A few days ago, someone made a comment on an old blog post I wrote three years ago. The post was about the two very different worlds of bellydance – the world seen by the general public in venues such as restaurants and the world inhabited by the bellydance community, including bellydance students.
As I re-read it, I was struck that I had written it a week before the very first rehearsal with the founding members of Company of Dreams! It explains a lot about my motivations for starting on the journey that has taken us to where we are today, so I thought it would be interesting to reproduce it here….
Blog post from 19 February 2013
I think ours is a schizophrenic dance form. Bellydancing exists, I would argue, in two very different worlds. On the one hand we have the world of dance classes and haflas. A primarily female world, it’s one where we learn about the fascinating dance and culture of the middle east. It’s a world where it doesn’t matter what age or what dress size you are, and where women are encouraged and supported and recognised as beautiful and special.
In this world, haflas and showcases give us the opportunity to perform a wide variety of styles grouped under the general banner of bellydancing. We dance baladi, saidi, khaleeji, sharqi. We whip out a stick or a set of wings, set the audience alight with a drum solo, or move them to tears with an Om Khalsoum number. We experiment with fusion: tribal, gothic, hip hop or samba. Or keep it pure, with none so pure as Egyptian.
It’s wonderful participating in these events. Our audiences are wildly appreciative. They whoop and zhagareet and clap along at the drop of a hip. Forgiving us when we go wrong, not caring about our age or our stretch marks. Every clever belly trick, every quivering shimmy, is recognised and applauded. We are given space and time and attention.
A harsher world
Then there’s the other world. The world of the restaurant dancer. A world that (with a few notable exceptions) only the young, beautiful and slender may enter. A world where we have to dance whilst squeezing between tables, trying to avoid waiters and taking care not to step on broken glass or spilled humous. This is a world where the (mixed) audience cares not a jot for the authenticity of our performance, they just want to look at the pretty girl in the sparkly costume. Sadly, a few of them really wish we weren’t there and some just can’t bear to watch, especially when we get up close.
And, however appreciative the audience at a restaurant, in most cases we are never able to properly dance. There will only be space for a bit of undulating, a few isolations and pops and of course, some of our very best shimmying. Our job is to create a party atmosphere. A taste of the exotic. And, in most cases, to get up close and personal with the punters.
Maybe it’s my age, maybe it’s because I’ve just been around too long; but I find myself increasingly uncomfortable when I’m in a small space and a dancer’s naked flesh is very close. I don’t think I’m a prude and I love the sight of a beautiful body, male or female. But the tight layout of many restaurants means that at times I find my eyes just a bit too close to a bouncing pair of partially covered breasts for comfort. I know that many men really don’t know where to look when a bellydancer comes up to their table. And actually I understand how they feel. I can imagine that for some men it might sometimes feel a little too near to lap dancing.
I’m sure that one of the reasons bellydance isn’t taken seriously as an art form is that most people only see a bellydancer in a restaurant setting. Where she can’t dance properly and where the flesh on show is not only close, but is highlighted by the costuming and by those few movements we have at our disposal. A bellydance bra really pushes the breasts up high. And then we do a chest bump! What’s a man to think? That it’s art?
But! Restaurant bellydancing is great! People love it. Most diners in a Middle Eastern restaurant really enjoy seeing a bellydancer – she’s exotic, she’s lively and she lifts the atmosphere wonderfully. People often ring me to book my gorgeous friend and colleague Chantel Phillips (photo below and above) to dance at an event. “She’s amazing”, they say, “we saw her dance at a restaurant and she was incredible!”
Because, of course, restaurants not only offer bellydancers regular income, but they’re also a public showcase. They are the only venues a professional bellydancer can perform for the general public and be paid too!
But we’re caught in a vicious circle. Our only public platform doesn’t enable us to dance properly. So we’re not taken seriously. Here in the West, no-one outside the world of haflas and monthly showcases sees our ‘real’ dancing, so no mainstream promoter is ever going to put on a bellydance show. And so the circle winds round and binds us in to the chest bumps and the belly pops and the association with pole dancing or worse.
How can we move beyond this?
I just wish that there were other opportunities for professional dancers to perform. In spaces where we can really stretch our legs and showcase our dance skills. And that’s why all my energies are currently channelled into trying to create a new bellydance style for the big stage. A style to thrill the general public and keep them coming back for more. A style to capture the attention of journalists and mainstream promoters. A style with drama and excitement and big ideas. Bellydance for the future.
I’ve started work on my dream properly now. In January I started to develop my new way of dancing in my Project Lift Off classes in London. We used far more drama, more dynamic range, greater extension in our movements – leg kicks, jumps, dramatic floorwork. My Extreme Bellydance classes are part of it too, of experimenting with different ways of moving – incorporating exciting footwork, jumps, leaps and spins. And the exploratory process will continue throughout the coming year, in all my classes in London and Croydon.
And, most excitingly, I’ve gathered together a small company of six superb full-time professional dancers who will be exploring the future with me. We start this Friday, working experimentally to create something that we hope will be really amazing. And we’re giving ourselves a year to create a show to thrill.
We premiere the show next January at the Cockpit Theatre in London and we are beyond excited about it. We believe it’s the future. That we can move bellydance forward and create new opportunities for dancers and new experiences for audiences.
Whatever happens, it’s the start of an exhilarating journey! Maybe to a different bellydance world…
Back to 2016. And look where we are now – about to have the London premiere of our latest production at Sadler’s Wells!