She’s been a friend of mine for a long time, though we haven’t spent much time together lately. She’s exotic, quirky, a bit “out-there,” and there have been times, I’m sorry to say, when I’ve been embarrassed to be seen with my old friend. I’m ashamed of that—letting peer pressure and societal expectations make me shun such a faithful friend. True, she wears a lot of eye make-up—she has a special fondness for Egyptian kohl. True, she does wear a lot of ethnic jewelry—she’s very fond of sparkly, spangly, jingly things. True, she does wear her hair long and wild, when others her age would cut it off and don more conservative attire. Those who don’t know her might be tempted to call her a tramp, a slut, the whore of Babylon, even. But my old friend is wise and joyful, and knows how to shake her lush, womanly ass to impressive effect. She’s generous, kind to all women, non-judgmental, and loves to party. And, most importantly of all, being with her always makes me happy. Her name is Raqs Sharki. (That’s “belly dance,” in the common parlance, though she prefers “Oriental dance.” Still, she has a good sense of humor and won’t hold it against you if you get her name wrong.)
I first met this lady long ago, at 16 or so. My friend and I were at the Hungry Mouth Restaurant in San Francisco – a hippie-dippy vegetarian place on Clement Street, below Walt and Magana Baptiste’s yoga and dance studio. My friend told me that if we were lucky, we might catch a glimpse of the belly dancers. And were we ever lucky! While we tucked into our spicy peanut-noodles, down the back stairs they trooped, skirts swirling and beaded hip belts jingling. They were lovely, stunning – the most interesting “older” women my young eyes had ever beheld. They must have been rehearsing for a performance, as there were at least six of them in full costume, pausing for tea and pastries. Their ripe, full breasts jiggled and threatened to spill out of their spangled bras as the dancers leaned over the table to help themselves to treats. Their hair was long and wild, their faces slightly lined, a bit soft, and very knowing. Their flashing eyes were rimmed with kohl. Their naked bellies were soft, round, and unashamed. They laughed, and chatted in deep, throaty voices, and one of them, noticing our gaping stares, turned to wave at us over her bare shoulder.
“When I grow up, I want to be them!” I said.
Seven years later, an ad on a bulletin board at my college in Alabama led me to an odd little shop, where R. assembled balloon bouquets and sent costumed characters out to deliver them. R.’s belly dancer was going back to school, and she agreed to train me as her replacement—bless her. She furnished me with music, VHS tapes (this was a while ago, y’all), and the basic moves to put together a three-minute dance. I put my sewing skills to work, and soon I was outfitted like a thrift-store Scheherazade. What I lacked for in lush curves and sultry grace, I made up for in skinny enthusiasm. I felt so damn gorgeous in my first costume, especially once I added a thick, wavy, auburn wig.
I continued to dance after moving to Germany. In fact, the belly dance scene there was, and remains, huge. Classes for orientalische Tanz attract interesting women from all walks of life, and my classmates were always open, welcoming and great fun. Eventually, I found my way into a performance troupe in Würzburg called the Meharis. Our teacher, the lovely Sanna, told us this means “white racing camels” and is a term of high praise. Performing with the Meharis was a hoot, and the highlight of my years there was a solo performance in which I balanced a sword on my head.
Besides a low-impact aerobic workout that’s easy on the joints (unless you try some of the more acrobatic moves, like sudden drops to the floor from a deep back-bend), belly dance has provided me with a wonderful sense of solidarity. I’ve danced beside a tattooed young musician, a nuclear physicist, a newspaper journalist, a teacher, a business owner, a stay-at-home mother, a government official, a professor of medicine…and we all encouraged and supported each other, reveling in the uplifting group energy of joyful dance. For a few hours each week, we were sisters in dance.
And today, the friend who originally introduced me to belly dancer is taking me to a big dance event in Seattle, where she’ll be vending finger cymbals. This will be just the kick I need to get my hips up out of my chair and shimmying again. See you Monday with photos from Cues and Tattoos, a belly dance trade fair/show in Seattle!