Life as a Bellydancer:
A Dancer’s Dilema
by Najia Marlyz
(Originally written for Caravan Magazine 8-07-96)
posted February 26, 2010
When pursuing my career as an Oriental Dancer in 1971, I learned I had disappointed my mother terribly by choosing dance. Mom had waited patiently while I struggled through the University of Washington School of Education to earn my teaching credential. (My daughter, the school marm!) Her hopes rose even higher when I seemed to be a promising children’s storyteller in the Bay Area after graduating from the University of California, Berkeley with my master’s degree from the School of Library Science. (My daughter, the Librarian!) Then came my misdirection and ultimate path change—my husband claimed he was “old fashioned and didn’t want his wife to work”.
He thought I should pursue the arts, any of the arts, and stay out of his business, and I believed him because I was a child of the forties and a teenager of the fifties.
Next came my surprising reality check. It stung me pitifully when I was introduced at my family reunion as "Evelyn’s daughter, the Kootch dancer"! I still thought of myself as a graduate student, learning fascinating things about ethnic studies and folklore. It felt terrible when a casual acquaintance blamed my eventual divorce after my 20-year marriage on my insistence on being a "Bellydancer". My husband, who was in the midst of a typical male mid-life crisis at age forty, had moved in with his widowed secretary.
Though she was ten years my junior, she wasn’t prettier or smarter or more talented, but she “cared about his business” and what mattered to him rather than trying to find her own potential.
In the meanwhile, I saw myself as a martyr, a free spirit new-age woman, the unique and fascinating Oriental dancer. I was an innovator in the teaching of dance utilizing video. (Nowadays DVD video is a matter of course but it was unique at the time.) Also, I became an entrepreneur by opening a dance studio in my immediate area which was the only one devoted to Bellydance as a primary objective. So while I thought of myself immodestly as an exceptional dancer, a credentialed teacher, and a businesswoman, my personal life rapidly became a shambles. I found myself abandoned along with my cat and my dance and I proceeded to make a living for myself for the next four decades by teaching and performing the elusive "Bellydance". No longer could I treat dance as if I were a dilettante.
So here I am, four decades older. I occasionally ask myself if it has all been worth the sacrifice of my financial wellness and the ultimate fact that I neither have children or husband? The fact is, I have been involved on the fringes of show-business for all these years and have had the rare opportunity to meet famous and not-so-famous performers who, to say the least, are among the most vibrant and interesting of earth’s inhabitants—the tattooed and pierced, the drug cases, the family counselors and psychiatrists, the shy and lonely beloved by thousands, the creative award-winning inspirational dancers, musicians who have touched the hearts of people on numerous occasions, performers and explorers of the human condition. It has been a privilege, and perhaps it was worth the sacrifice. That remains to be seen, but now my chickens are coming home to roost.
Again I struggle to renew my dance career as a dance elder, to find a way to alter my it in such a way as to honor my past involvement in it while continuing to look after my physical, mental, emotional, and yes, financial security. I do not believe that grinding out more of the same dance activities year after year, until death, will do the trick for me!
I hope to renew the dance within and to pass it on in some form to those dancers who follow. I believe that the most difficult aspect of aging as a performer is that what you are absolutely best at doing (and that in which you have the most experience) is no longer appropriate, for the most part, or even terribly lucrative.
The needs and wishes of today’s dance clientele has shifted and mutated due to time pressures and demands that did not exist even a few years ago. Here I should remind you that most dance students are not aware that this shift has happened and they seem to wonder why they are not able to learn this dance efficiently, quickly, economically, and they demand instant availability of ornate costuming that they would have to have designed and beaded themselves in former decades.
Even the teaching of dance needs to be adapted to a changing wellspring of energy and an altered perception of one’s own self-image. Sadly, these things are forbidden to be spoken aloud and are denied to women in any field. Women are expected to remain forever young and ageless or be transferred post-haste to the trash heap. Where is the veneration for our growth, wisdom and change? I do not find these values widely honored, and that is why I mention it here.
Before I find myself relegated to the prison of non-ending instruction of dance to young women who think it would be a pleasant way to "get a good physical work-out" or "flatten the old abs", I want to adapt to the possibilities of coaching those few performers who aspire to be creative artists. This is totally different from teaching classes, seminars, or even private lessons; it involves pulling and coaxing dancers toward more fulfilling and daring careers as dance performers, or perhaps dance teachers, by utilizing their own particular dance technique. I have learned that I have a talent for breathing new life into dances that appear to have little inherent emotion, drama, or relevance.
Do you find it shocking that I would say that about our beloved dance? Then you must consider that what makes Oriental dance so special is that it demands that the performer bring to it relevance and emotions. There is nothing inherently interesting about an "Egyptian Basic Hip Bump”, "Beledi Walk", or the deepest backbend if it does not tell a story to the audience!
No, Bellydance is not the objective; it is only a vehicle for exploration of the content of music and the tool that allows the dancer to make artistic choices, conveying his or her own understanding of the human condition. A dancer who has not embarked upon many adventures in her past will not have very much about which to dance now. Perhaps that is why I have found myself butting heads with so many unusual people, and why I have sought out this life in dance when I might have had a more stable career of which Mom would have been proud.
Ready for more?
- 3-5-07 My Dance Career’s Dark Side: As seen through a fog of murky emotion
Will recounting my dark stories help me to purge them? Should one forget those special moments of insult and bad human behavior that all performers face?
- 12-14-09 The Wine Glass or The Wine? Dance Conversation with My Mentor by Najia Marlyz
Sometimes, the mere beauty of glassware can be so impressive that it can far surpass the content.
- 8-23-09 Improvisation: Method Behind the Madness by Najia Marlyz
One of the biggest mistakes we western Bellydancers have made is presuming that the dancing to which Arabs refer as the “Eastern Dance” is a theatrical dance that ought to be choreographed as if it were a ballet, or that its steps and movements are traditional like those of the Greek Hasapiko, an Arabic Depke, or a Hawaiian Hula.
- 6-19-09 The Dance Teacher: By Divine Design or Default? by Najia Marlyz
…nearly everywhere, dancers in this particular form seem to have found it necessary to “do it all” in order to earn a living by dance career alone
- 5-3-09 The Quintessential Performer: Attitudes for the Stage by Najia Marlyz
What can you rightfully expect of an audience of persons who are not, themselves, involved in performing (or related to you)?
- 3-3-09 Recieving Filthy Lucre: Justifying Payment for Your Art by Najia
Belly dance can be a respectable art and teaching it should be a respected employment. Often it isn’t, and that is why you have to set your career goals—and don’t forget to consider the money!
- 1-16-09 Thorn of the Rose:Making Friends with Criticism by Najia Marlyz 11-28-08
Thorns make the rose ever more precious; though one’s ego rarely treasures moments of having felt the sharp thorn of stinging criticism. If the dancer is open to criticism—valid or invalid—it can open the door to the process of re-evaluation that otherwise might never happen.
- 2-17-10 Shimmying on the Shores of Paradise, The Dancers of the Dominican Republic by Sylvia Richards
White sands and turquoise waters come to mind when most picture the Dominican Republic, but the Caribbean paradise offers visitors far more than its natural beauty. It may come as a surprise that the small tropical country most known for its pristine beaches and Caribbean hospitality also has a vibrant and thriving belly dancing scene.
- 2-16-10 Digital Dancer! Belly Dancing in Second Life by Caitlin McDonald
In Second Life, the dancing is done digitally by applying a computer program that causes one’s avatar, the digital representation of the self online, to move in a prescribed manner. Instead of learning movements and needing time to practice them, they are loaded onto the avatar just like Nero learns Kung Fu in the “Matrix” films.
- 2-16-10 Hot Bellydance Event in Tijuana by Martha Duran
Leila Farid from Cairo Egypt is a sweetheart! She is what many Mexican dancers aspire to look and dance like. Wow! She is gorgeous and mesmerizing – as well as extremely nice, polite and down to earth! My star struck students were amazed to catch her snacking on Mexican Rancheritos (chips) and eating breakfast like a Mexican, with tortillas! She’s so fit that we couldn’t imagine she snacked on chips tortillas like the rest of us. Her master class was magnificent.
- 2-11-10 Paul demonstrates the Oud another Musical Instrument Tour
Paul shows us his instrument, including the tuning he uses, why there are not frets, who his mentors are and the makers of his instrument.
- 2-9-10 Carl’s Camera Captures Dancers from Z to A, Tatseena’s Fantasy Festival 2009, photos by Carl, introduction by Ma*Shuqa
This festival was a festive day of good vibrations with dancers sharing their talents on the raised stage, and on the beautiful wood dance floor. The day was replendent with beautiful dancing, beautiful costumes, and wonderful music – with the bands: Al Azifoon and Light Rain. This is a favorite festival for dancers in the East Bay area.
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