Dancing in the “City of Lights”
posted July 15, 2010
Chapter 1: The Safety of the Stage here
In 2005, with the support and love of my immediate family, and my extended “Hahbi’Ru” family, I entered into a drug & behavior rehabilitation program. While there, I started the long and difficult process of freeing myself from a life of addictions – of food, drugs and love (yes, you can be addicted to the wrong kind of love). Together these addictions had all but ruined my life, and in the 3 years before rehab, I came very close to ending it altogether! The stories that follow are about my love affair with Belly Dancing, and how this art form literally helped save my life. However, we all know love affairs begin by soaring very high and then sinking lower than we can imagine. For me, it was dancing and then not dancing… It is my sincere hope that my stories will entertain you as well as help you understand a little about the illness of addiction. The success statistics are staggeringly low, with a rate of less than 5% of those who seek treatment. I am one of the lucky ones. I have beaten the odds, to dance again and tell you my tale…
I’m breathing very hard, and can tell I’m very, very shiny and red, even under the stage lights, but I think he likes me. And he is completely dumbfounded that an “American” girl is auditioning for a job as a “Danseuse Oriental!” I know I’m way too fat, but thank God I’m a belly dancer, and apparently a novelty, because I couldn’t get away with this in any other dance form! Fortunately, I’m only 19 years old and my excess flesh is young, tan and firm!”
I spoke briefly, in the previous chapter, about my eating disorders; that were the precursors to my drug problems.They went in both directions – binging and purging, fat or thin, up and down! After months of studying French in Geneva, Switzerland, learning my family’s “mother language” the Calvinist way (meaning very intensive schooling), I had managed to eat myself over the 200 pound mark! I don’t know how it happened. One day my clothes fit me, and then overnight they didn’t… Actually, I know very well how it happened; I just chose not to think about it.
What I ate and how I ate it had nothing to do with normal hunger. I devoured whatever I could get my hands on. It didn’t matter what the food was or how it tasted, eating was about how much I could consume. I ate to fill a hole inside me, a seemingly bottomless pit.
Quantities were the thing I struggled with, not so much the food itself. There was an emptiness inside me that felt like hunger, but wasn’t hunger at all. I was attempting to find and fill my soul. Inside me was a hollowness, created by loneliness and compounded by my homesickness, my frustrations and my fears. Thinking back, I believe the culprit was fear, yes, my fear of everything – failure, success, love, no love. The fear was as endless as the pit I felt in my stomach! I would go into an “eating trance,” during which I would chew for hours at a time, gazing off into space. I didn’t taste the food, but I couldn’t stop chewing. Nothing could satisfy that empty feeling. Afterwards, I would be sick to my stomach, moaning and groaning and swearing to God, “Tomorrow I will starve myself and never, ever eat that much again!” During my time in Switzerland, “tomorrow” came all too often, always following the emptiness that led to my binging.
Top Photo: I included this picture cause even though I had started getting bigger and bigger, this picture hides my size and I look pretty to me! It was taken by my Aunt in Geneva when I was in school there in 1975 and ’76. This was the year before I started dancing in Paris, on a beautiful autumn day in Geneva (I had just started school in September, this pic was taken in November ’75).
The band pictured was the "house band" that performed every evening, seven nights a week with me. We also had several guest musicians that came and joined them for special occasions, and when certain singers performed they also brought in their own musicians. At this time I had never seen an orchestra this large nor had I ever heard the beautiful Egyptian style dance music that they taught me to perform to each evening!
Me, in an Assuite dress I found in an antique store in Ste. German des Pres. This has always been my favorite photo from that time as I looked slim to me!
Taken before I left to come back home as I waited until I had lost some of the weight I had put on before
During the 15 months I was in school, my heavy scholastic load left me little time for a social life. There was no dancing, no boyfriends, no nurturing (my Swiss family members were busy with their own lives), and no mommy! The environment tempted me into a constant dance with the “eating devil” inside me.
This devil later manifested as the “junky me” and then the “crack-head me.” Once I got help, I learned that all these different, uncontrollable sick behaviors were simply “me” attempting, more and more unsuccessfully, to nurture myself.
My drummer Fahti, was a real character, and really danced very well while drumming!
Once again with my percussionists during the folkloric number of my show which was everyone’s favorite. Wearing the second costume I finally made with the help of one of the other dancers who taught me how to bead a costume. I made the entire thing by hand as I didn’t have use of a sewing machine (bra, belt, skirt, veil, everthing).
I was even wearing highheels which at 5’8" was never necessary. I just thought the additional height made me look slimmer!!
Then belly dance came to my rescue! It came in the form of a short letter from my best friend. She was in Paris, France working as an au pair for a single mom with two young children. She thought there might be a restaurant in Paris where I could get a job dancing.
Almost overnight, I was in “Gay Paree” with the nerve to audition in my very “chubby” condition! But I knew, if given the opportunity to be “on stage,” I was beautiful enough, fresh faced enough, young enough and tan enough to pull it off! It was early 1976. I gave up the idea of becoming a UN translator as fast as it took to buy the train ticket. I was off to pursue my love of belly dancing once again.
My best friend’s employer, whom I had met on my last visit to Paris, offered me a place on my girlfriend’s bedroom floor, if I would pitch-in for food and household expenses. She was very generous and kind to me. I think she enjoyed having “semi” adults around; for company, to practice English with, and to take care of her young girls — of course.
So, there I was, a pretty, fat girl dancing her heart out to the most beautiful Arabic music I had ever heard, with the largest orchestra I had ever performed with.
(It was a band of eight.) I managed to win over the very skeptical “patron” of Al Djazair, an Algerian restaurant and nightclub on the famous left bank of Paris! The owner, a kindly gentleman in his 50s, allowed me to audition in a long blue dress with a scarf tied around my hips because I had no costume. (What was I thinking?) I’m sure it was out of pure curiosity. The notion of an American Belly dancer was beyond his comprehension!
It didn’t hurt that I definitely looked the part with my long brunette hair, brown skin and big eyes! My French was good enough to converse with customers — should they invite me. (We weren’t forced to sit with customers, although it was encouraged.) My "soon to be" new boss said, “Come back when you get a costume, and you’ll have a job!” It would be seven nights a week, two shows a night, for the sum of 100 French Francs a night –plus tips! (At the time 100 Fr Francs was equivalent to approximately $20. However, the real value was more than $20, since the cost of living was lower in 1976 Paris.)
After successfully landing a job, the only problem I had was a pretty big one, no costume!
I only had $8 in my pocket and didn’t see an easy answer to this mountain of a problem. But as fate would have it, my friend was storing suitcases for two friends of hers visiting for the summer. They were touring Spain and Italy for a couple of months and were supposed to return to Paris to pick-up their stuff. (I was soon to learn that one of these friends was a belly dance student in San Francisco.) I rushed home to tell my friend about my job offer (contingent on finding and/or making a costume). I was beside myself. What a ridiculous situation, a job but no costume!
My "BFF" suggested opening the suitcases to see if they contained anything that could be used as a costume. Even a sicky like me has a “guardian angel!” Inside one were two skirts, a veil and a beaded bra and belt! But there was a problem. I was 5’8” and over 200 pounds, and the costume was for someone 5’ tall and of normal weight. There was no way I was going to fit into her bra, belt, and skirts without some major sewing. But the costume wasn’t mine to cut up, so whatever I did had to be reversible. Fortunately, I know how to sew, and I am blessed with a vivid imagination for problem solving!
Even though I was the fattest I’d ever been until then, I have always gained weight very evenly, keeping a waistline and the majority of excess pounds below my waist. I have also been blessed with a long torso and an hour-glass figure, perfect for belly dancers at any weight. So, even though I was huge in my own eyes, I still had a figure and was relatively small breasted — which came in handy! As it turned out, the costume was made for a short but shapely woman with a well endowed chest. The large cup size gave me back room so I only had to lengthen the back of the bra and halter neck strap to accommodate my largess. (At my normal weight, I’m a 34A, so I was probably well over the “large size” 36A, and into the 40s and maybe even up to a B cup. I don’t really know because the measurements in France are different). Anyway, the bra wasn’t too hard to enlarge. The belt, on the other hand, was another story. I really thank God I have a knack for costuming. I was able to find some cheap, wide, strong elastic, which I attached with safety pins on the side, and made a big poof with the skirt to cover it up. The skirts were the most work. They were much too short, and I didn’t have any money to buy material to make a new one. That would have been the better choice. The lady of the house came to my aid with scraps of chiffon to lengthen the skirts from the top. I sewed them by hand so I could easily undo my work when I had to return them. Et Voila! My first beaded costume! I had pinned and basted my way into this new costume in less than two days!
I went back to Al Djazair where the owner was very surprised to see me so soon, and a little disgruntled that I came back with only one costume for two shows.
However, I was such a novelty that he let me start with the one – and a promise that I would buy a second as soon as I could afford it. Oh, and of course, "I was going to lose weight!” “You have such a pretty face, if only you would lose weight, you’d be perfect!” I can’t tell you the number of times and in how many languages I have heard that line–or a close version of it! It was either that phrase or the opposite: “Your body was perfect, now you are too thin!" That was later, when I switched my drug of choice from food binging to a "cocaine diet!"
I continued to work seven days a week, two shows a night until 1977, when my homesickness got the best of me and I returned home. I would like to mention that it was during the summer of 1976 that I first met Yasmin of Washington D.C. I remember it was hot and humid the night I was introduced to a young beautiful (slim!) American dancer who was going to work with us at Al Djazair while she was in Paris studying French for the summer … During her brief sejour, we didn’t have the time nor the opportunity to get to know each other very well. I remember her very long, honey colored hair, and her beautiful backbends, and that she had a face that looked like Grace Kelly. But, it wasn’t until I returned to Paris in 1979 that we found each other, once again, in the nightclubs dancing. This time we were far from the Left Bank, on the Champs Elysees and the "Big Time," and it was then that we became very close friends!
Ready for more?
- 10-1-08 North Beach Memories- Casbah Cabaret, Part I Circa 1973
We performed what I have dubbed “conveyer belt dancing”, that is three dancers doing three shows each, starting promptly at 8:30 p.m. without stopping until 2:00 a.m., whether we had an audience or not.
- 5-6-10 Queen of Denial, A Tale about Life and Belly Dancing, Part 1: The Safety of the Stage
For many years, the most secure and safe place for me was on stage–dancing and acting. Performing gave me the security and love for which I yearned (both with and without drugs).
- A Bust to Be Proud of…
When she introduces me to her dance friends, it’s the first story out of her mouth – eighteen years after the fact. We still laugh about it.
–5-4-07 Part 1- Booking a Party
When a dancer looks good, she, or another, will get called back to perform again. When she looks bad, customers might be turned off to our lovely art form forever. Therefore, a bad dancer not only ruins things for herself, but for all of us
–8-29-07 Part 2- The Cross Cultural Factor
Warning. There is a great deal of passive aggressive face-saving behavior in this profession. It is not always woman friendly either. Respect is not a given…
–10-15-07 Part 3- Separating the Girls from the Women
If a performer conducts herself as a professional she is much more likely to obtain repeat engagements and referrals. No one wants to be seen knowingly hiring an amateur. It is bad for business and a customer’s image.
–12-5-07 Part 4 – What NOT To Do
Show up drunk or stoned. No more needs to be said
–1-28-08 Part 5 – Beauty by Yasmin
For new dancers, mastering the art of glamour can be daunting. But take heart, while internal sensuality requires character work, external beauty is easier to fix.
- -12-10 Fusion: How much is too much? by Najia Marlyz
In America, and evidently elsewhere, we dancers seem to have a voracious appetite for new steps and movements, so like hungry chipmunks, we have grabbed all we could stuff into our cheeks of Turkish and Arabic steps and gestures, resorting to incorporating and mixing of Saidi, Kaleedgi, Blue Guedra, Ghawazi, etc. We’ve chewed all of them up together and spit them out and found that they have not sufficiently nourished us.
- 7-6-10 Mohamed El Hosseny: His Dancing Journey from Suez to Cairo, Helsinki, and Beyond Interview by Zsuzsi
My advice which I tell all of my students is to study ballet at a beginner level for a few months. It will help your lines very much, so you have a nice bodyline without worrying about it and you can focus on learning the choreography and Oriental movements of the teacher in front of you.
- 7-5-10-Carnival of Stars, Performers L – Z Photos by Carl Sermon
Latifa, Leyla Lanty, Lulu, Mahsati, Maila, MaShuqa, Monica, Monifa, Naiya Halal, Nera Brent, Pepper, Raks Al Khalil, Raska a Diva, Raks Hakohaveen, Robyn Lovejoy, Safiyah, Sarah Horbeein, Shadha, Shaunte, Sister Sirens, Sukara, Surreyya, Tanja, Tatseena, Tera Lynda, Trish …
- 7-2-10 Megacity Megafest, 1001 Brazilian Flavors at Mercado Persa 2009 and Beyond by Paola Blanton
So, it was with these butterflies in my belly that I bounced home last December after almost two years teaching and performing on the road. Sao Paulo, population 20,000,000+, is the iconic “megalopolis” of the futurists when they predicted the “rise of the third world”. And Brazil is making huge strides – in government, economy, and broadening international appeal. My adopted country – I was going back to set up housekeeping after gypsying around the globe for an eternity, and I was more than ready for a dose of my sprawling, energetic, chaotic, mesmerizing home.