There was only one place to hide - a narrow cupboard in the corner. The problem was that it had a slatted wooden door, so if I moved I’d be seen. It was cramped too, but I had no choice. I climbed in quickly and shut the door behind me before I could be discovered.
Then I heard voices. There were four of them. The boss (a man I had only seen once, but who, I could tell, was strong and powerful) and his three employees. The big man entered first, the others followed, quiet and subdued.
When the big man spoke he was clearly angry. His rage was controlled, held in check, but anyone could tell there was trouble ahead for his three shaken colleagues. He started to berate them. Told them how they’d messed up, how they’d lost him money and credibility. One was in hotter water than the others and, with a cold voice, the boss outlined how, while the target of his wrath had been away, the job had gone dreadfully, terribly wrong.
The man being accused was clearly shaken. It was sounding bad.
The big man’s invective was coming to a head. “To see what I mean, JUST LISTEN TO THIS!!!” He pressed a button. The room filled with bellydance music. I leapt out of the cupboard, headed for the man on the far left and started to gyrate and shimmy, before dropping down to the floor and writhing in front of the shocked employee.
It was the man's birthday. And I was the surprise. Thank goodness he was young or I think we could have been calling an ambulance!
The place was an advertising agency in Covent Garden, the year was 1982 and I’d been booked as a bellygram. Singing telegrams and strippergrams were all the rage at the time: out of work actors dressed as police officers, nuns or gorillas would appear out of the blue and proceed to sing or strip to embarrass a birthday boy or girl. As far as I knew, I was the only bellygram in London. I would climb on to my motorbike (dressed head to toe in black leather if you’re asking…) and ride off to a venue somewhere in London where I would find a place to change secretly. At the appointed time I’d burst into the restaurant or bar, place my Sony Walkman on the floor or table and proceed to dance and undulate around the victim. I did a mean backbend and some pretty sultry floor work in those days too.
I remember changing in a freezing outside toilet in a slightly dangerous looking pub in the Old Kent Road, directing the heat of the hand-dryer onto my icy body before parting the crowds in the public bar. I jumped up on tables in restaurants, shimmying my way through the plates and glasses. And I got up on the antique polished desk of the manager of The Who, went down into a backbend and laid myself out in front of him, while his laughing staff looked on.
Yesterday, on Facebook, someone asked me what I thought about bellydancers who advertise themselves as exotic dancers and perform in nightclubs alongside pole dancers or strippers. The questioner pointed out that, by doing so, they are perpetuating the perception of bellydance as a sleazy activity, rather than a serious dance form. I think it’s a fascinating question and one that goes right to the heart of how bellydance is viewed.
These days most professional bellydancers want to be seen as serious dancers - as artists. They want people to understand that bellydance is an ancient dance form with its roots in the folk culture of the Middle East. That it's a richly textured and challenging dance which deserves to have a place alongside Western mainstream styles such as jazz or hip hop. And I’m one of them. I want bellydance to be appreciated by a far wider public as the beautiful, rich and fascinating dance form that it is. I want to hold my head up high amongst the ballet and West End dancers and choreographers and I want aspiring bellydance professionals to undergo the type of tough physical training that those dancers have always expected, so that we can be the very best performers possible.
So, in the light of the question I was asked yesterday, I look back at that 24 year old girl, undulating on the floor in front of a shocked advertising executive and I wonder what I think of her.
Well, firstly I have to say that I was just doing what I had seen Syrian and Palestinian dancers doing in the Arab nightclubs in London (see blog post here). In those performances there was a lot of jumping up in the air and dropping to the floor to shiver and undulate. And in front of a large crowd of Arab men too. Men who would most certainly have assumed those dancers were prostitutes.
Those of us who bellydance in the West have to accept that in the Arab world, bellydancers are considered to be prostitutes. And truthfully, many of them are. At the very least, they are behaving in a way that is far outside social norms. Bellydance has never been something that nice Arabic girls do in public. It’s true that Arab girls absolutely love to dance and will almost certainly dance at home with their female friends. But in public? No. If a Muslim woman dances in public in front of of a mixed audience she is believed to be the very worst kind of woman. And in countries like Egypt, professional bellydancers have to live with the shame of knowing that what they do is considered wicked by the majority of society.
So in trying to promote bellydance as a high art, we in the West are being revisionist. We are trying to create a bellydance culture that feels acceptable to us, that we can be proud of. There is nothing wrong with trying to change the way that bellydance is viewed, but we can’t hide from the fact that ‘exotic dancer’ is exactly what bellydancers traditionally were.
I also have to look back at my younger self and admit that I was fascinated by the sexual sub-culture of London. I was thrilled to be part of it, to walk around Soho at night and feel that, as a bellydancer I belonged to that dark, slightly dangerous underworld. I’ve always loved the ‘other’ in society - the exotic, the experimental, the people who push at the boundaries.
Of course in a perfect world I’d also love bellydance to be accepted by mainstream society, for people not to look down on the dance I make my living from. But I also rather like the fact that when I say I’m a bellydancer I know I’m immediately interesting to most people. I’m different and, yes, exotic. And I know that many of my students feel the same. It’s a giggle to tell people at drinks parties that you are a bellydancer.
Indeed, I’m prepared to guess that for many of us in the West, the exoticism and slightly risqué reputation is one of the things that drew us to bellydance in the first place. There’s something excitingly naughty for many women in learning to bellydance and I think we should accept that. Even embrace it.
That doesn’t mean of course, that we can’t disapprove of certain things. It’s everyone’s prerogative to dislike and, yes, disapprove. Personally I don’t like heavily sexualised bellydancing. I don't like seeing loads of chest bumps in a dance and I can’t abide a pouty face or a floor hump. And don't get me started on the dancers who shake their breasts or backsides in men's faces! But even if I don't like it, I don’t want to shut that dancing down, just as I don’t want to stop ‘commercial’ R & B dancing on music videos, even though I personally dislike it. Instead I want to create something that in my mind is ‘better’ and put it out there in the hope that people will love it and choose it over the other.
And I have to admit that I did my fair share of ‘floor humping’ in the past. Not least on that beautiful polished antique desk, behind which sat The Who’s manager. I’d jumped up there because I’d never seen anyone look quite so bored with my performance as Bill Curbishley did that day. I suppose when you’re the manager of The Who it’s hard to be impressed and I would imagine you get to see an awful lot of semi-naked young women in the course of your job. But his staff had paid for me as a birthday treat for him, and were now crowded in the doorway, excitedly watching me dance.
I leapt up on the desk, did a full backbend and then descended slowly down onto my knees and then my back in front of him. I undulated, I belly rolled, I fluttered. I was 24 years old, I was in great shape, I was dressed in very little and I knew I looked amazing. Surely I’d get a reaction from him now!
He looked down, held my eye, took his cigar out of his mouth. And said: “Mind the desk love.”
Oh well, you can’t win them all.