Adventures in the Big Apple”
In the spring
of 1986, my best friend Jadin and I decided
we’d vacation in New York City to visit both of our aunts,
do some sightseeing and experience the “mystique” of
the East Coast style of belly dancing. Remember, this was at
a time before the Internet “shrunk” the world so
we dancers relied on visiting dancers or videos to learn about
other styles. So there was really a “mystique” in
the 1980’s about dancing styles in other parts of the US—and
especially about the New York style, so different from what we
were used to in the Bay Area.
week-long trip to the Big Apple, we stayed with my Aunt Irene
in her condo, and partied with Jadin’s Aunt Jadin (my friend
was named after this aunt, who at seventy was still an active
talent scout and very connected in the show business world).
Aunt Jadin was so vital and energetic that we knew we could never
have kept up with her in her heyday as an “oriental dancer” in
San Francisco. Jadin’s aunt got us invitations to a private
belly dance studio party at Serena’s studio,
arranged for a professional dance photo session for each of us
as a gift, and treated us to the Broadway show “Tap Dance”.
My Aunt Irene traipsed all over with us to museums, restaurants,
all the time insisting that we learn how not to act too “touristy”.
Believe me, these two aunts set a killer pace for us; we hardly
got any sleep (and didn’t want any)!
So, back to
our adventures in NYC. First, at Serena’s studio dance
party we got a great opportunity to observe the distinctly different “East
Coast Style”. I had seen New York dancers performing only
once in a while during the years I performed at the
most noticeable difference at first glance was that the
New York dancers’ hip shimmies were not the syncopated ¾ hip
shimmies so prominent in the Bay Area; they were long series
of vibrating shimmies performed with dramatic, beautiful
body lines. There was a “jazz” influence in
certain body and arm positions. There were also fewer belly
rolls, but a lot of theatric “drama” and very
effective stage presence, those dancers projected right
to the back of the room.
At the studio
party, we observed a dancer performing with one fan. She had
it tucked in the back of her belt and seamlessly removed it while
doing her veil work; when the veil was finally dropped, the fan
was snapped open. Very visually dramatic, it was a gold fan and
she used it to emphasize hip drops and shimmies during her performance.
Remember, at the time, we on the West Coast were just getting
into the concept of the “Egyptian” style of belly
dancing, and “layering” moves on top of moves; the
East Coast had drama! The live music in New York was different
as well, not as many “breaks”, and was lighter and
faster so that chest lifts, drops and locks tended to be small
and very clear.
I also noticed
that zills were not played throughout a dancer’s performance,
really only for the entrance, and during one of the fast parts.
In the Bay Area, we zilled a lot more, but the musicians wouldn’t
tolerate a dancer who couldn’t play well because it threw
them off rhythm.
While at this
private studio party, there was plenty of open dance time, and
when I got up to dance with a scarf tied around my hips, of course
it was in the Bay Area style, with ¾ shimmies up and down!
When I finished, dancers came right over to our table to introduce
themselves and ask, “Where are you from and what are you
doing with your hip shimmies?” So, proves my point, there
is a lot dancers can learn from one another.
next dance adventure was my scheme to dance at the Ibis
Club, a posh and beautiful club owned by a woman that
featured live music. I’d been told by dancers that Monday
night at the Ibis was open auditions night, but that I would
have to call in advance to arrange it and that I should not mention
that I was just visiting; they really wanted to audition dancers
for jobs. So, I called long-distance and booked myself for an
audition (well, I could have worked for a week or so…).
Jadin, my aunt,
and I arrived at the Ibis and were blown away by the sheer beauty
of the place; gorgeous murals on the walls featuring the big,
white Ibis birds. It was a large restaurant, with a floor level
performing area for the musicians and dancers. As soon as I got
into the dressing room, I ran into an old dance acquaintance
from S.F., Katarina, who had moved to New York.
I was informed by her that the musicians in New York really disliked
it if a dancer played zills straight through the performance,
they felt it was distracting to their performance as musicians.
So you were only supposed to zill during your entrance and the “second
fast part”. She gave me the tip about not playing zills
too much, and told me she had secured a lot of other dance gigs
because of working at the Ibis. The music, she said, was “easy”,
kind of Turkish, and no one ever, ever put tips on the dancers’ costumes.
The arrangement was that the audience threw tips on the dance
floor and the dancers rotated in collecting them and would split
them equally at the end of each month, which she said worked
pretty well. However,
dancers did go out into the audience to dance to every
table but there was never any actual contact for tips;
in New York it was considered improper.
I hadn’t had really bad experiences with going out for
tips, I thought it would be very liberating not to have to deal
with any of the potential pitfalls of going out for tips, which
was a requirement at the clubs where I danced in the Bay Area.
I had a great
time auditioning at the Ibis in my sapphire blue and fuchsia
beaded cabaret costume, and when I finished, the manager came
over to our table to talk to me and said, “you are from
San Francisco, aren’t you? I can tell by your style; what
nights can you work?” Well, I hadn’t expected a job
offer, and could only reply “Great, any night this week!” He
laughed and said, “well we’re booked for the next
month, but if you can come back after that, you have a job!”
The next day,
Jadin and I had our photo sessions, which her aunt had arranged
as a gift to each of us. We arrived at the studio and found she’d
also arranged a make-up artist to do our makeup; I thought I
knew how to do stage make up, but this guy was terrific! The
makeup took at least an hour and the photo session took another
2 hours—the pictures were black and white 8x10 “glossies” and
I was surprised at how tiring it was to dance, pose and HOLD
IT for that length of time.
was a working dancer but found the photo session much harder
than performing—but worth it all when we got our
The rest of
our week Jadin and I spent touring the museums with my aunt,
going to Broadway shows with her aunt, and having the time of
our life in general. We rarely got home before 2 a.m., and in
fact my mother called her sister (my aunt) every night at midnight
to ask, “Are the girls home yet?” My husband didn’t
worry about me but my mother did!
My last little
dance “adventure” was on our return to S.F., when
something in my baggage set off the security alarms while being
x-rayed at JFK Airport. At that time the security, as now, was
heightened due to international events. When my baggage showed
a square shaped box (my tape player) and several round disks
(my zills) two security guards stepped up right next to me and
escorted me over to a table area while my bag was checked over.
When they opened the bag, they found my sapphire blue and fuchsia
beaded costume bra and belt and one security guard said to the
other, “Carlos, look, this is gorgeous!”
course, then everyone relaxed when they realized there
was nothing more dangerous in my luggage than a set of
brass zills . . .
So, we arrived
home in S.F., extremely sleep-deprived but very, very happy with
our belly dance experience in the Big Apple. I’m convinced
that by its very nature, belly dance does not have just one “authentic” or
correct way to perform it. The “charming beggar,” as Najia so
aptly named it in her series, continues to fascinate, enrich
and yes, charm all who are open to appreciate different styles.
Yours in dance,
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