I Am *ALSO* A Belly Dancer
Part 2: Continuing Adventures in the Origins of BellaDancer & the ‘Beast
“She’s not a belly dancer! There’s more Jazz in her than anything.”
This was one of the many statements repeated around the belly dance scene for years in the attempt to damage my reputation, undermine my popularity, and get me blacklisted from the restaurants and shows where I performed amidst the aftermath of being hit by a drunk driver.
We’ll get to the successes and failures of the varied campaigns by varied individuals to boot me off varied stages later. Let’s just address this one today, shall we?
The first statement — that I was not a belly dancer — could be well argued from either direction. In truth, it’s both wrong and right, because I was ALSO a belly dancer for over two decades of my now 45-year love affair with dance.
The second statement, however…
Let’s analyze that. Then you can come to your own conclusions.
The footage below captured the last dance I did before my car wreck, and hence, the last dance I did before the above-mentioned statement was broadcast about me. This video was shot during our monthly student night show at Tajine Alami Moroccan Restaurant in Manitou Springs, CO, the night of December 20, 2000.
YES. That Night. This was taken about 3 hours before I was rammed into a construction median on my way home after the show. In fact, I was still dressed in the bottom layers of this very costume when they hauled me out of my car on a stretcher.
MORE JAZZ THAN ANYTHING?
My denigration as a “mostly Jazz dancer” began in 2001, when it became clear that there was a very good chance I was destined to prove the pessimistic portion of my doctors wrong, and therefore might be capable of reclaiming the many performance and teaching spots I had lost due to injury. My MD told me I’d never be a dancer again; I got to work hunting down those infamous, oversized middle-finger cheer-foamies. After that: history.
It is fact that I had taken Jazz dance in college, and had been cast in a Jazz-Funk choreo for a showcase. That style also affected the types of dances I had choreographed as a high school cheerleader because it was one of the many influences that bled into the pop dance cultures of the day — northern Minnesota in the 80s and 90s.
In case we’ve forgotten (or never knew) what the dance and music scene during the time period in question looked and sounded like, here ya go:
Here is an example of some things Jazz dance was up to in 1997:
This is 100% the style of Jazz that I was taught:
I’ll tell you what, though, the Jazz that seeped into my belly dancing was less influenced by my collegiate training in the pure style, and more through a secondary filter: the nightclub/cabaret styles of the belly dancers I had been exposed to by the time of my car wreck in 2000, most of whom were from the American continents and Europe. Any of we baby belly dancers who cut our teeth on dreams of becoming the next Suhaila Salimpour (3) were likely to have this slant.
I certainly did, especially during drum solos and any other intricate, percussive musical phrasing.
This instructional video is why. (And I mean “video” literally. I had that sucker on VHS.)
Suhaila’s teaching style in front of those window blinds is one of the many reasons I teach dance the way I do, and it’s also one of the reasons I belly danced the way I did in my restaurant years: because the Five-Star Queen herself had also studied Jazz dance, among a host of other styles. (4)
So I don’t know, would you say that Suhaila Salimpour is not a belly dancer?
Here is one of the poor, slain VHS tapes I obsessed over until it gasped out its last:
Once I moved to Colorado and acquired those two videos of Suhaila, that information combined with the only nightclub style belly dance media I’d been able to get my hips on in Minnesota. I didn’t even have email back then, much less YouTube or Amazon. (Right before I left Minnesota, I had also begun killing off a hapless, helpless VHS of Hahbi’Ru, which we’ll cover when we get to the SCA, Renn Fest, and Tribal.)
My initial cabaret collection:
— The one instructional video able to be borrowed from the local public library, Introduction to Belly Dance (6) by the late Kathryn Ferguson. (5)
— One thin, floppy, black-and-white book that endeavored to explain how to Seduce Your Sultan and gain feminine, sexual liberation by describing the belly dance techniques of the 1970s. (Name and author unknown, because it was so unhelpful that I only checked it out once.)
— One oversize book in color, which I had to have sent up from the library in Minneapolis, Serpent of the Nile by Wendy Buonaventura. (1) (The original, not the updated 2010 version.) (2)
— And a National Geographic special about Egypt’s reigning dance queen of the day, Madame Lucy, that I had recorded (also onto VHS). I watched and mimicked that video so many times that it, too, croaked. (7)
This was the result:
Yup, that’s me in college. This shoot was of my dastardly Modern Dance fusion choreography I made for my junior year showcase in college, into which I threaded my new obsession, belly dance.
Scandalous, I know.
I received the evil eye from instructor and fellow student alike for such hooliganry. But what was a dilligent dancer to do? I had been taught that Modern could be slanted toward African, Flamenco, Indian, Classical Greek statues, even good ole-fashioned ho-downs. So I didn’t see the problem…
For many denizens of Dance Academialand, belly dance was considered— at best — “merely” a folk dance, and — at worst — a shocking, sexualized, immoral bastardization to the human body in motion that did not belong on classy stages.
This attitude is one of the many reasons I didn’t continue to offically pursue any of the dance forms I studied in college. Because it broke my heart to have my budding passion and creativity deprecated by such influential mentors and peers, simply because I bared my midriff and moved my hips.
My nearly-nekkid Polynesian dance performance in a strapless tie-top and short hip wrap, as choreographed by my most disapproving professor, hadn’t received a shred of scandal.
But belly dance was…unacceptable.
So into the box of old, favored toys my university training went. Doesn’t mean I ever stopped playing with them.
*ALSO* A BELLY DANCER
At the time of my first big car wreck, I could boast a childhood obsession with dance, six years of cheerleading, a university degree, not nearly enough instruction (not my choice) by the two belly dancers teaching in my hometown, one glorious hour with the illustrious Cassandra while I was destitute in Minneapolis, five gawping years of copying any dancer I could around the campfires of the SCA, the blessed workshops and private lessons I had managed to sporadically scrimp and save up for, an ever-growing collection of killed VHS tapes, and eight years developing my entire dance arsenal into the performance style I brought to the Greek and Moroccan restaurants where I danced 2–4 nights every week.
We’ll spend more time with all those tales, too.
For now, let’s go back to college, since it came first. As a budding Theater Major with an emphasis in performance, I had been highly encouraged to declare Dance as my minor. Aw darn. You can imagine how much they had to twist my arm. I also declared a double-minor of History because…
🥰 History. 🥰
And so, after a lifetime of yearning for dance instruction, I at last enrolled in my first official class: Ballet. Wahooo!
I suck at Ballet.
I’m built for primal rawr and prowess…for the slink and the sultry…for flare and fire. However, Ballet gave me the basics of alignment, line, carriage, stability, and footwork. It gave me classical Western choreographic lingo and an official understanding of setting movement to music in an orderly fashion.
I continued these concepts throughout college, taking Jazz, Tap, Ballroom, Latin Dance, and Square Dance, as well as Anatomy, Kinesiology, Choreography, and Dance History.
Between and amidst these was my longest and most in-depth collegiate training: Modern Dance.
In an alternate universe, this style might have become my life’s passion, if I hadn’t gotten swept up by belly dance, if my dance community at the university hadn’t disparaged my new wayward passion, and if I had learned — not from a teacher whose first love was Ballet — but from a devotee of the original Modern pioneers.
If you know what you’re looking at, you can clearly see all the many roots of my classical Western training in my belly dancing, and especially in the ways I’ve begun allowing myself to dance again in the past 5 years. Now that I’ve taken the shackles fully off and returned to moving any ole way I’m inspired, I find myself delving more and more deeply into these early influences.
Acting out stories and characters, playing with lights, sets and other technologies, dancing in the elements with interactive fountains and other interesting places I discover…all these habits come from my years in the theater and especially from my Modern Dance Muses.
Now that we have YouTube, the precious clips of these great innovators in action are available to anyone with an internet connection. But during my college years, I was only able to view a handful of these clips once during Dance History, or in a quick “this is the pioneer who originated the style we’re exploring next,” so these images aren’t burned into my brain the way my belly dance idols are.
Rather, my Modern Dance inheritance is more visceral.
As I compile the videos for this series of posts about my dance adventures, I am able, for the first time, to geek out over my she-roes in their full glory 100 years later. With each pioneer I re-dive into, I find myself ever more astounded by how deeply their threads run through me. Given the brevity of my Modern Dance training — a little over 2 years — and the fact that I had never been able to transform these video clips into living-room-obsessed VHS over-played garbage, I can only attribute such influence to the way these old souls speak to mine across the ages.
So I don’t know. Was I a belly dancer back then? Was there more Jazz in my dancing than any other style? Those answers are quite subjective, they depend on one’s perspective, and are colored by one’s directive.
I’m simply retrospective.
I honestly don’t care about the answers much anymore. I am so far removed from that lifetime that I have to watch videos, read my journals, and rifle through my gobs of writing to remember a lot of it. (Thanks, Dain Bramage!) The young woman in that December show died on the highway that night. So did parts of the little girl we’ve been exploring for quite a number of posts, and I have Phoenixed again multiple times in the past 2 decades. I’m in ashes once more as I write this, but I’ve begun to blow on the embers of what will emerge in this incarnation.
My old, buried love of Modern and Expressionist Dance is one. Unearthing that topic will require multiple posts of its own.
Up Next: Izzy & Isadora — Duncan, that is. My first Modern Dance she-ro.
In the meanwhile, here’s who I was back at the turn of the century, at my most jazzy, funky & spunky: