Becoming the Object of Your Own Fantasy
"Perfumes of Araby" in the 1970s, Part 1
by Stasha Vlasuk
posted July 5, 2011
Part 1: posted here You are here!
Part 2: posted here
Part 3: posted here
“I live by a man’s code designed to fit a man’s world, yet at the same time, I always remember that a women’s first job is to choose the right shade of lipstick.”
Carol Lombard quote from “Women’s Wit and Wisdom”
The Belly dance scene in 1970s Los Angeles: It is difficult to spotlight succinctly even one portion of a vibrant, vast and quickly growing community of Middle Eastern dancers, their enthusiasts, and the ethnic communities, musicians, festivals and supper clubs that supported the dance arts. The abundance of inspiration in that era was almost beyond understanding; yet once upon a time before the Internet, music, imagery and information was less readily available. Knowledge had to be directly and carefully mined from academic, ethnic and cultural sources. We always performed to live music; recorded music was rare at dance events. The sociological change of American society in the 1970s also informed our dance community.
Now, as I reach back in my memory of these exciting times to compose this article, I’m grateful for the researched archiving amassed and available in today’s technological world. I’ve tried to be precise: please forgive me where I’m hazy! It was the ‘70s after all! Please enjoy the links provided at the end of this article for more exciting information to further encourage and stimulate your own creativity as you, dear reader, move our dance form ever further.
This article will focus on the iconic 1970s “Perfumes of Araby” Belly dance troupe, lead by the almost mythical performer/actress/teacher, Diane Webber, who was also my teacher. I was there! Through a selection of our performances in that era, we’ll explore dance and costuming as becoming the object of your own fantasy.
The article also touches on paradoxes of our art form: the performance setting, creating a artificial boundary within which we feel free to have intimate exposure (and how costuming facilitates that), and the seeming female accommodation of male sexism –actually a proclamation of autonomy and a pathway to power.
Diane Webber was a Playboy centerfold –twice; there’s another whole story there – yet, we’ll stick with Belly dance this time. Among her earliest Middle Eastern dance engagements were at Lou Shelby’s “The Fez” in Hollywood (Lou was our orchestra violinist.) and on the road with “Haji Baba” star, Guy Chookoorian, who was also the Perfumes’ stalwart oud player in our multi-piece orchestra. Throughout the ‘70s, Guy continued to call on various Perfume members for countrywide performances. Diane also appeared in “The Witchmaker” (1969) as the Nautch dancer.
Diane’s self-made costuming was breathtakingly inventive, interpretive and well structured. She drew inspiration from classic images of women in Orientalist paintings as well as cheesy Belly dance cover art and ground-breaking modern dancers such as Ruth St. Denis (my “great-grandmother” in Modern dance: my Modern dance teacher Pat McLaughlin studied with Martha Graham, who started with the Denishawn Dancers). Diane inspired her dancers to create their own beautiful costumes and was intimately involved in their fabric selection and construction.
The Perfumes of Araby dance troupe was initiated in the Los Angeles area in the late 1960s for the Renaissance Pleasure Faire. As producer, director, and lead dancer, Diane Webber chose the name from popular imagery of the early 1600s: Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” (written somewhere between 1603-1607), in the sleepwalking scene "…nor all the perfumes of Araby shall sweeten this little hand…" and Claudio Monteverdi’s 1607 libretto of “L’Orfeo”, where in the second act, nymphs sing to Orpheus, god of the underworld:
“Therefore, Orpheus, make worthy
of the sound of your lyre
these fields, where there blows
a breeze with the perfumes of Araby.”
What an appropriate moniker for these outdoor Belly dance extravaganzas!
Perfumes of Araby’s repertoire included specialties like balancing on goblets (a.k.a. shimmy on glasses), candle dance, snake and sword dances, as well as folk dances of North Africa, Turkey, Armenia, Syria and Lebanon, with a cabaret style solo dance at the end. Many members worked individually in nightclubs, and thus, brought a strong entertainment background to the performances.
Young stagehand Scott Pierce has a fun memory of those days:
“I had the fantastic good fortune to spend many hours on stage with Perfumes of Araby, unobtrusively on the side or in back with the musicians, except for my star turn helping one dancer get her giant snake back in its basket. I remember one afternoon as if it happened yesterday, although it was almost 37 years ago. We were on the small stage at a corner of the Faire for an early afternoon show. The lead drummer yelled out to the audience, "Baksheesh!", which throughout the Arab world means charitable giving. Some guy in the audience threw about half a dozen fat joints of dope onto the stage, wrapped together with a couple of rubber bands. My eyes popped out so far the pupils thought it was recess. The joints landed a few feet in front of me. I thought to myself, “I’m 13. I spend hours every day at the Faire on stage with beautiful, athletic, dancing women, and the audience throws drugs on stage! Am I living one of the best lives a teenager can hope to have, or what?”
The Renaissance Pleasure Faire’s entertainment policy changed around 1972; with the questionable critique that “dancers could not show their bellies”. The Perfumes were canned. A splinter group composed of two members of the orchestra (Joe Carson and Geoff Hunter) and three dancers (Khadija Cynthia Beck, Maya Hunter and myself) appeared the next year (‘73) and took to a small stage. In protest, I wore sheer harem pants with a diaphanous Egyptian beledy dress: high neck, long draping sleeves, yet completely sheer with just a wide hip scarf around my hips. Yes, nude. Yes, sheer. Yes, I have a photo, and no it won’t be placed with this article, this is a family web ‘zine! Yes, the Faire’s powers-that-be howled, to which I innocently rejoined: “…but my belly is covered… ”
Renaissance Pleasure Faire, Agoura, CA circa 1971
From the 1970 performances until today, in group presentations or as solo artists, Diane Webber’s dancers continuously offer her philosophy of connecting to a spiritual understanding: driven to be in the moment and not think about the future, living life to the fullest in that moment, in our own way; aspiring for a visceral spiritual connection through the sharing of our dance. We are the objects of our own fantasy.
Part 2: The Calabassas Pumpkin Festival Photos
Part 3+: More misc photos and stories from various events.
“Diane Webber: Enchantress” Very nice video tribute to Diane done by Brent Rohde : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XFX1s_4kkuE
Costumer Kathy Sanders – Diane Webber and Perfumes of Araby archive of photos and clippings : http://www.perfumesofaraby.com/
Perfumes member Denise Russo’s archive of photos and video montages: http://www.dianewebbersbevy.com/DianeWebbersBevy/Home.html
Modern day Perfumes of Araby: http://www.anaheed.com/perfumes.html
Young stagehand Scott Pierce: http://scottpearce.com/2009/04/22/rip-diane-webber/
More info the the movie "Witchmaker"
NY Library digital prints archive http://digitalgallery.nypl.org/nypldigital/index.cfm
Jean Leon Gerome http://www.jeanleongerome.org/
Frederic Lord Leighton http://www.rbkc.gov.uk/leightonarabhall/
Lord Leighton’s orientalist house in Kensington, London, England:http://www.rbkc.gov.uk/subsites/museums/leightonhousemuseum.aspx
Shan Monster http://www.shanmonster.com/belly/gallery/index.html
“The Colonial Harem” by Malek Alloula: http://www.upress.umn.edu/Books/A/alloula_colonial.html
“Women as Portrayed in Orientalist Painting” by Lynne Thornton : http://www.acr-edition.com/WOMEN-AS-PORTRAYED-IN-ORIENTALIST-PAINTING_a748.html
Orientalist books to read online:
“The Land of Veiled Women” by John Foster Fraser- http://www.archive.org/stream/landofveiledwome00frasuoft#page/n7/mode/2up
“In the Land of Mosques and Minarets” by Francis Miltoun & Blanche McManus- http://www.archive.org/stream/inlandmosquesmi00miltgoog#page/n1/mode/1up
“In the Country of the Moors” by Edward Rae- http://www.archive.org/stream/countryofmoorsjo00raeeiala#page/n3/mode/2up
“Morocco” by Pierre Loti: http://www.archive.org/stream/moroccol00lotiuoft#page/n7/mode/2up
“In Morocco” by Edith Wharton: http://www.archive.org/stream/cu31924020500744#page/n0/mode/1up
Author’s Photo Credits:
Most of the pix come from my personal archive; I supply the links for the web sites of other photos in the "interesting links" section. I encourage you to visit these sites as they contain further (and interesting) information plus exciting video montages for which there’s simply not enough space in this GS article!
Regarding the Top Photo: Diane in a pink kaftan at the Renaissance Pleasure Faire circa 1971: I really don’t remember where this pix came from, I seem to remember it coming to me around the time of Diane’s passing, perhaps with the notice of Diane’s passing sent to many by Jillina (another Diane student!). I fondly remember Diane dancing in this diaphanous pink silk kaftan; I remember how she made it, how she taught me to make it – it’s a pattern I still teach my students. I just archived the image with out a credit.
Ready for more?
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As women and performers, why cannot we see beyond physical representation, when we, too, are trying our hardest to achieve such beauty in our own lives? Such hypocrisy ensures that we can never escape the limitations that society and, thus, we place these same limitations upon our own bodies.
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