In an effort to stay in touch with my inner bad girl, I've been studying belly dancing. I'm a lazy student, though, and am afraid I'll never dance as well as my enchanting teacher, Julia, Jewel of the Nile, or Leela, of the Odalisque Dance Troupe.
I met Leela at the local pub on the day she moved to my neighborhood in Brooklyn, and Leela later introduced me to Julia at a party. It was love at first sight for me, and I decided to court them both. I wanted to know them. Leela is a seriously winsome woman, and she loves to dance--she practices little moves even as she walks down the street. Julia has been belly dancing for over 20 years and teaches now. She has the mysterious allure of an artist who knows a lot but doesn't need to talk about it. As I've courted Leela and Julia, I've felt foolish at times, like a belly dance groupie. But they've been patient with me.
On my first night out with Leela, she invited me to hear Zikrayat, an Arabic ensemble of musicians who play buzuq, riqq, oud, nay and tabla, and this performance included solo dances by two women, Naraya and Dorit. The music was so gorgeous and strange as it washed over me, and as soon as Naraya and Dorit were finished, Leela got up to dance along with quite a few other women in the audience--dark, waving New York flowers, with flowing hair and discretely spangled outfits.
I was happy just to watch Leela swivel her hips and flutter her fingers, but she beckoned to me to join her on the dance floor. "Use your flamenco," she said (I've studied flamenco dance a bit), and so I did, adding in a little bit of cha-cha while trying to copy the moves of the women around me. "You dance beautifully," a man on the dance floor told me, which got me all confused. Didn't he see I was a rank amateur? Was he trying to cheer me up because he pitied me? Was he simply having a good time?
After a few songs, I returned to my seat, but Leela danced on, lost in an ecstatic haze, a sheen of sweat on her skin. The music kept going and going, obscure Egyptian film music of the 1950s, and the singer sounded like she was crying. A gray-haired man in a navy blue sweater threw a pile of money at the singer and she ignored the bills as they came fluttering to her feet.
"See?" Leela said to me afterward. "It's addictive, like crack."
A couple weeks later, I attended a solo performance by Leela in a dark basement nightclub in Manhattan. She covered herself with a veil at the start of her dance, but eventually threw it off so you could see her in all her gorgeousness. Wearing a brown velvet costume with gold spangles, Leela kept her waist bare to reveal her curves, and she had the sort of vava-voom cleavage I'll never achieve. As she danced, Leela also wore a knowing Mona Lisa smile, but was coy about not looking directly at anyone in the audience. Instead, she watched her hands and arms as they twirled and traced patterns in the air. And she did this incomprehensible and complicated twitch with her hips that reminded me of Mae West.
Julia, Jewel of the Nile
A couple of weeks later, I go to my first belly dancing class with Julia. We are ten or so women in a Brooklyn studio, wearing hip scarves with coins sewn on as we improvised to taqsims--repetitive, pulsing rhythms. Very hypnotic. I wear lipstick, bangle bracelets and my hair loose, but I'm no match for Julia's natural glamour. She has the strong presence of a silent film star, and she boosts her dramatic looks with heavy eyeliner and bangs cut straight across her forehead.
In class, Julia uses baroquely Orientalist metaphors to help us visualize what our moves should look like. We pluck grapes, we carry trays of fruit, we dance with imaginary partners. "Take off like rocket, drop back like a mummy," she says of a sinuous torso movement. She tells us to shape our bodies into creative tableaux. "Think of drawing yourself as a picture," she said. "Every woman has her line."
I've sought my line ever since, but it's not easy to find. Belly dancing is harder than it looks; it's not just about wiggling around. It's about the dance techniques of isolations, of small movements, posture and layering several movements on top of each other. Julia also teaches veil dancing, and I love throwing that sheer fabric around like a colorful, swooping cloud of mist.
Most of all, my favorite part of belly dancing is its erotic tension, because you're doing these tremendously sexy things with your body but trying to hold something back at the same time. One trick I've learned from Julia is that you should never, ever make direct eye contact with your audience; it's all about turning your focus inward, withholding, withholding--what Leela did at her solo nightclub performance. The idea is to drive the audience mad with desire.
What started out as curiosity has turned into a passion for me. I now regularly attend Julia's Wednesday night class and I've assembled a costume to wear--a cropped top, harem pants and that magic hip scarf with the gold coins attached. "I am a woman" is the mantra that runs in my mind throughout the entire class. A shame there are no men there to see me being a woman, but perhaps that's the point. I'm beginning to think the deepest expression of your gender happens when you're surrounded by your own sex.