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Belly Dance Dinosaur

Belly Dance dinosaurAs printed in WAMEDA magazine:

It was Girls' Night Out and there was a lot to talk about as we waited for our table. Somehow email just isn't the same as face to face. The restaurant had recently been mentioned in our local belly dance magazine and it seemed like the ideal place for my students and I to have our reunion. I hadn't seen them all together in over a year. Once you push your babies out of the nest and they start working, it's hard to collect them all again in one place. And I really needed the break. I also needed to ask them a big favor.

The conversation came around to the touring Belly Dance Superstars. My students were all impressed with the professional Vegas-like quality of the show. The girls were knock-outs and the dance techniques were impressive, as was their Syrian drummer. It was definitely a slick, MTV type production. Then one of my students turned to me and said affectionately "You know, no one dances like you in America any more. The dance has moved on. You are definitely part of the old school." "You mean my style is becoming extinct, that I'm a dinosaur?" "That's it," she laughed. "You're a belly dance dinosaur!" And you know, she was right.

My style originated in the European and Egyptian cabarets of the 1970s and the 1980s, at the height of the oil boom. We would throw in occasional waltz moves or samba steps but never jazz or modern. Certainly not hip hop - it hadn't been invented yet. Michael Jackson's moon walking was the hot move on MTV back then. The main western influence in our Middle Eastern dancing came from Hollywood during the 1930s and 40s, from all those wonderful musicals about showgirls and their guys. Egyptians loved that choreography and incorporated it into many of their musical comedies. Ah, the good old days of Farid el Atrash and Samia Gamal! By the time the 1960s and 70s came along those dance numbers were embedded into the cultural collective of 2 generations of Egyptians. But they still loved their traditional music and dances and considered them the highlight of any raqs al sharqi routine. No 'raqasa' would dare do a show without a beledi number, a cane dance or a drum solo. You'd never get hired again. The entrance piece was nouvelle cuisine but beledi was the meat and potatoes.

When I moved to the US in the early 1990s I had no reason to pay attention to the trends of the mainstream American belly dance community. I worked with a band at an Arabic nightclub and I had my own business, a husband and 3 kids. My priorities and interests were elsewhere. I loved my Egyptian dance and listening to the music reminded me of when I was single without responsibilities. There was no compelling reason for me to change. So I didn't. When I wanted inspiration for something new, I would watch the hundreds of videos I collected from my travels over the years. That was enough. The dance was so rich that I never exhausted its infinite possibilities.

But things and times change, sometimes right before your very eyes and you don't see it happening. You don't see it coming. The first generation of immigrants, who guarded the culture of the 'old country', gave way to the second and third generations who assimilated and forgot the old traditions. The newer generations no longer hire Arabic bands for their weddings. They hire western DJs. Most have stopped hiring a belly dancer all together. 'That's so old fashioned,' or 'That's too risqué, I don't want to offend my family.' So it has fallen to the Westerners to carry on the torch, to all of us fanatics that love the dance for what it is, or what we would like it to be. And we have made it our own. We have added bits and pieces of our American culture to it because that's who we are. But in so doing we have hybridized the dance. We have turned it into something different. We have started changing the gene pool.

Which brings me back to the dinosaurs. Why do we miss them so much? Why do we spend billions of dollars globally to save species on the verge of extinction? Why are governments and private corporations buying up thousands of acres of Amazon forest? To save the gene pool. To protect our 2 billion year old heritage. Evolution is natural, survival of the fittest and all that. But when you're looking for a miracle cure, it's great to be able to check mother nature's complete encyclopedia, without having half the pages torn out. I'm sure that none of us would want to live during the Middle Ages at the height of the bubonic plague. We are all grateful for humanity's accumulated knowledge and advances. And so it is with our dance as well. None of us really wants to live the life of an 18th century Bedouin dancer, sleeping with the animals and the fleas. We're all happy with our cloths washers and our imported costumes from Egypt or Turkey. But what will you do in 5-10 years when you are looking for inspiration to bring back the magic into your dancing? Where will you look for ideas? To other dance forms? Or will you look to the roots of your own dance, to the gene pool of movements that were handed down from generation to generation?

Yes, I am a belly dance dinosaur and proud to be one. I continue to pass on what I have learned, in the same form that the Middle Eastern women I learned from taught it to me. That way the next generation of dancers can take what I do one step further. They can adapt those moves to who they are and make them their own. But learning moves or steps is only half the battle though. The other half is finding that inner spark, that internal conversation with your soul. That's what we love about this dance anyway, that it's about the woman in the dancer and not just the technician. But to find that woman can sometimes take a lifetime of personal evolution.

Ladies night out went on into the wee hours of the morning. Everyone took turns telling funny stories and we laughed so hard our mascara ran. I asked my favor and all the girls agreed. It was for a good cause and they knew it. But even if it hadn't been, they would have agreed anyway. How could they refuse their little purple dinosaur? But that's another story for another day.