The Blog on Belly Dance NY

Stella speaks. After nearly nine years I let you know what I think about just about everything. Especially what I think about matters concerning dance orientale or belly dancing or whatever name you prefer. Oh, and for those of you new to Blog reading, things are backwards--subjects may begin in previous entries and be continued in a newer entry placed above. I'll ultimately collect subjects and post them with correct continuity

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Name:Stella Grey
Location:New York, NY

Sunday, March 06, 2005

This entry has been sitting on the virtual desktop gathering hyperdust while I've debated the merits of posting it. It's a harsh little essay and deliberately too broad. I've been cautioned by one informed reader that publishing it could lose me more good-will than the gratification I might get from howling in the dark would be worth. But the more I read my email the more I want to post it. So if you don't like me anymore, reader, well, so be it. If you are moved to argue with me, hey, that would be great. Please act like a woman and do your arguing as a response to the Blog entry on here the Blog so others can think about it. There's a link below each entry for you to do just that.

The business of Art disgusts me. The idea of buying, for example, a drawing just because someone else says it is going to appreciate in value is revolting. Warehousing artworks against future sale, likewise. I'm the kind of flaming romantic who knows soul-deep that the point of making art is in the making of it. Selling it is something else altogether. For me, art, creation, is about the doing not about the payoff. If something you make or do is good in your own eyes that should be enough. In the performing arts including dance the performance is the final stage in the realization of a personal vision. I also know there is a drive to perform or to have one's creation or skill or physicality seen or heard and in some way acknowledged. My personal model for performance is the chamber group where people come together to play music. They play standards; they play their own compositions. They play jazz, classical, rock, folk, or any other kind of music. Their aim is simply to play and to play as well as they can. Perhaps they polish work to offer to an audience or perhaps they don't. The joy is in the playing.

Or in the dancing. I've been watching the joy being cut out of belly dancing as a combination of opportunistic commercial interests and bloated egos have seized upon it for their own ends. To me as a longtime observer and dancer these alterations appear to be largely destructive. And worse yet, the disease which has infected our dance is but a local flare-up of larger social ills. It was from this position that the over-idealized description of performance in the last paragraph and bile of the following ones come.

Something has gone abysmally wrong in belly dance world. As I see it lot of the current toxiciness has to do with belly dancers thinking we're entitled to a special pay-off. Too many of us have been running around the dance peeking under chairs and pulling up rugs convinced that if only we can happen on the right spot there's going to be a nice pile of cash there waiting for us to sweep up. And laying there on the dust along side the cash will be heaps of adoration emanating from unknown but awed masses. Oh, that we might hit on the right formula for then surely we shall garner not only pots of lovely money but sweet helpings of intangibles like love and fame or celebrity or our pictures on the cover of the Rolling Stone.

Pardon me, but neither this dance form nor any art is about getting rich and famous. Admittedly, rich sounds nice: Money affords those who have it the possibility of time, choice and independent action. While time and choice and independence do not guarantee happiness they do improve the odds of experiencing it. But money on its own is not the answer. As for famous, well, that's a crock of dung. Didn't your parents love you enough, leaving miserable little you starving for affirmation from strangers? Aw, poor baby...Tell your shrink; don't take it out on the dance.

Art is about love. Art is about passion. Art is personal. Art is something a person does because that person must do it or die. If an artist is talented perhaps the work will be shared. Or perhaps it won't. So what? The crucial element is the act of creation, a single moment in which we humans approach the Divine. And please note: the formal arts are by no means our sole access to such moments. What art isn't about is getting paid or being on television. Getting paid and/or being on television are potential secondary goods (if being on tv can be called a good of any kind) that may occur as a result of artistic achievement. Those are not and should never be our primary goals.

Yet somehow money and celebrity have become far more important than doing something for the love of doing it. The belly press and the internet are full of self-proclaimed celebs, stars in the heavens of their own minds, advertising the fabulousness of themselves and their unique visions of the dance or busily mailing out notices of their exciting upcoming appearances. Women with day jobs are knifing each other over $75 a week for wonder of dancing in front of audiences who care mainly about cleavage if they're aware of anything beyond the plate of food in front of them.

And what's even more pitiful is that too many women entering the dance become socialized to value paid performance as the height of attainment. Under that scheme there is an invariable and inevitable progression from student to professional in which the avowed hobbyist is considered less worthy than the aspiring pro. Pardon me, but this is a damn stupid bucket of crap.

Bring back the love!

So there you have it, the suppressed entry. I know Im being over general and I know this is a fast once-over on several complex topics. From now on topics will be smaller and much more tightly focused.

Thank you for your patience.

Saturday, November 27, 2004


Well, hasn't it been a long time since this Blog had anything new on it. The last entry seemed to have been well received, at least by those of you who spoke to me about it. There were some demurrers at the narrowness of my definitions of the dance, especially about the validity of group choreography but at least (I hope) I got you thinking This piece is being written on an Amtrak train between Boston and New York so no prolonged meditations. Trains are a guaranteed soporific for me, all that lovely rumbling and rocking is like a cross between a loud giant cat and and probably a womb. Good soothing stuff.

So here's today's not quite news with plenty of opinion. Last weekend a buddy and I trooped out to Flushing for the Bellydance Superstars and Desert Roses "Sensuality in Motion" show. I wanted to see what the fuss was about so even though Queens College is a nasty schlep away (I used to teach out there: it took an hour and fifteen minutes on foot, subway, and bus at rush hour and about an hour and forty-five minutes off peak) we went.

We were not in a bad mood when we got there. A little spooked perhaps because of the ghost we saw on our way to the theater but for us pretty mellow. About the ghost: we both saw a person walking toward a doorway but when we looked again there was no one there. We were still mellow when we got to our seats although disappointed that there were no free program that simply listed the order of the dances. Programs were glossy affairs full of pictures and bios and the like that cost $1 each. We were mellow but not sure we were that enthusiastic.

Mellowness ended two minutes after the show started. You knew that was going to happen, didn't you? But read on, I'm not going to try to trash the evening. While I was having an instant problem with the music, synthesizer heavy, hyperactive and featureless my friend was aghast at the weakness of the choreography. The choreography, which was meant to introduce the dancers seemed to consist of much parading and many circlings punctuated by occasional isolations and large rotations a la Mona El Said--you know, the one where the head goes over so the hair brushes along the floor. Remember hair: much of the show seemed to be about hair. More hair than in a couple of years worth of Pantene commercials was constantly being tossed and twitched and dragged all over the place. It was distracting. We noted one woman in a tribal style costume who did remarkable, ravishingly defined isolations. Her we wanted to see again.

I'm going to boil this down for you. The technical level of dance by the Superstar soloists was astounding. I'm not a fan so I can't tell you who it was doing what. There was a double veil number that had to seen to be believed, it was so well done. Too bad the music behind it was howling awful and the light-show suggested the fires of hell. The drum solos performed with an engagingly affable drummer were precisely and even interestingly executed.

The ensemble work was, shall we say, questionable: unexceptional at best, amateurish at worst. Partly this was due to insipid choreography, partly it was due to the weakness of the back-up dancers. These younger women performed at a level equivalent to an intermediate class at a studio hafla. They had lots of hair, though. My buddy and I concluded that maybe they were there to make the soloists look even better. This was not needed.

Whatever. We left at intermission. We hadn't planned to go. We looked at each other and just left. We weren't even sure why. At the exit we met up with a fabulously accomplished dancer-choreographer who was leaving too. She didn't couldn't say why any better than we could, only that it was time to go. And we did. Afterward we were more puzzled than anything else. We'd seen some expert dancing performed by lovely, physically fit women but we were unsettled by it. Why?

Remember that ghost we'd seen on the way to the theater? Thinking back on the evening that specter now seems like omen and a symbol. We had seen the dance disembodied, cut off from its roots and natural context wandering and drifting in the empty air.

Sunday, August 29, 2004

What is the Oriental Dance? I just got off the phone with a friend who remarked prs of recent goings-on that fusion seemed to be breaking out all over. I agreed adding, in absolutist mode, that except in the hands of a very few gifted dancers I couldn't see why it might be interesting and was certainly not necessary. She, feeling tolerant, answered better fusion than watching one boring belly dancer after another. She has a point there. We certainly don't want to watch one boring belly dancer after another. I said something like, the Oriental is an inexhaustible form of great power and depth in the hands of dancers who can actually perform it. There is no need for us to be subjected to a parade of mediocre dancers; we shouldn't be subjected to mediocre dancers at all. Furthermore, novelty does not excuse mediocrity.

That chat echoed one I'd had a few days ago with another dancer friend during which we dissected the local scene and trends, of course not to anyone's advantage, not even our own. That conversation was triggered by a look at Sausan in San Francisco's website. Sausan's been in the Egyptian-style end of the business for what reads like ages and sounds like she's mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. She is killingly blunt about what Raqs Sharqi is not: no inner goddesses, no spiritual gropings, no tribal fantasies, no male dancers, and minimal folkloric anything. According to Sausan Raqs Sharqi is the female solo dance as performed in Egypt prior to Reda-ization and the advent of stage shows and that's it. Sausan further maintains that there is no authentic belly dance in Turkey or anywhere else outside of Egypt. May Sausan live long and prosper but on the last point she and I definitely part company in our definitions of the dance.

So what is it? My personal working definition of Oriental Dance extends beyond Raqs Sharqi. It is to me a solo female dance performed to music from Egypt or elsewhere in the the Levant and Turkey (plus, though to a lesser degree) Greece and Armenia employing steps native to the regions from which the music comes. To me the Oriental is something of a museum piece frozen in time to the form in which it was performed from the 1950's through the mid 1970's using either the music available then or, rarely, newer compositions with the same structure and flavor. There's nothing wrong with fixed forms--poets are not going to use up all possible sonnets, nor, for that matter, all possible limericks. Oriental Dance requires an experienced and skilled dancer who is able to embody the music at the same time as she shares her heart. Properly performed, Oriental Dance makes us care what the dancer is going to do next, to hang on her every move, to feel her every gesture. Beyond careful training it demands musicality, emotional maturity, and generosity of spirit. Anything more is superfluous; anything less is unacceptable.

The performance itself is a structured improvisation composed of short prepared combinations of steps appropriate to the music plus unplanned sequences appropriate to the moment. This dance is like the music to which it is performed: living, spontaneous, emotional. While a dancer may have a set of songs assigned to her (as club dancers often do) she should approach each show as an opportunity to use her familiarity with the music as a means deepening her interpretation and stretching her movement repertoire. Performing set choreography, especially someone else's choreography anywhere but on a formal concert stage seems to me to be to contrary to the soul of the dance. And here, speaking only for myself of course, I find almost all stage performance to be distortions of the nature of Oriental Dance.

Why? Because the dance is more than a series of well executed movements. It is an intimate and direct communication shared among the dancer, the musicians and the audience in which small, subtle movements and nuances of expression convey vital information. There are moments when the eyebrow is more eloquent than the hip. The dancer takes the music into herself and personifies it making it visible. In doing so she interacts directly with the musicians and the viewers knitting them together in way that is unique to her. Leaving aside for this essay any examination of the psychological impact of audience size on the qualitative experience of artists and viewers, removing the dancer from the audience turns a shared endeavor into a spectacle.

Enough for now...

Saturday, June 05, 2004

I.A.O. or Lucy Goosey in the Sky with Diamonds and Other Minor Mysteries

So this morning I'm sitting at the hairdresser's at an unreasonably early hour. She leaves for Italy tomorrow. For my roots it's either today or another three weeks of getting more obvious. According to the dermatologist I was screwed over by Mother Nature who gave me the skin tones of a redhead and the hair color of a field mouse.

Meanwhile, racing out of the apartment, I left home a draft entry about why we should only present student shows in-house or at least out of the public view. It's on the coffeetable where it is doing none of us any good. So I'm using its absence as an opportunity to explain a bit about the perplexing graphic that replaced BDNY from February to April. I have a file of emails ranging from lovely to irate in which many of you expressed your lack of delight with the removal of this website. What was that? Did someone hack it off the net? Had something awful happened to me personally? Why didn't I give warning so you could have printed out your favorite pages? And what did I. A. O. mean, anyway? One wit did come up with "It's All Over!" and hats off to her.

I. A. O. has many meanings. In this instance I was using it in the classic Golden Dawn way as a formula for transformation and regeneration. For those of you working off a different reading list from mine, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn was/is an influential occult group that flourished from approximately 1885 through the 1920s. The Golden Dawn still exists but is much less visible than in its heyday. Among its best known members were S. L. MacGregor Mathers, William Butler Yeats, Israel Regardie and Aleister Crowley. Much Golden Dawn symbolism relied on Egyptian god forms so in Golden Dawn terms this use of the formula I. A. O. translates as Isis-Apophis-Osiris. Isis here is Nature untouched, naive, unaware; Apophis is destruction, ruin, catastrophe, and Osiris is an evolved renewal. Isis is destroyed by Apophis and resurrected in Osiris. You and I aren't going to trouble ourselves here about who's a girl and who's a boy, who is or isn't as green as Kermit, or what our favorite form of the myth says. If some of you feel the need to write to me about Gnostic gods and other abstruse formulations feel free, but I probably won't answer.

When I took BDNY down I had no idea if it or I would emerge from the Apophis phase. I'd started the site out of some naive altruistic impulse toward community building combined with frustration about a lack of shared resources. Back then teachers carefully protected their students from the knowledge that other teachers existed and the only way you could find anyone was whispered word of mouth or the Yellow Pages. There was print--Arabesque, Habibi, Caravan and a few other magazines were around--but you had to know what you were looking for and newcomers rarely had that knowledge. Armed with a simple guide to HTML and a slow modem I stuck all the information I'd managed to glean from print and personal contacts up on the internet. Pretty soon things took off. People started calling, writing and eventually emailing in information. The website grew.

And there was synergy--the more information there was available the more stuff started happening. The web helped belly dance to explode. Suddenly there were classes everywhere and out of the blue dance venues sprang up. Workshops, vendors, recordings, costume makers, you name it, materialized all over the place. For the first few years this was thrilling. Something I loved was being discovered and loved by others. And then it got to be a bit on the more-so side heading off into a muchness of richness and texture and diversity; so many women finding themselves; what a burgeoning of spirituality, such a wealth of invention; and on and on, you know what I'm saying here...And the stuff just kept on coming, a belly dance cornucopia run amok spewing out more and more of everything in all kinds of weird permutations and combinations and fusions and fissions. Un-freaking-believable and there's still no stop to it.

What did stop, though, was me. Early on I'd made a promise to myself and to people using my site that if anyone could make a case for inclusion of an item, up that item would go regardless of whether I personally approved or agreed. This is the only fair way to handle information that can affect someone else's financial well being. For now let's say I was approving of less and less and being asked to report more and more. That brings us full circle on this blog back to late January and the matters described in the first entry. Enter Apophis, big time.

So what's the Osiris factor here? Why is this website back? And how, beyond sporting a less cutesy look, has it evolved? (Evolved?: Wow! And what, could that in the context of belly dance websites could that ever mean?) Well, I missed the site, first of all. It is a unique piece of weirdness that sort of maps my mind. And I realized that it's also a one of a kind tool for defining and maybe remedying some of what's gone astray in the last few years. What we need to do is really get down and talk about our dance in terms of love and greed and ambition and art and tradition and integrity and music and neediness and dare I say it, reality. I think this website is a good place to start. We've got a forum, we've got a blog, and we've got each other.

Friday, May 28, 2004

A quick note--I've just changed the "Comments" protocol. I hope for the better. Unfortunately by doing so I lost your comments. Apologies and thanks to all of you who wrote in.

All One Show Biz, Part Two (read Part One below)

Note: This isn't really done but I'm putting it up now so no one thinks I've abandoned my self appointed and doubtlessly futile mission to rescue what's left of the dance from us. Promise you I'm going to be faster from here on out.

When I first heard the Itzhak Perlman story I was so tickled that I waltzed up to some underemployed schnook in a turkey suit and yelled "Itzhak says it's all one show biz." The poor guy just stood there bemused while I had intended reassurance. I was a belly dancer, he was a turkey, and Itzhak was a violin virtuoso and we all were engaged in the same activity: performing art in public places. We were kin. So inspiring.

This was way back when I was getting hired to embarrass the boss otherwise known as performing the lunch hour bellygram. Not bad pay, not much art. Despite my intention to entertain dazzlingly most of these dates involved little more giving the female junior staff a tour of my costume after causing some poor man deep upset by merely showing up. By this measure the best boss ever was the one who dived under his desk. A few bosses with more aplomb tried to get a bit of face back by asking me if a) I did that in bed, or b) if that was all I was going to take off. For this I had taken a few years of lessons and cultivated an already dynamite torso.

As for Turkey Boy, I have no way of knowing for sure but in my imagination he'd recently been "don't call us, we'll call you" yet again from something being workshopped in Hoboken. If his profile was typical his credentials included a drama major at, let's say, Northwestern, followed by a couple of years of acting classes. Probably he read the trades daily, hopefully circling possibilities and then waited in lines all over town to drop off his headshots with casting directors. Perhaps he'd had been getting called back just often enough to keep him hopeful.

And Itzhak...well, Itzhak was jetting between the New York and Israel Philharmonics alighting only for recording dates. He was collaborating on film scores. He was all over PBS acting as if violin virtuosi are regular folks like the rest of us. We will not discuss the years of practice, superb training, incredible self-discipline and extraordinary talent it takes to produce a world class soloist.

Then there's the money... I'd go back to my real job with $75 to $125 in my purse from a fifteen minute boss embarrassment. Turkey Boy I'd bet was doing it for minimum wage. And Itzhak? Why ask?

Matters haven't changed for the better over the years. Instead of being exotic belly dancers have become ubiquitous so boss embarrassments have become scarcer but public stunts are more common. Theater people however are still scraping along waiting on tables or doing whatever supports their dreams. And Itzhak is on his way back to Avery Fisher Hall.

"All one show biz," my foot! Nonetheless, it was sweet of Itzhak to say so.

Friday, April 23, 2004

Doing a blog or blogging or whatever the unattractive word is for an interesting activity quickly becomes an obligation. I put up this thing announcing that I would soon vent about everything that had annoyed me into leaving the web--I'm sure you've all been checking eagerly waiting for the spew of invective that would surely pour out-- only to realize that writing is more difficult than haranguing buddies on the telephone.

And harangue I did. Those of you who called up to find out what had happened to BDNY know what I mean. Those of you who emailed got an abridged version but invective was not absent. For everyone else, well, let's start with events leading up to the eclipse of Belly Dance NY...

It was around the end of January that this website disappeared. During the two weeks prior to its disappearance several bits of belly dance sewage floated by causing me no end of aggravation. They probably won't sound like much to you but to me, after a couple of years of increasing discontent with the direction the dance scene had been taking, they were just too much.

Let's start with the Graham Norton Show. Remember how cold it was in January? Bone chilling, teeth rattling, sub freezing, instant frostbite, arctic air mass cold Somewhere in the middle of a two week spell of highs below 25 F a woman with an posh accent called from London enthusing that it would be "brilliant" to have some belly dancers standing outside in costume at an identifiably NYC location waving and yelling "Hello from New York! It's the Graham Norton Show!" In other words to make complete asses of themselves on two continents for what she assured me would be little or no money. But it wouldn't take long. The camera person and the producer didn't want to linger outside. Could I please find her some dancers? Really, it didn't matter if they could dance; it would be "brilliant" just to have them wave. To my everlasting shame I made a call to an amateur performance group thinking they might have some fun with it. They were too smart to take the date and I gave up, wincing over having gotten sucked in to this stunt at all. For those of you who don't know but might care, "brilliant" has replaced "smashing".

Meanwhile across town at Macy's a couple of extremely youthful newbies were assisting in the debut of a cosmetic line by wriggling out of context but in full cabaret at the counter. At least I didn't have any part in arranging this and I didn't see it, but I did hear about it from the person who booked the date. She regarded it as a good thing. I muttered something unkind, "side-show" if memory serves, and got off the phone before I lost a friend.

And what else? Oh yes, the great Letterman non-event. This one is too complicated to condense. Suffice it that a lot of people were inconvenienced and wasted irretrievable hours of their lives on something that never happened in which once again dancers were featured as figures of semi fun. The deal was Dave was supposed to enter through them to open the show. The casting call said that appearance mattered more than dance skill but at least here the chosen ones were supposed to be able to dance. And would be paid union scale. Punch line: Dave decided the whole bit was a non-starter.

At this point probably far too many of you are probably asking what I found unpalatable about the above. After all, the dance or at least dancers were getting exposure and as Barnum famously noted, there's no such thing as bad publicity. That's okay: ten years ago I probably would have wondered, what the big deal was myself, Actually it's very simple--the dance and dancers were being treated as a joke at worst and cute bits of T & A at best and no one was complaining. We'll discuss whether belly dance, raqs sharqi, dance oriental, whatever is a high art at another time but for now let's just say that many of us have worked hard to learn how to dance well and devoted significant time to studying music and cultural context. While we may function as public entertainers facilitating other peoples' good times we don't entertain by being ridiculous. A person in a cabaret costume should not evoke the same reaction or expectations as someone wearing baggy pants, a rubber nose, and floppy shoes or someone in pasties and a g-string. And yet, as demonstrated by the three instances above, we clearly do. And what's worse, too many of us gleefully line up for our turn in the unlovely limelight.

Or have I, after 20 years in and around the biz and 8 years of efforting with Belly Dance NY, lost my sense of humor? After all, Itzhak Perlman not only played for the Muppets: He was willing to be a total klutz on a cooking show sloshing scrambled eggs all over his stove. When asked by friends how he, the great Itzhak Perlman, could stoop so low he said, "It's all one show business."

But is it? Stay tuned...

Saturday, April 17, 2004

A later note--I'm attempting to add software enabling comments. If it doesn't happen now it will happen soon. You can always use the Forum to harangue me.

Hello out there.

I've been going on and on about setting up a Blog on this website and have finally taken the plunge. Why a Blog on Belly Dance NY? Well, as most of you are aware, this website was on hiatus for a couple of months. I disappeared it in the dead of night on Groundhog Day leaving only a cryptic message embedded in a starscape. (This too will be explained but later.) I put it back up on April 11th. Why take it down? And why restore it? I took the site down because I really love dance orientale--It matters to me. And because too much of what was coming at me for the website was foolish and/or ugly and definitely not good for the dance. At least not in my eyes. I felt that to continue doing Belly Dance NY as I had been was simply to abet the trashing of something I care about.

Removing BDNY from the web solved most of my problems about the state of the dance because I didn't have to hear about it anymore. Call it the Ostrich Cure. However, comfortable as being away from it all was burying my head in the sand did nothing to make any situation except my own better. And eventually hiding out stopped working. I've got nearly twenty years in this dance, important, growth-filled, beautiful years and I can't just walk away from that. So I'm back and Belly Dance NY is back.

And now the Blog on Belly Dance NY is here too. This Blog is my gift to me, a reward for putting up with doing Belly Dance NY and a corrective for the editorial neutrality I've imposed on myself in order to handle everyone's postings. I intend to use the Blog to discuss what's going on out there--the good the bad and the deeply indifferent. Yes, because I'm a Libra or because my parents brought me up to play fair, you all will be able to respond. That's why I'm doing a Blog and not just posting an editorial page. Watch for interesting developments.