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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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