Gilded Serpent presents...
May 12, 2003
I was asked to search through my hundreds of aging videotapes
for a particular documentary video titled “Some of My Best
Friends are…”(I need not complete the title; it is
not available for purchase, anyway.) In it was some of our belly
dance history of the San Francisco Bay Area; Bert
Balladine was recorded in an interview giving his
philosophy about the dance and about the lives of his professional
dancers and his perennial students. He was also was shown instructing
his dance class. How captivating it was to meet him in that era!
ready we young women were to hear his explanations in deeply
accented English as to how, as performers, we could reach
out to others and to touch their emotions through our own.
We could possibly
enrich our life experiences through the dance that Bert called “The
Back Door of Showbiz”. He maintained then, as I believe
that he may still, that many women have a backlog of pent-up
sensuality that, in the American culture both then and now, is
almost too scary for them to explore.
my first dance lesson with Roman “Bert”Balladine,
I did not realize that I had a “pent-up”anything.
has proven that I did. It only took Bert a few moments to cement
me to his dance program with a few well-chosen words. “You’re
too skinny to be a performer but if you stick with me, I can
make you a star.”Was it a line he gave to all the new students?
I didn’t know, and further, I didn’t care. All I
knew was that I had to fulfill his wishes and expectations because
he believed in himself, and he believed in something he saw in
arrived to each lesson wearing his curly mop of brown hair around
his head like a monstrous halo just as it was in the video documentary.
His deep-set eyes never missed an opportunity for him to compliment
good dance movement by asking the girl to demonstrate it to the
other students. It was fearful and intimidating to think that
one’s reward for excellence was to repeat it in front of
fifteen to twenty other dancers (some of whom danced in restaurants
and nightclubs professionally, I soon learned). Bert changed
his gnarly and worn cowboy boots for some yellow leather Moroccan
pointy-toed slippers for the dance lesson. He fastened on a chain
tassel with Middle Eastern coins on it onto a belt loop of his
well-worn Levi’s, tied the front of his shirttails together,
and he was good to go. In the documentary, he looked just as
I had remembered.
sprinkled me with his magical performer’s word: “star”I
really had no aspirations to become an actual performer. It had
been my intention to learn some of his dance steps and movements
to incorporate into my teaching of choreographed women’s
exercises to music. How little we sometimes know our inner longings
and ourselves! Within the year, I had learned that I could demonstrate
before the other dancers without shaking and quaking from fear
of being wrong or inadequate. Furthermore, the other women actually
admired my movements, commented on my graceful hands, and I was
hooked like a sturgeon on a gaff hook. This heady success made
me want to do more and became a powerful motivator toward fulfillment
of every compelling statement that Bert (ever the bemused dance
master) uttered, such as: You must “let go of the tension”and “make
love with yourself to the mirror”(titter, tee-hee, and
giggle from the girls in the video…) As I watched the video
tape of Bert teaching in those years long ago,
saw that his eyes were laughing as he instructed those
girls to “Groove on yourself. You know what I mean!”(Yes,
we did talk like that in the ‘60s and very early ‘70s.)
We did, of course, believe that we knew what he meant.
each movement himself with a smooth and confident sensuality
that we were well challenged to try to top. Whenever one of us
would try something that worked with his agenda, we were always
singled out to challenge the others. That is how it was in those
times: women competed on an everyday basis for the recognition
that envy sometimes brings with it. We were no exception. We
did as he said, “Push harder, feel the emotion, give your
heart. Put in everything you’ve got; it comes by itself.”The
sisterhood and politically correct group dance lessons of today
can never match that environment for challenging the charisma
of a performer. The lessons of today are technical, correct,
named (in many instances), categorized, and organized, but they
are not superior. I was amazed that I could move in ways I had
never before seen and could gather recognition for stringing
them together in an ever-expanding repertoire. To me, the Tahedy
(challenge) was like water in a dry desert. I was thirsty and
needed more and more…
helped my learning of dance that in those years I was wildly
in love with a man who was devoted to arts and crafts. Because
of his attention, I was doubly encouraged to excel at the sensuality
that belly dancing emphasized. There was nobody limiting me or
censuring me by telling me (for instance) that Egyptian dance
was, by law, performed in a costume that provided covering from
bra to belt (albeit sheer).
the sunshine of a flowered meadow, my lover had decorated
my navel with wildflowers; therefore, it wasn’t difficult
for me to be sensual about moving my torso rather than
my extremities. Additionally, he had made rings for my
fingers and one for my toe. So when my dance teacher said
to allow the energy of the dance movements come from inside
my heart and flow outward to my be-ringed toe and my similarly
decorated fingers, I understood, and the image touched
two men, my dance teacher and my artistic lover, how could I
not learn to bring the movements from the core (heart) to the
outside? As Bert said, “To be authentic, Middle Eastern
dance had to flow passionately from the inside outward.”Since
that time, I have seen the dance in the U.S. and other western
society become ever more closely aligned with the Lebanese style
of exploitation of youthful frenetic energy shaking, shimmying
and exploding on stage without much heart and almost totally
devoid of any movements one might consider sensual. What a pity
and what a loss to our dance!
there are ways that today’s teachers can make the
dance student understand what is required; but it is another
thing to cause one’s student to value passionate
sensuality and to search for it.
can teach it to you. He can only teach you how to release it
and to convey it to your audience. You either have it or you
don’t. A talented teacher can remind you that it is required,
valuable, and an idea worth exploring. A wise teacher also can
tell you that though your movements may be executed perfectly,
without heart they are so much frou-frou.
If a teacher
or dance coach challenges you to exhibit more feeling, more passion,
more heart, more emotion, then listen up and try for it. Remember
that what you feel inside is not necessarily what shows on stage.
You also have to learn dance technique and stagecraft that conveys
emotion through gesture, facial expression, intent, focus, and
other acting techniques. Bert says in his documentary, “You
can only make a girl as good as she is underneath. If a person
is a weak performer, she will always be a weak performer. You,
as an instructor, can’t perform magic on her”. However,
I saw him cajole it out of many repressed women of the late ‘60s
until the present. I agree with him, and I believe that certain
women are born performers who just need to find the comfortable
vehicle for self-expression. The reality that you, as a dance
student, must face is the “it factor”: Either you
have it, or you don’t.
a comment? Send us a letter!
Check the "Letters to the Editor" for other
Critic; Real Critics Don’t Mince Words
Either we are a sisterhood of ego therapists and our instructors are politically
correct in all they say and do—or we are tough artists in search of ways
to improve our art form by ruthlessly weeding out the lame from our herd.
to My Ears, How I Learned to Hear Like a Dancer
interpretation is the single, most important skill that can elevate
the Oriental dancer from the chorus line to the spotlight.
Bible Reviewed by Shelley Muzzy/Yasmela
And I suppose to some dancers, it is a way of life. There is repeated emphasis
placed on the concepts of bonding, healing, empowering, and connecting throughout
the book. From the sound of it, American women are desperate to connect, to
be part of a tribe, to belong.
Remembrance & Requiem: the Best “School”That
Ever Was, Part 1 by Morocco/ Carolina Varga Dinicu
I looked at her & said, “If I can’t do better than that, I’ll
hand in my feet!”A case of having more guts than brains.
vs. Amateur: What is the Difference? by Nisima
There are dancers of every gradation in between the two labels of “professional”and “amateur”:
dancers who work at dance jobs intermittently, or have part time jobs in addition
to regular performances.
with Shelties by Justine Merrill
Bashing zills and barking shelties competed.