Gilded Serpent presents...

Becoming the Object of Your Own Fantasy, Part 3

Diane Webber and the "Perfumes of Araby" in the 1970s


by Stasha Vlasuk
posted September 15, 2011
Part 1: posted here
Part 2: posted here

From Part One: This article will focus on the iconic 1970s “Perfumes of Araby” belly dance troupe, lead by the almost mythical performer/actress/teacher Diane Webber, 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. 

By 1975 Diane designed a bold new costume element inspired in part by Jerome’s “Woman of Cairo at Her Door”: an “under the bust” vest with a sheer blouse.  Because our outdoor festivals were so hot, most of us opted to create sleeveless versions.  Some of us varied the “peek-a-boo” factor by doubling the fabric or building the blouse on a sheer fabric bra. 

In an almost archetypal will to power, Diane encouraged us to utilize our costuming – and our dance – as a way to search out and expand our own unique spirit, fantasy and physique, something I try to continue with my students today: become the object of your own fantasy.

How were we as a group bold enough to appear in public in these spicy outfits?  We achieved this confidence through combinations of sociological perspective that are most probably endemic in your performing troupe as well.  We brought all these factors to our shows.

We had dress rehearsals in full hair, make-up and costume accompanied by our orchestra.  The benefit is two-fold here.  We nail down our presentation, of course.  More importantly we create a world of understanding and functionality: each performer has a function, like parts of the body; all there for a reason, even the small roles.  We’re entertaining because each performer knows their role and performs it; in performance these patterns of group behavior broaden the audience’s understanding. 

1976 Full dress rehearsal with musicians; that’s happy Lou Shelby (Roxanne‘s dad!) on violin behind us,

L to R: Jann Goldsby, Stasha Vlasuk, Donna Bella

This basis of understanding allows the performers to go a step further and present conflict and resolution: always fascinating to the observing audience.  For example, consider how some elements of a typical Perfumes of Araby performance toy with the notion of power and status from a feminist perspective, the essentials of gender, and subsequently sexuality: let’s look at a photo of the Calaveras Pumpkin Festival performance of 1977.  The censor is danced around the parameter of the stage to set the mood, the slave girls fan the smoke into the audience with giant peacock feather fans.  Note famed drummer Louie Sayeg on the right, concerned-faced Guy Chookoorian on the left.  That’s our "slave boy" seated in chains, lost in the music (sorry, I can’t remember this student’s name – James?).  Dianne thought it was hilarious to dress him in chains.  Jan, our "shimmy on glasses" dancer, would do her routine, then lead him by the chain and make him climb up on the glasses and dance.  A playful reversal of male chauvinism? or a proclamation of autonomy?  Whatever – the audience loved it!  

Pumpkinn fest with Yoli
1977 Pumpkin Festival censor dance,
L to R: Guy Chookoorian, Yolanda Leaird, Stasha, Louie Sayeg, James our "slave boy"

Whether we were on a proscenium stage or in the middle of a plaza, we created and defined our space with a large oriental carpet.  Each dancer brought her own large pillow of opulent fabric, perfect for lounging around the perimeter of the carpet, playing finger cymbals and ululating  for the performers.  In her book “Sisters of Salome”, about the Salome dancers of the early 1900s, author Toni Bentley refers to the freeing paradox due to this simple fact: division of the show from the audience: 

“The performance setting provides the artificial boundaries, the protection, needed to overcome the fear that accompanies vulnerability.  Paradoxically, the separation frees them for the intimate exposure they yearn for.  Because they retain control over the entire event, they can abandon control within it and thereby satisfy their own erotic desires.  For them, as for most performers, it is often far easier, and safer, to expose oneself, physically or emotionally, to a crowd than to one human being.  Numerous eyes and ears blend to form an impersonal safety net”

Or, as Balanchine (the great NY based ballet impresario) once remarked: “You can see Paradise – but you can’t get in”.

Cal Tech 1978 Stasha and the censor dance
L to R: Yolanda Leaird , Marilyn Manzi, Shira Jane Padgett, Anaheed Mary Ann Cappa
Cal Tech 1978 L to R:  Denise Russo, Jann Goldsby, Stasha Vlasuk,  ( Diane Webber, behind), Margaret Turner.  
Notice we all had finger cymbal pouches to keep our zills handy.
left photo: Cal Tech 1978  Jann Goldsby, Shimmy on Glasses, right photo: Cal Tech 1978  Yolanda Leaird, Jann Goldsby, Khadija Cynthia Beck
Diane!   Cal Tech 1978
Diane!   Cal Tech 1978

Diane Webber’s last solo with the Perfumes of Araby was at the 1978 Cal Tech performance where she wore a sexy assuit costume that is every modern day Tribal Girl’s dream.  It probably encouraged some dreaming among those brainy engineering students as well!  After this, during our performances she played dumbec in the back with the musicians, sitting with our slave girls and wearing a spectacular kaftan and elaborate head dress.  With great honor, the solo cabaret spot came to me, and I performed this solo through the end of the 1979 season including Cal Tech and the Pumpkin Festival (alas, its last year).

1979 Cal Tech , Check out the audience: Love that 70s fashion!  
1979 Cal Tech- Jann Goldsby on left and Shira Jane Padgett on right.
1979 Cal Tech, Left photo: Jenny,   Right photo: Stasha cabaret solo
left photo: Cal Tech  Stasha Cabaret drum solo (Note Diane behind slave girls in kaftan and elaborate head dress) , right photo: 1979 Cal Tech Stasha, Cabaret solo
1979 Pumpkin Festival, waiting to go on, L to R: Marilyn Manzi, (Shira Jane, peeking!), Denise Russo, Stasha Vlasuk,  Mahahra Bobbie Shiavo.
1979 Pumpkin Festival opening grand procession, Marilyn Manzi
1979 Pumpkin Festival opening grand procession,

L to R: Marilyn Manzi, Denise Russo, Shira Jane Padgett, Anaheed Mary Ann Cappa.  
Notice that we all had kaftans to cover our costumes as we arrived
1979 Pumpkin Festival opening grand procession, Marilyn, Anaheed, Violinist Maurice, ? 
1979 Pumpkin Festival: we wore kaftans, lounged on opulent fabric pillows, played finger cymbals and ululated for the performers.
L to R: Jenny, Mahara, Jann
1979 Pumpkin Festival L to R: Lois, Denise Russo, Shira Jane Padgett
1979 Pumpkin Festival Sword Dance: Anaheed Mary Ann Cappa
1979 Pumpkin Festival Candle Dance L to R: drummer Samir, Diane, Shira Jane, Denise, Mahara
1979 Pumpkin Festival snake dancer Nikki Engel, violinist Maurice and oudist Ali
1979 Pumpkin Festival snake dancer Nikki Engel
1979 Pumpkin Festival veil dance L to RL Lois, Shira Jane, ?, Jenny
1979 Pumpkin Festival  Stasha cabaret solo


photoStasha in the Insights GuideBy the end of 1979, Diane Webber scaled back her group activities.  Our fabulous sword dancer Anaheed Mary Ann Cappa became the Managing Director of the Perfumes of Araby Dance Company: a vibrant, encouraging and sustaining force in the Los Angeles belly dance world of today – and tomorrow.  While Diane continued a teaching and writing schedule, before her untimely passing in 2008 she also maintained the law library of a Santa Monica law firm, returned to college to study animal husbandry then owned several prize winning show horses.

Also in 1979 I moved my base of operations to the San Francisco Bay Area and continued to dance, teach, research and enjoy our art world wide.  One surprise glimpse of the 1970s Perfumes of Araby happened while I was in London performing at the Turkish restaurant Gallipoli in 1988.  One day when I was browsing in a book store, “Insights Guide: California” caught my proud native Californian eye.  A travel book full of colorful photos enticed the visitor from foggy London to the Golden State.  As I flipped through the book imagine my surprise at finding a full page photo of myself!  Obviously unaware of the photo being taken, I’m seated playing finger cymbals in my Turkish court costume – I’m an official Tourist Attraction!

From the 1970 performances to 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 with the sharing of our dance. We are the objects of our own fantasy.

 Interesting links
Costume inspirations
Orientalist books to read online:
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!  

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  1. Kamala Almanzar

    Sep 16, 2011 - 05:09:46

    So fun to see the old gang I used to work with – you, Donna Bella, Jane, Bobbie.  Good times. Thank you for the memories!

  2. kathy

    Sep 22, 2011 - 06:09:24

    violinist Maurice Saba

  3. kathy

    Sep 24, 2011 - 09:09:26

    unidentified dancer in veil dance is Mahara (her face is covered by the veil)

  4. Dawna

    May 20, 2012 - 07:05:18

    This is wonderful to see.  I became a member of the Perfumes just after Diane decided to give Anaheed the directorship of the troupe.  I was in only one Perfumes show as a “slave” before Diane gave up being the director but I remember how nice all of the dancers were and how beautiful the costumes looked.  Thank you for such a great article about the Diane and her troupe.  I am so thankful that I was able to watch Diane and the Perfumes of Araby at the Pumpkin Festival and these articles have brought back fond memories.

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