Gilded Serpent presents...

Personal Impressions

Bellet Russe

Fantasy Belly Dance in New York City

by Ayshe
posted November 17, 2010

It wasn’t that long ago that video was a new medium, the Internet and globalization unheard of, and for Belly dancers and lovers of Oriental dance, there was just not that much actual Egyptian performance (meaning Egyptian dance by Egyptians) one could view, without actually going to the Middle East proper. I think I am correct in saying that Morocco of New York City  was one of the first pioneers actively to pursue travel to the Middle East and North Africa in the 1960s, for purposes of learning the dances from the authentic practitioners and collecting archival footage and data on them. 

In the clubs on 8th ave in the 1960s, the hub of New York City Dance Oriental at the time, there existed a motley mix of Greeks and Armenians, descendants of refugees from the old Ottoman empire, plus a smattering of Turks, Rom, Arabs, and Israelis.  With no Belly dance schools available, NYC’s American Belly dancers of this era would have had to figure out the dance on their own; by watching the ethnic ladies in the audience dance, as well as the Belly dancer "imports" from the ghettos of the old Ottoman cities, where Oriental dance was  performed for survival–and not so much with artistry in mind.

Fantasy Oriental dances were also available in the film spectaculars of Hollywood, which would have provided additional fuel for creative energies. Orientalist passions were manifested on film in cinematic wonders such as Cleopatra, Samson and Delilah, etc. that included renditions of Orientalist dances by American dancer/actresses.  As well, there were even earlier glimmers of Orientalist fantasy upon the American psyche.  In the early 20th century, the great impresario, Sol Hurok, introduced the first Orientalist ballets and operas of Europe and Russia into the Americas.  Sergei Diaghilev‘s "Ballet Russe" and the "Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo", along with great creative geniuses such as  Michael Fokine, Salvador Dali, and Leonid Bakst, mounted elaborate Orientalist ballets with lavish costumes and sets, and incorporating snaking arms, undulating moves and veils into sensual dances.  These were called “Character Ballets”, as the technique included both ballet and the movements and character of the cultural dances they were depicting.  Even the pioneers of the Modern Dance movement, such as Ruth St. Dennis, Isadora Duncan, and Louie Fuller dabbled in the richness of Orientalist dances, costuming, and themes. 

From hearing their personal stories and by learning the cultural history, I have concluded that the (American) Belly dancers of NYC in the ‘60s and ‘70s were some of our first Fantasy Belly dancers.  They had a love and a vision, fueled by the transplanted ethnic community, theatre and Hollywood, and unless, or until, they were able to spend time in the Middle East, they created their dance as they went along–veil dances, sword dances, Pharaonic dances, etc.  You won’t see any of these in the old Egyptian, Lebanese movie footage you can now watch on DVDs or YouTube; however, there they are, in the renditions performed by NYC’s American Belly dancers of the period.

Well, by the 1980s things had shifted.  Video made access to Egyptian dancers (Egyptian dance done by Egyptians) possible, more dancers started to visit and study dance in Egypt, and Saudi oil money made the existence of the famous Club Ibis possible, where Egyptian born dancer/owner, Samiha, stressed her version of "pure" Egyptian dance as the "in-style".  New York City dancers became more interested in deeply immersing themselves in the dance style of Egypt.  Even so, many still loved to add, to a greater or lesser extent, other dance elements that they learned in the multi-cultural dance schools of the "Dance Capitol of the World” (NYC); a little Fosse here, a little African there, and of course plenty of Latin fire.  

So now we come to my small part in this story of NYC Belly dance.  As a child, I grew up in a farming community outside the city.  I decided from early on that I wanted to be a Ballet dancer, because my aunts had been dancers, and from an early age I was captivated by their photos and by their collections of dance magazines featuring all the famous ballerinas of the period.   It was during this time that I developed a whole fantasy life about the world of dance.  My dance teacher, who lived down the road from my home, was a dance anthropologist with books upon books of dance and art.  She encouraged, as part of our training, creative movement and choreography–little dances we would make up and perform at our recitals and, later on, in schools. Marta Zorina By the time I started venturing down into the city for classes, I met and started studying ballet with an elegant, eccentric Hungarian woman named Marta Zorina.  She had studied Vaganova (Soviet) Ballet technique, as well as Character Ballet technique and gymnastics in Hungary.  Once in the US, she also performed Belly dance and partnered with Ibrahim Farrah.  I would peek into her Belly dance and Pharaonic classes and wonder at the exotic movements.  I had been exposed to Belly dancers due to my Greek background, but her classes were a whole different ballgame!  She combined Character Ballet, Classical Ballet, Modern "Graham" technique and Belly dance (more the Turkish-Greek style of 8th Avenue). 

She felt spiritually connected to the ancient Egyptians and had developed a whole vocabulary of movements to perform the dances of ancient Egypt.  Her entire approach was very theatrical, and she had many creative ideas for dance

Thus, through Marta, began my journey into the world of ancient, Oriental fantasy.

By the time I was older and started to pursue Middle Eastern dance as a profession, my first stop landed me in Fazil’s Nite Club, a surreal trip into a bohemian nether-land of dance and music.  On weekends what was usually a rehearsal studio, opened up its second floor and became a nightclub of sorts.  Musicians and dancers congregated from many places after their gigs had finished, and sometime during the wee hours of the morning, Elena would appear.  The music and musicians were of her choosing. There was a relatively large dance floor and simple theatrical lighting that was manned by family members.  In this environment, a complete mystery and mystique was created that had a mesmerizing affect–further feeding my hunger for fantasy and drama–

and when Elena danced at Fazil’s, it wasn’t as a party motivator: it was a theatre piece!  Sometimes she would dance as long as an hour.  She would separate the dance into parts, be it veil, zils, cane, fan, floor work, skirt dance, drum solo, whirling, or 9/8 rhythm.  Each part fed into and built upon the next.  It was totally exhilarating for me and I thought Belly dance was just the most creative dance in the world!

Then came my reality check: I saw authentic Egyptian Belly dancers from Egypt on a video!  I was shocked. What Elena was doing seemed nothing like what these Egyptian dancers did; sure, she did shimmies and hip drops and played zils, but overall, the effect was "two different animals".  It was then that I realized she had synthesized so much more into her dance, and created a whole unique vocabulary, borrowing from Belly dance, Flamenco, Theater dance, Mime, African, Indian Gypsy, and later, Butoh.  She wore a Belly dance costume, so at first glance one might say Belly dancer, but the execution was atypical when compared to an Egyptian dancer from Egypt.

Looking back on it all, I can now only assume that, from the very beginning, I was already damaged goods.  A “purest” I would never be!

  I had this concept of Belly dance being this whole big world of creative endeavors–a sort of new "modern dance" where womankind could freely experience and discover their feminine identity.  I felt very free and uninhibited to learn many different interpretations of Middle Eastern dance from many different teachers, and then to try to adapt and blend what I learned with other dance forms in order to create innovative shows filled with fantasy for the various work opportunities that came along.  Well, anyway, whatever the view was back then, at this point in time, it no longer matters. With so many blends of Belly dance out there today, the genie is totally out of the bottle.   Women the world over have taken the dance completely over for themselves, and in all its forms this “new” Belly dance continues to free women to define themselves and to experience more totally than ever their sensuality and sexuality.  I am so continually delighted and thrilled to see all the many new creations that continue to sprout forth from our community!  At the same time, more than ever, I am enjoying and valuing the authentic ethnic styles, and the styles of our recent predecessors.  What a thrilling time to be a dancer.

Author’s photos of Fazil’s, including musicians and Elena in her pearl costume
Joe Zetunian Kenon HagiHagi's Tulum band
Joe Zetunian, Kenon, Nedim, Hagi on Tulum (bagpipe), and Hagi’s band.
Author finds it humorous that in this photo the Tulum wears a white and black sock knitted by the musicians wife to keep it warm.
Elena and bandFazil scene
Elena in pearls at left and on right a unknown dancer performs for an appreciative audience.
Elena's pearl costumeClose up of Elena
More of Elena dancing in pearls, with a close up. Notice art on the wall by Abdul Hakim. He was the club’s resident Sufi and was a real character..

 

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   |       |    6 Comments

  1. No Gravatar
    Steffi Bruninghaus

    Jan 4, 2011 - 02:01:37

    At Folktours 2010, I saw Ayshe perform for the first time, and it was a true joy. Reading this article brings back lovely memories of that evening and adds more background – thanks! Indeed, what we watched was not the kind of authentic Middle Eastern performance one would see in Cairo or Istanbul. But, we could not have cared less, we delightedly let ourselves be transported back to the clubs in New York, some time in the 70s, where one could enjoy a live band and a Vintage Orientale style belly dancer. It was beautiful.

  2. No Gravatar
    Zeyna

    Jul 20, 2013 - 06:07:34

    A “MOTLEY” group! Lady you need to get the plug out of your ass.  MOST dancers on 8th Ave. were from Turkey and they WERE our school.  Sitting on stage with them 2 feet in front of you night after night is a better school then anything you could dream up. I have never seen a dancer today that could touch their feet. Mina, Saliha, Soraya Melic, Nyeela, Kasban, Ozel Turkbas-to mention a few were TURKISH and some actresses before they came to New York. They WERE NOT FANTASY DANCERS.  I resent your terminology. You insult the hell out of the musicians and also the era.  Do you have a clue that some of the greatest Greek musicians worked 8th Ave. in the 60’s.  AND 99 %were GREEK with some Armenians.They were not a motley group.  Just what the hell is Authentic anyway? Some of worse dancers I have watched were Arabic.  Egyptian–bah, I think the style sucks.   8th Ave. jammed and was the melting pot for EVERYTHING happening today and paved the way for all of you. Fantasy dancers? MOTLEY Group of musicians? How dare you write about something in such negative detail when you were never there. I WAS. Ask Zoraida, Athena and Jemela Omar if they think it was a bunch of motley musicains and if they were Fantasy dancers. For that matter ask Morocco if Saliha and Jem were just fantasy dancers.

  3. No Gravatar
    Najia

    Jul 21, 2013 - 11:07:08

     
    Dear Miss Zeyna,
    How proud you must be to have made several disparaging personal remarks concerning a Gilded Serpent article written by Ayshe titled “Personal Impressions”!
    I don’t know you, and I don’t know Ayshe either, but I would like to point out to you, Zeyna, that rather than adding to or mitigating Ayshe’s “Impressions” you have chosen to launch a fairly tasteless personal attack upon the author by addressing her as “Lady” and telling her that she should remove an obstruction from her posterior. Perhaps you should take your own advice.
     
    There is nothing wrong with the word “motley”, used in Ayshe’s article to indicate some degree of fusion and diverse origin contained in the dance she remembers seeing and the bands she heard. I would have preferred not to have addressed you personally, but as my mentor said to me on several occasions before he died, “When you write in the third person about those who say or do something in a negative way, they never seem to see themselves in your criticisms.”
     
    I saw a couple of the Turkish dancers perform that you mentioned in your comments, and I was stunned by their fit figures, small frames, and Hollywood-like costuming. However, as for artistry, their art seemed to lie more in the realm of entertainment than in the execution of artistic movements. I will never forget Princess Nyeela back in the ’70s, on her knees, with her legs spread wide apart, leaning back on her stiffened arms, shaking her “frontispiece” as hard as she could at the audience. Perhaps her dance was not fantasy, but definitely, it was memorable in its negative impact. An audible gasp was heard in the auditorium.
     
    A good many of the Egyptian dancers of the day were–as you so colorfully termed it “bah” (and, yes, sometimes it may have been a “sucky” style), but so were the dances of some of the the Turks and many Lebanese as well as the Americans. However, that did not prevent you from using the term “melting pot”. What goes into a melting pot is everything—the good, the bad, and the in-between—so what has made you seem so angry?
     
    If Ayshe’s impressions were so wrong, why don’t you lay your own neck out on the chopping block of quick-to-take-umbrage dance elders, and write your own version of this subject? We dancers in the worldwide Gilded Serpent readership would all like to learn from your experiences without having to wade through easily cast, inelegant, and pointless personal potshots. You will find that it takes time and effort to write out your memories in complete sentences and paragraphs that give proper expression to your views for all to read worldwide—among them, musicians and dancers in Turkey, Egypt, Greece and beyond. This is your gilded opportunity to set the record straight!

  4. No Gravatar
    Haig

    Jul 21, 2013 - 02:07:22

    8th Avenue was a great showcase for talent. Musicians who worked there are still listened to today, years after their deaths. “Motley group” while not per se derogatory is nevertheless perceived as such by many people. “Heterogeneous” would have been less charged. As in any field, there are different levels of competence. Many of the dancers were expert in their performances. Saliha, Mine, Soraya, all Turks, were at the highest level. Like any art, the experience is subjective, not objective. What made them great was their INTERACTION with the music. They transformed an acoustic form into a physical effect. That is the art of “belly”dance.  It is spontaneous and immediate and of the moment. It cannot be duplicated while dancing to recordings. Zeyna was an accomplished dancer in this style, though not a Turk. Jemela Omar, Saida Asmar, Leila Amar, Jemal Twins, Elena and others were all great dancers. “Authentic Egyptian Style” is in itself  meaningless. Some of the outstanding musicians of that era on 8th Avenue were Oudi Hrant, Louis Matalon, Marko Melkon, Lutfi Guneri, Orhan Yeginsoy, Saffet Gundeger, Chick Ganimian, Tatasopolous, Yianni Paleouglu, Lefteri Zervas, Petro Halkias, Panayotti Halianis, Petro Kalivas, etc. etc. 

  5. No Gravatar
    Zoraida

    Jul 28, 2013 - 02:07:54

    In trying to tell the history of the origins of Belly Dancing, you have managed to insult an entire generation of musicians and dancers.  You had the nerve to refer to great artists who came to America to share their artistry as a “Mötley” bunch of refugee’s from the slums.  Yes, we caught the words.  They came to us from all over the world where they were respected and many famous.  Many of the Belly Dancers were also movie stars and singers already famous.  For your information, among the American dancers there were Prima Ballerina’s, Jazz, Modern and Gymnasts that spent years studying their crafts.
    Speaking only for me, I was seven when my Mother saw me dancing in the hallway where we lived in New York.  She realized I was born to dance and sent me to school for Ballet, Jazz and Modern.  At 15 my brother would take me to the Palladium.  We danced Latin to the likes of Perez Prado and Tito Fuentes.  We danced Ballroom at Roseland when the rest of the country was first Be-Bopping to Elvis.
    As you can see, none of my sister dancers were walking down 8th Ave. when the club owner came out and said “Hey Baby” I’ll give you a job, all you have to do is sit on the stage and watch the ethnic customers so you can learn how to belly dance.  True there wasn’t belly dance schools back then, we didn’t’ need them, we were already dancers and learned from each other to end up with our own unique style.  All we had to do was listen to music beautiful music expertly played and our bodies and cymbals became as one, the rest is history.  We never went around tables for (TIPS). A customer would have gotten his fingers broken.  We spent months designing costumes, the same style that is still used all over the world.
    My travels landed me San Francisco, their style was different from mine.  They all wore black Kaftans in the manner of the Middle East culture.  Jamila Salimpour was their teacher.  She came to me at the Bagdad. We became friends and respected each others styles.  I still remember Suhaila sitting on her lap watching me dance and I will never forget her kindness.
    You are apples and oranges.  The beautiful Middle Eastern dancers that have to cover themselves to this day and the American dancers that are free to express herself.  The new “Fusion” style I personally love and wish it was around during our era.  It would have been nice to add this splash of color.
    Gilded Serpent, I am glad Zeyna saw this article.  Your reply to her is N/A
    We demand an apology.  Gilded not, Serpent yes. Venomous!!!

  6. No Gravatar
    Evy Blake

    Apr 9, 2017 - 11:04:12

    I enjoyed your article very much. It brought back memories.

    When I was a kid growing up, in mid-town Manhattan, my friend’s mother was a professional bellydancer. Her stage name was Nyeela of the Nile (I think). We used to have such fun going to her house where we would “bedazzle” our Barbie’s clothes out of Nyeela’s many beads, sequences, and ribbons!

    I moved away after grammar school and never heard from them again. I often wonder how they are today.

    Thank you for the memories.

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