by Brandi Lee Grigg
You would think belly dancing would be a glamorous job. The exotic makeup, the pulse-pounding rhythms, the glitzy costumes, and the ability to brag: “You do what for a living?” Sure, it is all that, but it’s often not as exciting as it sounds. Like tonight, as I sit in the cramped office of a hookah bar, watching the security video with glazed eyes while I wait for them to tell me when I’m on. I have been waiting for over an hour already, as the customers slowly trickle in. Finally, a knock on the door. “Be ready to dance in ten minutes,” the restaurant owner tells me, which really means twenty or thirty. Be ready? I’ve been ready for forty-five minutes, and these costumes are not comfortable to sit in for very long.
Dancing professionally was not something I had considered when I first walked into Jodette’s brick-faced studio on a tree-shrouded boulevard of downtown Sacramento. Nor did it seem likely during the first few classes. I picked up the footwork easily enough, but once I tried to add the hip and arm movements, the step which the teacher executed with flawless grace degenerated into a hopeless jumble. How on earth does she get her hips to do that? I wondered desperately. Mine seemed to mock me in the attempt. Then try to add on the finger cymbals, and the little accents with the tilt of the head or a lift of the shoulders. . . how on earth were you supposed to keep track of all of this at once? The one-hour beginner class left me sweaty, exhausted, and aching, which means it did what I had intended it to: give me some good exercise. Despite the frustration, it was pretty fun, and as I had already paid for the full ten weeks, I decided to stick with it.
Then a funny thing happened: I was surprised by how quickly I caught on. Within a few weeks I could even do the entire class while playing finger cymbals—no small feat there! Only a few months later, Jodette was insisting that I start dancing in Arabic restaurants. My stomach sank to about ankle level. I desperately wanted to do it, but didn’t think I was a good enough dancer. Sure, I caught on quick, but I couldn’t imagine myself as a professional. I mean, me, the clutz, who constantly runs into and drops things? My husband tells everyone that I’m the reason all our glasses are in sets of three. The whole notion seemed preposterous. Nevertheless, I forked over the five hundred bucks for a costume and found myself scheduled to dance rather sooner than I would have preferred.
I’m still not sure why I did it. I have always been somewhat of a shy and reserved person, which are certainly not good traits for an aspiring belly dancer. A belly dancer is poised and confident, exuding an exotic mystique, flaunting her sensuality while remaining unattainable. For a wallflower who had almost taken pride in her ability to fade unnoticed into the shadows, to strut into the proverbial spotlight in such a way seemed utterly impossible. Yet maybe sometimes those wallflowers urge to venture out of the shadows, and at least see how it feels to bask in the spotlight like a flamboyant rose. Perhaps I just wanted to test myself and see if I could be that rose, if only for a moment.
My first night of dancing, however, was a nightmare. I was sent with an experienced dancer, as all the newbies are the first few times. The dancer I was with had all those things a belly dancer should have: not only was she amazingly graceful, she was absolutely stunning. Tall, blonde and lean—this girl must have worked out every day; because there was not an ounce of fat on her. She was the kind of girl you want to hate out of sheer envy but can’t because she’s so sweet. Although I did learn a lot from watching her, that night I was a dumpy dandelion next to a bright lily. No one could notice someone like me next to someone like her. I left that night discouraged, with only a few dollars in tips, wondering if maybe belly dancing just wasn’t for me after all.
I was already scheduled to dance with the same dancer the following night, otherwise I might not have danced again. She, however, got a panicked call from Jodette and had to run and cover another restaurant, leaving me to dance at our scheduled restaurant alone. Despite my nervousness I forced myself out. My entrance into the dining area was stiff and awkward. My veil got tangled in my hair, I stepped on my skirt and I avoided people’s eyes. They must think I’m the worst dancer they have ever seen! I forced myself to relax. I tried to let my body follow the music rather than planning out my next move. I pulled my thoughts away from the performance; instead, I focused on simply feeling the music. Gradually I began to feel less self-conscious, and found that I was actually enjoying myself. The rhythm seemed to reverberate through my body, making my hips seem to speed up and slow down in time with the beat of their own accord. Finally I dragged my eyes up from the floor and started to look around. Although I have always been uncomfortable making eye contact with people, I forced myself to do so, and to smile. And the people started smiling back. And tipping. For a few minutes I was a wild, sexy goddess, free from inhibitions. In a swirl of veils it was over. The other dancer had already made it back. “I was going to come out there,” she told me, “but you seemed to be doing fine on your own. You sure looked like you were having fun out there!”
As I became more confident, I realized that I needed to do more to develop my “stage persona.” I have seen many gorgeous and graceful dancers who nevertheless seem flat and lifeless as they perform. Jodette insisted it was the flirting that distinguished a mediocre dancer from a good one. “You’ve got to flirt!” she would tell us in her broken English. “If you do not flirt, you will not get the money!” I tried, but I had a terrible fear of leading men on. “You know you are going home alone,” Jodette insisted. “But they don’t have to know that.” And to our incredulous looks, “What do you think we are? Nuns?” Yes, I thought, but what if some guy waited for me outside? What do I do when some guy tries to cop a feel while he’s tipping me, or asks me for a lap dance? The sexual nature of the dance made me very uncomfortable, yet it was also what drew me to the dance to begin with. As I came close to finally recuperating the money I invested in the costume, however, I seriously considered quitting.
Yet again, mysteriously, I didn’t. Perhaps subconsciously I realized how positive it could be for my self-esteem, or perhaps I was enjoying myself too much. I concentrated on smiling, making eye contact, and drawing people up to dance, and I struggled to be less reserved and more flirtatious. I was determined to overcome my fears, and forced myself little by little to push my own boundaries. Slowly I learned what I had not previously learned before—how to tease in a way that is playful but not too serious, how to be uninhibited in a way that retains a certain degree of aloofness, and how to stand my ground and demand respect when the customers become inappropriate. It is not uncommon for men to try to pick me up after my sets, and one guy even waited outside a restaurant for me to come out. Still, every time I danced I became a little more fearless, a little more comfortable in my own skin. And as I became less shy and more confident in dancing, I started to notice that the same was starting to happen in other aspects of my life. I realized that my shyness was not an inherent aspect of my personality, but habit, resulting from not learning good social skills until later in life. Skills belly dancing made me learn.
I look back on all this as I sit in the computer chair, wrapped in a purple beaded veil, heels tapping impatiently. No more nervousness now, just restlessness and boredom. Suddenly the owner reappears: it’s time. I emerge onto the floor, flashing with smiles and glitter. I start getting into the music, letting my hips follow the sharp stops-and-starts of the drum solo. Someone tries to tip me in the belt, and I pull my hip away playfully, sporting my signature “Oops-did-I-do-that?” expression. I snap my hips at someone else, nearly hitting them with my beads and then back away, feigning innocence. I catch a guy’s eye and undulate my hips with my back towards him, smiling over my shoulder. I lean into a deep backbend, rolling my shoulders and letting my hair almost brush his lap. I make my way through the tables, pulling people up to dance. I feel the beads of sweat dripping down my spine, but my bra and belt are filling with bills, and not all of them are ones. Reveling in the attention, the wallflower Brandi has bloomed into the belly dancer Warda—a name which means “Rose” in Arabic. As abruptly as it began, it’s over, and I retire to the office to change and count my impressive stack of limp, damp bills. On one bill, someone had written “Call me baby” and a phone number. I laugh. These days, it’s all in a night’s work.
Brandi Lee Grigg currently holds a BA in Religious Studies from the University of California, Davis and is considering graduate studies. As a long-time writer, she is also seeking to break in to the freelance writing field. She has been studying belly dancing for eight years, and is currently teaching classes at Jodette’s Bellydancing Academy in Sacramento, CA. She performs regularly at various restaurants and festivals in the area, both as a solo performer and with the troupe Jewels of the Nile. She recently won the 2007 Queen of the Nile belly dance competition, and will be on the cover of the upcoming July/August 2007 issue of Zaghareet magazine.