Belly dancing has origin stories aplenty, but the best one says it developed as a means to ease childbirth. Women would form a circle around the laboring woman and dance to hypnotize her into imitating their movements. This would make the delivery easier. Do the upper part of the belly roll between contractions and the lower part as the womb contracts. (Only Christians believe that childbirth should be painful.) It’s a creation story that reverses the conventional wisdom: that belly-dancing is about seduction and intended for a male viewership.
In his essay, “Homage to a Belly Dancer,” Edward Said honors Tahia Carioca, also known as Tahia Mohammed Kraiem and born Badaweya Mohamed Kareem Al Nirani, as the greatest belly dancer of all time. The essay starts with Carioca’s 1950 performance, which he saw at age 14. (It was a formative experience—his description follows below.) Many years later he sees her in a play, “an overwhelmingly long and vulgar farce about a group of Egyptian villagers who had a delegation of Soviet agricultural experts foisted n them.” Said hates the play’s politics, but is most distressed by Carioca’s appearance and demeanor. He has watched his idol age, and now she is fat and vulgar.
Gone was the tawny seductress, the graceful dancer who was all elegance and perfectly executed gesture. She had turned into a 220-pound swaggering bully; she stood with her hands on her hips unreeling insults, uttering the coarsest of one-liners, the easiest of double-entendres….
Said’s assessment of her early and mid-career gives way to an overview of her life, which was intriguingly if vaguely political (she was close to the Communist Party, appeared in Athens as part of a group of intellectuals and artists performing a “reverse exodus” to the Holy Land, and claims to have been imprisoned by Nasser for belonging to the Moscow-fronted League for Peace.)
The essay ends with him seeking her out and interviewing her when she is seventy-five years old and addressed as a Hajja, “the epithet accorded to elderly women who have made the pilgrimage to Mecca.” She’s all composure in the interview, all control, wit, irony, restraint. Then he asks her how many times she’s been married, and she explodes. “Many times,” she retorts. Asked which of them she had loved or had influenced her, she says “none at all,” and adds “They were a shabby lot of bastards,” and proceeds to a “string of expletives.”
It’s a joy to watch Said negotiate the exquisite aesthetic balance he praises her for—the way she balances vulgarity and sex—while having to deal with the real woman, who seems to have been fabulous and basically immoderate. Here’s how he describes that 1950 performance of her that he saw when he was fourteen years old:
“Her diaphanous veils were laid over the modified bikini that was basic to the outfit without ever becoming its main attraction. The beauty of her dance was its connectedness: the feeling she communicated of a spectacularly lithe and well-shaped body undulating through a complex but decorative series of encumbrances made up of gauzes, veils, necklaces, strings of gold and silver chains, which her movements animated deliberately and at times almost theoretically. She would stand, for example, and slowly begin to move her right hip, which would in turn activate her silver leggings, and the beads draped over the right side of her waist.”
“As she did all this, she would look down at the moving parts, so to speak, and fix our gaze on them too, as if we were all watching a separate little drama, rhythmically very controlled, re-configuring her body so as to highlight her semi-detached right wide. … Each of us knew that we were experiencing an immensely exciting—because endlessly deferred—erotic experience, the likes of which we could never hope to match in real life. And that was precisely the point: this was sexuality as a public event, brilliantly planned and executed, yet totally unconsummated and unrealizable.
“The paradox was that she was so immediately sensual and yet so remote, unapproachable, unobtainable. In our severely repressed world these attributes enhanced the impression she made. I especially recall that once she started dancing, and continuing through the rest of her performance, she had what appeared to be a small self-absorbed smile on her face, her mouth open more than is usual in a smile, as if she was privately contemplating her body, enjoying its movements. [For an example of this smile see 1:08 of the the video above.] Her smile muted whatever tawdry theatricality attached to the scene and to her dance, purifying them by virtue of the concentration bestowed on her innermost and most self-abstracted thoughts. And indeed, as I have watched her dancing through at least twenty-five or thirty of her films, I have always found that smile, lighting up the usually silly or affected setting–a still point of the turning world.”
Said’s description takes on new meaning in this clip of Tahia Carioca dancing on a spinning record player with Samia Gamal, another belly-dancing great. In the clip, Samia is imagining herself dancing with Tahia in this completely awesome version of the ballerina music box:
I love this for its surrealness, its clobbered special effects, its meta-artistic quality and its attention to a specifically female experience of music and dance. (Compare it to Samia Gamal’s Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, which both ignores her and features intense and exhausting close-ups of her ripplingly muscled torso and the contrast will be totally clear. That clip is violating, sublime and frustrating and stupid in ways that this is charming and just plain beautiful.) It’s intriguingly different even from the films Carioca appears in, in which the men are always eating and in which she’s always fighting the furniture for space and attention.
Carioca really isn’t not a still point in the turning world; she’s in constant motion. While I think the quality of her smile varies, I like Said’s description of her irony. I like, too, that in his essay the only thing that demonstrably and drastically changes is her. (Still point indeed!) She’s anything but still, and it’s interesting to watch Said watch her age.
He says, incidentally, that her many film appearances are nothing compared to her live performances. If that first video I posted is a live performance (I’m 90% sure it is), he’s right. It’s compelling in ways the movies just aren’t. (He’s right about their basic silliness.) That said, there’s a wonderful animation and playfulness about the dance with Samia on the record player that reminds me of Lady Montagu’s description of the ladies in the Turkish bathhouse and that seems impossible in a cabaret—a possibility for a filmic performance that doesn’t quite compete or perform but remains fresh and paradoxically private.