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ad 4 Najia

Dancing to the Houri's Siren
by Najia El-Mouzayen
August 28, 2000

After having read Martha Graham's autobiography and then her biography, I absorbed her dedication to her career into my own heart, deciding that since she performed until the age of 92, then I also should attempt to do the same. I have made numerous boastful references since then about my determination to follow her famous footsteps.

However, that was then, and this is now!

What I had not considered was that she and I practiced our art in two widely divergent fields of dance and, moreover, the world of Oriental dance as an occupation has rarely been an art form in which senior citizens are received with open arms! I grant you that many mature dancers perform and teach Middle Eastern dance.

However, unless one were willing to subject one's self to the plastic surgeon's knife, the performing part of the dance as an occupation is best left done to those young women who can better shed the late hours and difficult working conditions plus audience expectations than I.

I imagined that I would feel satisfied and happy to dance at special occasions and festivals in my role as a dance instructor, but a sizable obstacle thwarted my fantasy. That daunting obstacle was the specter of my former self, the "Younger Najia". She was bright eyed and bushy-tailed with her grand figure, her dazzling wardrobe of cabaret costumes and her embroidered and specially designed "ethnic" costumes.

She was always there dancing at my shoulder and up-staging me in my own mind, and I had not counted on that competition!

As my next birthday approached, which was also my thirtieth year of dance as an occupation, I decided that it would be best if I bade farewell to performing in public. It felt to me that it was a "career suicide", full of poignant and sad, if mistaken romanticism. I had only thought about the lovely video that Bert Balladine, my mentor, gave me featuring the famous belly dancer Samia Gamal at age sixty-five dancing her come-back performance against her friends' advice. I thought about the display of loving support from her fans and thought, "What a lovely way to end one's performing career!"

Accordingly, I decided to schedule a student recital for in a restaurant where I had once been featured as a popular regular dancer week after week for several years. That was only my first mistake. I scheduled it to be on the eve of St. Valentine's Day and decided not to make a big production of it but to dance, then simply fade to the sidelines. Oh, yes, I would go quietly! My imagination about the event was probably far more dramatic than the actuality, but the choices I faced amazed me. I had to contend with the annoying little specter of "Young Najia" darting about over the years performing sword, cane, candle, and veil dances. She had performed Saudi dances as well as Turkish, Egyptian, and Lebanese styling.

Where does one begin in order to represent one's body of work?

I wanted to display my expertise with finger cymbals, so that goal precluded dancing in the Egyptian style (in which an orchestra member plays cymbals). I had worked hard to perfect my Egyptian style from information I learned on more than a dozen trips to Egypt. It was easy to eliminate Turkish music because it no longer made my dance energy flow as it did during my "pseudo gypsy" period. Instead, I chose a favorite Lebanese instrumental with varied rhythms and set about letting my moths out of their container. I had become very complacent with Egyptian dance and rarely played cymbals except when teaching. Additionally, I chose a taqasim with a Chiftitelli rhythm for my Hawanim (stationary) dance so that I could demonstrate "layered movement", and at least, finish my set with an Egyptian drum solo. My second mistake was settling on a place with a faulty sound system.

I was surprised by the sounds that the audience made as I stood to dance in that dark space, fit only for dining, in which no dancer sparkles, though she wears sequins and palettes. Had I forgotten that glitter counts in showmanship? Had I been absent from performing for so long that I had become unaware that the audience anticipated my dance? Apparently, yes. I had already been away too long!

Never the less, I played my cymbals and featured them in every fitting way that I knew. I featured my ever-expanding belly rolls in the taqasim just as I had done twenty-five years ago in Las Vegas. I shimmied as best my aging body could accommodate with the complex drum solo, and I entertained as an actress, imagining myself to be Mae West. Breathlessly, I sat down with a sense of finality and drank a glass of Arak (an Arabic anise liqueur) traditionally milky from its ice cubes.

An amazing transformation and understanding began to permeate my evening. Students and long-time friends took the opportunity to tell me words that my heart longed to hear. They said they were proud to be my students and have the chance for their friends and families to see me dance. One exclaimed, "You are just awesome!" and I murmured, "Thank you. That means so much to me just now! You can't imagine!" She reminded me of my other self, dancing when the adventure was new. I knew for a certainty that she could not imagine the turmoil in my mind and emotions.

A couple of diners who had been seated in the back of the restaurant began to leave. They had not been part of our student night, but the gentleman approached me smiling and said, "It was you and your dance that made this evening worth it for us. We just wanted you to know."

His words may ring in my memory for years to come. I cannot adequately explain what a difference a few loving words that evening have made for this current phase of my dance career! His kindness in seeking me out simply to compliment my dance has forced me to realize that I may not be able to plan or orchestrate the end of my dance career. I must admit, though, that I will attempt to be more careful about choosing future dance occasions and staging them. I will limit my performances to those occasions that are more appropriate to my present age and position as both a performing dancer and instructor.

We probably will not know which dance finale will be our last, since quarter-toned music calls us dancers to dance in spite of nearly all conditions. It is the dream of our next dance that keeps the creative spirit alive. As Bert Balladine told me recently, "You and I have stayed too long at the ball. Now we have a case of dancing in the Red Shoes,* and we cannot stop!" Meanwhile, the call of familiar Middle Eastern music is a continuing Houri's siren to my red shoes.

*Refers to Hans Christian Andersen's tale, "The Red Shoes".

More articles by this author:
MiniDisc Recorders-The Best Kept Secret for Music Lovers
Dance Emotion, Part 2
Entertainment or Art?

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