(The Wall Street Journal, January 15, 1991)
New York — Bellydancers in the Big Apple are getting fewer bucks for their bumps and grinds nowadays, and they have only Saddam to blame. “Calls for dancers have fallen off since this whole Persian Gulf crisis began,” says Serena Wilson, owner of Serena Studios, the best-known bellydancing school in the U.S. “I think there are people who just don’t want to be reminded of things Middle Eastern.”
No one would guess from the enthusiasm of the crowd at Cedars of Lebanon on a recent Friday night that New York’s bellydancing business is on shaky ground. It’s a little after midnight and the band is jamming on “Aziza,” a popular Egyptian dance tune. The star attraction, Shoshana, rebounds from a backbend that would rival a limbo dancer’s and launches into a prolonged quiver. As the audience shouts “Aiwa! Aiwa!” (“Yes! Yes!”), a waiter flings a fistful of dollars at Shoshana’s feet. She strikes a pose and smiles.
A similar scene regularly takes place at other Middle Eastern clubs around town: Feenjon, Nefertiti, Mogador, Bobby Kebobby and the Nile. Their number indicates prosperity but the sum total of the bills swept up into a dustpan at dawn tells a different story: After the band takes its cut, Shoshana is lucky if she clears $75.
Between the shaky U.S. economy and the Gulf crisis, the just-concluded holiday season was the worst in memory for many clubs. On a recent Friday night at the Nile in midtown Manhattan, fewer than 40 customers sat amid the 35,000 pounds of hand-carved limestone bas-reliefs, the gigantic mummy statues, the lotus-lamp sconces and the ornamented marble friezes that had barely contained the impromptu party thrown in July by Adnan Khashoggi and Imelda Marcos to acclaim their acquittal in a government racketeering case.
“We used to have a tremendous number of diplomats,” says the Nile’s owner, Samiha D’Aiuto. “I feel that the No. 1 killer for our business is the Gulf.” She also says corporations that used to throw lavish Christmas parties either cut back on entertainment or canceled their celebrations outright.
What’s especially ironic is that bellydancing, or “Oriental” dance, as some practitioners prefer to call it, is being dealt a body blow at a time when the art, if not the fad, is at its zenith in this country.
Those in the know agree that the cutting edge of undulation is here in New York. That’s partly because of the antics of the most popular bellydancer in Egypt today, a soap opera star named Lucy, who tells jokes, sings and slithers through numerous costume changes in the course of her act. Many feel that Lucy and her imitators have degraded the art on its home turf.
Or rather, one of its many home turfs. Bellydancing traces its origins to the Levant, curving from Greece to Turkey to Lebanon to Egypt. But in a manner typical of the American melting pot, bellydancing in the U.S. blends all of those traditions — and adds a little bit more.
“I incorporate jazz, flamenco, tap and whatever my mood is and put a Middle Eastern veil around it,” says Shoshana, a top bellydancer whose off-stage name is Wendy Soto. Like many of Serena’s alumnae, Shoshana came to her calling obliquely. A self-described “nice Jewish girl,” Shoshana was looking to lose weight with some form of exercise more creative than aerobics. She found Serena’s name in the telephone book and in short order had quit college and was dancing professionally around the U.S. and in Panama.
That was 11 1/2 years ago. When Shoshana started dancing, the country was just coming off a bellydancing craze that peaked in 1972 with a three-page article in Life magazine on Serena. The self-styled “Shimmy Queen” promptly followed up the free publicity with a best-selling book, “The Serena Technique of Belly Dancing” (Simon & Schuster, 1973), teaching videos, and performances in, among others, a New York Grand Opera production of “Aida” and the official opening of the Temple of Dendur at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Along the way, she taught thousands of aspiring bellydancers and inspired many more.
Some of the best bellydancers in the country today are former Serena students. Shoshana reels them off: Jihan, “very accomplished, very uninhibited”; Noura, “very folksy feeling”; Samara, “nonchalant elegance.” Despite their foreign names, most are American-born.
The dancers may be predominantly American, but the clubs try their best to create an exotic ambiance. Back at Cedars of Lebanon, for example, the audience sits inside a long, narrow room decorated with black-and-white promotional photos of Lebanon, courtesy of Middle Eastern Airways. The band sits on a dais at the end of the room, lit by fake Tiffany chandeliers.
Like a scratch blues band, this one has the bare minimum to make music: a Yamaha electric keyboard specially designed to reproduce Middle Eastern quartertones; a dumbeg, a deep-toned, hourglass-shaped drum held under the arm or between the legs; an electric guitar used mostly for percussive plinking; and an oud, a lute-like instrument. Scott Wilson, Serena’s son and an accomplished oudist in his own right, thinks the Cedars band is the best in town. Certainly its version of “Aloma, Aloma,” a popular Lebanese song, has everyone clapping and singing along.
Then the music stops and the drummer jangles his tambourine to get everyone’s attention. Shoshana slinks out, mysteriously swathed in a lavender veil. The dumbeg booms. The music wails. The veil drops and the magenta spangles on Shoshana’s costume slowly begin to sway.
Shoshana is known for her shimmies and vibrations. She can stroll up and down the restaurant, fibrillating as she goes, without any noticeable effort. As the music quickens, though, she switches gears. Bob Fosse-like shoulder shoves and hip rolls briefly poke through the swirling gauze. She follows with a series of whirling-dervish pirouettes.
Screams of “Aiwa!” multiply. A waiter collects the dollars from patrons’ outstretched hands, and, standing over Shoshana, dramatically dribbles them on top of her head.
Meanwhile, across town at the Nile, Nesma is undulating in front of a party of Japanese executives from the Nikko hotel chain. James Cione, the nightclub’s banquet manager, none-too-discreetly points to the man who’s paying. Nesma flings her shimmering gold veil around him and, fringes swaying, gives him a closeup of a controlled shiver. Everyone else leaps to their feet to take pictures.
As Middle Eastern and American attendance at these clubs declines, hope has turned to such clients from the Far East. The Nile has hired a Japanese bellydancer, Karima, who is “sensational,” according to Ms. D’Aiuto. (Karima, it almost goes without saying, is a Serena graduate.) Serena herself has been negotiating distribution of one of her teaching videos in Japan. And Ms. D’Aiuto has Japanese backing to open a branch of the Nile in Tokyo.
Yen, after all, can be swept up into a dustpan as easily as dollars.
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