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original photo by Denise Marino

Gilded Serpent presents...
Fantasy Bellydance
A New and Ancient Reality
by Jehan  

Fantasy seems to be the growing new reality for bellydance in America.  Winged goddesses, mythological archetypes, masked creatures and elementals are re-emerging from the depths of our psyches to become the inspiration for many bellydancers in this age. Theatrical plays, concerts, and works on video enacting famous myths or personal dramas incorporating several dance forms are becoming the norm.

This trend has been growing steadily since I can remember, but caught fire recently, due to the instantaneous broadcasting of ideas and styles on the worldwide web and the proliferation and availability of video for this generation of dancers.

Fusion, confusion and delusion are subjects which deserve their own book.  To navigate through the maze of creative fusions, sub-genres and sub-styles in our field can be overwhelming to new dancers trying to identify what style bellydance they should study. Dramatic themes and the eccentric use of movements easily recognizable as bellydance (but which depart radically from how and why oriental dance was performed and the cultural context in which it originally evolved) leave many wondering which way to go. 

All that defined oriental dance of the past hundred years is often gone. Now, the style of music that can be unrelated in any way to Middle Eastern culture, the idiosyncratic costuming, emotional expression devoid of eastern ideas of femininity, anatomically bizaare postures, modern western dynamics, exteme aggression, and unusual interpretations of even traditional music and vocabulary can be beautiful, shocking, and entertaining - a mystical experience or one that is annoying and puzzling..    

What does all this mean?  It just means that this dance has taken root in a land known to be a melting pot, where no rules and no restrictions exist.  Modern technology brings the inspiration of the entire world to our door and then human innovation takes over.  I think the latest dance trends are nothing more than proof that change is constant, change is a need in many and that discontent is very human.  People, including aspiring dancers, are endlessly fascinated by themselves and by the world, and then they find an ability to create new forms and to tinker around with what already exists.  The need to keep busy and the desire to stand out or be recognized are common.  To feel discontent, and then to want to rise above the human condition and to transform those around us is all part of the human condition.

All traditions in dance were at one time new thoughts, steps and feelings - innovations which caught on once they were released into the world. Many who relate to something find that they want to share and preserve it.  I, for example, am a dancer who is rooted in Middle Eastern tradition, but being a dreamer and having grown up exposed to so many other arts and cultures led me to fuse all of them together.  As far back as I can remember, I kept one foot in alternative dimensions, receiving visions which would later show up in my dance.  Because growth takes a lifetime, most of these visions are still in the process of manifesting.  Trying to manifest the dream, or fantasy, of what was and what could be in dance is my reality.  I  preserve traditions and honor the past, but also venture into unknown territory and explore possibilities. 

Most of us have incredible potential and imaginations, and this stage of discovery in our art form is healthy and necessary to let us fearlessly experiment. However, it doesn’t mean every attempt is something great or that tradition should be wiped out.  It is always wise to study the roots of an art form and to understand that form so that it isn’t abused or confused simply because a dancer desperately wants instant gratification from performing or quick notoriety for being different.  

graphic by Nehmi Hanna
graphic by Nehmi Hanna

I hope this article will shed a light to inspire and open a discussion that will lead to greater harmony and unity within our multiverse.  The long, ancient history of dance on the continent of Asia (especially the Middle East), where our contemporary bellydance originates, teaches us that many sacred dances used a vocabulary of movement that some would see as fusion bellydance today – including gymnastics, acrobatics, and sacred posture and gestures.  Elaborate ritual choreographies mimicked elements in nature, the cosmic play of the zodiac, the gods and goddesses. Dancers often dressed as powerful archetypal figures wearing elaborate masks, headpieces, and veils, and made use of props, musical instruments, poetry and song.  

As we move forward into the past we should remember that there are specific lines of energy and postures that make our physical bodies graceful, free-flowing  and strong instruments. This has been known and practiced for thousands of years, so why throw it all out the window?  To have a free, creative mind in a restricted body is absurd, especially for an art form which is supposed to be expansive, so caution and respect when re-inventing bellydance technique would be wise.    

The melding of fantasy or mythological themes with bellydance may seem like a departure from the traditional Oriental dance, but as we go further back in time and take a closer look, we see how this “new trend” has long been evolving quietly, in the Middle East as well as in the West, under the radar and away from the watchful eyes and scrutiny of the new bellydance internet generation.  

The pervasive internet web dominates the world we live in today, magnifying and exploding every idea and carrying it like wildfire through the dance community. It is both a positive and negative phenomenon.  In previous decades, adventurous pioneers in bellydance came from all walks of life and naturally put their own unique spin on the dance.  However, in that pre-web time they didn’t and couldn’t have as far reaching an influence because there wasn’t today's immediate access by the rest of the dance community and the use of video wasn’t as widespread. 

Today, many of us who are drawn to create similar primal choreographic visions can make them unique and enhance the concepts by using unusual new musical sounds never before easily available.  Even most of us with small budgets can use the wonderful gifts of technology that allow magical lighting effects, multi-media visuals and the use of materials and fabrics from all over the world for sets and costuming, as well as ideas from once remote cultures and unknown authors.  Philosophies, history and dance styles are merging in our minds, creating both clarity and confusion… but ultimately a potentially harmonious new world culture. 

original photo of Layla Isis by Chritopher Butt

On a personal note, I don’t blame lack of opportunity for my silence about most of my work.  I have been on the frontlines of edgy bellydance and I did have access to media, but I chose not to release embryonic ideas on a large scale, until now that the fruit is maturing.  I also digressed from dance for many years in order to create genres of music that hadn't existed before, with a new spirituality, sexuality and drama, so that I, and other like-minded artists, could express the otherwordly dances longing to be born.  

Dance of passion, truth and lies - demons and angels behind these eyes.
Anything you desire - creatures of earth, air, water and fire.
Mermaids  swim, a fairy flies - behind these eyes

Dreams can take us far, when we become who we really are .
Demon or Angel: what do you see?…. reflecting you, reflecting me . 
Demon or Angel?  Demon or Angel?  Demon or Angel?

Whatever you can imagine is what I’ll be… tell me your secret fantasy.
So many creatures waiting inside,. waves of thought…enjoy the ride!
Tell me your secret fantasy... 

My journey has taken me to extreme places in life, and therefore, in dance. Although I am grateful for the rich experiences I had as an “authentic, traditional” working bellydancer, I am more blessed by the amazing opportunities I had to do alternative work – collaborating  with magicians, shamans, musicians, painters, singers, healers, yogis, bullfighters and circus performers.  

The interest that the West has in fusion and fantasy is very natural – a result of the  adventurous spirit, curiosity and freedom Americans have to experiment in all fields and therefore, of course, in bellydance.  For me, this direction began in early childhood when my grandfather, who was a charismatic storyteller, writer, poet and mythologist with the knowledge of Joseph Campbell, not only read, but acted out, the myths and legends of the ancient Near East and Mediterranean that would become one of the strongest influences on my future. Salome as a nightly story was the obvious one, but others are now surfacing in my memory.  My other grandfather told me tales of the Arabian Nights.

1001 Nights carried me away from the world..Too real from things I didn’t want to feel… I didn’t want to feel,
When I was a little girl …. Can magic lamps and flying carpets still save me from the darkness I’ve known… I’m still pretending, dancing in a world of my own. … 
A story keeps unfolding unraveling my mind, dreams that have no end never knowing what I’ll find… 
I dance but there’s no solid ground, drunk on my imagination…All at once I’m lost and found in ecstatic self- intoxication…
Save me, fantasy, save me tonight…Sheherazade!  Save me save me save ….Sheherazade ! 
I want to live the greatest story, I will believe in love and glory… I’ll rewrite what  I’ve known, create a world of my own….

When I was just beginning to dance professionally in New York City in the 1980s, some dancers on the scene were beginning to seek other avenues of expression.  I looked to dancers such as Elena, Serena, Ibrahim Farrah, Valerie Camille, Marta Zorina, Mateo, La Meri, and Phaedra. Then I looked even futher back, to the mothers of modern dance, who were highly influenced by the East and by fantasy, and who innovated new techniques: pioneers such as Ruth St Denis, Loie Fuller, and Martha Graham, to name just a few..

original photo by Mikio Kennedy

The Orientalists and fantasists spawned a generation of dancers fascinated by the dream of Oriental dance, which, in turn, made way for another generation, who investigated the art's roots and traditional Eastern dance techniques.  Now, many have the need for spirituality and fantasy again - not the old harem girl fantasy, but that of the empowered, multi-faceted woman.  Many women trying to find their strength and purpose in the dance arts can relate to the warrior/heroine… the goddess…the priestess.

Adorned and jeweled, we undulate ,but naked is the soul. 
Watch our silent language, read the secrets never told -
We sway our hips and armies fall; we conquer with a glance ,
In this dream where rhythm rules and love is the only dance

Warriors  rise..,.Shattering lies… Breaking the ties…. Touching the skies….

Meditate upon the womb; raise the lotus to full bloom;
Wings unfold upon the snakes and consciousness awakes.

It is tempting these days to become a poseur, creating heroic images of ourselves as archetypes, goddesses, or any wonderful creature we can imagine. With the incredible graphics used in photos on DVDs and websites …. add an exaggerated bio and one is an instant bellydance star.   This short cut can feel validating and empowering on many levels, and can actually be a first step towards discovering true inner strength and beauty. But it can also stunt growth and become a trap.   We must never forget one of the greatest myths of all, the story of Narcissus, who looked into a stream and was trapped, gazing forever at the sight of his own beautiful face, and we must beware not to be mesmerized by the satisfaction of our glorious, perfect, re-touched image reflecting back at us... masking emptiness, lack of technique, experience, and the quirky flaws we may have that make us unique. Technology, like everything else, is a mixed blessing…the downside is that it allows us to run from activities and experiences that challenge our soul to grow.  

I have learned over and over that it is far more satisfying to live your dreams and make them reality. To simply create a perfect image and then hide behind it is stifling.  Being a "bellydancer” then becomes the lock instead of the key, trapping us inside a rigid identity instead of becoming a fluid, expansive liberating force which will hopefully bring us closer to a state of enlightenment and compassion.  It is always a struggle to resist the temptation of the easy path.

Fact can not only be stranger than fiction or fantasy but more beautiful and more intense.  What most call ordinary reality is divine creation; more impressive than anything we can possibly re-create or take pride in.  When we realize that magick is everywhere, we should be humbled.

Fluid visions pass before my eyes… electrifying rushes through my mind.. I feel the stillness in the dance, bathing in a violet trance, supreme imagination flowing free… through my veins runs the primordial sea, magick weaves through every cell, with every breath I touch divinity captured  by an intangible spell.

I foresee that the finest Oriental dance technique combined with elements of classical Western dance, theatrical storytelling and soul will one day be able to give this dance form the high regard it is beginning to achieve. I leave you with this thought:  be inspired and courageous; imagine, explore, create magick, transform and inspire others. Believe in infinite possibilities and variations upon variations, In Dance As In Life…. 

original photo by Ramu


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