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The Birth of Bal Anat and Other Adventures

by Aziza

In 1968, Jamila brought to fruition a plan that had long been simmering in her mind. She was asked to do a lecture at UC San rancisco, and decided to present a chronology of the Mother Goddess and corresponding dance through the ages. She lined up a number of dancers and gave a great deal of thought to costumes, dances, etc., to go with her well-researched lecture. For instance, she made Amina a great Egyptian-looking collar and skirt out of some printed terrycloth, and wanted her to go topless to be really authentic, but Amina wouldn't go for it, so she wore a skin-colored leotard, instead. I was the finale, the modern cabaret dancer. The day before the day of the presentation, Bobby Kennedy was assassinated, so we postponed our show for a couple of weeks. From this lecture/demo beginning came the famous Bal Anat.

Jamila then formed a more organized troupe and show and took it to the Renaissance Pleasure Faire every year. Bal Anat had a lot of unusual performances packed into its fairly short presentation times. There were girls who danced on water glasses, girls who danced with snakes or swords, and girls who balanced things on their heads, from simple jugs to trays complete with tea service. Actually, I shouldn't say just girls, as there were some men who joined the troupe from time to time, and who were always very popular with the audience. The first few times Jamila presented an actual planned show, as opposed to the "free spirit" dancers who went to the Faire and just danced all over the place, the Faire was in an oak wood in Marin County, CA, but after that the Faire moved to its long-term location in Black Point, and she continued to present Bal Anat there, until she and the Pattersons, who put on the Faire, had one too many arguments and Jamila pulled out. Bal Anat has been succeeded and the Northern Faire by John Compton's Hahbi' Ru and Suhaila Salimpour's troupe.

Jamila wanted it to seem to the audience that they were watching a real Middle Eastern show, and so wanted a pretty high degree of (at least seeming) authenticity in the costumes. When we first did it, I, as the finale (alternating with Galya), wore a more or less standard cabaret costume, though, to be sure, it was coins and subdued colors. Later, I rejoined to troupe for a couple of performances, and I had to wear assiut with my coins and be quite covered up except for my belly. Music was always a factor. Of course, we couldn't use anything canned or amplified, so we needed live musicians who could play something loudly enough to be heard without amps. The oud wasn't loud enough, nor was the santour nor kanoun, but Jamila soon found what she needed in the mizmar, accompanied by a variety of dumbeks and a tabl beladi, as well as the yells and zaghareets of the dancers. It was a most stirring sound, and always drew a big crowd. As Jamila's daughter, Suhaila, grew older, she joined the troupe, and, as a cute little girl who could get out there and perform, she was always a big crowd-pleaser.

There have sprung from these roots many more-or-less ethnic troupes, many of whom perform at various small Ren Faire-type productions across the country. None of them that I have seen (except maybe Hahbi' Ru) has the scope and polish of Bal Anat. Fatchance Bellydance has taken the ethnic-looking dance in a different direction, and has formed a smooth, seamless presentation, much admired but never quite achieved by its many clones. The whole movement has become known by the umbrella term of American Tribal dancing. It does not, in general, originate in any one culture in particular, but is an impressionistic fusing of many. (I don't refer, here, to specific dances of the Ouled Nail, Ghawazi, etc.) Even the costuming is a fusion, incorporating elements of Indian, gypsy, Bedouin and so on - including some cabaret - in its mix. It's a lovely and seductive blend. The icing on this mult-layered cake is the proliferation of tattoos on any and all parts of the dancers' bodies. I think that the beautifully tattooed girls of the Fatchance Bellydance were the real beginning of the trend that led dancers to go beyond their temporary penciled tribal tattoos and hennaed hands to full body decoration.

I suspect that one reason for the rise of this type of dance and costuming was the scarcity of dance jobs (not to speak of the supportive atmosphere of many troupes, the forgiving nature of ethnic costuming, the popularity of tribal dance and many other factors). Girls who couldn't get a job in a club or restaurant - or who really didn't want to - badly needed a place to dance - when it's in there, it's got to come out - and forming an ethnic or folkloric troupe was a safe, practical alternative, and one for which there were socially acceptable outlets. A lot of state or county fairs that would in no way have allowed cabaret-style belly dancing in their entertainment lineup were quite happy to have something more "folk." A fairly new dancer asked me the other day if there was much of the ethnic dance in the cabarets in San Francisco in "the old days." I told her truthfully that the owners would certainly not have been interested in that
kind of thing, even if it had been around. Bal Anat was a thing quite separate from the cabarets and restaurants of San Francisco. The proliferation of troupes dedicated to gypsy, assiut or ethnic flash styles is a quite recent phenomenon. It will be interesting to see what will succeed this tribal thing in belly dance in America. As a living dance, one which is always changing by what its practitioners bring to it as well as by current tastes or fads, belly dance will continue to evolve into things new and strange, limited only by dancers' imaginations.

 

 

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