The Gilded Serpent presents...
Glass-Dancing Revisited
by Yasmela/ Shelley Muzzy

The Glass Dance was my first solo specialty in 1973.  From what I can gather of West Coast dance history, the glasses were first seen in the Bay Area with the Egyptian dancer Fatma Akef.  I actually saw one of the Bal Anat dancers performing a glass-dancing routine. I believe there is an old photo of Jamila on glasses, although my facts may be just fancy. Fatma stood on upturned water glasses, balancing a pot and talking to her parrot, who perched on her shoulder.  She just sort of stood there, did some shimmies and then got off and continued dancing.  The glasses are a bit of circus hokum, an audience gimmick, but then, entertainment is entertainment.  They have no other purpose than to allow a dancer to exhibit her prowess at perching on upturned glasses while executing some nice moves.  They have no great and mysterious history.  I liken them to the Greek taverna dancers I’ve seen who pick up tables in their teeth, fascinating but…well, maybe not quite that odd.

After leaving Jamila’s classes late in 1973, I started taking lessons with Nakish, one of Jamila’s sword dancers from the Faire, also known as “The Lady with the Eyes.”  For those of you who don’t know her, let me tell you that this woman was something special and an incredible performer!  Nakish secured a spot in a show at Brooks Hall for an international dance and music festival. Her advanced class, of which I was a member, became her “troupe”.  We each had a specialty dance to do and Nakish did a long solo Oriental routine.  I volunteered to be the glass dancer, having little idea what this entailed.  I thought it would be easy because I wouldn’t have to move my feet much and having never performed in public, I was very nervous.  I quickly discovered that there was more to glass dancing than standing on top of 3 inverted glasses and waving my arms around. Because I had only seen a glass dance once before, it was a mystery to me, but I managed to work out a passable routine.  I did my first public performance at Brooks Hall with Vince Delgado as our drummer and a Persian accordion player.

The accordion player had never played Middle Eastern music, but knew “Lady of Spain” hands down, which gave Nakish fits.  He and Vince worked out some melodies and Nakish made up a set list. We followed a Flamenco group whose singer, an ancient old man with a face like a dried apple doll, sat by our dressing room door, leaning on a heavy wooden cane. 

As we came out, he pounded his cane on the floor, leering at us, clicking and muttering in Spanish. 

The first time I came out of the dressing room and saw him sitting there staring at me I was scared to death, but as soon as I figured out that he was teasing, I relaxed and got positively flirtatious.  From my first moments backstage in the dressing room I was hooked on performing and being “a dancer.”  It was heady stuff.

However, I was still petrified.  The same feelings of inadequacy, nausea and lack of control mixed with excitement and anticipation have followed me throughout my career.  Despite, or maybe because of, my initial stage fright, I managed to present an acceptable version of a glass dance to a slow accordion chiftetelli.  I felt like I was standing there for an interminable time and I didn’t do much movement, lots of stomach flutters and rolls, lots of arm waving and figure 8’s.  I ended the dance with a few shimmies, a nod to the musicians and a relieved dismount. When I formed Bou-Saada and performed this solo specialty more, my routine took on new dimensions.

There was definitely the consideration of costuming.  If you wore the uniform three-panel skirt, it was likely that no one beyond the first or second row of the audience would be able to see what you were doing as the skirt covered your feet and the glasses.  It also tended to get caught and twisted as you maneuvered around.  Nakish wore “I Dream of Jeanie” style pantaloons when she danced and no skirt at all over them most of the time. I didn’t like the panty look of those ‘60s harem pants, but I did make a new costume that would keep the glasses from disappearing when I did knee bends.  I wore pantaloons with a nice cuff at the ankle, slit up the sides but attached hip to knee, knee to ankle, for a sort of peek-a-boo effect.  On top I wore a dance bra and sometimes over it all a sheer tunic that came to my knees, caught around the hips with my coin girdle.  With this ensemble, the audience was more likely to see what I was doing. My feet were still visible, my stomach was visible but covered, and the whole thing had a rather folkloric, yet glittery, look.

At first I used 3 thick water glasses, not too tall, but sturdy. For more dramatic stage effect I found some hefty glass beer mugs with stems.  These were industrial strength goblets that looked great from the stage and lifted me a little higher off the ground.  When I started adding more movement, Muzzy (Mustapha, our emcee and oud/saz/davul player) made me a large, portable board, smooth and slick on one side and rough on the other so I could move the glasses around without moving the board.  The board stored easily in our bus and I never had to worry about the right surface on which to dance. We packed a product called “finger ease” along with our duct tape and sewing kit.  It was designed for guitar necks, to keep fingerboards from being sticky.  A few sprays of this across my glass board and it was slick as spit.  Muzzy was continually trying to paste things on the sides of the glasses so they would catch the lights but nothing would ever stick. Along with our Calypso number, there were musings about lights around the bowls of the glasses, but none of this ever came to pass other than as road fantasies. Now that I think about all of this, I know you can only do any of this when you are young, stupid and impervious to disaster.

For performance, I took the stage with 3 glasses in my hands, presenting them to the audience, holding them up over my head, doing a few spins.  While I kept time to one side, one of the musicians brought my board out with great ceremony and laid it down.  After carefully (and dramatically) arranging the glasses, I lifted a foot, stepped up on one glass, and brought the other foot up to the other glasses. Centering myself to build dramatic tension, I went through a series of slow movements including a deep knee bend to the floor with a "Maya" and a nice back bend with my body ¾ to the audience. Because the board was very slick, I was able to circle around by scooting the glasses with my feet, literally “dancing” on them.  Returning to face the audience, I squatted down and picked up one glass. Balancing on the two remaining glasses, I rose back up and held the glass up in the air bringing one foot up so I was balanced on one glass, only for a moment and only when I felt very strong.  Of course, the repeat process of replacing the glasses in their original position was as harrowing as getting to one glass, but by then I knew the dance was almost over and the sense of relief I felt helped me finish without mishap.  I concluded the dance with shimmies, jumped off the glasses, picked them up and ended with another spin.  A variation on this routine involved a layout with stomach flutters that required moving the glasses under one hand, one bent leg and one extended leg.  The layout was actually quite a strain on the glasses as well as my nerves, and I didn’t perform it too many times.  But it was quite impressive!

After a few years I passed the glasses to another dancer in the troupe. She added a whole new element of acrobatics and theatrics to the piece.  Her slight physique was suited to the delicacy needed for this dance.  Despite the sturdy nature of the heavy glasses we used, they were still glass and somewhat fragile.  There is a very real element of danger to the glass dance.  When I first decided to use stemmed glasses instead of simple upturned water glasses, I purchased some beautiful hand-blown Mexican goblets. 

During a performance, one of these shattered as I stepped up on it. I jumped free before my foot was injured, but not before I got quite a fright.  After that we decided to go for strength and not beauty. 

For the first year of Bou-Saada our finale was the Glass Dance.  When I passed them on, it wasn’t because I didn’t enjoy the glasses, but they were limiting and very demanding. Not being particularly athletic, I had a hard time with the complex processes involved in making them look interesting. 

The glasses require patience.  By the time you feel very comfortable with them you have a real appreciation for the intricacies of taxim

Its common for new dancers to rush through taxim passages, trying to get through them as quickly as possible because they have no idea what the music is doing at that point. 

Our response to the improvisational passages in Middle Eastern music illustrate the depth of our understanding of the rich texture and nuance of the culture.

Back in the dark ages, taxims were long, drawn out and sometimes grueling, especially for fledgling dancers with little repertoire, and no doubt for the audience as well. You have to dig down really deep to keep connected with the audience and the band.  Sometimes I felt like a rubber band stretched to the limit, but it taught me to listen.  Not being able to move your feet but still having to dance to the music is a great discipline. The Glasses certainly helped me find my center place, slowed me down and made me think about the music, but it took many years.

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Ready for More?
more by Yasmela-
10-17-02 Music and Style by Yasmela / Shelley Muzzy
ATS seems to be pushing Middle Eastern dance, at least in the U.S., back into that safe and sexless area, sans the real knowledge of true folk movement

More about Glass Dancing-
11-14-02 Glass Dancing by Neferteri
The art of dancing on glass is a true measure of talent and nerve. It can be one of the hardest things you can do as a dancer, but the rewards are awesome!

2-6-03 The Tale of Two Faires by many
It seemed that the ren faire we all knew in Black Point, Novato, kept changing producers and locations. Now their were two ren faires!

2-1-03 How I came to Turkey by Kayla Summers
There are few people more cynical than I, but I maintain that I saw what I saw. Dada will not confirm or deny the incident; he just laughs.

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