Originally published in Habibi Vol.5 No.12 & many others since….
When I first came into Oriental dance (way back when Noah got off the Ark), I was drawn by the beauty of its music and movements and gave no thought to the possibility that it might be misinterpreted by ignorant or misinformed viewers. Innocent that I was, I assumed that the grace of a skilled dancer was sufficient to prove the beauty and legitimacy of this ancient art form. How wrong I was!
Ive lost count of the times that an erroneous and degrading value judgement of my morality and worthiness was made, based on the vulgar misnomer “belly” dancing and previous performances of those who, in every profession, cater to the lowest common denominator. It was then that I started seriously researching background and history, in order to counteract the fantasist garbage that was being printed, filmed, performed and believed by Mr. and Mrs. U.S.A and parts of Canada and Europe…
I was dismayed by the fact that most of the information available in English, French and German was by two types of people: filthy-minded racist, puritanical missionaries and colonialists, who looked down on anything having to do with indigenous populations traditions, ceremonies and entertainments and viewed it with the judgmental snobbery of a Europe that considered the body evil in and of itself and the waltz the depths of erotic depravity – and – what I have come to call the “whorehouse” anthropologists: those young (and not so young) men who travelled in the Middle East as part of their “education” and wrote about it either for their monetary gain, sensationalism, repentance, or to get back at restrictive parents.
I find no instance where any of these MEN were brought into family or remote tribal life, so that they could see first hand the rites and rituals of the women of good character and family in their own homes and villages. Even if they had male friends among the Islamic community, the womens quarters were closed to them.
(Not to mention the fact that country traditions were often abandoned in the economic necessities of the big cities, where the Europeans were most likely to find all their contacts and by the Mideastern bureaucrats, eager to find favor in the eyes of their oppressors, by denigrating, abandoning and slandering their “native” roots and traditions.)
My first inkling that there was any connection between the slower movements of Oriental dance and the physical act of giving birth came rather suddenly, in late February 1961, when, at the end of a performance at the Arabian Nights in New York City, I was pounced upon by a Saudi Arabian woman,Farab Firdoz, who refused to believe that I wasnt an Arab because I had danced so authentically (or so she said).
She was a dancer and had been taught by her grandmother, who had also been a dancer. She told me that the “belly roll” (I hate that word), flutter, and some parts of the floor section were based on the movements of labor and childbirth and that thousands of years ago, they had been part of a religious ceremony, but that with the advent of monotheism and various styles of religious restrictions, had ceased to be religious and become secular: either as an entertainment (women for women, men for men, women for male or mixed audiences, men likewise) or as a ritual/ therapeutic.
In remoter areas, where the West hadnt bolluxed things up, all the women would gather around a women in labor and do certain movements, encouraging her to do likewise, thus easing the birth and reminding each other that they shared the same destiny and experiences as women. Having done these movements in various folk dances since childhood, their muscles were stronger and better prepared for the stress of childbirth.
Of course, she didnt tell me all this the moment she cornered me in the dressing room. It came over several weeks of a burgeoning friendship and my interrogation tactics. To tell the truth, I thought she was full of it at the time.
Then a couple of Sephardic women mentioned that a LaMaze course they had taken had been a laugh riot, since the main movements taught were the “bellyroll” and flutter, but they were termed “pelvic rocking” and “deep breathing”. I checked out a couple of the LaMaze classes at Mount Sinai hospital and found that they were correct. My curiousity was aroused, to say the least, but I remained unconvinced.
In the London library, in 1962, I found “The Dancer of Shamahka” by Armen Ohanian and the passage I cited in my 1964 article: “Belly Dancing and Childbirth”, as well as the rest of the book, which served to flesh out the times and cultural contexts from which it was written:
Thus in Cairo one evening I saw, with sick incredulous eyes, one of our most sacred dances degraded into a bestiality horrible and revolting. It is our poem of the mystery and pain of motherhood, which all true Assiatic men watch with reverence and humility, in the faraway corners of Asia where the destructive breath of the Occident has not yet penetrated. In this olden Asia which has kept the dance in its primitive purity, it represents maternity, the mysterious conception of life, the suffering and the joy with which a new soul is brought into the world.
Could any man born of women contemplate this most holy subject, expressed in an art so pure and so ritualistic as our Eastern dance, with less than profound reverence? Such is our Asiatic veneration of motherhood, that there are countries and tribes whose most binding oath is sworn upon the stomach because it is from this sacred cup that humanity has issued.
But the spirit of the Occident had touched this holy dance and it became the horrible danse du ventre, the “hoochie koochie”. To me, a nauseating revelation of unsuspected depths of human bestiality, to others it was – amusing. I heard the lean Europeans chuckling. I saw lascivious smiles upon even the lips of the Asiatics, and I fled.
I didnt take the whole story of her life as gospel truth, however, and I still wasnt convinced. I questioned my friend, Farab again. She told me that as recently as 25 years before (1937), she had been present when the women of her grandmothers tribe gathered around the pallet of a woman in childbirth and did these movements, which she did along with them.
Other dances were done afterwards, to celebrate the birth, as well as a more elaborate repetition of the actual birth dance. Men were forbidden to watch the birth or the womens celebrations afterwards. They had their own dances and celebrations for the event, from which the women were, likewise, excluded.
I began to believe. In 1963, the Moroccan Pavilion of the New York Worlds Fair opened. I was there for the first show on the first day. I sat through four shows that day, returned the next and the next and the next.
The directors/ promoters, whom I’d met previously (whole other story!), noticed. (Gee, I wonder why?). They were surprised and pleased at the extent of my seriousness about the dance and culture and began to supply me with information (and food — lots of it!).
Almost as a footnote to a conversation one day, one of them said that his wife had just gone back to Morocco, to go to a small village from where her cousins came. One of them was about to give birth for the first time and she went to help “dance the baby into the world”. What? He repeated pretty much what Farab had told me two years previously.
First a Saudi and now a Moroccan with the same story. His wife wasnt a professional dancer, looking to “justify” or “apologise” for her profession. She was a damn wealthy, bourgeois housewife, who didnt try to deny her roots in a Berber tribe that had remained almost unaffected by Western plastic culture. I told him I would give half my soul to see such a ceremony and he promised to help.
In 1964 I wrote the article I mentioned previously, which was published in a national, medically oriented magazine. That article has since been re-printed in over five other publications, from feminist newspapers to dance publications to Medical Dimensions (1974). I found the April 1961 issue of Dance Perspectives and noticed that La Meri, the world respected dancer and dance ethnologist, had used the same “Dancer of Shamahka” passage to back her premise. Small world isnt it?
I thought my Moroccan friend had forgotten his promise, but in 1967 word came to me from Casablanca: get down here now, if you still want to see what you asked about. Another cousin was about to give birth, and from the size of it they thought it might be twins. I asked no further questions, grabbed my passport, borrowed some money from my mother (thanks Ma!) and split to Casablanca. (Come to think of it, I havent paid her back yet. Then again, she hasnt mentioned it either.) The wife met me at the airport and explained the situation on the way to the village, which was between Tisint and Tintasart. (Not exactly what you would call tourist towns.)
Since I couldnt speak Berber by any stretch of the imagination, nor Moroccan Arabic ( we spoke in French and Spanish), but I could easily pass for Moroccan physically, I was to pretend that I was deaf and dumb and would be introduced as a servant of my friends wife. Anyone who knows me knows how hard it would be for me to keep my mouth shut for five minutes, let alone a few days…
She filled me in on the background and what I would see and could expect, so that nothing would take me by surprise and produce a reaction that would give me away as a foreigner. I was to start playing the role immediately, because we were going to pick up several other relatives on the way and they werent to know a thing.
Of course we had to stay a few hours at every relations house along the way and eat, etc. I was spared the excess avoirdupois by dint of the fact that servants ate the leftovers and didnt have to gorge out of politeness.
My “Mistress” got me in to see several of the family celebrations by saying that I was new to her household and that she had sort of adopted me because I was so young and so terribly afflicted by Allah. (When I asked her how she justified the lie along with Gods name, she said that my “affliction” was that I wasnt really Moroccan!) I heard some dynamite singing and saw enough Schikhatt to o.d. on it for a while. I even danced my little asterisk off in the servants quarters, when they got together after work and had their own Schikhatt parties.
It took three and a half long, hot, tiring days and nights of stopping at relatives homes to finally get to the village, but as soon as we got there, we were whisked off to the local hammam (steam baths). Allah be praised.
A special tent had been erected at one end of the village, to which the cousin had gone the day before, after having been bathed by several friends at the hammam. Her husband was a big mogul in the tribe and a lot of partying was to accompany the event.
She was sitting down on a divan in the back section of the tent, but I noticed that a small hollow had been dug in the ground in the center of the tent. There was food and fruit and mint tea aplenty for the female guests. Males werent allowed within 100 yards of the tent flap. They werent sure of the exact day she would give birth, but it would be very soon. More relatives were expected and there was enough food for an entire army, should it decide to go on manoeuvers.
We passed the day singing, playing bendirs, dancing Schikhatt, drinking mint tea (which I served to my “mistress” in a pretty passable manner, if I say so myself) and eating. Oh , yes — the VERY pregnant cousin got up and danced half the day herself, dressed in a beautiful embroidered kaftan.
Later that night, when I was alone with my benefactress, I asked about the hollow in the ground. She said that it was there for the baby to fit into during the birth. Huh? Wait and see…
The next morning, we were awakened earlier than expected by one of the cousins servants: labor had started . We jumped out of bed (off the divans), dressed, and ran like hell. She was dressed in a lighter kaftan and was squatting over the hollow, sweating up a storm. The other women had formed a series of circles, three deep around her, but made way for us to get to the first circle.
All the women were singing softly and undulating their abdomens, then sharply pulled them in several times. The movement was much slower and stronger than what dancers call the flutter, and can be seen in some Schikhatts. They repeated the movements while slowly moving the circles clockwise.The cousin would get up and do the movements in place for a few minutes and then squat for a few minutes and bear down.
She didnt seem to be particularly agitated or in any pain. The only sign of strain was the perspiration that soaked her hair and forehead. We stopped only for midday prayers. Thank heaven Im a dancer and imitated the movements of Moslem ritual as if I were imitating a dance, or I wouldve blown it right there!
We drank some mint tea that she poured for everyone of us and continued dancing. About an hour later, she gave a gasp and we heard a soft thud. She lifted her kaftan and there was a baby in the hollow. She held up her hand: it wasnt over yet. Fifteen minutes later, another gasp and another soft thud. It was twin boys.
They were cleaned with soft white tufts of lambs wool dipped in cool tea, but the umbilical cords werent cut until the afterbirths had been delivered. Then the cords were cut with a silver knife and the afterbirths were buried in the hollow that had received the new-born babies. The women started zagareeting like crazy, the babies started crying (who wouldnt with all the noise) and from the shouts outside, I gathered that the men had realised what had happened and were carrying the news to the other side of town, where the father had been waiting it out with his friends.
Fifteen minutes later, he appeared, exactly 100 yards from the birth tent, and the babies were carried out in a pure white cloth for him to see. Then they were returned to the mother and she put them to her breasts. She had, by this time, returned to the divan. The women kept up the singing and dancing until way past sundown. It was so moving that I couldnt help crying.
While I had been watching her give birth, I could see her abdomen moving underneath the kaftan in involuntary undulations, much the same as my cats abdomens when they kittened. I asked my “mistress” later, if she had still been dancing at that point , or if natural movement had taken over, and she said:
Nosotros hacemos una imitacion de los moviemientos naturales. Ella tenia que hacer esos moviemientos, cuando dio a luz, porque no pudo menos. (She imitated the natural movements. She had to do those movements when she gave birth because she couldnt do otherwise.) In other words, those were natural movements of labour and childbirth that we have been brainwashed out of in this society by religious propaganda and medical manoeuvring.
It was more than sufficient to me to prove the origins of some of the movements of what has become incorporated into Oriental dance and more than sufficient evidence to give credence to Armen Ohanians allegation re Oriental dance and how it has become degraded and distorted as a valid artform.
But it by no means implies that when I am dancing I am pretending Im giving birth. Yuk! It means that I know the origins, intent, respect and love of life that the dance is supposed to display: it is supposed to be graceful, beautiful, artful, sincere, and not a vulgarised businessmans blue – plate special.
I apologize to nobody for my love of my Art. I thank God for it and my ability to do it and earn my living from something I love. I have neither respect nor liking for those unfortunates, who abuse the dance by taking out their degraded sexual fantasies on it and through it, because they have so little confidence in their own sexuality.
Every dance form has its roots in some sort of religious ceremony, some of them deliberately erotic, just as cultured speech has its origins in caveman grunts. Every dance form, done well (as well as sports, gymnastics, etc) is pleasing to the eye and therefore sensual. Unfortunately, there are many ignorant, uptight people who find any pleasing movement of the human body lewd and lascivious.
Thats their problem, but its hard enough to earn a living as a legitimate Oriental dancer and ethnologist without having to deal with their sick little minds and vulgar misinterpretations.
To use the disgusting misnomer “belly dance” is not only incorrect, it is an insult equivalent to calling Flamenco “cockroach killing”. Worse. In Arabic, the dance is called “Raks Sharki” or “Raks al Shark”, which translates: “Oriental Dance” or “Dance of the Orient”. In clubs in the Middle East, it is often also referred to as Danse Orientale.
The term “belly dance” was coined in 1893 by Sol Bloom, impresario of the Midway Plaisance & “Street in Cairo” exhibit at the Colombian Trade Fair and Exposition (Worlds Fair) in Chicago, IL. He did it deliberately, to titillate the dirty minds of the Mid Victorians of that era, who would pay any price to see something they thought was salacious, so they could go home and pretend to be shocked.
In a time when people thought the words “arm” and “leg” were too risque (they called them limbs), you can imagine what they made of that! Mr Bloom calculated correctly and earned himself enough money to finance his later Congressional campaign, which he won. Unfortunately, the name stuck and so did the filthy – minded misinterpretation, especially when there are always base creatures, willing to cater to the lowest common denominator to make a fast buck.
Fortunately, there are those performers who respect themselves and their art and there are those Mideastern people who have not succumbed to a colonialist misinterpretation and debasement of their ethnic heritage. There are those viewers who know art when they see it. To them I say thank you and may you always be glad that I am a Mideastern/Oriental dancer. I certainly am.