Gilded Serpent presents...

Debunking the “Golden Age” of Bellydance, Part 1


by Najia Marlyz
posted August 29, 2011

Do you feel all dressed up with no place to dance?  Then, nothing has changed much in the last four decades of Bellydance opportunities, except our dancers’ expectations.

Perhaps, those of us who learned to perform back in the day, speak about the Bellydance phenomenon now as if it were some sort of “Golden Age” for dancers, (Privately–maybe! Collectively, let me assure you: it was not.)

When most people become involved in a specific form of dance for the first time, aspirations for the future use of that art or skill seldom enter the prospective dancer’s mind, at least, in the beginning. The same circumstances were true for me, too. At the end of the 1960s, when I embarked on my new Raqs Sharqi dance adventure, I thought of dance as a healthy, artistic, and constructive activity for my mind and body as well as a place to use my other (more important, I thought) artistic endeavors.

Specifically, my interests became centered on the creative re-use of textiles, especially antique laces and fabrics such as velvets and sheer silk chiffon that have little use in normal, everyday living.  It was my intention to learn the art of dance performance because it was the rage du jour, and it would offer me a valid excuse to use my abilities to repair and recycle vintage garments as well as detailed pieces of hand-work from decades past (such as Victorian times and the Roaring ‘20s), incorporating them into my dance costuming.  

Along with my goal of recycling and renewing vintage clothing, jewelry and other objects, I hoped to use my knowledge to widen my typically cloistered world as a young, childless married woman in an urban Northern California locale. I had been fulfilling simply what was usually expected of women back then: namely, running a household, dabbling in the arts, and getting on with domestic life —just  like everyone else of the era. We were singing the song that was new in 1963, which became Pete Seeger’s hit recording, “Boxes! Little Boxes, all made out of ticky-tacky…”  Yes, it was the ‘60s, but I had found a way to make something new, sparkling and fascinating out of forgotten things that were beautiful, handmade, and old rather than new and made of “ticky-tacky”. Granted, that took place for me four decades ago, but circumstances of employment via Bellydancing have not changed that much within our dance community, even now.

It occurs to me that we dancers of the ’60s and ’70s (inadvertently) may have misled today’s beginning professional dancers into believing that we danced in the spotlight of fabulous stages on the bill with the rich and famous while they seem destined (and doomed) to dance their frenetic foreshortened versions of the Bellydance before each other at parties and for strangers and friends in restaurants. Sometimes, I wonder if we are secretly motivated by the perverse schadenfreude of watching them fight over our imaginary crumbs! Perhaps, we long-time professionals should accept some of the blame for helping them lower their expectations concerning their prospects of finding a place to perform once they have perfected their art well enough to turn professional.

At the same time, we are sounding authoritarian and sometimes overly pedantic about how much remuneration one might rightfully demand for a public Bellydance performance. The fact of the matter for us was that often we had had to manufacture our own opportunities to dance where there were none previously; perhaps we have preferred to make the situation look hopeless nowadays in order to stay in control (or to believe that we are).

Some of us earned actual money over the years, but our naughty little secret is that (literally) sometimes Bellydancers were hungry hippies and flower-children of the ’60s, and they danced for tokes, onions, strings of beads and sometimes, nothing.

Most of us grew out of it and lived to tell the tale.  We may have become too complacent in our perceived empire (now called the Bellydance community) that we built a long time ago out of mud, straw, and wild ethnic/Orientalist fantasies. It was there that we found our secret "back door into showbiz"! (Sparkle, sparkle, sparkle!)

For us, it became clear: there was next-to-nowhere to perform as a professional Bellydancer even then, but that did not stop us! However, our circumstances were easily changed because we were entering untested waters: There were no traditions or preset standards that we were compelled to meet. We set about creating our own opportunities –some for pay, some not.  Then, quel horrore! Those monetary practicalities of over-head, expenses, and maintaining the dance venues that we had created or secured for ourselves concerning some of our most popular and successful experiments began to seep into our reality. We had created festivals, pageants, belly-grams, and showcases for Bellydancers, but then found that when planning these activities and events, we had to make progressively less time available per dancer so that we could pack more warm bodies into our shows and events because they usually brought along with the dancers, their corresponding, ticket-buying fans –just to satisfy our burgeoning overhead. We learned about "show-biz economics" the hard way!  It was a sobering moment that almost brought us back to earth.

nylonsThe era was certainly not a golden age for American women in general, either, by any stretch of the imagination! However, our surge toward feminism could not be thwarted quite so easily. Our fascination with Oriental dance was “gold-toned” around the edges if not pure gold; it promised and delivered absolute satisfaction – of experiment and creativity, if not dollars.  We intended to re-invent ourselves into "a new kind of independent woman" at a time when it was important to keep the seams of your nylon stockings straight up the back of your leg (held in place by the irritating gizmo called the “garter belt” or that other odd torture-device called the "latex girdle”).

Flower-children and assorted hippies were singing “Kumbayah” in the streets of Berkeley and burning their bras, while most of us were just enjoying a sigh of relief from trashing the hated garter belt in favor of the terribly expensive new invention called… “pantyhose".

A pair of pantyhose in the ‘60s cost about twenty to thirty dollars per pair; in today’s money, that was more than an average grade school teacher (which was my chosen profession) earned in one day, teaching 36 (yes, thirty-six!) children per each classroom. Though it may seem peculiar now, the invention of pantyhose, alone, was a giant step forward for freedom and comfort of modern womankind. I wore out many of them two decades later while dancing on-stage, but nowadays, dancers seldom wear such things as pantyhose anymore, preferring bare legs, torn tights, or too many skirts. I think the garment has become almost as strange as bloomers and tightly-cinched, boned corsets.

Nevertheless, there was a larger question brewing for women in the movement almost everyone called “Feminism”. Bellydancing in America hit an unprecedented popularity in many American women’s lives –especially on both coasts, starting in the East.

In general, our motivation was not related to money; therefore, it was not related to getting a job as a performing dancer (although some considered it a test of one’s mettle as a fine dancer).  Instead, we needed to free ourselves first and consider practicalities later.

Bert posterBert Fire eatingMany of today’s instructors have given the impression to young professionals (who are now just entering show business) that there were all kinds of venues and opportunities in which to dance back in the day, and that potential audiences and employers were impatiently waiting for us to finish learning to dance so that they could hire us. Oh! How we wished it had been so! The fact remains hidden that some of today’s name movers and shakers never (or seldom) moved or shook on any stages or in any spotlights; they did not actually perform (at least, not solo) for a paycheck.  Therefore, some teachers of the performance art called American Cabaret Bellydance are not,  themselves, versed in either stage craft or solo performance, but they won’t tell you that and, for some reason of polite deferece, you don’t ask!  

Just like today, dancers had to create the place, the time, and the excuse to show or “sell” our newly-found artistry or resign ourselves to dance in parks and on street-corners or in syncopated troupe dances forever. So much for creativity and self-expression…

Fortunately, my mentor, the late Bert Balladine, a.k.a. Roman Balladine, had worked show venues such as Vaudeville, the circus, and smoky nightclubs as well as the cabarets of Europe as an entertainer, performing Adagio, Tap, and Acrobatic dancing, along with his infamous fire-eating act. Bert was among the early pioneers of Bellydance, bringing it to America and re-introducing it to Europeans, too.  Those few Bellydance pioneers such as Bert found a clientèle that had become increasingly reluctant to pay much for entertainers, but employers would often deign to pay for a “Bellydancer” because the dance form was considered unusual, rarely seen in the US, and was absolutely more exotic than the existing stage entertainment then available.

As Bert was fond of saying to those who attempted to clean up the reputation of our dance form:

“The image of Bellydance must stay a little bit naughty to the general public, because when it isn’t anymore, they’ll look for something else.”

To the people who were hoping to book entertainment, Bellydancing was only one baby-step away from actually being what was referred to as “exotic dance”, “stripping”, or "side-show hoochy-koutchy" and most of us struggled violently against that impression.

Just like today, Bellydancers were “all dressed up with no place to go”.  Before the ‘60s, there were precious few formal Bellydance lessons, except for tentative six-week courses in Bellydancing at the YMCA or YWCA or city recreation departments in large cities.  There were no Bellydance lessons offered in most variety dance studios, either, except for studios like Berkeley’s Denishawn Studio where Ruth St. Denis enjoyed the exotic kutch dance and other ethnic dances. Those who tried to include Bellydance found that it was unwelcome in most dance studios because of its stigma. If not being thought of as obscene, it was, at least, considered tawdry and low-class by dancers who were involved in other dance forms.

Ruth St DenisMy goal was to teach Bellydance in a college setting, but I quickly learned that my teaching certificate and my Master’s degree was insufficient for my being hired.  The administration officers informed me that I would have to teach one of the Physical Education Department’s instructors to dance so that she could, in turn, teach the course because my master’s degree and my teaching certificate had been earned with the wrong academic major subjects (i.e. not in the Physical Education department).

When I opened my first dance studio in Albany, California, I overheard two women on the sidewalk, peeking in the studio window, saying sadly, “Well, there goes our neighborhood…”

Generally, professional dancers had to build contacts among musicians who were part of bands and orchestras, because recorded music of the day sounded tinny and uninspiring. Realistic recordings for Bellydance simply did not exist. Extremely few Middle Eastern musicians had come to America to play until the ’60s. Even then, those who came did not come here to be a musician in a nightclub or restaurant, and they usually had a day job like house painter, restaurateur, or used car and insurance policy salesmen while some used it as a way to put themselves through a college education.  Getting a visa and buying a ticket to America was not feasible for most foreign professional musicians. Some who played here were amateur musicians at best.  Did you imagine that American orchestras and live bands played Middle Eastern music even as recently as 30 or 40 years ago?  No! However, most American bands could manage to play Fiddler on the Roof”, "Hava Nagila" “Green Eyes”, “Stardust”, and “Ahab the Arab”, and orchestras could play “In an Persian Market”, but that was about it! A dancer’s taqsim might be performed to a rendition of "Born Free".

Since it is central to our dance, music has been at the appreciable forefront of technological change for us.

Some things in the world do change with the passage of time and, sometimes, we dancers are compelled to change with them. Almost imperceptibly, technological changes also change us and our attitudes as we begin to embrace those new technologies.

We dancers have beautifully recorded music now –almost at our beck and call. Those vinyl recordings that were once so dear to us dancers, now sound scratchy and outdated, and the video tape cassettes of the eighties are terribly painful to watch because of their lack of resolution. 

You may often hear dancers of the early days express their heart-felt opinion that "you were not a real dancer if you were not dancing to live music" but the reality of the situation was that doing a gig that could accommodate the space and cost of a group of Middle Eastern musicians was not easily available. Many times, professional American dancers performed with live music that was so "homemade" that it was virtually laughable to call it music! However, if you take the trouble to listen and watch films and videos of early dancers on occasion (and get your brain past the cacophony they called their “live music”) you will find accomplished dancers performing and innovating with their dance. What the composers wrote, recorded in scratchy vinyl, remains not only valid but challenging, and the dance movements are as captivating then as now.

What has changed most, (other than the piling on of excessive spacial movement–sometimes called “use of stage”, folk-dance steps, and too many overly-complex dance movement combinations) are minor peripheral dance issues: hair styles and musical arrangements, beads vs. coin use, shoes/no shoes and other notions about what makes for reasonable authenticity and what makes memorable artistry. Imagine how dated, irrelevant, and off-putting today’s Disco-Mixes and Steam-Punk sounds and images will be in ten or twenty years!

Part Two–Debunking the Golden Age: Finding Gigs

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