A Mediterranean Tour with Rhea of Athens
posted July 11, 2012
Melina descends to the floor in a full split, clenching a dagger between her teeth. On top of the dagger, she balances a sword. Her ornate costume glitters in the warm lighting of Karoun Restaurant, where she is performing. Melina is the star of Karoun. On this evening, she has invited me to dance with her as a kind of apprentice. I watch in awe as she pushes the sword gently with her hand, causing it to spin on the tip of the dagger. Hushed appreciation emanates from the audience. No one can captivate a crowd like Melina. Her performances are rich with a multitude of talents. One moment, she is revolving with her veil like a whirling dervish. The next, she is executing a perfect back bend while perched atop three glass goblets. For some shows, she dances while balancing a tray of burning candles on her head. For others, she does her sword and dagger act. Sometimes, she does both.
Melina’s sword music ends and we move into the finale, both of us spinning colorfully across the dance floor, engaging the audience, and collecting tips. At our invitation, smiling people get up from their tables and join us in a free dance. The whole restaurant is alive with music and happy patrons. When the show is over, we pick up our props and parade offstage, Melina raising her sword triumphantly, I letting my veil trail behind us in the air. We load these items into her car and drive home, where we create a pile of dollar bills on the living room floor. She offers tea, which we sip contentedly on the carpet as we count our tips. I look at the heap of cash in front of us and I contemplate the experience she is sharing with me. It is certainly unique.
For Melina, belly dance is a way to express joy and a means of income. She is a second generation belly dancer whose artistry is deeply rooted in family life. Melina’s mother, Rhea, moved to Athens in the 1970s to pursue a performance career in the tavernas. Melina and her sister, Piper, grew up dancing alongside her. Throughout her childhood, Melina delighted the Greeks with her energetic leaps and spritely spins. Today, beautiful black and white family photos hang in the Moody Street Circus Studio in Waltham, MA, which she co-founded with her husband, Sacha. I have been studying dance with Melina for seven years.
This past April, my boyfriend Aaron and I flew to Greece and spent six weeks with Rhea. We were inspired by the photographs and by Melina’s stories. We wanted to taste the baklava for ourselves. As a dancer, I wanted the chance to experience belly dancing in Greece, and to take classes with Rhea. Our ten hour flight concluded with an introduction to the legendary performer at the Acropolis metro stop.
Rhea is like Socrates incarnate. Completely true to herself and a wealth of insight, she loves engaging the people she meets in conversations on history, society, and human nature.
On many occasions during our stay (usually over souvlaki, mousaka, or some other culinary indulgence), Aaron and I heard her views on Greek culture, her theories on the effects of arbitrary authority, and her understanding of recent political events.
In its corner of the Plaka, directly beneath the Parthenon, Rhea’s apartment is an unforgettable place. She has lived there and supported herself through belly dance for thirty-five years. Everything about its appearance conveys her vast experience. Like Melina’s studio, its walls are adorned with photographs of herself and her two daughters. They strike proud, feminine poses in bejeweled costumes—appearing in magazine clippings, on promotional fliers, and on CD covers. Every surface of Rhea’s apartment is covered with a Middle Eastern tapestry, a colorful cloth from Egypt, or a beaded veil. Her seating area, where students gather after class, is plush with embroidered cushions. Swords, golden canes, and other props hang on the walls and occupy corners. For visitors, all this adornment has both a sensory overload effect and a way of communicating the extent of Rhea’s accomplishments. Her travels, her vibrant performances, and her work as a mentor for others are represented by her décor.
While we were in Greece, Rhea provided unending opportunities for me to dance and learn. We went out almost every night, doing shows. Rhea’s connections run through the Plaka like arteries which channel the blood of her influence. Everywhere we went free food and wine appeared on the table as opportunities for me to perform presented themselves. Live orchestras played upbeat, traditional songs and smooth taksims. Between my numbers, the Greek patrons participated in line dances and sporadic solos. Our evenings in Athens were full of storytelling, red wine, music, and performance. They gave me the chance to share my current skills, to look back into the past through Rhea’s stories, and to inform the future of my craft.
Traveling anywhere with Rhea would be interesting, but staying with her amid the glorious ruins of Athens was especially inspiring. Each morning, I woke up early to go running beneath the Parthenon. On these excursions, I felt my body take in the Greek air. I contemplated the scale of the monument before me and allowed my spirit to reel with vertigo. I felt connected to the pan-historic human pursuit of art and physical aptitude.
During the third week of our trip, Rhea took us to Egypt. She visits Cairo several times a year. The 700 year old marketplace near the El Hussein Square is her destination for swords, costumes, and healthful oils. Her hotel of choice is located across from the El Hussein Mosque. At 20 Euros a night, it agreed with my performers’ budget. It was also noisy. 5 times a day, beginning at 5 AM, the call to prayer sounded from the minarets. All night, the street below boomed with music from a nearby hookah lounge. After Aaron repaired the light in our bathroom by wiring it to the hot water switch, we were ready to make ourselves at home. At night, we ventured out to absorb the sights. I saw beaded skirts and jewelry for sale everywhere! It was the Raks Sharki world capital!
In the Khan El-Khalili, I found an enormous variety of costumes. They drape from manikins in shop windows. They hang outdoors in sparkling, colorful rows. Veils, cymbals, and other props are sold in glittering heaps. After perusing the outdoor vendors, I made an appointment with the internationally famous dealer, Mr. Mahmoud Abd El Ghaffar. His shop is like a belly dance department store. The quality he offers is the best in the market, and he does not barter. The costume I decided to get for myself (a present from Aaron) is a bright purple color that will shine onstage. Dripping beads and crystals will emphasize all of my movements.
Happily, we paid about a third of what it would cost in the U.S.
At Rhea’s suggestion, Aaron and I spent one of our nights in Egypt going to see the Tanoura troupe of Sufi Whirling Dervishes. At their show, I witnessed a sacred expression of art. The show started with music, beginning with an instrumental ensemble. The star performer was an elderly man, clearly in his seventies, who played a set of large finger cymbals. He performed with rhythmic sensitivity and an exceptional ability to connect with his audience. We were awe struck by his musical dexterity and poise onstage. The age in his face served only to enhance his graceful gestures and balletic poses by means of contrast. His joyful expressions and playful demeanor delighted everyone in the crowd.
As the show developed and grew richer, movement came to accompany music. The Dervishes began to whirl, first in pairs and small groups, then receding to allow one performer the prominent center position. He whirled for over twenty minutes, building on the musical crescendos and riding the rhythms with uplifted arms. At times, the other Dervishes performed simple steps in a line upstage. At other moments, they created vibrant, swirling patterns around him. For the audience, this spectacle of motion was endlessly entertaining – but it also served to create an enlightening experience for the featured Dervish. He had a combination of powerful stimuli: the music, his whirling, the whirling of those around him, and the supportive presence of the audience. He gestured to the heavens, at times closing his eyes with an expression that conveyed both exhalation and spiritual serenity. The enraptured exchange between the audience and the Dervish became a spiraling cycle of energy and excitement, giving and receiving. I was in love with the show – indescribably happy to witness to a tradition that served to invoke the physical, joyous sensation of the Divine through movement.
Unlike the art of dance, the mask of Tutankhamen is remarkable because it is static – frozen in both time and form. At the Egyptian Museum, Aaron and I paid homage to this treasure. The face of the Pharaoh has the soft, harmonious quality of living flesh. One can sense the muscle structure beneath its surface. This illusion of life is so complete that when I looked at the mask, I was amazed that it could not, in fact, move. According to the ancient Egyptians, the mask of a mummy must replicate the features of the deceased with absolute accuracy to ensure the spirit’s ability to recognize its resting place. The brilliantly realistic quality of the piece, therefore, resulted from the spiritual purpose of its creators.
On our last day in Cairo, Aaron and I traveled out to the Pyramids of the Giza Necropolis by camel. The site includes the Great Pyramid of Giza, the Pyramid of Khafre, and the Pyramid of Menkaure. Rhea did not want to join us. She has already seen them, and found them to be “dead things”. In her view, the Pharaohs built them out in the desert because they did not want thousands of people gawking at them every day – much less going inside. According to her, they were meant exclusively, and unaesthetically, to serve the pursuit of a peaceful afterlife. I tried to reconcile my desire to see the last surviving example of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World with my belief in her reasoning via a compromise: I went up to the Pyramids, but I did not enter the shrines.
There are works of art which unite humanity in their ability to touch all peoples, regardless of nationality. The pyramids and the ancient artifacts from the tomb of Tutankhamen obviously rank in this category. They have a curio-like appeal by virtue of their age alone, being material structures that have somehow escaped the decay of many passing millennia. Like dance and circus, they have the ability to make those who see them proud to be human. When audience members see a dancer perform an extraordinarily complex sequence of steps in perfect time, or when they see a tight rope walker fearlessly cross a perilous divide, the joy that they experience comes from their renewed faith in human ability. They share the glory of the achievement because they can identify with the performer as members of the same, capable species. The wonders of Ancient Egypt stand testament to the universal human instinct to create –an instinct that we share, amazingly, with individuals who lived and died over 4,000 years ago.
Return to Athens
When we returned to Athens, Rhea set about preparing for a tribute show that was held in her honor. The show happened on the last night of our trip, and it was a perfect conclusion. Professional dancers who Rhea has inspired performed solos. In addition to belly dancing, there was a Brazilian samba, an Egyptian knife dance, and an Ethiopian duet. I danced with my hula hoop—a specialty that I have developed at Moody Street Circus.
During my Mediterranean tour with Rhea, I met wonderful performers, saw once in a lifetime sights, and developed my performance skills. Above all, the experiences I had while I was abroad strengthened my understanding of the attitude she and Melina have always shared with students: you must engage with the world and find the pursuits that make you happy. Great pleasure can come from sharing your talents with others and using them to benefit the community. You must not let psychological spooks or unfounded hang-ups prevent you from living a life uncommon.
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