Gypsy, Genius, Oriental Dancer: WHO IS THE REAL MOROCCO?

Dr. Barbara SellersIn this global marketplace, identity is often summed up in sound bites such as “Gypsy,” “genius” or “Oriental dancer.” These are all words the press uses to describe Carolina Varga Dinicu, who is better known as Morocco, the professional name she assumed in 1960, or Aunt Rocky, the name she uses on the MED List (Middle Eastern Dance List), the Internet chat group. For 44 years, she has performed and taught raqs el sharqi, or Oriental dance. Within the global Oriental dance community, she is considered a master teacher of the form. Many consider her a legend.

Carolina Varga Dinicu’s personal motto is a quote by Emma Goldman, ““If I can’’t dance, I don’t want your revolution”.”1 It refers to the religious attitudes within the Christian and the Islamic world that would discourage dancing. The passion inherent in the statement indicates how closely she identifies herself with dance.

Since she was twenty, her life has unfolded and matured within the community of Oriental dance, from the conservative era of the 1950s through the turbulent period of women’s rights in the 1960s and early 1970s, and the global spread of bellydance in the 1980s and 1990s. Throughout each decade, Morocco has continued to perform and teach the dances that have, since the Chicago Fair of 1893, —been associated in the popular imagination with the exotic Near East, religious symbolism associated with contemporary goddess worship and the risque attributes of a cabaret —but rarely with the community celebrations from which they originated.

As previously suggested, the three names — Carolina Varga Dinicu, Morocco and Aunt Rocky — represent a set of interlocking identities associated with her onstage and offstage life choices. As such, each name can be considered a subjective dance of identity that engages a variety of choreographic frames. As Carolina Varga Dinicu, she develops the content and form of her life. As Morocco she gives it new shape through improvisation and repetition. This identity blends with life via the Internet community and becomes the master storyteller, Aunt Rocky.

This article considers the intersection between Morocco’’s three personas and examines the relationship between a dancer’s life and her chosen movement vocabulary to, as dance ethnologist Jane Desmond suggests, “further our understandings of how social identities are signaled, formed, and negotiated through bodily movement.”2

Carolina Varga Dinicu: Content and Form

Carolina Varga Dinicu was born in Rumania to U.S. citizens of Hungarian and Romanian Rom ancestry who had returned to their parents’’ native country in 1940 in order to help relatives escape from the Nazis. Unfortunately, the family got trapped behind enemy lines and was not able to return to New York until 1945. When they did return, they took up residence in Crown Heights where Carolina’’s father resumed his former job as a policeman and, like many other immigrants, attempted to bury any traces of the family background and in Carolina’’s words, “ to become “as American as apple pie.”” 3

Carolina outwardly accepted the lack of answers to her repeated questions about family history, which made her an outsider in her primarily German/Jewish neighborhood, in which the majority of families celebrated their ethnic identity in family and religious holidays. As she would say, “”Try being the poorest, darkest, kid in the entire elementary school.”” As a teenager, she partly survived the emotional isolation by escaping into the world of blues and jazz-rock greats like Bessie Smith and Ruby and the Romantics.

Not always able to purchase the records she heard on the radio in her neighborhood, she took the subway to Harlem. Each Harlem excursion was a visit to a community in which she felt at home. ““I felt at home there, because I used to often wander into gospel churches on Sunday. I loved the joy and the music”,” she says. Ultimately, her intellectual abilities at fourteen propelled her out of high school and into college.

College courses encouraged curiosity. She became determined to discover her family’’s history. Finally, she managed, through endless pointed questions, to get her parents to tell her they were Rom, but there the conversation ended. Beyond reading everything she could find, her curiosity caused her to seek out a local Gypsy family with a teenage daughter. Morocco attended family celebrations and asked many questions. She discovered an entire Rom community and related identity. This friendship ended when the daughter was required to marry. Carolina also admits she “got tired of them trying to marry me off to one of her brothers.”

In 1958 at eighteen, Carolina was about to complete her B.A. degree in Modern Languages at Brooklyn College. With a desire to find a diversion from books, she took a class in flamenco, which ultimately led to the stage and a tour with the Ballet Espanol Ximenez-Vargas. Although she finished her M.A. degree at Columbia University, she decided to become a professional dancer. In 1960, Father Spiro Avlonitis, a Greek Orthodox priest, who owned the studio where the flamenco company rehearsed, offered to help her find a temporary dancing job:

“I was a flamenco dancer with the Ballet Espagnol Ximenez-Vargas. I was not receiving rehearsal pay, so a Greek priest who was a friend of mine told me he could get me a dance job that would pay $125 a week. This was good pay for a dancer in 1960. So I went to the Arabian Nights. The owner looked at me and said, ‘Go change into your costume.’ So I changed into my Flamenco costume. The owner took one look at me and said. ‘We don’t want Spanish dancer, we want bellydancer!’ I replied, ‘What?’ I’’d never seen it. She said. ‘Watch.’ I watched one of the dancers. Then the owner put me in a costume and I managed to dance around the stage. In the end, the owner said, ‘All right. You are dancer. Not Mid Eastern dancer, but you are dancer. You have two weeks job. You watch, you learn, you stay; no learn, bye-bye.”

During her first performance, she was assigned the name Morocco because the restaurant owner felt she looked as if she had been born there. Thus, influenced by the economics of the market place, she made the transition from flamenco to bellydance.

Carolina never regretted the choice. She was emotionally moved by the music. On her nights off from the Arabian Nights, she was at some other restaurant listening to music and watching the dancers. Through watching and imitating, she expanded her movement vocabulary. From the drummers, she learned the rhythms semai, karsilama, ayoub, zembekiko, kalamatiano, tsamiko, lazbar, chifte telli and maqsoum. The musicians, who played the melodic instruments— – oud, kanoun, violin, ney – —taught her to aurally appreciate the intricacies of a taqsim or improvisation. From watching a dancer named Minee perform to a rhythm called chifititelli, she realized that a dancer could use her entire torso and hips to express the subtle quarter tones of Arab music. What she learned from listening to music and informal conversations and from observing the dancing of grandmothers and professional dancers, she incorporated each night in her two 35- to 45-minute solo improvisations. Carolina Varga Dinicu became Morocco.

Sidebar: The Grannies

When they [bands in ethnic New York nightclubs] played the same kind of music for the audience that I was supposed to get up and dance to, when it was my turn to perform later, I’’d be seeing that the freest dancers were the little kids, the grandmothers and the grandfathers

“When I would see one of the Grannies do a move I liked, —some time in the evening she had to go to the can. The bathrooms were downstairs, so —I’’d follow her downstairs, trap her in the ladies’ room, and say, ‘I like what you did. Would you show it to me?’”

At first they thought I was crazy. Then they realized I meant it; then they thought I was cute. So, they’’d say, “‘You really want to learn how to dance? Come to my house, we’’ll have coffee, and my sisters and I, or my daughters and I, will show you.’”

And I would. I found out that they were going to these places because they were homesick. Most of these people would never go out to a restaurant or a nightclub, or any place that sold alcohol, especially the women, in the cities or towns where they came from back home, but in the U.S., these were the only places they could hear their music. People who would never go to bouzoukia in Greece, because it was beneath them, it was low class, spent every night in them because they were so homesick. There was no place they could hear the music in their language, and they didn’’t realize what treasure they had until they left it.

Morocco: Shape, Improvisation and Repetition

From 1963 until 1968, Morocco was hired as one of the star performers at the Roundtable. A newspaper column from this period refers to Morocco’s performance as “high art.” The article validated what Morocco believed. The dance was not the hootchy kootch of the vaudeville stage. It was a beautiful dance she loved to share with others. Besides, there was the backstage community. Families who were originally from Egypt, Lebanon, and elsewhere not only liked Morocco’’s dancing but, felt she was a “nice girl” whom they could trust with their husbands, fathers, and grandfathers. There were also the crowded dressing rooms where dancers in between performances shared histories, gossiped about the clientele, and made costumes. It was a community of women with which Morocco easily harmonized her life.

The position at the Roundtable provided Morocco with a stable income that allowed her to begin to pursue other opportunities. In 1963, she heard that there was going to be a Moroccan Pavilion at the 1964 World’’s Fair in New York. She approached the people in charge and suggested that they hire her to perform because her name was Morocco. She was not hired to dance, but she was invited to see the real Moroccan dancers rehearse before their opening. 4

She was fascinated. She was particularly intrigued by the Guedra, a trance ritual of the Tuaregs of the Sahara. With information provided by her new friends at the Moroccan pavilion and a $400 loan from her mother, Morocco made her first trip across the Atlantic to Morocco by plane and then proceeded to the small village of Goulimine by train, bus, jeep, and donkey.

When she arrived in Goulimine, she looked around for someone to help her find the Guedra dancer B’’shara. The young woman with whom she spoke just stared at her. As Morocco tells it: “It was like looking in a mirror. We looked like each other. We could have been twins.”” Years later, when she utters these words, one can still feel the power this event had for her. It was a pivotal experience. The woman who accepted the name Morocco because someone suggested she looked Moroccan was in Morocco and someone really did look like her. She stayed with B’’shara and her family for three weeks and has returned countless times over the years.

Sidebar: A Life Event

Fascinated by a ritual called Guedra, Morocco asked her friends at the Moroccan Pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair where she could go to learn the authentic version. They said to go to a woman called B’Shara in a small village in Morocco called Goulimine.

Long story short, it took me a couple of weeks to talk Rosie [her mother] into lending me the 400 bucks. I went. It was a long journey. I got off the plane in Casa, took a train to Marrakech, took a bus to the next stop. Took a station wagon type of bus to the next stop. Took a kind of jeep to the next junction. Then it was either walk or get on a donkey.

Again, I was fifty pounds lighter than I am now. I was one skinny-assed little chicklet. It hurt. My skinny butt on that skinny beast with nothing between the two of us except a blanket, holding onto the kid in front of me, was not pleasant.

Needless to say, I got my black-and-blue butt to Goulimine. It was over three hours, somewhere between three and four hours. Now that I think of it, I could’’ve probably walked it faster, but there was my luggage and it was very rough terrain. It was not fun. I get off the donkey, rubbing my tail. It hurt. Now, here it’s not polite to rub your butt in public. It hurt. I was trying to figure out how I was going to get out of there without being tortured in the same manner.

I look up and I see this young woman. I’m looking at her, she’s looking at me. I’m looking at her, she’s looking at me. We’re walking towards each other. Get close enough, I look at her, I pull my mirror out of my pocket, I look at me. Show her the mirror. She was short. She came up to just a little above my chin, and she had a chest. I still didn’t… But she looked more like she could be my sister than my sister looks.

She takes a look at me and I look at her, and the next thing I know she’s got me by the hand, she’s pulling me along saying,… in French, “Come on, you’ve got to meet somebody,” or actually “Somebody has to see you.”

We get to this house and she says, “When is Auntie coming home?” The other woman answers, “She’ll be here soon.” So, of course, out comes the mint tea and the Coca-Cola… I took the mint tea.

In comes this woman who is introduced to me as B’Shara. She was the aunt of the young woman who grabbed my hand in the square after I got my sore butt off that donkey. I went there trying to figure out how I was going to find this woman, and there I was dragged to her house.

All she knew was that I looked like her niece, or her niece looked like me, except that I was taller, thinner, and lighter. They’d never seen me before in their lives, nonetheless they decided I was a long-lost relative. I ended up staying there almost a month. It was a couple of days less than a month, because I had to get back to my plane. And I started learning Guedra.

Dorinee Kondo would refer to this event in Morocco’s life as a “nodal point:”5 a life event, which would link Morocco’s experience of learning dance in the U.S. with North Africa and the Near East. This initial journey was the first of many trips to Morocco and also to Egypt, Turkey, Tunisia and elsewhere. Each trip was an extension of her ties to the Middle Eastern community in New York. Restaurant owners in New York would recommend her as a dancer to their friends and relatives who owned similar establishments in the Near East. In 1970, in between trips, she started teaching weekly Oriental dance classes for the AMAS repertory theatre. Finally in 1976, she started taking her students and other members of the American Oriental dance community with her on tours to first Morocco (1976-90) and later Egypt (1978-93, then 2002-present) and Turkey (1994 to 2000, 2006).

Morocco describes these tours as not only providing an opportunity for American dancers to expand their image of the Middle East, but also an opportunity for her to continue her interaction with old friends, visit new places, learn new dances and keep up on the latest dancers, music and costume trends. Hotel managers, tour guides, dancers, shop keepers, choreographers, drivers, restaurant owners, costume makers have became part of Morocco’s extended pan-Atlantic dance community.

Morocco tells one story of a young Egyptian, Mahmoud Abd el Ghaffar, whose entire business of supplying costumes for dancers has evolved out of an interaction with Morocco and the members of her tours. Her living room display of photos includes a recent one of Mahmoud and his wife. In fashioning these relationships, her past study of languages was a definite aid in helping her adapt quickly to different versions of Arabic.

Sidebar: A Pan-Atlantic Dance Community

When I worked in Morocco, it was for specific gala performances, because the guys that I met, the people who were putting together the Moroccan Pavilion, were very, very high-placed in the Moroccan government. So they connected me with some fabulous performances. I mean, I danced for King Hassan twice, though that and a dollar-fifty got me a subway token in New York. It wasn’t like, you know, I danced all over Morocco. I danced in a couple of places in Morocco, yes, and then I left there when I found out that the reputation wasn’t quite what I had thought it was, but I did do galas.

Later, I did several bilingual (English / French) lecture performances by invitation, for Dar America in Marrakesh
and taught special seminar classes at a friend’s school in Casablanca.

You weren’t going to see my name splashed in the paper when they were private gala parties for very wealthy weddings or very wealthy circumcision celebrations, or just very wealthy, fancy dancing parties and socials, “We are killing every sheep on the block” parties kind of thing. Also a couple of times in Paris I danced for Moroccan royalty. So I was flown over specifically for that.

At one point when King Saud was receiving medical treatment in Florida, I was flown to Florida, but the deal was that I got to take a couple of people with me as bodyguards, because I didn’t trust that contingency. Because I asked to have the bodyguards, I was treated like a queen. I was treated perfectly, but I was flown in, I did the show, I was flown out.

Morocco recorded some of the dances of the countries she visited on super-eight film, some of which she incorporates in the lectures she has given for the Congress on Research in Dance and other organizations. Others she uses as documentation for the dances she and members of her company, the Casbah Dance Experience, perform at venues such as the Riverside Dance Festival.

Morocco does not talk about creating the dances for this company in terms that would be familiar to the “mainstream” dance community. Her challenge is to find a method of staging a village or urban folk form. In their places of origin, these dances are for the most part improvisational, with each dancer focusing on a personal repertoire of movements. While she has filmed examples of the dances as presented at the Marrakesh Folk Festival, the Reda Troupe and the National Folk Troupe of Egypt, she does not follow their format. She prefers to initiate the choreography in the music and related movements of the dance in conjunction with the dancers in her company and, by extension, an American audience.

The process she has evolved begins with listening to the music “”until I get sick of it”.” From this intense listening, images of dancers moving to a combination of travel and stationary steps begins to form in her mind. She begins to play with these movement ideas by moving chess pieces around and finally to place the movements on the dancers. Her goal is to find a balance between the dance’s inherent spatial stillness and the demands of the proscenium stage.

Her method of teaching is a similar act of translation and a logical extension of her dance training. Morocco begins an Oriental dance class by standing in front of the students, purposefully leading them through a series of full body stretches followed by a series of torso and hip isolations while music plays in the background. This spatial organization of the class is maintained during the next hour and forty-five minutes.

Morocco dances to different musical selections and the students follow her movements. She rarely leaves her position in the front of the class to speak to individual students. Instead, she attempts to make eye contact with them in the mirror and indicate the correction. She feels to do otherwise would embarrass and thus inhibit the student.

Space is defined by various positions of the arms and bounded by Morocco’s body; only rarely does she traverse either direction in a small circle. Musical accompaniment is popular or folk music with a simple repeated rhythm and melody line. But, each new piece adds increasingly complex integrations of rhythm and melody. Morocco expresses this complexity in a series of small motor movements of the torso that range from different forms of hip circles, shimmies and combinations of the latter.

The repetition of the movement within the increasing complexity of the music evolves an attitude of contemplation or what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi would refer to as “flow”6— a state in which the task is challenging enough to be interesting, but also easy enough to be rewarding. As a student in the class, I felt I was participating in an improvisational method that began when Morocco was dancing in the restaurants of Greektown.

Given the name Morocco in 1960 as a fledgling dancer, Carolina Varga Dinicu has, through repetition of classes, performances and tours, shaped a persona, Morocco. It is this name with which she primarily identifies. In a recent New York Times article, the reporter referred to her as Carolina Varga Dinicu and this infuriated her. Morocco is more than a name. As she would state it, “It is who I am.” It is also the geographic location of a major transition in her life. On her first visit to Morocco, she found not only a dance, but her artistic face. Morocco is also a name that is linked to Carolina Varga Dinicu. In countless publicity stories, there is always a reference to her Rom ancestry and her status as a member of the high IQ organization, MENSA.

Aunt Rocky: Allusion

Aunt Rocky is Morocco’’s e-mail personality. Each day she participates in discussion on the MED list, the 700-member chat group of the Oriental dance community. Dancers from the U.S., England, Brazil, Finland, Germany, Sweden, Japan, New Zealand, Australia and elsewhere exchange viewpoints on a variety of subjects. These include how to make costumes, music selections for different kinds of performances, the quality of articles and reviews in dance publications, methods to create new choreography, good places to see dancers, the role of body type or age in dance, and good books that provide information. It is a community in which Morocco is very much at home.

Within this community, Aunt Rocky is a loveable figure, who, with wit and humor, consistently alludes to her age and related dance experience with phrases such as “”When Noah built the ark and I started learning to dance.”” She reminds people to have respect for themselves and for the dance, for instance, calling the form Oriental dance, rather than the more popular term bellydancing. Sometimes she uses a combination of humor and bluntness to remind people that the dance evolved its early reputation as a result of “whore house anthropologists” of the 19th century.

Sidebar: The Master Storyteller

I remember going up on a two-week contract at the Glenns Falls Casino in 1962, which was in Glenns Falls [New York]
I get there and I’m in the ladies’ room in one of the stalls. It’s early afternoon, I haven’t even gotten ready for my first show, which was a whole other animal, and I hear these two other ladies in the ladies’ room discussing,

“I hear they’re going to have a belly dancer tonight. Have you ever seen one?”

“No, I’ve never seen one.”

“I wonder if she’s going to get down on the floor and crawl on her belly like a reptile.”

This was somebody who wasn’t being snotty; she simply didn’t know. From deep within one of the stalls comes this voice with a New York accent:

“Hardly likely, sweetheart. I’m not getting splinters for you or anyone else.” Me.

As Aunt Rocky, she is often turned to for advice. In the midst of an e-mail posting on a subject, the listee will ask, “I wonder what Aunt Rocky would have to say about this.” They always find out. Much of each day when she is in New York is spent tucked away in her office, hidden behind book-filled shelves answering e-mail. When traveling, she takes her portable computer with her so that she can keep up with her correspondence.

A posting is a mini-choreography in which words are capitalized for emphasis, other words repeated to allude to a level of intensity, parentheses are used to reference history, quotation marks for important ideas, short snappy sentences to keep the readers attention and little faces with smiles when the subject seems too serious. The postings combine determined rhetoric, amusing anecdotes, and generosity— – all attributes you note when you watch her in a solo performance.

The Three Dances

Carolina Varga Dinicu, Morocco, Aunt Rocky – —each name is a dance that is a reflection of a single life. The dance of Carolina Varga Dinicu provided the initial content of her Rom family history, New York City upbringing, love of music, and her intelligence. From this heritage she shaped Morocco, at the center of which is Oriental Dance and the other folk forms of North Africa and the Near East. She has performed this identity on stages, in classes and at national and international conferences. With the development of the Internet, she evolved Aunt Rocky. With age, the professionalism of Morocco, the storytelling ability of Aunt Rocky and the deeply felt passion for dance of Carolina, have merged and converged in refractions of each other.

The ability to situationally perform different aspects of herself is the factor that links these divergent selves’ personas. It is an adaptation of the improvisational skills learned in repeated performances in the intimate environment of a cabaret setting and refined in classes in which one transmits knowledge via improvising movements that others are imitating. In each context, restaurant or studio, success is gauged by Morocco’’s ability to “read the audience.” This means she must exercise a higher state of perceptual awareness than normally required. A correct reading of the audience allows her to engage them —as audience or student —in an appreciation of the dance and herself as a dancer/teacher. Thus, each performance becomes a combined act of observation and negotiation. She refined both skills not only in her dance class and cabaret, but also in her numerous research trips.

When asked what she is trying to accomplish with the dance, Morocco replies, “to spread joy” and “to set the record straight.” She would describe her dance as an expression of the music’’s joyous nature. The music itself evolved in tandem with the dances that were, in their context of origin, associated with the life rituals of weddings and births or the celebrations attached to the remembrance of a saint.

More recently, she has begun to include a performance of the Guedra in her concerts, in addition to her Oriental dance. In performing this Tuareg trance ritual as an opening number, she is uniting her desire to bless the space and all those present in it, in person or in spirit, sharing soul’s love and peace with them. Later on, her raks sharqi becomes the dancer Morocco’s personal form for sharing its beauty, joy and happiness with the audience.

Morocco’’s life demonstrates the inventiveness and multifaceted nature of identity in a world in which people move between native communities, countries, and various forms of media from the television screen to the computer monitor. She has constructed a life in which Oriental dance and its community are what contemporary theorist, Walter Anderson, in “The Future of the Self”, refers to as a “primary identifier.”7 The dance community encourages the expression of Carolina’’s passion for dance, Morocco’’s on stage dance persona, and Aunt Rocky’’s wit. The dance and its context are the center from which each identity manifests itself. As Anderson indicates, ““For an identity to attain primacy, it really needs to be regarded as primordial, not socially constructed, not imagined into being by some intellectual prophet, but rather representing some great and eternal reality.””8

Carolina learned the dance from the grandmothers. Morocco traveled to the land of the grandmothers. Aunt Rocky attempts to maintain the spirit of the grandmothers, as she understands it, in her conversations on the Internet. All three of these personas dance a beautiful and complex choreography inside and outside the woman that most of us know as Morocco.

To learn more about the dancer Morocco, visit http://live-casbahdanceorg.gotpantheon.com

Barbara Sellers-Young is a professor and chair of the Department of Theatre and Dance, University of California/Davis. She teaches movement, acting and Asian theatre. A dancer, choreographer, and director, her work has been performed at the Broadway Performance Hall (Seattle), Lincoln Hall (Portland), Sacramento Theatre Company, and at Manchester Metropolitan University (England). She has taught workshops and classes in dance and movement for the Association of Theatre in Higher Education, Northwest Theatre Conference, Oregon State University, Knox College, Manchester Metropolitan University and the International College in Beijing. Her articles on the relationship among movement, dance and culture can be found in The Journal of Popular Culture, Theatre Topics, Asian Theatre Journal and the Dance Research Journal. She is the author of Teaching Personality with Gracefulness (published in 1993), a discussion of Kanriye Fujima’s life and teaching of Nihon Buyo in the United States, and of Breathing, Movement, Exploration (Applause Books 2001). Professor Sellers-Young recently received fellowships from the American Council of Learned Societies and the Centre for Cultural Research into Risk, Charles Sturt University, Australia, as well as numerous grants, including a Davis Humanities Fellowship and a Pacific Rim Planning Grant. She served for two years as convener of the International Federation of Theatre Research Working Group: Theory and Practice of Performing, and currently is a member of the executive board of the Congress on Research in Dance.

Notes:

1 This phrase is part of Morocco’s signature file and is a part of every e-mail

2 Jane Desmond, “Embodying Difference: Issues in Dance and Cultural Studies,” Meaning in Motion, ed. Jane Desmond, London: Duke University Press, 1997: 29.

3 Quotes in this essay are from a set of interviews conducted in September, 1998.

4 She did work there later and was hired by the directors to perform elsewhere.

5 Dorinne Kondo, Crafting Selves Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990: 304

6 Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, New York: Harper Collins, 1996.

7 Walter Anderson, The Future of Self, New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher, 1997: 220.

8 Anderson, 1997: 220.