Presenting Geeking Out in Public, a series about what happens when individuals whose passions fall outside of mainstream popular culture gather in person to share in their common fringe obsession.
Introduction: All that Glitters is Literary Journalism
I’ve been seriously studying the art of belly dance for five and half years now. All through college was a member of a beginner performance-based student troupe, and began taking classes during breaks from school. Since then I’ve continued to study by performing with a traveling dance collective and studying under the nation and DC Area’s premier professionals and dance artists. Belly dance, an umbrella term for many different styles of dance based on Middle Eastern hip and torso movements, requires true dancers to understand and appropriately interpret the gestures and connections to the cultures from which the movements originated. We know that it’s not about shaking things or “doing the hoochie-coochie”.
I’ve studied with belly dance superstars like Zoe Jakes and Bozenka, to local Baltimore/DC dance phenoms like Naimah and Shahrzad. I’m not a professional dancer yet, but in the belly dance community there is much room to celebrate the dedicated hobbyist, whether you dance traditional Egyptian Cabaret or often Gothic and Americanized Tribal Fusion. All around our country, conventions, festivals, and a special type of event called a Hafla — the Arabic word for “party”— where dancers perform, and there is usually food and drink (often potluck), open dancing, and local artisans selling their dance–related wares.
This series is about sharing an insider’s view of events that play to subcultures and fringes (literal fringes this time!). It’s about being the die-hard and not just a spectator.
I’m a belly dancer, geeking out in public.
Setting the Scene
For three days, the Ukrainian Cultural Center in Somerset, NJ, has a parking lot full of spilled glitter, dropped sequins and Swarovski crystals, and cars with “Coexist” and “[Eye of Ra][Heart][Dancer Silhouette]” bumper stickers. Women with dreadlocks, flower hair clips, and facial piercings smoke on the stairs outside. As we enter a door between massive columns, our wrists are stamped for entry and we are suddenly amidst a familiar array of vendors selling anything from steampunk gear to glittering striped galabeya robes, to coin hip scarves, Afghani and Kuchi tribal jewelry, and silk veils in a rainbow of color.
That’s just the lobby.
In the auditorium area, with tables and tents set up on the linoleum ballroom floor, an entire bazaar of vendors sells variations of the same, as well as swords, sequined bedlah, and costume parts and accessories of every color, style, and fabric you can imagine. Some of the vendors are dressed like your average person on the street; others resemble Ren Faire actors, and some are in-between, sporting earthy leather pocket belts and swirling kohl eye makeup with jeans and t-shirts. One girl, her costume concealed with a cleverly wrapped veil, swings veil poi around her body to demonstrate their quality. A henna artist scrawls a complicated mehndi pattern on a patron’s upper arm.
On the far side of the room, a small audience is seated before the stage, where for 10 hours every day different groups of dancers are ushered on for 10-15 minutes at a time. The performers range in experience from newbie student troupes to featured guest artists, and in styles from the glamour of cabaret, to more earthy folkloric dance, to experimental tribal fusion.
If Rakkasah Spring Caravan 2014 is any indication, the American side of belly dance, emerging from the large influx of Middle Eastern emigrants to the US in the 1960s, has grown in large pockets to become its very own subculture. Belly dance in the US is a reflection of our cultural melting pot, and an appreciation of Middle Eastern culture for would-be dancers and musicians of all races and cultures of origin.
As Spring Caravan allows for open registration, so dancers of any style (including Kathak or other Indian Classical Dance, or offshoots of tribal fused with burlesque, Balkan dances, flamenco, and hip-hop for example), age, ability, or professional status can be found there.
Spring Caravan tends to be more skewed towards the tribal style of belly dance, whereas Rakkasah East, hosted in the fall, tends to provide more of a mix of that and traditional Egyptian, Turkish, and folkloric dance styles. Rakkasah’s sister festivals on the west coast (Rakkasah West and Rakkasah Winter Solstice) seem to follow suit.
My dance collective took part in the Sunday show for the Rakkasah Spring Caravan. We performed an experimental set of theatrical tribal fusion belly dance to a set of songs around a central theme: “May the 4th (Be with You).” Turns out we couldn’t help our inner nerds from coming out.
Other notable performances from the Sunday show included Dharma Tribal in a silky, vintage-feeling set, Hipnosis and Daughters of the Hip (two Philly-based troupes that are affiliated), Groove Merchant (dancers with a live band), and Hannah Nour. Additionally, Pangia Raks and the Nathaniel Johnstone Band played live sets for many dancers who chose to perform improvised solos to classic Middle Eastern standard songs. Improvising to a live band is one of the most joyous expressions of belly dance and so fun to watch, as this reflects the tradition of belly dance stage performances dating back to the Golden Age of the early 1900s. The enjoyment relies on both the dancer and the audience’s familiarity with the music, as well as an ability to interpret and adjust to the energy, tempo, and arrangement of the musicians in the moment.
While past Rakkasah performances (the annual cycle of four festivals has been going on for almost two decades) may have had more show-stopping numbers and standout performances, overall, enjoyment relies on a love of culture, the celebration of all types of women’s bodies, and an appreciation for Middle Eastern rhythm and movement. It’s a great event for those who love belly dance and all the subcultures and cultures that tie into it.
Ten or so hours a day of dancing for three days in a row could leave an audience numb, so it’s good that there’s other stuff to do at Rakkasah like shopping, taking specialized belly dance classes, and networking. Many of these dancers are established in their own community on the East Coast, but the festival provides an opportunity to reconnect with other professionals and enthusiasts.
Vendors are, of course, interested in selling their wares, but the strains of a familiar piece of music or the accents of a dancer nailing a drum solo will cause heads to turn, enraptured for a moment and blind to customers. An inappropriate movement on stage might ripple through the vendors as a shaking of heads or clucking of tongues.
The ability for a dancer of any size, race, color, age or level of ability to take the stage is both good and bad, as it gives novices a chance to perform in a welcoming and safe environment, but can diminish the showmanship. That being said, the applause for even struggling beginners is encouraging, and downright thunderous when one of the more acclaimed performers or groups takes control of the stage and the audience. Audience participation is wholly encouraged, so it’s easy to get sucked in by the outstanding technique or a dancer who is mesmerizing just by the fun they are having on stage.
This is an event for belly dancers, by belly dancers. There are some like it that are more geared toward spectators, but this one is ours. Rakkasah is one of the oldest, longest-running Middle Eastern dance festivals in the country, and there are thousands of dancers who flock to the Ukrainian Cultural Center in New Jersey twice a year to get their fix.
The best part is that the fandom is the event. While admission is open to the public, 95% of attendees are dancers themselves. Dancers get to see performers they admire and talent they aspire toward, and they get to share the stage with them. Backstage whispers of “That was amazing” and “Your shimmy is fantastic” are exchanged and the technical staff are all dancers and musicians. Spouses and friends may tag along, and may very well appreciate the music and movement, but it’s about the fact that every dancer gets to take the stage in front of peers and experts and feel like a star.
There are, at times, clashes between some of the different fandoms of dance. Not all, but some cabaret and traditional performers tend to be purists, especially older dancers who were performing during the ’70s, and can be dismissive of the avant garde nature of tribal fusion. Tribal fusionists, likewise, tend to stray from traditional technique and music and don’t always fully appreciate the subtlety of folkloric movement. This causes some dismissive attitudes, rather than an outright butting of heads, but either way, the dance community is there to support its own and perform with pride.
Is this Fringe Event for you?
Most people are not familiar with the community that has popped up around belly dance and have only experienced it at a party or local Middle Eastern restaurant, so a festival full of people name-dropping belly dancers you’ve never heard of like they’re celebrities, commenting on how earthy that ATS piece is, and zaghareeting at the top of their lungs, might seem a bit… foreign?
No worries! One of the unique things about the belly dance community in the US is the overall sense of welcoming. If you want to experience bits of a culture that’s new to you, find some rad jewelry or costuming pieces, or love performance art, this is totally for you. In addition, many of the featured dancers offer workshops during the mornings of the festival, so you could even try out a belly dance class yourself! The only turn-off might be the fact that many of these troupes are still students, so not all performances are going to be as polished as a professional dance show.
Rakkasah on the East Coast occurs every fall and every spring, so live on the fringe and book a trip to New Jersey for the next one.
Pro Tip: Audience participation is encouraged. Unless it’s a very slow or quiet song, dancers LOVE when the audience makes noise during a performance. Learn to zaghareet (that high-pitched “lelelelele” noise) and make sure to cover your mouth with your hand to be polite. You can also shout “eYip”, “Y’alla!”, “Aiwa”, or simply clap in rhythm.