Morocco was born Carolina Varga Dinicu in 1940 to full-blooded Romany parents. This auspicious event took place with humble beginnings, a month earlier than expected, in a field by the side of the road while travelling in Transylvania, Romania, “looking for relatives on the paternal side of the family, to get them out of Romania before the * * * * hit the fan at the start of WWII.” Having survived the war, Morocco feels that each day in her life is a gift.
Be that as it may, I’d like to add that it’s not only Morocco who is gifted – as she is, in many wonderful ways! But we are too, for having her in our country spreading her infectious love of the dance with her indefatigable sense of humour and virtual encyclopaedic knowledge of the art. Having a semi-photographic memory and an IQ of 186 helps, I’m sure, when learning to speak 11 languages and while travelling to at least 28 different countries! She goes to Egypt and Morocco on the average of once or twice a year since 1963, to research and perform or just check out the current dance “scene,” unless unable to because of ever-changing political climates. Other places where she has travelled, researched and performed include Lebanon, Turkey, Tunisia, Iraq, Syria, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kirgizia, Kazakhstan, Georgia, Armenia, Turkmenistan, Iran and Algeria (the latter two not for a while, for obvious reasons!) Her knowledge is unrivaled in this country, and I would venture to say in the world – where the dance and culture of many, many countries is concerned. And one of the best things about Rocky is that she’s not afraid to share it. In fact, she’s one of the most generous and honest persons I have ever had the pleasure of encountering when it comes to oriental and folkloric dance.
Credits from her long and illustrious career in this art form began as far back as 1960 when she was a featured dancer with the flamenco troupe, the Ballet Espagnol Ximenez-Vargas in NYC. Needing to supplement her meager income, (they weren’t even paid during extensive rehearsal periods at all) she was told by a friend, a Greek Orthodox priest, about a possible job that would enable her to still attend the required rehearsals with the company from noon ’til six, as the job began at 9:30 p.m. So Morocco, still Carolina then, went with her guitarist to a restaurant called the Arabian Nights.
The owner wanted to know “Who is this guy?” in reference to the guitarist, and Rocky told her. She answered that they have a guitarist. Naively, Morocco, still thinking flamenco, asked, “Does he know all the rhythms?” “Yes.” “Can he sing?” “Yes.” “When I change tempo, will he change tempo?” “Yes. So go change into your costume and we’ll give you an audition. ”
Still unsuspecting, Morocco changed into her Bata de Cola, “the dress with the long train that all these very intense ladies kick around.” The owner finally realized that Morocco didn’t know what kind of dancing she was auditioning for! So she sat her down and said, “Watch.” Soon a woman appeared. She seemed to have nothing going for her, poor thing, and Morocco said, “If I can’t do better than that I’ll hand in my feet!” Another dancer heard the remark and loaned her her costume (which didn’t fit, and in her ignorance Morocco had put the skirt on backwards) and Rocky made her debut.
She was hired, insisting it was because they were so desperate for dancers at the time that they “would’ve hired Godzilla, if she had a costume! ” She fell in love with the music, and the rest is history!
She learned Mideastern dance by watching other dancers and the public who got up to dance, talking to the elder musicians, and listening to the music. Also by employing a method she playfully calls “corner the granny in the ladie’s room.” And, of course, she has learned from indigenous peoples in the various countries to which she’s travelled. Her first trip “over there” was to Morocco in late 1963.
Although she taught individual students almost from the start, by 1970 she was teaching weekly Mideastern dance classes for the AMAS Repertory Theater in NYC. During this time (1972) she was the first ever recipient of CAPS Grant for Mideastern Dance: to teach and choreograph it for children! She was also the only New York City artist (competition and standards there are far higher than for any other city) to receive it twice -the second time in 1981. Think of the pioneering efforts put forth by that young woman, to gain the respect she has for herself and to further it for all oriental dancers in America. If we think we have hurdles to overcome now, imagine what it may have been like then, when few people saw it or knew what “it” was. She has stated: “I had to become vocal. I had to start lecturing. I was the first Middle Eastern dancer ever to perform in a museum in this country. I was one of the first to perform in a university.”
Morocco was also the first Mideastern dancer to perform at Lincoln Center, under its own auspices. On the Ed Sullivan Show she had to wear a robe under her costume to cover her torso, while the “Hawaiian” dancer did not -they said Hawaiian dance was ethnic and “belly” dance wasn’t!!!! For the David Frost show, she had to go once as a MENSA representative and break the record on a nueral efficiency analyzer (a new form of intelligence testing) as a guinea pig, before she was invited back as a performer – prior to that, the talent coordinators wouldn’t even consider a “belly” dancer! Along the way she also learned the value of publicity. She was literally grabbed off the stage of the Roundtable to sign her up for a Broadway show called “I Had a Ball” with Buddy Hackett and Richard Kiley, because the producers had read about her I.Q. and were curious. They came to laugh and were stunned by her talent, so a small part was written into the musical for her. She got rave reviews in the out-of-town tryouts and the New York opening, even though her “big solo” was less than three minutes long!
In her career that has spanned nearly 50 years, she has performed around the world in thousands upon thousands of shows, in venues from clubs, seminars, weddings, TV shows, films, movies, lectures, on and off Broadway shows, concerts…. including performances in Egypt, Morocco, Lebanon, Turkey and Tunisia. She’s performed for the Egyptian and Moroccan Ministries of Tourism, the U.N. General Assembly, the Cairo Women’s Club (in Cairo,) the U.N. Women’s Guild, Dar America (in Marrakech, Morocco,) Toledo Opera Society (“Aida”) and even in Moscow and Leningrad, USSR! Also literally hundreds of times in the Museum of Natural History (since 1970) and thousands of paid shows for the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs. She’s been the recipient of numerous grants and awards and was one of the first to be inducted into the Hall of Fame of the American Academy of Mideastern dance in NYC. She has taught accredited university courses in Mideastern dance and culture – and, she sings!
Morocco offers no less than 38 workshops (and growing) ranging from basic technique classes to entire folkloric and oriental routines, choreographies and lectures for dances of many Mideastern and North African countries, to principals of choreography and finger cymbals.
Her dance company, The Casbah Dance Experience, has been the only dance company to be presented five times at the Riverside Dance Festival, and the tape of their 1984 concert has been placed in the permanent archives.
Morocco has also researched the origins of the dance and it’s relation to child-birthing rituals, and started writing about it as early as 1964, as well as countless articles from specific to general topics. Some of these have been published in medical and scientific journals as well as women’s magazines and oriental dance publications.
KD: “Please tell us about the dancer’s study tours you’ve organized and led to Egypt, Turkey and Morocco and whether you plan to do more.”
M: “This is about a week’s conversation, but I’ll try and answer more quickly than that! The reason I started was because back in the late ’60s, early ’70s, when people first started to really get into Oriental dance, there was an awful lot of malarky, misinformation and fantasy. When I would say ‘it’s just not true,’ I would get either skeptical looks or snotty remarks, which was frustrating, but I’d also get people who’d say ‘how can we find out?’ I had made some films with a Super 8 sound camera of some of what I’d seen at that point and was bringing them home and showing them at seminars while narrating. But that, too, was extremely limited because there’s only so much you can get on film.
“I noticed that anytime you take yourself anywhere with a camera, you immediately alter the dynamic of what’s happening. The fact that you’re there filming changes the circumstance so that you’d be recording a false situation. People are either restricted and constrained or put things in that wouldn’t ordinarily be there so they could show how ‘western’ they are.
“There were countries where I couldn’t bring the camera at all. It would be confiscated at the border and returned when I was leaving, like in Iran and Iraq and some places in the Soviet Union. I had film confiscated and destroyed right before my eyes. And if you’re in certain places like a family celebration, wedding or circumcision, there’d be no way to film.
“But I did manage to film many incredible events, some under very ridiculous conditions, like at the Marrakech Folk Festival (in Morocco.) I sat under the seating stands on a pole that was part of the framework holding up the seating, about dead centre, so that I had a direct line towards the stage. I was so concentrated on what I was doing, and back in those days the cameras had to be reloaded about every three and a half minutes, (there were only 50 foot reels!) I got it down so I could reload in about four seconds. Then I got a camera that could take 200 foot reels so I could film 13 minutes straight before having to reload. Because I was concentrating so hard sitting on that pole my butt fell asleep because I wasn’t moving. It had gotten so dead I couldn’t feel it, and I began to fall over. I couldn’t even feel myself falling over until I saw the ground coming up in the lens of my camera! Of course I edited that part out of the finished film. (giggles) In fact, it took months to edit this stuff.
“I loved showing these films and narrating. This was back when what is known as ‘California Tribal’ and its offshoots were beginning to become popular. People would talk about ‘tribal this and that’ and I would ask ‘which tribe?’ I like to call an apple an apple and an orange an orange. Don’t say this is ‘Bedouin’ or ‘Ghawazee’ when youve never seen a ‘bedu’ or a’ ghazeeyah!’ Don’t call a plum a grape. So I would show my films of the real tribal, and it was nothing like what our fantasies would be.
“There isn’t just one kind of tribal, either. In Morocco alone there are over 200 different Berber nations. The Berbers aren’t the Bedouins and the Ghawazee are neither. So when I first started showing these films people would say ‘well, how can we see this too?’ I began thinking of ways to bring people over with me and give them a sort of overview. In Morocco, to try to see dance at any time other than the Marrakech Folk Festival, is thoroughly self-defeating because what they put on in most of the clubs for tourists is pure unadulterated B.S.! They have not had for quite awhile any kind of standard for Oriental dance. It has gotten a little higher of late, but still it’s not what we used to see in Egypt and it’s not up to what we were doing in the States, depending on where you went and who you saw.
“Unfortunately they have been playing around too much with the scheduling of the Folk Festival. As a result, 1990 was the last year I brought a tour to Morocco for the Folk Festival.
“With Egypt, there was so much baloney here about what is ‘real’ and no way to show there is no ONE way or ONE Egyptian style. Nobody can say ‘there are only these steps’ or ‘only this way of doing it, because not only does one dancer not dance like any other, it’s like I don’t speak English like you speak English, and vice versa! There is a movement vocabulary in common, but the way one dancer chooses to express the music and tell a story will be different from another. The same dancer, even, will dance differently on different days. On one of my videos, there are two different dances by Sohair Zaki. You would swear it’s another person and another dance style. Yet they’re both Sohair, and she’s Egyptian. She doesn’t dance like Negwa, who doesn’t dance like Aza Sharif, who doesn’t dance like Nahed Sabry (Morocco’s “all-time favorite dancer”), who doesn’t dance like Nadia Hamdi (another of her favorites). It’s individual. There was such wonderful stuff that I knew wouldn’t be going on for much longer, though
“I didn’t think it would disappear so soon. So when I brought others over to Egypt to share the experience with me, I got just as much out of it as they did, because I was able to observe each person’s reaction to and assimilation of what they were seeing for the first time. They might see it in a way I hadn’t thought of, seeing things through their eyes that perhaps I didn’t see. We all perceive things differently. So that increases the nuances for me, and it is such a thrill to show others what means so much to me. It’s wonderful to see others gaining knowledge and how it changes their lives. The personal changes can be so dramatic and visible.
“I won’t stay there long term because the conditions in which you must work are unacceptable to me. I have worked there, but this is where I live, by totally conscious choice. From here I can get anywhere else.
“The last time I brought a group to Egypt was 1993, as I could see the handwriting on the wall even then. Things were heating up in Upper Egypt – there were more and more restrictions on whether the Ghawazee could perform, and threats (by the so-called religious fundamentalists) on those who hired them. This became worse, extending to any kind of entertainment, Ghawazee or not, except for tourists. There were actual gun battles. This has nothing to do with the religion, these fundos, they have corrupted it to suit themselves. Mohammed (PUH) is spinning in his grave at 250 rpm! This is not what He intended Islam to be or become.
“Morocco is a beautiful country, and the food is to die for. It’s also comfortable to stay there physically. But you must understand and deal with the cultural differences. Cairo, on the other hand, is so overcrowded it makes New York look empty. The traffic situation is so congested the highways in LA look like fun. You can see the air before you breathe it, and what has happened to the dance scene shouldn’t happen to a dog! That’s why after ’93 I stopped bringing groups to Egypt. I am not going to bring American dance lovers there to see basically third rate dancing, because the scene has become so underpaid and demoralized.
“This has to do with several factors. The mainstays from the clubs and the main people who hired the well-known dancers for high-paid private affairs and weddings were older people from the Gulf and the wealthier Egyptians. It wasn’t something the ‘blue-galabiya,’ or blue-collar guys could afford. They could only hire Mohammed Ali Street entertainers (much lower-paid and therefore considered lower class, even though many were better performers than the ‘stars.’) Since the Gulf war most of the Kuwaitis and Saudis are busy cleaning up and rebuilding Kuwait and the oil fields. In addition, when they had vacationed in Egypt of late, fundamentalists would follow them and harrass them in the streets. So these guys aren’t gonna be paying the big bucks to go where they’d be harrassed by these fundo pseudo-religious wackos. The older Gulfies are going to other countries where they’re treated better. The younger Gulfies, who are still going to Egypt because it’s cheaper and closer, are looking for discos and singers. They’re not into Oriental dance.
“There are more and more restrictions now on how late clubs can be open, and now there’s laws against transferring liquor licenses even from a father to a son. Who wants to buy a club without a liquor license? So with the clientele way down, even the bigger clubs cannot afford to pay a star anymore. When I was there in November (1996) stars like Lucy were only performing one night a week in a five-star venue. Someone else of far lesser name and calibre would perform the other two nights: many clubs are now open only three nights a week. Sometimes the club wouldn’t have enough patrons and the dancer would be called and told not to come in and dance at all. I am not going to bring a group and take that kind of chance.
“Turkey, on the other hand, has great folk dance. The Oriental dance is not as bad as it got in the ’80s, and the costuming still leaves something to be desired, namely a skirt, but it’s ok. They do tend to underestimate the audience and give them what they think they want. Like European looking women in french-cut Folies Bergere type ‘costumes.’ The dancers are off and on in a blink, but occasionally you get some talent that shines through. The food is great, there’s fresh fruit and veggies and real yogurt to die for and meat and fish are really good. The countryside is wonderfully diverse.
“In the last 15 years videos and walkmans with batteries have changed the face of the folklore more than the previous 2,000, though. People are trying to be more western, and modern. The younger kids give up the old for the new, not realizing they can have both. I regret it wasn’t possible for me to film more than I did, as so very much of it is gone now forever.”
KD: “Let’s talk about some of the articles you’ve had published over the years in medical journals. To my knowledge, there has not been much written by Oriental dancers that has been taken seriously like your writings have. You’ve done extensive research into the correlations between Oriental dance and childbirthing, for example.”
M: “When I wrote this stuff there were no Oriental dance publications. My article, Oriental Dance and Childbirth, written in ’64 and published in ’65 as Bellydance and Childbirth, went to where I thought it would get the widest circulation among the uninformed, a magazine called Sexology. It was also printed later (full or condensed versions) by other magazines, including Medical Dimensions. In 1972 Majority Report a feminist publication, printed the entire thing. I got a lot of very positive feedback.”
KD: “Please tell us a bit about the content of the articles.”
M: “I had a good friend, a woman who was half Saudi and half Italian. I met her at the first club I ever worked in. She wouldn’t believe I wasn’t Arabic and was yammering at me in Arabic. Later we became friends, and I learned a lot from her. She told me of the connection with childbirth movements, but I didn’t believe her at the time, as it just sounded so far-fetched to me. A couple of years later, I met a Sephardic woman, who also told me this. She had gotten pregnant, took a Lamaze course and thought it was pretty funny that the movements she had learned were what she had learned within her family as Oriental dance movements. Then I thought it was interesting, as it tied into what my friend had told me also. So I started checking books to see what I could find. When in England, I happened into the London Library and found a book called “The Dancer of Shamahka.” It was written by an Armenian woman named Armen Ohanian, in the early part of this century. I used quotes from this book in my article. In 1963 I met the people who would be running the Moroccan Pavillion at the World’s Fair in 1964. It was through these people that in ’67 I was able to go to Morocco and witness a birth in the traditional manner, with dancing and all that it entailed. These things, this dance, was part of what these people were. This was not taught in schools. It was part of themselves.
“There were whole elements that I had not until then suspected or expected to find these meanings-this additional nuance, this hidden presence. It endeared the dance to me even more-made the dance even more wonderful than I had ever dreamed.”
When asked about her highly successful European seminars, Rocky shared that not too long ago in Europe one had difficulty learning the dance for lack of formal instruction. But eventually American dancers, who were perhaps married to military men, or to Germans, or there on business, found themselves in Germany and still wanting to dance. It is said that we started courses, “because we make courses in everything. Which is true. When trying to learn something quickest and easiest, you make a course in the subject. Then the Germans got into it. Now there are schools in every little dorf in Germany taught by Germans for Germans, But we had schools in the U. S. before them, with a large and healthy ethnic club scene at one time. They did have some very nice clubs in England, in the ’60s when I was there, but the only way an Englishwoman could learn Oriental dance was the same way we were learning here: by finding people who knew and talking them into teaching us; or going to the clubs and watching the dancers, learning the way I did: ‘monkey see, monkey do.’ That’s the way I learned. There’s a wonderful dancer in England named Vashti (Cathy Selford) who could probably give chapter and verse as to who’s learned what from whom, because she’s been around nearly as long as I have – for both of us that’s longer than dirt!
“Now there’s an entire network of Mideastern dance associations in England that work together, more cooperative than anything I’ve seen elsewhere. They have virtually no club venues, that ‘scene’ is dead. There had been some very large clubs, again mainly for the Saudis on vacation. Now they’re getting more of the poorer immigrants, many of whom are more conservative than the former, and not on vacation but immigrating, which is a whole different thing. They don’t have the money to go to the nightclubs, and most wouldn’t even if they could because they’re more conservative Muslims. ”
K: “Once you mentioned having actually fallen asleep during a dance performance! Would you mind sharing that story with our readers?”
M: “Sure, I’ll tell ya ’cause it’s so FUN! Embarrassing, but fun I hadn’t been in the business very long and I wasn’t used to be up so late yet. In the club I was working at at the time, the Grecian Palace, the table clothes were starkly white. When the club was empty the lights would glare off the tabletops and be really hard on your eyes. Especially because even on your breaks you sat up on the stage in your civvies and played the drum or finger cymbals, or if you smoked you’d do that, and drink 857 cups of Turkish coffee.
“So on that particular night I was on last. It was about three in the morning and I was dancing on one of those high pull-out stages most of the clubs had at that time, since they were usually long and narrow and it made for great visibility. In the middle of my floorwork section, the lighting above was glaring right into my eyes! The clarinetist was playing this very beautiful, slow takseem. I closed my eyes and the next thing I know, the bouzouki player was pushing me with the bouzouki and saying ‘Wake up, you crazy woman!’ -in Greek, of course! ‘You no sleep in the middle of your own dance! You crazy?’ And that’s what happened.” (much laughter!)
K: In your bio material is a quote from the great classical/ethnic dancer La Meri. It is: “The only reason for mastering technique is to make sure the body does not prevent the soul from expressing itself.” Will you tell us how you feel about that subject?
M: “Exactly. I mean you have an instrument and you learn how to play it. In this case, it’s your body. There’s no way I can improve upon that statement. It’s totally true and correct the way it was said. I agree with it a thousand percent.”
K: “What changes have you noticed in Oriental dance over the years? Please share how you feel about tradition versus innovation, and whether you feel the changes are positive or not. I know you have said that what is traditional now was considered innovative at one time.”
M: “Yup. OK, do you have about a week and a half?”
K: “Let’s go for the condensed version!”
M: “There have been improvements in everything, from technique and musicality to costuming. Like ballet – if you look at ballet films from about the ’40s or the ’50s, it’s obvious that technique in general has improved considerably. What was thought of as really fine dancing then, would be considered inadequate technique-wise today. It’s like in sports, when someone breaks a record it’s not long until that record gets broken. It’s that each generation tries to make its mark or carve its niche by improving upon or outdoing the previous generation.
“Therefore, things either change or improve, but they almost never remain the same. The one thing you can count on, for better or worse, is change. Not all change is good, or bad. It’s just change.”
K: “Please tell us why you feel so strongly about not using the term ‘bellydance’ to describe the art form, what terms you prefer, and why.”
M: “There are several reasons why I don’t like the term. For one, it’s anatomically incorrect! Every muscle you’ve ever had is used in this dance. To just take one group of muscles involved and use them to designate the whole dance is minimizing the skill, the variety and the complexity of the dance. Secondly, in none of the countries to which this dance belongs is it called anything that vaguely resembles ‘belly’ anything. That particular expression came from a man named Sol Bloom, who was the director of the midway exhibitions at the Columbian Trade Fair and Exposition in Chicago in 1893. That particular World’s Fair was supposed to be held in 1892 to commemorate the anniversary of the landing of Columbus, but it was late. What had happened was that Mr. Bloom as a young man had gone to Paris a few years before and had seen the Grand Exhibition. He had become fascinated with the North African performers there. I think at the same time he may have been scouting acts for the Chicago Fair. So he contracted these performers to come and perform in 1892. Now we have this fair that is a year late. These people came over in 1892 and he had nowhere to put them. Back in 1876, during the Centennial, there were performers from various places in the Middle East but nobody went to see them because they were advertised as ‘ethnic dancers.’ People were even more xenophobic then than now, and didn’t go see ‘ethnic’ anything. The people from the generic Mideastern countries and the Ottoman Empire who performed there caused no scandal, caused no notice. In fact, several of the dancers were booked into the Forrest Theatre in Philadelphia after the Centennial closed. They were there for four weeks and performed for mostly empty seats.
“It wasn’t until (the same type of ethnic acts) were brought to Chicago and Sol Bloom began promoting them, that any scandal or notoriety arose. Mr. Bloom was not in business for his health; he needed to make money. If the midway didn’t succeed, he wouldn’t either. At that point it was the height of the Victorian Era. ‘Arm’ and ‘leg’ were dirty words – you said ‘limb’ if you absolutely had to mention those body parts. Even when eating chicken, you asked for a ‘drumstick’ not a ‘leg.’ That’s where that term came from. Even tables and chairs didn’t have legs, but ‘limbs,’ and you covered those chair and table legs with ruffles and doilies, so that you wouldn’t see them and be reminded that they had legs, and then by association remember people also have legs, and at this very moment they could be walking towards each other on those legs and doing strange and terrible things …. so you can imagine what they thought about the word ‘belly!’
“Also at that time the New World had an inferiority complex and assumed anything from Europe was better. Especially anything French. But at the same time they had a fantasy that the French were racier, or immoral, illegal or fattening or whatever, (giggles) but in any case they were fascinated by them. The Victorian Era was also the ‘horniest’ era because it was so suppressed and overdressed, that sex was all anyone could think about. Mostly they thought about not thinking about it. Not coincidentally, there were more disappearances and kidnappings of children for immoral purposes during that time than any other time in the history of the country, including now.
“So Solly, being an astute businessman, knew that if he came up with a name that sounded sexy, interesting and forbidden he’d make a lot more money than he would with something called ‘ethnic’ dance. Back to the fascination with anything French – the French, having gone to North Africa and very much exploiting Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, etc. had seen a Ouled Nail dance which specifically involves the muscles of the abdominal area. They called that dance danse du ventre, or abdominal dance. Anything involving the midsection was also called ventre. Solly deliberately mis-translated the French expression, because French was considered a “racy” language. He did it for the notoriety that it would get his exhibit.
“The press then was even worse than now. Some of the things they got away with printing then were so grossly and disgustingly racist that you wondered how anyone could even print garbage like that. Yet they did, and what was worse, people believed it, because, after all, it was in a newspaper! (Too many people are still that naive today!) So he knew if he came up with a titillating name, they’d rush to print it and he’d make a mint. So that’s why he used the term “bellydance.” ”
“Rumor has it that when signs went up around Chicago advertising this, the men who put them up got busted for posting indecent signs where women and children could see them. So people’s fantasies went wild. He got headlines coast to coast, that told how the impressario of the Midway Plaisance and Street in Cairo Exhibit was fined for putting up indecent signs, The signs said: ‘Come to the Street in Cairo and see the exciting native Belly Dancers.’ So people flocked to the exhibit and Sol was able to raise the price of admission to ten times the normal. He charged a dollar – at a time when a dollar would get you two full steak dinners from soup to nuts. There were lines around the block to get in. Then Mr. Bloom said ladies couldn’t get in to see this dance, as it was too much for their delicate sensibilities. So they had to sit in the coffee shop and drink feenjons of Turkish coffee and smoke a water pipe (‘it’ was not illegal then) while the men went in to see the show. In fact, I have a picture book from 1894 that shows the Fair in ’93. The ethnic dancers were dressed from the nose to the toes, thank you very much, but they were moving muscles that we had never seen be moved! So this was totally scandalous. It was also very much put down, in that reviewers wrote: ‘Nowhere could be seen the graceful pirouettes or movements of limbs as in ballet. So this was not dancing, but rather a strange and curious gymnastic.’
“So why I resent the name “bellydance” is because too much of the fallout of the connotations that the word had then remains. Too much of the misconception of what the dance is supposed to be and isn’t remains. It is a misnomer that was coined out of racism and ignorance, and it again, minimalizes the amount of skill involved. There are always people who cater to the lowest common denominator for a few bucks or their own insecurities, whatever, whenever there is an opportunity to do so. Apparently after all the original furor had died down, there were supposed performers who were doing just this sort of thing and who managed to get the dance outlawed in many venues because they were doing a very low class performance. The voluntarily ignorant and fantastic mind-set that went with this whole phenomenon still exists. Not to the point that it did, when I began 37 years ago, but it does exist. The misnomer has kept a lot of venues closed to Oriental dance in this country. It has caused many problems in the acceptance of the dance form as the valid classical folk form that it is.
“It’s also not the correct name. Period. End of sentence. It’s like in the beginning of this century in this country when Black people were called ‘coons,’ and that horrible, denigrating name was used in pop songs! It was just as bad and just as unacceptable. And yet there’s a whole genre of music where songs were written to rhyme ‘spoon, moon, coon, June.’ These songs were really offensive to Black people but it didn’t matter then because they had no civil rights – the laws weren’t even written then – and people could get away with much more, that fortunately they can’t get away with today. The term ‘bellydance’ is in that range of vocabulary. It comes from an era with that kind of mind-set. They also used to call the Hula the ‘hootchie-cootchie.’ Fortunately civil rights and ethnic rights movements put an end to that in Hawaii. The missionaries outlawed the Hula, which is a religious dance, and during that time much was lost forever. It’s that same mind-set. ”
K: “Do you feel that there may be a new hybrid style of American style Oriental dance that may be emerging that is different than Raks al Sharki, and if so, do we call it “American Raks Sharki?” I don’t expect you to have an answer, though maybe you do, and we know many people are looking for one.”
M: “Of course! (there is a new style) And I think the title ‘American Tribal Dance’ is perfectly acceptable. ”
K: “But what if it’s not Tribal style?”
M: “Then call it Middle Eastern dance. Honey, you should see what they’re doing over there now! It’s still Middle Eastern dance. You don’t have to be born, bred and buttered on a camel to do Middle Eastern dance.”
There you have it. As Rocky would say, “Any Questions?”
Kajira’s site is at: http://www.blacksheepbellydance.com/writings/files/morocco.html This interview is reproduced here with her kind permission.