi Hens.
We are: Sasha, from Indianapolis; Phyllidia,
of Lexington, Kentucky; Alexandria, of Beckley, West Virginia; Lagayah,
of Penducah, Kentucky. We’re all great friends who started dancing at about
the same time and we’ve gravitated together over the years, at workshops and
got to be friends. About ten years ago, someone asked us to perform together,
so we did and we called ourselves the Baladi Hens. We even have a girl’s weekend
out whenever we can, and we’ll get together in some part of the country to
hang out together. A trip to the ocean is next on the agenda, coming up soon.
Looking back on your dance career—having met so many wonderful
people—is their one person that you would have loved to have
Azur Aja: The one woman—whether she’s real or not—that always fascinated me
was Scheherazade, from the 1001 Nights story. She was so smart,
so clever, I just always admired her.
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