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Gilded Serpent presents...
From Rags
to Rhinestones
by Dolores of London

Greetings from London! I've been working on this article for the best part of a year was inspired by Baraka's amazing piece. Like her, I've really been "through the mill", coping with serious illness, injury and financial problems. Oriental music and dance has kept me sane! (Just!)

Wherever I have performed, I'm acknowledged as a mesmerising, passionate, and sensual dancer who uses great technique. I've been described as dedicated, determined, versatile, and a professional performer. Those descriptions came not just from audiences but from other professional dancers, musicians and the Arabic community too.

I have done all this under enormous difficulties, illness, injury, and lack of paid work. Dolores is my real name, and I come from an unusual background - my dad was Indian and my mum German.

My parents met up in London towards the end of the 50's then married in 1960. My dad came to work in London as a shipping clerk and then as a waiter/manager in several Indian restaurants. My mum was a factory worker in Germany but she became a housewife and had 3 children. I am the eldest and was named after a 1940s film star Dolores Del Rio.

I had a very disadvantaged upbringing because my family suffered racism and poverty during the '60s and '70s.  I was regularly bullied at school, my father suffered abuse in his restaurant and my parents often faced hostile reaction - when they were together in public, people would shout racist abuses at them. I have survived sexual abuse and violence and, at age 14, I ran away from home after being told I was to be "married off" in India.

The marriage was being arranged by my father as head of the family and is a traditional family "agreement" which continues in many Indian families to this day. In fact, girls suffer terrible consequences if they don't agree to this, some have been attacked and even murdered by their relatives.

At age 16, after my dad died, my family was split up and I was put into a girls-only children's home. I lived on the streets for a short time and 2 years in hostels. As a young, homeless teenage girl I had to grow up quickly and learn the rules of survival. I had many temporary jobs such as sales assistant in shops and a domestic cleaner to earn money, whilst sleeping in hostels or on a friend's floor (once on someone's kitchen floor)!

The hostels were awful places, dirty and noisy with no privacy and curfews every night. After 2 years of this hell I finally found permanent work and my first home - a small bedsit near Primrose Hill, London.

I have also worked as a waitress, receptionist, a personal assistant and a secretary. In the late '70s, I performed with a couple of punk rock bands singing lead and backing vocals and pogoing, was a voluntary worker for three years at a women's center and was involved in feminist and anti-racism groups.

As a very young girl, I desperately wanted to be a ballet dancer and taught myself the basic ballet steps from library books. My family couldn't afford dance classes but I was always picked out for praise by the teachers at school any time I performed in the school show. During my teens I would always be the first onto the dance floor when I was at a disco or a pop festival. The music was in me and I can never hear music without wanting to dance.

I never imagined a poor kid like me would one day get a chance to learn dance and then become a respected dancer.

At the ripe old age of 30 I took my first class in Oriental dance after having watched a documentary on Arabic dance. I studied for about six years with Jo Wise and I was a member of her dance troupe Masriat for approximately three years. I also studied with Anne Ashcroft of Suraya Hilal's dance school and I've done workshops with Suraya Hilal and Hossam Ramzy in the early 90's, and Raqia Hassan in 2003.

Oriental/Egyptian dance is popular in the United Kingdom and the Arabic dance scene is run mainly by white, middle-class women. In this environment I have contended with occasional criticisms about my figure and/or age which have only made me more determined and dedicated to develop my technique and dancing skills.

I have also found it hard to fit in with the rather cliquey dance scene in England. If you are not part of this set of mainly prosperous white middle class women it's hard to get a foothold on the starry ladder to success - becoming one of England's Oriental Dance Crème de la Crème.

Dancers are always gossiping about each other here but I suspect this is true of any other dance community anywhere else in the world. The issue of class and money is never raised and a great deal of emphasis seems to be on costumes/appearance, not on what makes a good dancer. In this context then, I stand out as an ethnic and working-class performer who has truly done it on her own -- without any family support or liaison with an Arab husband /musician!

Three years ago my life was turned upside down! After an accident in which I broke my ankle, I was told I also had hypertension (high blood pressure). I also lost my full time job and had problems trying to get my local council to pay my "sickness benefit." I ended up in arrears and found myself facing eviction and the bailiff. On top of all this, I contracted pneumonia.

I was just about to be admitted to hospital but opted to stay at home - I was terrified that the Housing Association would confiscate my flat from me.

I wasn't responding to all the antibiotics and asthma treatment so the doctors gave me steroids. The trauma of eviction threats exacerbated my already ill-health. Despite having a solicitor, it wasn't until 2 years later that I finally got what I was entitled to. It was a challenge finding the money I needed to pay the rent and bills whilst coping with numerous medical tests and the side effects of drugs. With an extensive course of treatment and much TLC from my partner, I am now on the road to recovery and hope to be dancing regularly again soon.

In spite of lacking a family and formal education, I am very proud of some of my achievements which include my having published a slim volume of my own poems and having written for City Limits (a London listings magazine). I am most proud of having taken up dance later in life and having become an acclaimed professional-level performer.

Hopefully, this story will inspire others who have also "been through the mill". I aim to keep on dancing, just like Fifi, well into "old" age!

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