Monday, 21 January 2013

Backbends and Bellygrams

There was only one place to hide - a narrow cupboard in the corner. The problem was that it had a slatted wooden door, so if I moved I’d be seen. It was cramped too, but I had no choice. I climbed in quickly and shut the door behind me before I could be discovered.

Then I heard voices. There were four of them. The boss (a man I had only seen once, but who, I could tell, was strong and powerful) and his three employees. The big man entered first, the others followed, quiet and subdued.

When the big man spoke he was clearly angry. His rage was controlled, held in check, but anyone could tell there was trouble ahead for his three shaken colleagues. He started to berate them. Told them how they’d messed up, how they’d lost him money and credibility. One was in hotter water than the others and, with a cold voice, the boss outlined how, while the target of his wrath had been away, the job had gone dreadfully, terribly wrong.

The man being accused was clearly shaken. It was sounding bad.

The big man’s invective was coming to a head. “To see what I mean, JUST LISTEN TO THIS!!!” He pressed a button. The room filled with bellydance music. I leapt out of the cupboard, headed for the man on the far left and started to gyrate and shimmy, before dropping down to the floor and writhing in front of the shocked employee.

It was the man's birthday. And I was the surprise. Thank goodness he was young or I think we could have been calling an ambulance!

The place was an advertising agency in Covent Garden, the year was 1982 and I’d been booked as a bellygram. Singing telegrams and strippergrams were all the rage at the time: out of work actors dressed as police officers, nuns or gorillas would appear out of the blue and proceed to sing or strip to embarrass a birthday boy or girl. As far as I knew, I was the only bellygram in London. I would climb on to my motorbike (dressed head to toe in black leather if you’re asking…) and ride off to a venue somewhere in London where I would find a place to change secretly. At the appointed time I’d burst into the restaurant or bar, place my Sony Walkman on the floor or table and proceed to dance and undulate around the victim. I did a mean backbend and some pretty sultry floor work in those days too.

I remember changing in a freezing outside toilet in a slightly dangerous looking pub in the Old Kent Road, directing the heat of the hand-dryer onto my icy body before parting the crowds in the public bar. I jumped up on tables in restaurants, shimmying my way through the plates and glasses. And I got up on the antique polished desk of the manager of The Who, went down into a backbend and laid myself out in front of him, while his laughing staff looked on.

Yesterday, on Facebook, someone asked me what I thought about bellydancers who advertise themselves as exotic dancers and perform in nightclubs alongside pole dancers or strippers.  The questioner pointed out that, by doing so, they are perpetuating the perception of bellydance as a sleazy activity, rather than a serious dance form. I think it’s a fascinating question and one that goes right to the heart of how bellydance is viewed.

These days most professional bellydancers want to be seen as serious dancers - as artists. They want people to understand that bellydance is an ancient dance form with its roots in the folk culture of the Middle East. That it's a richly textured and challenging dance which deserves to have a place alongside Western mainstream styles such as jazz or hip hop. And I’m one of them. I want bellydance to be appreciated by a far wider public as the beautiful, rich and fascinating dance form that it is. I want to hold my head up high amongst the ballet and West End dancers and choreographers and I want aspiring bellydance professionals to undergo the type of tough physical training that those dancers have always expected, so that we can be the very best performers possible.

So, in the light of the question I was asked yesterday, I look back at that 24 year old girl, undulating on the floor in front of a shocked advertising executive and I wonder what I think of her.

Well, firstly I have to say that I was just doing what I had seen Syrian and Palestinian dancers doing in the Arab nightclubs in London (see blog post here). In those performances there was a lot of jumping up in the air and dropping to the floor to shiver and undulate. And in front of a large crowd of Arab men too. Men who would most certainly have assumed those dancers were prostitutes.

Those of us who bellydance in the West have to accept that in the Arab world, bellydancers are considered to be prostitutes. And truthfully, many of them are. At the very least, they are behaving in a way that is far outside social norms. Bellydance has never been something that nice Arabic girls do in public. It’s true that Arab girls absolutely love to dance and will almost certainly dance at home with their female friends. But in public? No. If a Muslim woman dances in public in front of of a mixed audience she is believed to be the very worst kind of woman. And in countries like Egypt, professional bellydancers have to live with the shame of knowing that what they do is considered wicked by the majority of society.

So in trying to promote bellydance as a high art, we in the West are being revisionist. We are trying to create a bellydance culture that feels acceptable to us, that we can be proud of. There is nothing wrong with trying to change the way that bellydance is viewed, but we can’t hide from the fact that ‘exotic dancer’ is exactly what bellydancers traditionally were.

I also have to look back at my younger self and admit that I was fascinated by the sexual sub-culture of London. I was thrilled to be part of it, to walk around Soho at night and feel that, as a bellydancer I belonged to that dark, slightly dangerous underworld. I’ve always loved the ‘other’ in society - the exotic, the experimental, the people who push at the boundaries.

Of course in a perfect world I’d also love bellydance to be accepted by mainstream society, for people not to look down on the dance I make my living from. But I also rather like the fact that when I say I’m a bellydancer I know I’m immediately interesting to most people. I’m different and, yes, exotic. And I know that many of my students feel the same. It’s a giggle to tell people at drinks parties that you are a bellydancer.

Indeed, I’m prepared to guess that for many of us in the West, the exoticism and slightly risqué reputation is one of the things that drew us to bellydance in the first place. There’s something excitingly naughty for many women in learning to bellydance and I think we should accept that. Even embrace it.

That doesn’t mean of course, that we can’t disapprove of certain things. It’s everyone’s prerogative to dislike and, yes, disapprove. Personally I don’t like heavily sexualised bellydancing. I don't like seeing loads of chest bumps in a dance and I can’t abide a pouty face or a floor hump. And don't get me started on the dancers who shake their breasts or backsides in men's faces! But even if I don't like it, I don’t want to shut that dancing down, just as I don’t want to stop ‘commercial’ R & B dancing on music videos, even though I personally dislike it. Instead I want to create something that in my mind is ‘better’ and put it out there in the hope that people will love it and choose it over the other.

And I have to admit that I did my fair share of ‘floor humping’ in the past. Not least on that beautiful polished antique desk, behind which sat The Who’s manager. I’d jumped up there because I’d never seen anyone look quite so bored with my performance as Bill Curbishley did that day. I suppose when you’re the manager of The Who it’s hard to be impressed and I would imagine you get to see an awful lot of semi-naked young women in the course of your job. But his staff had paid for me as a birthday treat for him, and were now crowded in the doorway, excitedly watching me dance.

I leapt up on the desk, did a full backbend and then descended slowly down onto my knees and then my back in front of him. I undulated, I belly rolled, I fluttered. I was 24 years old, I was in great shape, I was dressed in very little and I knew I looked amazing. Surely I’d get a reaction from him now!

He looked down, held my eye, took his cigar out of his mouth. And said: “Mind the desk love.”

Oh well, you can’t win them all.

Thursday, 3 January 2013

Teaching my first bellydance class

It was frosty the day after the village cabaret (read about it here) and the hedgerows were white as Paul and I walked down the lane. The pub and church looked like they belonged on a Christmas card, standing bright and clear in the cold morning air. Like the houses in the village the church and pub are Victorian pretty. The hall on the other hand is as dull and utilitarian as a 20th century building could be. It squats across the road from its characterful cousins, low, brick-built and deeply, boringly rectangular.
Peer in through the windows and you’ll see scuffed wooden floors and the shabby little stage. But those floors are scuffed from decades of chairs pushed back after warm-hearted village lunches and lively Harvest Suppers, the participants full of good, home cooked food and copious quantities of wine.

Alcohol is rather a feature of the social life here in Markbeech. At the annual Royal British Legion dinner, where the older men of the village reputedly get plastered and tell stories of past glory, legend has it that Sir Robin Leigh Pemberton, then Governor of the Bank of England and that year’s keynote speaker, found one of the revellers in a ditch after dinner and had to pull him out before he could get into his chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce and head off home!

The lock to the front door of the village hall is tricky. There’s a knack to it that I’ve never quite mastered, but there’s always a lovely rush of warm air as the handle finally turns and you walk into the entrance hall. Warm because of the village nursery school held there every weekday. And because the view is held that it’s cheaper to leave the heating on constant rather than try and reheat such a big space from scratch every day. But there’s also the warmth of memories. Memories of happy evenings with friends.

There’s such a sense of community history when you enter a place like this. Markbeech villagers have been putting on shows and celebrating the signposts of the year in this hall for several generations. Stories are still told of the shows staged here by long-dead villagers before and during the second world war. When we arrived (aged 40 and 50 respectively) Paul and I were considered youngsters and the generation just above us were responsible for the parties and events. As a result the dress code was often dinner jackets and evening dress, yet there was an air of post-war austerity about meal choices and ticket pricing.

Ten years ago our age group started to take over proceedings and things changed a little. Meals got a bit fancier, more music was introduced, dress became more casual. And recently a lively younger team have started to introduce canapés and sparkling wine before dinner - a sign of the greater affluence of the generation who grew up in the 80s.

That morning Paul and I walked into a busy scene as friends cleared up the hall after the cabaret. Andro was up a ladder taking down the silver stars, Pam from next door was sweeping the floor. Serving dishes were being gathered to redistribute to their rightful owners, rubbish bags were piled high before being taken outside.

All the talk was of the success of the night before. Those of us who had performed were still high on adrenaline and audience members were full of excitement and praise. Of course people wanted to know where I learned to bellydance and so I told them a little of my story - how I had trained to be a dancer then had fallen in love with bellydance in a London nightclub in 1982 (see here).

When a group of women discover I’m a bellydancer there is always at least one person who will try out a bit of a wriggle, one who will say they’ve certainly got the belly for it, and invariably someone who will ask how you do it. On this morning there was a group of five or six women, ranging in age from around 40 to mid seventies. All were upper class, all beautifully spoken. And yes, like so many woman, they wanted to know how I did the wriggling.

Now, although I was originally self-taught, many years before I had been to classes with Jacqueline Chapman - one of the first bellydance teachers in London. A seemingly rather prim lady but with a penchant for dressing up in full performance costume to teach, Jacqueline has a killer way of teaching one of the key moves in bellydance. It’s called a figure of eight and it’s a smooth twisting movement in the hips.

Jacqueline tells her students to imagine they have a pencil where you’d never think a lady would tell you to have a pencil… She then instructs you to squeeze it and lift it up. In doing so, she’s getting you to lift the pelvic floor and thereby engage the core stability muscles. It also helps the posture; but most importantly Jacqueline then tells you to imagine drawing shapes, in particular circles and figures of 8, with that imaginary pencil.

It is a brilliant way of enabling women to visualise the movement. I’ve known bellydance teachers try to break down a figure of eight by showing a twist in the waist, then a transfer of weight followed by a half circle backwards with one hip, a twist in the opposite direction another transfer of weight and a half circle with the other hip. And I always think “Oh for goodness sake! Just teach them the bloody pencil technique!”

On this particular morning, Paul remembers a line of women of varying ages standing in front of me, one or two still holding brooms. He saw me lean towards them and whisper confidentially. Then he saw smiles start to spread across their faces, which grew into giggles and then outright laughter. My husband knew exactly what I was telling them.

He also says he had a sense of the men in the hall being excluded from a wonderful feminine secret. That there was something the women were about to do and enjoy that he could never be part of.

Andro remembers being high up on the ladder, looking down on the scene as we started to move. Me showing the women how to make the figure of eight. The line of women copying. And them laughing and exclaiming and laughing some more. I showed them how to shimmy their hips by moving their knees, how to roll their shoulders. And finally how to shimmy their shoulders by shaking them gently.

Now there are some bellydance teachers who don’t like to admit that this dance is in any way sexy. No they say, it’s a folk dance, a cultural dance from a Muslim part of the world (as indeed it is) and there should be nothing sexual about it. They say, for example, that women should never touch their own bodies when they dance (not even a hand on the hip) and they insist that when executing a shoulder shimmy the breasts should not move.

Excuse me people, if you're a woman how do you shake your shoulders without your breasts moving? It’s impossible to do it without the girls going too! They’re in the same region for goodness sake. OK maybe a bit lower now than they were when you were twenty, but even so! I've heard famous Egyptian teachers call it a breast shimmy and what's good enough for them is good enough for me.

So there they were, that beautiful winter morning, my lovely Markbeech ladies. Elegant, cultured, well bred. Standing in a line in front of me in our little village hall. Wriggling their hips and shaking their breasts.

And laughing and loving it.