It had been a couple of weeks since the audition and a few of us had a scheduled performance at one of the downtown theaters. I think there were about eight of us scheduled to dance solo’s that night. The only difference between me and the other dancer’s performing was that although we all came from the same studio, most of them had not been at the audition. I wonder if they had heard about the audition incident? I certainly was not going to mention it. Hell, for now, I was ready to dance! I had choreographed a number with splits and floor work included.
There was a rumor that there was going to be a large crowd for the event and that we were suppose to be a paid. Along with the dancer’s, there would also be performances by musician’s as well. I had no idea what I would be paid. There were several of us dancing. Admission to the show was seven dollars. I was wondering how much all of us could make? There was a rental fee, the musicians and DJ had to be paid as well. There were also several high quality flyers that were passed out. However, I was not too worried about it since I was not in charge. The thought that I could possibly take twenty dollars home for my first paid gig was thrilling.
I came to the event in a partial hand-made costume that M had made for me. The bra and belt had been purchase previously at a dance workshop. M had sewed me a new skirt from material I had purchased at Hobby Lobby. It had sparkly silver stars spun over shiny black over-lay. She also made me a pair of black arm bands from tightly woven curtain spun material. Underneath, I had a pair of sheer black harem pants. In the early days of my dancing I wore bindi’s. Why? I have no idea except that I saw other dancer’s wearing them and idiotically thought it was part of middle eastern culture. I wasn’t aware of the Bollywood slash Arabic fusion style that had become popular. I just thought the bindi’s covered my forehead nicely and made me feel pretty.
I came to the venue in my costume. As a dancer of less than six months, no one had ever told me how unprofessional it was to come to a show, of any kind, already dressed. I learned much later that the best thing to do is get dressed in a room at the venue or if you absolutely have to come dressed, you should wear a cover-up also. At the time it didn’t care. I was gallivanting around in my costume, downtown, for everyone to see. Believe me, I wanted to be seen. As I arrived at the theater I walked through the front doors with my boyfriend. “Can I see your ID miss?” asked the bouncer. “I’m a performer here.” I said. “Well, I still need your ID.” he responded. I had to walk back to my car, in full costume, to get my ID that I had left in the glove compartment. I returned with my ID “Here it is.” I told him. “Wow, you really look young for your age.” he said. “Thanks!” I replied with a huge grin on my face.
I was at the venue one hour before show time. I walked around to see if I could find any of the other performer’s. I found my teacher who greeted me with a big hug and sent me to the building next door where the other dancers were. I walked upstairs to find them. There they were stretching, shimming and practicing their movements for the stage. Now, I’m a performer, but I am also an introvert. I didn’t want to practice backstage or stretch. So, I do what I always do; I practiced in my head. The song was “Ice Queen” performed by Dinletir from the first Belly dance SuperStars CD. In my mind I saw myself performing flawlessly. I was ready.
The crowd gathered up fairly quickly and the show was about to start. I had a few friends and family members in attendance. I could see some of their faces from the side of the stage. While I was waiting for my turn to perform, I watched the other dancer’s. I also noticed the stage floor. There were several extension cords, amps and other items that could easily trip me or another performer. “I better watch out.” I thought to myself.
My turn came abruptly as soon as the performer before me left the stage. My music was on, loud and full of bass. It was at this part of my dance journey that I was unaware of entrances and exits. I always used to start my dancing on the first measure of music. I had to rush out quickly to match my movements with the music. I felt good. The crowd loved me! When I slide into my splits there was a loud applause that echoed through the building. I finished dancing to my song, exited the stage and felt tremendously happy with my performance.
I composed myself backstage and then went to join my friends and family for the rest of the show. The adrenaline wore of and I yelled, “Son of a bitch, I pulled my damn hamstring!” My best friend was there and asked “Are you ok?” “The splits. I hurt myself when I did the splits.” I whined. When everyone was backstage practicing and stretching, I should have been stretching too, but no I was practicing my performance in my head. I slumped over the rail I was next to and watched the rest of the show. I was interested in watching my teacher, the final dancer, dance. The crowd loved her and there was a loud thunderous clap when she spun in her “Turkish Drop.” A Turkish Drop is a few full turning spins with a dramatic drop to the floor, sliding down on your knees and landing on your back. It was amazing.
I left the show a bit early, limping to my car. The next day I stayed home, unable to walk comfortably, and watched Wishmaster 3. As I rested on the futon, one thing keep going through my mind, ” I’m going to learn how to do a Turkish Drop.”
Oh, and I never got paid.
I had been taking dance classes from my new teacher for about two months when she announced that an audition would be coming up. A musician was looking for a couple of dancer’s for a venue at one of the local casinos. I was very nervous and unprepared. As a dancer I needed to know what the music sounded like and how to prepare a simple choreography to that music. I wasn’t trained yet to dance to anything that was non-choreographed, much less live music. However, I wanted to audition. I figured it would be a good experience whether or not I got the gig.
I didn’t have a professional costume at the time. This was a great opportunity to purchase my first professional costume. I met with a local vendor that had a shop inside his home. There were so many pretty and very expensive costumes. Everything I loved was over my budget of $300 dollars. I would soon learn the name Eman Zaki, a designer, whose designs were beautiful but expensive. I tried on several costumes, none of which I could afford, even though I was told I would be getting a deal since the owner was good friends with my teacher. I said, “Here is the thing, I only have $300 with me.” He took out some costumes which looked very similar to the”Desert Swirl Brand.” The Desert Swirl brand is known as an inexpensive alternative for dancer’s on a budget. They were not as heavily beaded or filled with crystals but it was in my budget and it was a beautiful hot pink color. He said, “These are not professional costumes, but you might like them.” As many dancer’s know, there are very few times when we try on a costume and it fits perfect. The skirt was about 5 inches too long for my 5 foot 2 inch frame. It was also a little loose for my hips. I would need to speed more money on a seamstress to add elastic at the hips and hem it from the bottom. “I’ll give you $250 for it.” I offered. “Well, for you I will let you have it for $250, you will have to check the room for any accessories that go with it.” He said happily. “Thank you.” I replied, ” I can’t wait to wear it!”
The audition was a week away, I found a seamstress who would fix my costume. In the meantime, I needed things I rarely purchase like make-up and hair products. I also needed a mani-pedi and a eye-brow waxing. In the process would also practice putting on stage make-up. The word stage make-up just feels wrong. It reminded me of Drama Club in high school and how much foundation I would have to wear when I played the Wicked Witch of The West. BLEH!
I never learned how to put on everyday or evening make-up correctly but M was a pro. She is one of those girls with perfect hair, perfect make-up, laced with the newest Dooney and Burke purse. Everything opposite of the Sketchers and Old Navy Jeans girl that I am. “Close you eyes Reina and don’t squint, relax.” M said, “I am relaxing. Please don’t put too much on my face.” I said like a child getting her hair brushed too hard. “Remember, you put on the liquid liner after the false eyelashes.” M repeated, making sure I was paying attention. “I know this.” I said. “Ok, look in the mirror.” M said both excitedly and relieved. “My God M, I look like a whore! I don’t look like me!” “You are so weird, you look pretty.” said M, ” You are just not used to wearing it.” M tried to assure me. “I can’t do this, I look ten years older.” I said. “No, you look fine. You don’t look like a high school student anymore.” M laughed. “I am washing this off. I’ll just figure out how to put my own make-up next week.” I said as I ventured off to the bathroom.
A week passed ,and my make-up finally washed off (who knew that you really had to buy make-up remover?) It was time for the real thing. I put on some red lipstick, a little eye shadow, false eyelashes and was ready to go. Luckily, I have naturally rosy cheeks so I don’t buy blush. I put my costume on;my seamstress did a great job and I felt good. I felt good about auditioning.
I drove to the studio where the audition was being held. There were already about eight dancer’s there, all from the same studio. The musician walked in and we all greeted him. I didn’t have any special props with me, in fact I wasn’t at the stage where I was using props at all. It didn’t matter, I don’t think he was looking for the best dancer – he was looking for lovely ladies. Why the hell not; doesn’t every musician want a hot girl near him? We danced in two by two in front of him, it wasn’t that big of a deal, I was fairly happy with my performance. When we finished dancing he thank all of us and left. I had overheard him talk with my teacher about which two girls he wanted. I was a little hurt that I was not one of those girls. ” Oh well”, I thought,” not too big of a deal, something eventually something will come up again”. All of the girls meet up afterwards for drinks. It was a fun time and everyone seemed happy. However, that was not the case.
I went back to the studio and found that the classes were empty. Then the news came quickly that the studio would close in a month unless business picked up. “What?” ” Why?” “What am I going to do now?” I thought. It turns out that after the audition, some of the girls had felt as though they were not being judged solely on their dancing but on their beauty, body and complained that the audition was more of a “Meat-Market” then anything else. I thought about the dancer’s who had been chosen. They were beautiful, perfect hour-shaped glass figures, but they could dance. Hell, I would have picked the same two if I had been him. I wasn’t sure what to say to my teacher, except “Well, in the business you must have a thick skin.”
I am so happy that I have a small amount of thick skin, I needed it to continue dancing. As for those other dancer’s, who did not make the audition, I haven’t heard from them since.
The family finally meet my brother’s girlfriend after who- knows-how- long they had been dating. I was going to like this girl or at least try to like her. I sensed that he knew I disliked the girl he had dated before. I was going to be cheerful with this one, supportive even if I didn’t want to because I wanted him to be content. The good news is that I actually liked her. She would be the one who introduced me to belly dancing. She would be like a new sister – M.
“Reina, you have to take this class. You’ll like it.” M said. (Reina means queen in Spanish. It was a nickname given to me by my parents.) At the time I was finishing five years of coaching a cheerleading squad. My coaching license was about to expire and I was ready to move on. I refused to renew it. The team I coached had made it to the United Cheerleading Association Championships twice. I was tired, unappreciated, and the stunt choreography was getting more dangerous. Most of the parents clearly hated me. My car was vandalized, I was getting phone calls at home threatening to talk to administrators to have me fired. “Please do.” I once said. Do they realize that I basically do this job for free? That I am mostly a volunteer? The stress brought on my first case of shingles. Eight to ten hours of practice each week for a yearly $1,000 dollar stipend and the stress was no longer worth it. I was done.
“Ok.” I said.
M was there when I had issues with the troupe. “Just dance by yourself Reina; you choreographed for the cheerleaders, you can choreography your own dances.” I did as she told me and in the process I found a new teacher.
My new mentor was everything I could hope for. She made her living as a dancer. She looked like Cleopatra and boy, was she was tough. I walked into the class for the first time and before we started the warm-up another student came up to me and asked, “Is this your first class?” “Yes.” I said trying not to be too friendly as I am a bit of a loner. “You’re going to be in for a surprise.” she said. She was right; in the mist of every hip-bump there was a new directional change. “Front, side, back, side, forward, corner, side, back, corner, corner.” My mind could not keep up with my hips, but this was good for me. “Ranee, you have great omi’s.” my new teacher said, after she noticed. “Thanks, I don’t know how to do a maya though.” I replied “Well, everybody’s body works differently.” she said. I did not respond, but inside that comment made me feel whole again.
I went to class regularly. M would go with me. “I love her style.” said M. “What do you want to do with your dancing?” my teacher finally asked. “Well, I want to perform as much as possible.” I replied and so the performing began.
My first stage performance was in Madrid. A town about 40 miles away from my home in Albuquerque. I was working at a summer school for trouble youth. I was very close with the faculty. I invited them all to come see me perform and, much to my surprise, most of them did. To think that ten people actually drove to see me eased my nerves. I have never been in Madrid. Much to my surprise it was not the stage or town I expected. I think we all eventually learn as performances is to expect the unexpected. The restaurant/bar was a dark place filled with personalities of all sorts. Along with the dancer’s were bikers, artist, hippies and my co-workers. It smelled of liquor, smoke and weed.
There were dancer’s already performing and my name had to go on a list. I thought to myself “I have been bamboozled!” For whatever reason that was in my young and selfish mind had made me think they were there to see me. That they were expecting me. Me! Me! Me! I thought, wasn’t my teacher the one in charge of the event? I was on the list as number eighteen or nineteen. It was gonna be a long time before I dance. So we watched. It was mostly Tribal/Tribal Fusion and Gypsy fusion with the exception of two other dances. It was also the year that many dancer’s felt the need to dance to Godsmack’s ” Voo Doo.”
I went to the bar, got a drink, and sat with M and my boyfriend. Then it was time for another drink. “You’re lovely.” said someone behind me. Surprised I turned around “You’re lovely.” the dyed redhead said “Thanks,” I replied. ” You’re lovely too.” “Ne, that girl at the bar is staring at you.” M said “Yes, I know; she told me I was lovely.” There were giggles all around. Enough of that, I decided.
Finally, my turn to dance. I gave my CD to the DJ. My songs — two mixed together — were less that five minutes long. I started with my own choreography to Phaedra Pharaonic; the second dance was choreographed by Aziza. This dance I had learned one month before at a workshop. The song was Sahra Saidi.
I feel great after performing, thanks to the ten fans I had clapping and hollering! I thought I was awesome. “Ne, you’re such a snob, you think you’re the best dancer here.” M said “See ,M, that is where you are wrong. I am the best performer here.” I said proudly “That’s why you don’t have any friends.” M replied, laughing “Well, at least you are my friend.” I said,laughing as well. All kidding aside, I probably thought I was the best performer at the time.
“Let’s go home, I’m tired.” I said my good-byes and went to my car. My teacher came out, “Ranee, we have a little bit of a problem.” “Uh, what’s the problem?” I asked confused “Well, you danced to two songs and there has been a complaint.” she explained ” What? My solo was less than five minutes. You saw how everyone else was dancing forever to just one song.” “I know but I have the feeling they may not want us back.” I thought this was a joke. “Well, sometimes, when you’re good at something this happens.”
Wait, I thought,”Did she just say I was good?”
“Ranee, that is not a maya, it is like this, now watch.” It was with frustration that the co-director of the troupe I had just started said these words. In the weeks before I was excited, elated and proud. I had only been dancing a few months and clearly did not have any knowledge (movement or history wise) of what I was doing, but I was a happy dancer! I was asked to be part of this student troupe and I was going to learn. I asked several questions. Are these the costumes they wear in the middle east? Can I dance to any music I want? Can I make up my own moves? As a student dancer this is what I thought: We wear harem pants or big skirts, we show our bellies and we dance to techno music. Being the oddity I am, I began to research. First I was going to take a workshop with another dance teacher. Yes!
It was a Saturday. I had signed up for two workshops. The first was a Raks Sharki Choreography. I feel in love with the music, the movement and the knowing that there was so much more to be learned. I decided this choreography was going to be my first performance solo! I purchased the music and practiced. I bought my first costume which consisted of pink harem pants, a coin top and matching coin scarf. My first solo was not at a restaurant, bookstore, stage, bar or assembly. It was for my teacher and the co-director of the troupe. I had asked them to watch me so they could see what I learned at this workshop. I performed for them and didn’t skip a step. The end result was clapping and praise. I was so happy that I had impressed my teachers. But things soon changed.
I continued going to dance class but the atmosphere was different. My name would be called in troupe rehearsal several times to showcase what I was doing wrong. “Bend you knees more Ranee.” “Your snake arms need to go like this.” “Ranee, that is not a maya, it is like this, now watch.” I started feeling bad about my dancing. No one else in class was getting corrected. Was I really that bad? I would go home and cry that something I had loved so much was now making me miserable. Mostly, I was sad because my teacher, who I thought the world of at the time, made me feel as though I should not dance. I thought to myself is she mad because I took a workshop from another teacher? I had to make a decision and move on. I quit the troupe and said goodbye but it was not the end of my dancing. There was much more to come.