A Lighter Outlook on Belly Dance
by Tasha Banat
posted November 10, 2010
Originally published in my “Arabic Guide to Bellydance“ 1983
Since most of the time we read only glowing reports of great accomplishments made by our peers and ourselves in the Art of Belly Dance, I decided to reveal some of those less than stellar moments of my (then) 23 year career as a performer. Yes, some of those absolutely stupid things that I have done in order to stand out in a crowd–or because I was restless.
I hope that by writing this article, it will help you to be aware, at least, of some of the things you may face when you dance with:
Not once, but twice I caught myself on fire and the second time was serious enough for me to have to enter the Denver Burn Center, but let’s go to the first time, which was sort of funny–and ridiculous!
In the late ‘70s early ‘80s, burning candles started to became a popular prop with Belly Dancers. So, needless to say, I taught and performed with them all the time, but candles dripped, went out, and generally produced a very tiny flame; so I began to use cotton, soaked in lamp oil, along with “flash papers” for dramatic effect. I must say that drama was definitely something for which we all strove in that endless quest for standing out in a crowd.
The first incident was in a hotel and my prop was a hand-made, home-made candelabra, along with my new (just got it that day) Afro-looking permanent wave. Looking back, I think I resembled Shirley Temple’s older sister, but I felt ravishing and exotic. The room darkened during a slow, sensuous song from Babylon Mood. (Oh, the drama of it all!) My seven flames were shooting a good 10” from each receptacle of that candelabra.
Yes, the audience was eating out of my hand when someone from the back of the room yelled “Hey lady! Your hair is on fire!”
“The fool!” I thought, “Hair doesn’t burn.” Well, my hair did burn, and though the hotel sprinklers never went on, the fire department showed up, complete with extinguishers, ladders, hoses, and outfits that made the place look more like an outer space masquerade ball. A fireman actually patted my hair to make sure the fire was out. Believe me! You cannot make this stuff up. As a humiliated, but a true professional, I took my bow with the fireman in hand and left the dance floor.
Needless to say, I no longer looked like Shirley’s big sister, but more like “The Shaggy Dog”. The manager even offered me extra money to get my hair cut at the hotel beauty salon because I had a second show to do later that night. It was certainly less eventful, but I had learned my lesson–or so I thought…
The second time I caught myself on fire was at the renaissance faire in Larkspur, Colorado, where Randolph “The Chain-mail Maker” built a fantastic pharaonic style head piece, a chain-mail bra, and hip band that was to be worn over a beautiful chiffon polyester Beledi-style costume.
When Randolph began to design my headdress, it consisted of an elephant bell built into the headpiece which would hold cotton soaked in lamp oil (just like I used in my candelabra and other flame adorned props).
At any rate, when he was working with my props, I quickly related the story of the fire on my head, and thus, claimed, “No one ever handles my props but me!”
He laughed and then reassured me that The Fire Eater would be the only one who touched my headpiece, and that if anyone knew about fire and props, he did. Since I couldn’t argue with that logic, I agreed.
Armed with the fire eater’s knowledge and my trust, Randolph took great care of the headdress and even reinforced it with a leather base because when the metal chain male got hot it could burn my head. In addition, he used a similar method of creating a great flame, which was steel-wool soaked in kerosene–a method still used today by many fire eaters. Therefore, I was prepared for a spectacular show, performing with my burning pharaoh headpiece.
The crowd gathered with more and more people and as the excitement built, and the flames went higher and higher, I felt my head getting hotter in the sun and under the leather base built into the chain male. So I turned gracefully to Randolph in a very slow spin and said in my most sensuous quiet whisper, “Get this damned thing off my head; it’s beginning to get hot!”
Since I was (and still am) very aware of the audience, I had my back to them, doing a lovely submissive bow as I was making my exclamation. Then, Randolph, with Renaissance grandeur, began gently to lift the headpiece off of my head. –Did I mention that he was wearing leather gloves? As he lifted the headpiece off, the steel-wool that had been soaked in kerosene spilled and one sleeve of my beautiful dress burst into flames that were instantly (and completely) higher than my head and (Oh, no!) my hair. The flames shot incredibly high and people were screaming as I continued to turn, realizing that I was locked in that chain-mail.
While looking for an escape, I actually thought of 3 things:
1. Flammable and inflammable mean the same thing. Material is not immune to flames, so ignore the instructions on inflammable items. You will burn.
2. With cotton balls and lamp oil, you must wring out the excess oil. With steel-wool and kerosene, that does not happen.
3. Oh, yes!–Renaissance Faire stages were surrounded with hay (lots of fire-burning hay), and there were no fire extinguishers, firemen, or fire anything (as if that could prevent a burning Belly dancer from “going up in smoke”). I have heard since that fire is not permitted at Renaissance Faires anymore.
I continued to spin slowly as I thought “Oh God, I am going to burn to death in front of these children?” when Randolph (by the grace of a higher power) tugged at the burning sleeve of my dress and managed to pull most of the burning fabric away from me.
Literally, I still shake when I think about what could have happened that day and that just the fact that I am alive, with only a few scars on my arm, is nothing short of a personal miracle.
Anyway, I finished the show, not because of professionalism, but because people were so scared, and I believe I must have been in shock. They actually relaxed, maybe convincing themselves it was an act, and we made a lot of well-earned tip money. (I should mention that burning skin does not begin to hurt until about 5 minutes later, so completing the show was not that great a feat.)
From the stage, I went to the back where a vendor grabbed me and threw my arm into a tub of ice. By that time, the pain really began to set in, and huge blisters were forming where the fabric melted to my arm. Immediately, I was taken to the Denver Burn Center, still in costume, and more or less, I drifted drama for more than six weeks, on Demerol and burn treatments consisting of many applications of “New Skin” a type of dissolving bandage used for serious burn victims. By the way, I never danced with fire again–ever!
Moral: Don’t light up your life!
(Next Chapter: SWORDS)
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