|About Belly Dancing||Cardinal Rules of Belly Dancing||About the Book||Q and A|
Now that it looks like I'm going to be hanging around awhile, and, more important, that some of my hanging around is going to take place onstage, I decided it is time to invest in a costume of my own and come up with a “dance name.” The name part is easy for a word nerd like me. After a few evenings of on-line research, I settle on Samira. I don't know of any other Samiras in the area, and the translation feels appropriate--“she who tells stories in the night.” Never content to leave well enough alone, I tack on el-Safi, wishing as I often have that the folks at Ellis Island hadn't been so clumsy when they phoneticized my great-grandfather's name. Safi looks exotic, foreign, mysterious. Soffee just looks funny and begs to be mispronounced as “Sophie.” Oh, well. At least they let him through.
The costume won't be as easy as the name. Two years of middle school home ec notwithstanding, I can't tie a decent knot, much less sew, which leaves homemade costumes out of the question.
To be honest, I am not disappointed about this at all. I know that since I can't sew and I am still intimidated enough by Doris and Tammy and the other Girls in the Corner that I can't very well commission them to design my costume as many of Sheva's girls do. I have only one option left. As the woman herself would say, “it's a sad story, but a true story.” That's right. I'm going to buy a real Egyptian belly dancing costume from Scheherezade.
The good fortune of being home to the country's biggest wholesaler of belly dancing supplies is not lost on the Richmond belly dancing community. We are one of the best-dressed scenes this side of Cairo. Any beginner with a pocketful of U.S. dollars can be the proud owner of a Madame Abla original within weeks of her first shimmy . . . and this is to say nothing of the seasoned dancers, Lucy's troupe mates and traveling companions, who frequently turn up at the Selket haflas in eye-popping painted-on concoctions that are actually stitched on their bodies by Cairo's hottest designers. Pity the poor non-Virginia dancers who must mail-order, or wait for Lucy to vend at a workshop near them. All we have to do is wait for the next Selket show, or one of Lucy's open house sales. And should the need for a Shemadan hit on the odd Tuesday afternoon, one has only to phone ahead for a private visit to Lucy's boutique, conveniently located in the basement of her Rockville home.
By sheer providence,
my costume craving has the good manners to coincide with Lucy's
winter clearance sale. Nadine and I stop at Starbucks to fuel up
for the inevitable feeding frenzy that will occur when a houseful
of belly dancers meets with a tableful of half-priced bedlah. Ignoring
the usual curious stares that her voluminous black cape, stiletto
boots, and Taureg jewelry attract, Nadine selects an adorable teddy
bear from a shelf of tchotchkes and presents it to me as a gift--“for
puttin' up with me an' all; I know I ain't right.”
As we sip our coffee and nibble on brownies at the counter, I glare
back protectively at every passing shopper who does a double-take
at Nadine's attire. I feel empathy for Nadine, surrounded
as she is in class by housewives and office girls. The stares she
gets at Sheva's are worse than the ones I used to get in St.
Anthony's religion class, a lone white city kid in a sea of
buttoned-down Americanized Lebanese. Any thought that the belly
dance community would somehow be more open-minded, more exotic,
more accepting of the alternative runs up against a brick wall when
confronted with the Regis-and-Rosie reality of the average suburban
belly dancer. Ethnically speaking, Nadine's Berber necklaces
run rings around Debbie's rhinestone choker--but somehow the
other dancers perceive Nadine as the odd one out. Go figure.
If other belly dancers think Nadine is odd, I wonder what other Rockvillians think of Lucy. Twenty minutes west of Richmond, as we drive past the Food Lion, the riding tack store, and several tiny farmhouses set back from the road, it strikes me that most of the residents of this quiet little town have no idea what lurks down that dirt road off State Route 771.
We pull up to the front yard of Lucy's house, already crowded with cars sporting plates from Maryland, North Carolina, even Georgia. The swingset on the lawn and the house's homey exterior belie what waits inside. To the tune of Wash ya Wash, dozens of belly dancers sip hibiscus tea, nibble on triangles of pita smeared with baba ghanouj, and shop. Tables laden with bedlah, beledi dresses, veils, and caftans line every wall of the first floor, and the sound of excited chatter can be heard coming from the basement as well. Dancers in various states of undress are running up and down the stairs to the makeshift dressing room on the second floor with armloads of costumes to try and to buy. In the middle of it all, seated at a cluttered telephone table with a receipt pad and a credit card scanner, Lucy directs traffic and racks up the sales.
“There is a veil that goes with that!” She is calling to a tiny redheaded woman who is already halfway up the stairs. “The peach costume, the one with the cutouts--it has a peach veil, a circular one, that got mixed in with the skirts!” Then, to an African American woman directly behind her that I don't know how she sees: “Those harem pants are twenty percent off! Only the lurex ones! Not the chiffon!” The whole time she's supervising and shouting, she is writing up a receipt for three complete costumes, absolutely gorgeous bra and belt sets--one green, one red, and one baby pink--that are being purchased by Vicki, sister of Laura with the grapevine tattoo. “I'm spending my equity,” she says nonchalantly as she makes out a check for eight hundred dollars. In line behind her is an entire troupe from the beach, all buying eighty-dollar flying skirts and matching choli tops. I begin adding figures in my head. The amount of money in just the present line alone is daunting. I immediately begin to wish I was in the belly dancing costume business. The sale from one full costume alone would gross more than I make in a week teaching. It's overwhelming.
I help myself to a cup of hibiscus tea and get down to the business of browsing. I know that the amount of time I have to shop is going to depend largely on Nadine's mental health at any given moment. She doesn't generally do well with crowds, and there are certain dancers who, for reasons that are not entirely clear, make her even more skittish than usual. Then again, there are a couple of dancers--Rosie and Susan, in particular--who have a calming effect on her. There is something to be said for an unshakeable air of blasé serenity. It can be catching. I hope for the best and begin leafing through a table full of Lurex veils.
It occurs to me that I have absolutely no idea what I am looking for--a daunting realization, to say the least. I feel like one of the awestruck newbies we used to get in the tattoo shop. They would stand in the lobby and gape at the hundreds of flash designs on the wall, flummoxed, unable to choose. Inevitably, they would leave with something incredibly ludicrous, instantly regrettable, and altogether permanent etched in their flesh--a dancing carrot, a flying cat, a naked lady straddling a hot dog. I tell myself that I am lucky that bedlah are removable by nature. As if on cue, an Asian girl strolls past wearing a low-cut beaded number the color of a highway cone. I try not to grimace and keep browsing.
I'm able to rule about half of the costumes right out on the “my cup will inevitably runneth over” theory. If I can't fit my closed fist comfortably in a cup, then I'm not going to be able to fit my boob in it, either. This means good-bye for almost all of the silver bras, two red ones, a number of pretty rhinestone ones, and an absolutely eye-popping black one with gold fringe and epaulets. I follow a busty older lady around for about fifteen minutes, hoping she'll put down the gorgeous emerald set she's got draped over her arm, but no luck. After rounding up several videos, a few CDs, and a ghawazee dress, she heads for Lucy's checkout line with the green costume still hanging at her elbow.
Nadine comes up from the basement sporting a metal cage bra with multicolored rhinestones. It's fantastic. It looks like it was made from pieces from a carnival ride--just my style. Of course, I would probably line it with opaque fabric or wear it over something besides my bare skin, which is the look Nadine has chosen, but no matter. Without even trying, I can tell that it won't pass the cup test--and if sequins and fabric are unforgiving, I know a metal cage is not going to offer any give at all. I sigh and go back to the table of costumes, figuring that perhaps a few more have rotated down from the dressing room.
I find a white one that looks to be my size, but I can't even bring myself to try it on. Forget Lebanese; I'm pale for a white girl. Casper the Friendly Belly Dancer isn't exactly the look I'm going for. Carol comes down from the dressing room with an armload of rejects, and I scoop up a red one and a seafoam green one that is saved from being downright annoying by a slightly iridescent sheen that makes it look almost like mermaid scales. I locate the belts that match them and head up the stairs.
In the dressing room, which actually looks to be a guest room, ten or so mostly nude women wriggle in and out of beaded bras, velvet beledi dresses, and sequined gowns. Redheaded Joyce from Lucy's class is inspecting her reflection in the mirror; she is wearing a forest green formfitting dress with strategically placed designs made of sheer netting down the front. Next to her, a woman who appears to be about her age or maybe even older is wriggling into a black bra hung with multicolored strands of beads. I am sick with envy. Such a bra! And it has a belt to match! I want it. Surely she won't actually buy it.
“Ooh, Mary,” says Joyce, shaking her head at the bra. “That is just the tackiest thing I ever saw!”
“I know,” Mary says, peering through her pink-framed glasses at the mirror. She shimmies her shoulders gamely and watches the multicolored fringe sway to and fro. “It's tacky and disgusting, isn't it?”
“Mmmm-hmmm,” Joyce nods, and though I'd like to hope this means I'll get a shot at the bra, it doesn't sound at all like they don't like it. In fact, the tackier they declare it to be, the more it sounds like they absolutely love it. I am learning something very important about belly dancer fashion, I think. Apparently subtlety is not a plus. Fine by me. But too bad I didn't see that tacky bra first.
I slip out of my T-shirt and sports bra and position the red costume bra over my chest. It fits, sort of, but it does absolutely nothing for me. No lift, no push, no va-va-voom. Besides, the cups have a weird elliptical shape to them, sort of crunched down and narrow. My boobs look like a couple of disinterested gravy boats in drag. I take it off quickly. I hoist the green one up and position my boobs inside the cups. It takes a little smooshing, but it fits pretty well. The cups are nice and close together, so there is a forced cleavage thing going on that's pretty flattering, too. I turn sideways and check the profile. Not too bad. This could work. It's a start, I tell myself. Your first costume doesn't have to set any records. Good enough is good enough.
The price for the set, bra and belt together, is $235 on sale. It's quite a deal, considering, but not such a bargain considering the limits imposed by the color. Seafoam green? What color skirt will I need? Baby pink might work, I think, or something in lavender . . . it's not exactly versatile . . . maybe Carol would know? I look around, hoping to see someone like Susan or Vicki, someone safe and familiar who might be willing to tell me what would look really tacky and disgusting with a seafoam fringed bra. I decide to venture downstairs.
Seafoam doesn't know from tacky and disgusting compared to what I see when I step into the hall. A skinny blonde girl is scurrying up the stairs, her lithe form practically swimming in a bedlah that would be three sizes too big for her at least--that is, if bedlah ran in sizes. She is holding the belt together at the side, but there are a good eight inches of overlap to contend with. The cups of the bra are smooshed under her arm, but it's easy to see that beneath the smoosh there is nothing holding them up. It's quite obviously not for her . . . and it's just as obviously for me.
I suppose now would be the time to mention that this costume is multicolored. It doesn't have multicolored fringe like the one Mary is trying on; it doesn't have multicolored rhinestones like Nadine's cage--it's multicolored. Each color of the rainbow, and then some, claims equal space in the color scheme of this bra and belt. It is a red-and-blue-and-green-and-yellow-and-pink-and-purple costume. There is absolutely no dominant color. It is encrusted with sequins and dripping with fringe. It looks like the fair, like rides and sideshows and candy apples and cotton candy all smashed together and made into a bra and belt. It is the tackiest, most disgusting costume in the entire world. I must have it.
I unsubtly block the door and make the girl promise to give me next dibs on the costume before I let her come in to get her clothes. I hover around her as she pulls it off, hopping expectantly in my sock feet and underwear. I know I look like a total freak, but I don't care. I absolutely have to have that costume. Wrapping the belt around my hips, I'm met with roughly five inches of extra belt, but that's fixable; even a nonsewing dancer like myself knows that too much can be fixed much more easily than too little. Then the moment of truth. Wriggling my arms into the straps, I give a quick shrug and a shimmy to adjust my boobs in the cups. They fit with a little extra jiggling room--nothing a couple of push-up pads won't fix, and that's something I can do with mere safety pins. Reaching around back, I feel for the clasps. Again, we've got some overlap, but it's nothing a little altering can't cure. I resolve to get over my fear of Doris within the week. This costume makes me feel like the queen of the midway. All I need is a canvas banner.
“Well, I declare! If that isn't the tackiest thing I ever saw.” Mary has her hand to her forehead like my costume hurts her to look at. She turns her head as if she's seen something disturbing. I am ecstatic.
Joyce crosses her arms and makes a tsking sound. “That thing is just a terrible eyesore.” She shakes her head from side to side. “Look at all those colors.” I turn around, once, twice, beaming in my gaudy armor. “You're not actually going to buy that awful thing, are you?”
I nod, grinning like an idiot. This costume isn't even on sale; it's one of the new ones. I don't care. I have to have it.
“Well, phoo,” she says, scooping up the green cutout dress and stamping her foot. “You think of me if you ever decide to sell it!”
“And you leave it to me in your will when you do get it,” Mary tells Joyce. “Along with your orange one and that one with the taxicabs on it.” Taxicabs? Mary and Joyce, climbing back into their unassuming slacks and sweaters, look like two soignee grandmothers on their way to Miss Morton's Tea Room for cucumber sandwiches. It's hard to picture either of them shimmying the night away in a taxicab bedlah. I wonder how many times I've been sitting right next to a belly dancer and didn't even know it? My dental hygienist could be a belly dancer. My third-grade teacher. The nice lady I always see at World Cup doing crosswords. And me. There's not a keyhole-shaped doorway or a low table in sight, but I don't mind. I think these ladies could hold their own with Nejla just fine.
I have to admire myself in the rainbow bedlah just a little more before I take it off. In Lucy's guest room mirror, I look absolutely ridiculous, in this too-big rainbow contraption, my cotton underpants, and cat's-eye glasses. But I feel fantastic. I feel like a glamorous and yet slightly seedy carnival midway dancer, decked out to rival the Flying Bobs just outside the tent. I feel like Little Egypt, not the real one from way, way back but the one from the Coasters song, with a ruby on her tummy and a diamond as big as Texas on her toe. I beam at my reflection. Now all I need is a picture of a cowboy tattooed on my spine saying “Phoenix, Arizona, 1949” and I'll be loaded for bear. I practically skip downstairs to give Lucy my check for four hundred dollars. It's more than my rent, but I consider it an investment in my future happiness--and it's already paying off in spades.
“That's it, that's it, you're perfect. Now lift your arm just a little.” I am standing in front of a pale purple canvas backdrop beneath an array of lights and reflective umbrellas. Several enormous graduation and wedding portraits loom on the opposite wall, where Nadine is standing and chomping on her fingers as she waits her turn. We are here at the portrait studio in Chesterfield Towne Center Mall having our publicity portraits done. Stan the photographer had been recruited to do the on-location shots at Sheva's show, and, sensing a good thing when he saw it, offered a special deal to any of Sheva's students who stopped by the studio on this particular evening for more “formal” shots--in other words, shots taken not with a line of edgy belly dancers tapping their feet behind you and eleven minutes until your next costume change. It sounded like a winner to me, so I packed up my new costume and headed to the mall--and here I am now, posing my little heart out.
“Flip your hair off your shoulder. There you go. That's it.” Debbie jumps into frame long enough to straighten the fingers on my right hand and fluff my hip scarves out a little. Thank God for Debbie or I would be standing here like I was posing for my driver's license photo. Every pose I've struck has been her idea. Debbie has already posed for her shots; Nadine is going to go after me. While Stan is snapping away, Lexie arrives with an armload of costume changes as well. There are enough of us here to feel like an event, but not enough to necessitate rushing--a perfect turnout.
As he snaps, Stan tells us how much more interesting we are than his usual subjects--babies, graduates, and prize-winning show dogs. He clicks a few frames and tells us he never wanted to be a studio photographer. Click. Click. He mentions an ex-wife who left him heavily in debt after running off with another woman. Click. They had a pineapple farm in Hawaii, but it was in her name; he was unceremoniously given a plane ticket to the mainland and left with the clothes on his back. Click. Click. Click. Perhaps we'd heard of her. She's a moderately famous television actress. Click. I grow more uncomfortable with each detail. After years of AA meetings, you'd think I would have gotten over “too much information anxiety,” but other people's details still make me antsy. Debbie has to snap her fingers several times to remind me to smile; my expression is leaning more toward something between a flinch and an eye roll.
Once my turn is mercifully over, I retire to the makeup table in the corner of the room to remove the dangling beaded earrings that have been driving me batshit ever since I put them on. The mercy is short-lived, though, because Stan follows me to the table to finish telling me about his ex-wife and the pineapple farm. I nod absently as I unclip the earrings, unclasp the beaded necklace, wrest the dozens of too-small gold dime-store bangles from my arms. Nadine flits nervously behind me, peering over my shoulder into the makeup mirror, smudging her kohl-smudged eyes still further with a twitching fingertip. And Stan keeps on talking.
“You know,” he says, and his voice somehow sounds even creepier than it already sounded, “I know this probably isn't the traditional way, you know, the way it's done, over in Egypt or wherever, but I think some shots without the top would look very exotic.”
Nadine about pokes her own eye out. I give Stan what I hope is a Miss Manners–style “I beg your pardon” look in the makeup mirror, but he keeps on.
“I mean, they wouldn't be explicit or anything. You could kind of put your arm across in front of you, or your hair or something, and it would be suggestive but not crude. It really would be very artistic, I think. You should consider it.”
“I don't think,” I say, measuring my words carefully, “that I would be interested in posing for any pictures of that type.” Then, politely, if not a wee bit sarcastically, “but thank you very much for the offer.” Nadine turns her head and snickers into the corner of her veil, but the tone is lost on Stan.
“Well, let me know if you change your mind. I'd love to do those shots.”
“Sure ya would,” Nadine mutters into her veil.
I roll my eyes and zip my jewelry into my makeup bag. Only when it's too late do I remember the retort I once heard offered as a comeback for the ill-informed “do you strip” question--“As much as I paid for this costume, and you want me to take it off?”
“Well, either you can tell Sheva or I can tell her.” In the Corner of the Room at Sheva's class on Monday, beneath the doom tek tek of Dr. Mendez's doumbek and the wail of Sheva's scratchy old records, I am shocked at Susan's patently unblasé reaction to my snickering reportage of Stan's proposition. I had hoped for a wry comment, a commiseration along the lines of “the nerve of him”--but what I didn't expect was a direct order to do something that I know is going to stir up no end of trouble.
“I'm sure he didn't mean anything by it,” I hedge, wishing I had kept my mouth shut. “And he did ask politely. He wasn't pushy about it.”
“But the point is that he asked,” she insists, her green eyes flashing. “He wouldn't ask a ballet dancer to take her tutu off. He wouldn't ask a flamenco dancer to show him her maracas. I'm just sick of it. Assholes like him need to get it through their fat heads that belly dancers aren't strippers.”
I lay my fat head on the table and wonder how I'm going to get myself out of this one. As annoyed as I was at Stan's proposition, I hardly think it warrants ratting him out to Sheva, which will almost certainly cost him his gig with her. So he's a little letchy. At least he was polite about it. Maybe if I put it off, Susan will forget about it.
“I'll talk to her,” I sigh. “I'll talk to her next week.”
“You'll talk to her right now.” So much for that brilliant plan. Boy, do I not want to talk to Sheva about this right now. Boy, do I not want to talk to Sheva about this ever--but especially not right now, after Susan's reaction. I lift my head and look pleadingly at Susan.
“At least let me wait until I pick up my prints. I don't wanna have to go in there and face him after Sheva gets through with him!”
Susan narrows her eyes at me and shrugs. “OK, fine. But if you haven't told her by Monday, I'm telling her.” She wiggles her fingers into the black elastic bands on her zils and stands up. As Sheva cranks up a crackly George Abdo chiftetelli number, Susan slams her zils rapid-fire about an inch from my left ear.
Tek a-tek-a-tek tek tek tek!
Raising her arms high above her head, she slides her head, first to the left, then the right, then left-right-left and glares at me one last time.
“And don't think I'm going to forget, because I'm not.”
Tek tek tek! She dances off to the far side of the room, shimmying her hips defiantly all the way. Just in case I didn't know I was screwed. I lay my head back down on the table and groan. Doom tek tek indeed.
“OK, remember. Don't say anything about the topless pictures.” I am already regretting my decision to bring Karen along to pick up my prints. Keeping her mouth shut is not her forte. But she promises anyway, and as we hurry through the mall toward the photo studio, my excitement about seeing my pictures grows.
I've always hated having my picture taken. From school portraits to candid shots snapped at parties and clubs, I always end up looking puffier than I want, my hair stringier, the circles under my eyes darker. Even the pictures we posed for after the show at the fair were a huge disappointment. Sure, I had a gorgeous costume on, my veil was pretty, my eyes heavily painted, but I winced when I saw them nonetheless. My stomach was too pale, my jawline too soft. Really the only thing I liked about them was the creepy painted sideshow banner that Nadine and I had trekked across the midway to pose underneath. “Alive! Why?”
For all Stan's poor judgment, he had tried hard to get some good shots of me, and it looked like he did. When he let me check them out on the digital screen after he took them, they looked glamorous and professional. My hair was shiny and full, my skin glowed, my expression was sultry. I hardly recognized myself. My gratitude at his sincere and succesful effort at making me look like a glamorous belly dancer was the main reason I was hoping Susan would end up letting the topless incident slide. Besides, I might need more pictures someday. I didn't buy all that many prints, after all.
At the studio, Karen busies herself leafing through albums of wedding photos while the girl fetches my prints. Stan is, fortunately, out on a job. I look around at the photos on the walls, mostly brides, mostly younger than I, in blindingly white wedding gowns and flowing chiffon veils. I push down feelings of envy, of loneliness, of that-will-never-be-me. I was never the type of girly girl who planned elaborate wedding costumes in her head, but at the same time I had just assumed that one day Chris and I would be married. It felt inevitable. Now, though, I know that nothing is inevitable and that the unexpected can be counted on to happen when you least expect it. After all, look at me. I'm a belly dancer. Besides, I tell myself, my veil is cooler. The girl comes out of the back room and hands me a large manila envelope, which I eagerly tear into with Karen peering over my shoulder.
The pictures are just as gorgeous as they were on the digital screen. My hair shines a deep reddish brown, my sequins sparkle, my fringe glimmers. Against the pale backdrop, my skin has a golden glow, fair but not unattractively so. I look self-assured and graceful. I also look . . . skinny.
I hold the pictures closer, examining them against my memory of the screen the night we took them, and my memory of the body I see in the mirror every morning before I get dressed. The pooch that I am so proud of, my tiny belly dancer dome that means I've been practicing my undulations, is gone. In its place is a concave nothingness, a lack where there was once a perfect belly dancer tummy. You can almost see where it used to be. There isn't even a navel; like a Barbie doll, I have nothing but smooth, flat nothingness from my bra to my belt. My chest, already impressive, looks obscene with nothing below to balance it. I look like I am about to topple forward. My mouth is hanging open as I drop the pictures on the desk. I feel like I've been robbed.
“What's the matter?” The girl behind the desk is baffled.
“These pictures. They've been retouched.” I'm stunned. Did he think he was doing me a favor? Propositions are one thing, but stealing a belly dancer's belly is another entirely. That rat.
“No, they haven't.” She speaks with conviction. Tapping the receipt, she shakes her head emphatically. “There's no kind of note on here about retouching them. We only do that if you ask us to.”
“Well, I didn't ask you to, and you did.” It only adds to the insult that, other than my missing belly, the pictures are fantastic. My first good pictures ever, and someone--albeit an oily, lecherous someone--deemed me fat enough to warrant unauthorized retouching.
“Maybe it's the lighting,” she offers obtusely. “Sometimes different lighting will make you look bigger or smaller.”
I have just about had it with this little mall bunny and her defense of these obviously retouched prints. I lean in close and glare in what I hope is a threatening manner. “Do I need to show you my stomach right now so that you can see that this is not what it looks like?”
She steps back, looking nervously at me and Karen, obviously dangerous, unpredictable city girls who have come out to the suburbs to cause trouble in her safe little mall. “Um, no, we do offer a guarantee on our work, and if, ah, if you feel the prints are not what you wanted, we can redo them.” She pulls a yellow Post-it note from a pad by the register and sticks it to the receipt. I watch carefully as she writes, in big loopy mall-bunny handwriting, sneaking looks at me nervously in between words:“Stan: Customer is v/upset that you removed her belly! Please reprint from original shots--do not retouch--OK!
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