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The Gilded Serpent presents...
Belly Dance in
Israel
By Orit Maftsir

On last Sylvester Eve, the lives of two people were about to change forever. For on that very day, in what seemed to be a night train between the East and the West, Raz and Haia got married. Haia is a solo musician in the Jerusalem Philharmonic Orchestra, and she had decided to celebrate her special night through music. The guest list for the wedding was quite colorful, ranging from doctors, lawyers, and musicians to Bohemian groups. On the invitation, the young couple promoted their party with praise to the Age of Fusion: "Roots of the East and winds from the West will sweep those who attend the party into the New Year." The chosen example for that task was an artist whom both bride and groom believed would give true meaning to the concept of integration.

They chose a belly dancer: a feminine and sensual ideal, wearing a non-Oriental outfit that was more like a hi-tech fabric design; however, the dancer's big smile and her Eastern dramatic mime left no doubt that she was there for the people and for their celebration of life like the belly dancers of historic times.  She would be a symbol of fertility and sensuality.

Since the ride was just beginning and there was more to come later, that night was very special for me; I was the chosen dancer.  This time, it was a unique and unusual celebration that hosted me as its artist. A group of less than a dozen people from Russia celebrated the New Year with a bright Christmas tree at their fancy villa in a neighborhood nearby. Unlike the 400 people at the wedding hall, this family invited me to do a show as if it had been held in a concert hall featuring me on its stage. Their hunger for Israeli warmth made them so thrilled and moved by my dance that it kept me dancing for a long hour. At the end of the show, I walked back to my car for the long ride home and re-lived the two different (and contrasting) events. It didn't feel like I was in Israel. It felt like a movie, like a totally unrealistic experience..

Belly dancers are the hottest trend at the moment, unlike the totally frozen attitudes towards the Arab culture in Israel. A good professional dancer in Israel can work every night for $300 for each performance (and sometimes more).

She can possess a fine resume of professional appearances in dance festivals, TV shows, business events and galas with a respected artist name to follow her wherever she goes. However, it is not easy to get to that level! Good technique and good looks are not a guarantee for success. In Israel, the closeness of the audience and the need for a truly joyful temper leave no alternative but to be the "favorite", and a favorite dancer is not necessarily the most flexible and technical dancer. A favorite dancer is the one who makes the audience want to hug her, the one who makes them smile and not just be impressed, the one who has a bright sense of humor and can get the audience to feel her through her music. The power of her presence is what they appreciate, and her strong personality will bring her many more clients.

My Romance with Oriental Dance
I started to dance at the age of 26 while I was working as a designer of museums and tourist attractions. As a child, I danced and did so until I joined the Israeli army at the age of 18. From there, I never expected to dance again.  Instead, I studied industrial design and made a career of it. No one could have convinced me that by the time I turned 30, I'd be one of the leaders of the Israeli Oriental dance scene and run a tour of my own show! Before I started to belly dance, I didn't even know what a Belly dance was. I paid no attention to this art form, and as a young child, I was lured into the fairytale images of the classical ballet world.

Now, after less than five years between my first belly dance class in Tel Aviv, and my preparations for my Tel Aviv performance of "Star of the East" (after Haifa and Jerusalem), I can sit back and enjoy the view. I have totally transformed the atmosphere here regarding belly dance.

I decided to follow my dreams and to create my own fairytale; so, I created a show that set new standards for Oriental shows in Israel. As a result, dancers here have update themselves with changed hairstyles and costumes, like I did in my shows. I continue to promote new projects involving other dancers in order to expose this beautiful art form beyond the wedding halls and the evening galas of conventions.

During this time, I made my living from dance, because I had left my design office about a year after I started dancing. From my very first jobs, I made a good business impression and kept new clients while continuing to offer my dance routines to everyone possible -- from music festivals to restaurants to clubs. The point was to get into business. My style was bold, yet authentic. People said that I reminded them of the girls from the old Arab movies and that my energy and collaboration with people was a treasure.

No one cared about my shimmy or my steps; they cared about good entertainment.

However, I kept improving myself through experience. I stared to research the music written for Oum Kalthoum and what motivated her. I was fascinated by that. I taught myself cane dance and other Egyptian folkloric dance using videos of old movies featuring Egyptian dancers, particularly Fifi Abdu. At a certain point, I gave up working myself and started to send other dancers to various jobs, saving my strength and interests for only the best and most prestigious events.

My personal development is a symbol of what is going on in Israel. Be bold and creative and one can earn a place! I guess it inspires many other dancers, because there is no professional schooling system there as there is in Europe and the States. Many dancers find themselves traveling to find their dance education, but travel doesn't necessarily make them successful.


The photos are from my debute show- "Nour el Amar" and the other dancers were not profesional, but I trained them as a troupe.

What is the Israeli style?
Due to our proximity to Egypt, we tend to like a more soulful, and less technical, focus.  We like more expression of the personality of the dancer and fewer gimmicks. For example, in Israel, only a few dancers can dance with a sword, a shamadan (candelabrum), play the sagat (finger cymbals) or perform a good veil dance. Here, we don't use the wings of Isis, a double veil, or any other gimmicks.

Dancers here are committed to a pure, emotional dance, which is more related to the rhythm and to the song lyrics.

I personally do very well in the Egyptian Baladi style with a lot of mime and dramatic acting. I love to dance to Oum Kalthoum songs and to cry over them while dancing, but I'm clumsy with a veil and can't carry anything like a sword or a shamadan on my head. I'm too energetic to keep it under control.

However, a lot of the local dancers are educated in Turkey, which is only a one-hour flight away.
The Turkish style is very different from the Egyptian, and in a small state like Israel, one can clearly identify between the different groups of dancers: the more technical (with less heart and soul) and the more vibrant and passionate (with less brilliant choreography) and the totally spiritual dancers who don't care about their looks or their connection with the audience, only their connection with Mother Earth.

Of course, only a few can hold professional jobs for a long time and make it into a career, so most of the dancers teach and perform from time to time whenever there's a chance.

When and where do we dance?
Besides weddings and parties, the most popular places to perform in are Bedouin tents that are located outside the big cities around Israel, especially in the Negev, which is the desert area between Jordan and Egypt. Unlike restaurants, the managers of these places work with professional dancers, and if the people are paying well, there's a good chance to get the popular dancers for the shows. I work with five such places on a regular basis. There are also many haflas (dinners with music and dancing) that are also a great opportunity to experience our Israeli dance style.

In restaurants, one will see nonprofessional and very low standard dancers. Eastern restaurants will bring really cheap dancers, and fancy places will bring less embarrassing dancers, but not much more than that. Only the owners of a few places in Israel do auditions and carefully choose good dancers to work in their restaurants.

Israeli dancers are not always welcome in Arab villages, so they have their own dancers for their haflas.

The Arab community doesn't always appreciate bare bellies, and usually prefers covered women, except in solo dances. I appeared in a few Arab weddings of the Christian religion (not the Muslim), and I was much appreciated. However, my dance is too expensive for that community, and I can't come to dance for their events as often as they'd wish. On my tour, the majority of the crowds are Arabs or Israelis who are originally from Arab countries, and it is a delight for me to dance for such audiences.


Orit with Yael Becker,Yael Dabah and Eden Stern

How easy it is
When the students come to the class, especially the girls from an African origin, they are amazed how hard it is to move in the Oriental dance way. They think it's going to be a piece of cake. Their attitude creates a problem. The more professional dancers there are, the more young beginners want to be like them, and the young ones start to perform before they even know how to dance.

Sometimes clients ask over the phone for the price, and money is their bottom line, so many young dancers who have barely learned how to move their hips try to make easy money and to get into the dance world. Luckily, they don't survive, and they do not ruin the reputation of the professional Belly dancers. However, this is probably going on all over the world, and it will continue as long as people think that this is a very easy dance that anyone can do because its body movements seem so natural. 

Also, there are only a few dancers who have good quality, fashionable wardrobes. Sometimes I'm shocked that dancers show themselves with such trashy and cheap costumes!  However, they probably won't have a long career. I believe that a good performer mesmerizes the people with her energy and vibes, but that doesn't mean she shouldn't look wonderful, complete in a gorgeous costume.

Unlike our neighbors, Belly dancers and Arabic music are not daily routines on TV. Only occasionally does one have the opportunity to watch a dancer as a performer on a new show promotion or in a daytime talk show. So, if one wishes to enjoy authentic Middle-Eastern dance with warm and smiling dancers, one should come to Israel and visit. There certainly is a lot to check out; one may discover Belly dancing as it has never been seen before.

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