Dun tek. Dun dun tek.
One of my favorite props in Bellydance is the cane, or assaya. Last week, my Sunday Master class began to learn a cane choreography for the upcoming dance show in April—exciting since I’ve only had one previous opportunity to perform a cane dance, over two years ago now. The cane is a traditional prop of saidi, the folk dance native to upper Egypt. Men dance with canes in choreographies that resemble stick fighting; when women perform the dance, twirling and thwacking the canes on the ground, we are essentially parodying the men. The movements of saidi dance are more earthy and bouncy than cabaret-style Bellydance, executed with pride and a splash of sassiness. Saidi is a dance of the country, of farmers and harvests. Dun tek, dun dun tek is its signature rhythm.
I love saidi dancing not only because it’s pure fun to twirl a cane and smack it on the ground now and then, but because the dance isn’t typically what Westerners expect when they think of “Bellydance.” Yet the cane is a far more traditional prop than say, the sword, for example, and poses as many challenges (on more than one practice session, I’ve sent my cane whirling like a helicopter to the corner of the room—this is bound to happen sooner or later). Saidi dancing serves as an apt reminder that what we in the West term “Bellydance” is derived from folk dancing, and shares roots with Greek, flamenco, Romani, etc.—all brought by the Roma people as they dispersed throughout the Middle East and Europe.
This is why I don’t mince words when I reveal to people that I’m a Bellydancer, not because I’m embarrassed but because most of the general American public harbors such misconceptions about what Bellydance is and isn’t. Some people’s misconceptions even place Bellydance in the same category as stripping or pole-dancing. I tell them that Bellydance is rooted in folk dance, and explain the school I attend focuses on numerous types of world dance: Tahitian, Polynesian, Bollywood, etc., not just “Bellydance.”
Yet I continue to be amazed and dismayed at how many people laugh, point to my mid-section, and remark, “But you don’t have a belly!”
It reminds me of the ways people used to react when I announced that I wanted to be a writer as a teenager. “Oh, so you want to teach English?” was the standard reply, or something similar about working for a newspaper, becoming a journalist. I didn’t want to do either of those things if I could help it, and I always answered, “No, I want to be a writer. I’m going to write novels, like Virginia Woolf or Jane Austen.” Back then I viewed such encounters with irritation and impatience. Now I see them as opportunities to educate the less-informed about what it is I do and don’t do.
This duty of informing—educating—others who don’t gravitate in the same subcultures as you isn’t relegated to writing and dance, of course. Any vocation or career field comes with its inherent misconceptions, often fed by shoddy movies or TV (perhaps even quality screen portrayals), but the misconceptions abound nonetheless. When I was teaching college courses, I had to clarify countless times to relatives over Thanksgiving dinner or well-intended neighbors that no, I wasn’t getting a professor’s salary—not even close. The person’s eyebrows shot to the moon every time I clarified exactly what an adjunct received in compensation—and didn’t.
So rather than get irritated when I’m thrown the “but-you-don’t-have-a-belly” remark (I’m still puzzled at how those who say this find it hilarious—the few times I’d seen belly dancers prior to taking lessons, they were pretty attractive and fit), I take the opportunity to dispel the myths, just as I do when laypersons ask me about writing fiction and publishing (“So, will you be self-publishing your novel? ’Cause I hear that’s the big thing now”). Err, not exactly. There are polite ways of taking the reins of the conversation, and you should take them—every time, because you’re an ambassador of your craft.
Remember, too, that people may react in an off-putting way without meaning to, perhaps because they simply don’t know what to say—they’ve rarely seen or met someone who does what you do at the level of a professional, not an amateur, and claims to do so with such enthusiasm and confidence. Whether they are nervous, rude, or curious, don’t be afraid to stand up and set them straight. Who knows, you may change forever their impression of whatever it is you practice—this could apply to tai chi as much as dance or writing. You speaking honestly about your craft may be the bright spot of inspiration in their otherwise gloomy day.
The biggest myth I enjoy bursting about Bellydance? That mostly men are interested in it. In my experience, men are perfectly willing to tag along to a show, but grow bored more quickly, proving the adage that Bellydance was invented by women, for women—when I look around, it’s almost always the fellow ladies in the audience who are transported and transfixed, on their faces written the question, I wonder if I could do that. Become a dancing goddess of sequins and light.
The myths will always abound, unfortunately—that Bellydancers are either lusty vixens-bordering-on-strippers or, apparently, big-bellied mamas, and that writers are either starving in a garret somewhere or landing six-figure advances. Most of the time, neither extreme is true. Most writers cobble together a living by teaching and editing alongside writing, and certainly aren’t in it for the fame and glory—the latter happens between you and the page. Some of the women I dance with took ballet and jazz growing up and transitioned to Bellydance, many discovered it later, but we take our craft seriously. We don’t dance primarily to transform ourselves into sensual vixens or impress our mates—although that may happen as an afterthought. We dance because it is fun and challenging, and keeps us fit in mind, body, and spirit. Because dance captures something that can only be expressed via music and the body, just as literature seeks out its truth in words.
For now I’ll continue to practice my saidi steps and twirl my cane—cracking open a misconception with every happy thwack.