Odd Saint: Tahia Carioca, Who Belly Danced on the Turning World

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.

Fondly,

M

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Naveling

Dearest,

So, belly dancing.  I am noticing that I tend to lose my poise when it is most expected of me, mostly because the idea of poise becomes ridiculously fragile in those moments, and must be called out for the shame of controlled facial expressions that it is.  Back the the belly dancing.  I really really like it.  It makes my proportions use their allotted space.  However, the teacher of the class demands a very sultry demeanor, which I think I could pull off if I actually knew how to dance (since I am a newbie, it seems garish to try a come hither look while jerking and flopping each muscle into its possible routine).  And then I laugh or shake out my legs, and I get a look that says “you are not honoring yourself enough” from the teacher, and want to grimace back “the hell I’m not! I’m dancing with scarves! Hallelujah!”  But, facial expressions are too hard, and I hip jut up and down, and wait for us to get to the next move that will at least be something new.

Which, in a navel-gazing moment, led me to thinking about how we celebrate ourselves.  One of my reoccurring faux-pas is to overcelebrate myself in the few allotted moments in a lifetime where that appears okay (professional achievement, wedding, birthdays (these are more forgiving, though)).  I think these events where it seems honest to admit that some of the hoohaa is about the ego are good times to let loose and not worry about the ego.  And then, right when I think I am for once behaving correctly in the world like all the lucky people (I imagine Kate Winslet, for example,behaving like this every day), I subtlety get hit over the head by reactions that I was out of line. And then I realize that my expectations, on all sides, are distorted. It is a strange pickle.  I can hear Mark from Peep Show’s pouting complaint as he agrees with me in some situation where he lands in this same predicament.   Do you think it’s possible to publicly self celebrate? Do you successfully do it all the time?

Miss Millicent, I hope you are well.  I hope you are spending your time cutting paper doilies in preparation for December.  I imagine you skipping past Thanksgiving, considering it a holiday for the weak: one meal, no parties.   I also imagine you, in your Millicent form, to be a great crafter that sends close friends and strangers dreamcatchers made of peppermint patty wrappers, and gingerbread houses that have turrets and servant stairs.

Let’s both drink some rum this holiday season at an appointed time, and think of each other fondly,

Loves,

CF

Razzles and Dazzles

Dearest M.,

As you rifle for belly-dancing materials, I thought it would be of interest that sequins are the great-great grandchildren of the belly dance.  It seems a perfect ancestry.   Originally, at least according to my brief Internet research, coins were sewn into clothing to make them glint and jingle during the dance.  I’m sure this was also connected to a women needing to carry her wealth on her person, which the modern sequin also does. Now, the wealth represented is more in spirit than money, but it still is an outward shout of what a lady’s got.

I adore sequins because they hold their own conflict–extreme attraction and poor taste–in one little bauble.  They demand we look, and they also demand we understand they are fakes–not diamonds or coins, but little shiny plastic disks meant to catch our eye.   They were used on billboards before neon and electricity was a norm.  Sequins are advertisement, and I like to think the ones used on billboards were gigantic, pizza-sized things that flapped and shuddered like a sixties Brazilian lounge singer’s afterparty getup.

I also love sequins because they are constant enough for most people to have a memory with them: dancing at the prom, recital costumes, a great-aunt’s Christmas sweater, watching Anne Miller in old movies.  They were always the golden fleece of any dress-up trove as a kid visiting other friend’s houses, and they are the sole motivation in my short career as a synchronized swimmer.  They are also wealth because of their numbers–where there is one, there are usually a hundred.

Sequins are one of the good things in this world.  I think Baz Luhrman understands this.  But they are also costume, which might be the source of the joy.  They are for play.  When brought out as honest to goodness everyday wear, well, it’s problematic.

Other instant delights that demand their own little world?

Yours,

Carla Fran

Welcome to the Dollhouse

Dearest Carla Fran,

That was Doris Lessing! I read The Fifth Child standing up in a aisle of Tower Books in downtown Sacramento a bunch of years ago. Two interior decorating details are still with me: one was a long, long wooden dining table the couple had bought, the other is a strong impression of scary stairs. I left chilled and convinced of the unwisdom of having a big family.

I must tell you I watched Welcome to the Dollhouse for the first time ever, and spent most of the movie gaping in disbelief at Dawn Wiener. She was me. I was she. Shall I list the ways?

  • The t-shirt tucked into the elastic-waist pants. This was how I dressed.
  • The hairtie with the two plastic balls twisted up together on top.
  • The tiny perfect dancing sister. The way the tiny sister makes everything about Dawn twice as blobby and big.
  • The jerky sibling move that results in the sister’s endangerment (in my case, her getting locked into a Holiday Inn hotel room when she was 3. She bolted the door on accident, and the hotel had lost the master key. The fire department couldn’t get in, and I stood there, watching my father pull the fire alarm, my mother tearfully talk my sister away from the fatal toilet drowning mechanism, thinking to myself that I had lied, that I hadn’t had to go outside the room, that I hadn’t heard them coming at all and just wanted to feel important for a second and get away.)
  • The piano-playing.
  • The total submission to abusive people, except that I was more of a tattle-tale.
  • The weird spurts of agency in which she makes Steve Jello and macaroni and plots his seduction.
  • The clubhouse. Mine was a fig tree that gave me rashes on my legs. Whatever.
  • That shot of her lying in bed, expressionless, all night, after she’s met Steve.
  • The voice!!! That was my voice!!!
  • The terrible moment of appearing at the party in her “Love” heart-shaped earrings, her grown-up hairdo, lime-green pants and electric blue midriff-baring top. Mine was white roller-skates with with hot pink wheels, long silver dangly heart earrings, a turquoise spandex top with silver lightning bolts and bike shorts to match.

I’ve never recognized myself so completely in a movie before. I don’t know what to think—I experienced it almost as an unfamiliar invasion of privacy.

The line “There’s voices in my head / Coming from the phone” reminded me of your observations on schizophrenia, specifically of a friend of mine who hears the air condition constantly telling him that he’s a horrible person, good-for-nothing, ugly, etc. When this happens he very stiffly gets up and takes the dog for a walk.

The happy puppet is pretty terrifying, I guess. You’re right, it suggests that we’re yanked around by our genes, or by a genetically encoded desire to please and get attention, which might be the same thing. So what other phenotypes are there? Are the rest of us disaffected dummies? Moody marionettes?

In my trolling for belly-dancing material I watched a history of burlesque last night and came across an act in which a woman lies down on a couch and is fondled and partly undressed by a life-sized puppet of the devil. This was in response to censorship laws decreed that a dancer couldn’t bump and grind directly facing the audience or touch herself anywhere at all while onstage.

What terrifies me even more than the genetics, dear CF, is the puppetry that happens in reverse. As long as the dancer’s controlling the devil, it’s okay, but Welcome To The Dollhouse is so much about being controlled by the people you hate. It’s about that moment when you hear their voices in your own head. Good old Dawn. Every time she gets called something—“Lesbian,” “Retard,” “Faggot,” she turns around and does it to somebody else. The only person she really treats nicely is Brandon.

I wish I could condescend, pat her on the head, and tell her this too shall pass. Fact is, I don’t think it stops. I feel the Firecracker in my head every time I try to write. How do we not become puppets? And should I get a dog?

Fondly,
Millicent

Mad Men

Dearest Millicent,

I envy your belly-dancing.  I have tried the art twice, both times lapsing into a gawky “isn’t this hilarious” stance in order to avert all eyes from my lack of rhythm or failed attempts at sensuality.  Once was at a belly dance class at the YMCA where the teacher didn’t seem to understand that the snakiness that was so natural to her took a little thinking (she had that worst sin of teaching–the inability to imagine life without the knowledge that is being transferred.  She knew her dance, but didn’t know that some of us had never used those muscles).  The second time was in Tunisia, where my boss was less than pleased that I had been invited to actually participate as a real person on our trip.   But I agree–it is beautiful and powerful.  I heard somewhere that women learn to belly dance in order to train their muscles for childbirth–which I find fascinating.  And there are sequins! And, there is that really cool breath noise that comes from your esophagus sliding on your diaphragm when the upper half of the torso moves. I can see how the class would bring up memories of the baths–especially because of its insistence that the body itself is the beauty, and that it should be appreciated for its form instead mashed into hiding under shame, jeans, or Spanx.  I bet Belly dancing hates Spanx.  They would fight if they met at a party.

I came to this post today ready to rant about the poor behavior of two of my peers (I guess they are peers, I’m unsure).  They remind me of Madmen.  These two gents (I work on a mutual side project with them), most times I interact with them, leave me frustrated and outraged.  They are masters at exasperating me and making me feel powerless (thus, the exasperation).  They insist they respect me and my intelligence, and would never ever agree to the fact that they are sexist.  Yet, with every interaction, they assume I have no ability, and in no way an intelligence equal to theirs.  I was ready to call the whole thing off, and then they painted me into a new corner, where if I quit it looks like I am pouting because they disagreed with me.  It would be too revealing (and boring) to go into the whole event.  But it has brought about a couple of questions.

How do you defend yourself when the person you are talking to leaves no space for words or logical response? Do you simply not engage? Do you wait your patience until the perfect “so there!” arrives, and then deliver it? Do you write an articulate emailing saying that the shenanigans are over, and then give a flying fuckwad to what their interpretation of your response may be?  Or do you just make a note of overall assholeness and remember not to trust them with anything that actually matters to you?

This also brings up the question of keeping people in your life because they bring a little more daring into the world than you can get on your own, or because they have some strange connections that might behoove you one day to know about.   I was chatting about this with a beloved mutual acquaintance of ours, and she mentioned that the firecracker friends (the ones that you don’t want to see often, but you do want to know–the ones that when you are with them, strange elements appear (vast amounts of porn and candy, champagne and ho-hos, 36 hours of actual fun party, offense, nudity, arrests, thrills)–are overrated.  My fear is that without them, I am a bit of a bore.  We realized that it boiled down to the fact that we are grown-ass women who still want to be with the cool kids in the cafeteria.

And, then, because it made me feel better, I read Orwell’s thoughts on Dali.  He has a whole part about people who want to be geniuses, but they don’t know in what.  Their skills are fine, but how can they become majestic mysteries….the answer is wickedness.  He offers that wickedness is the one way where, in our culture, you get an instant pass to be officially “interesting.” I like this because it suggest that the firecracker friends (at least some) are using the mania as a cloak for an average or above average set of talents.

I know I am making my ego happier writing all this.  But, I doubt that is a good thing.

How do we get men who are sexist (and blind to it) to listen to the complaint without transforming (they do the transforming, it would be cool if I could) our words into nonsense, whining, or I don’t know, snowflakes, before it reaches their ears?

Harummph!

CF

PS: I actually like Spanx.

In Which Girls Shimmy and Heathers use a Different Kind of Toilet

Dear Carla Fran,

I am a belly-dancer. I may gyrate twitchily, my Arab wave might evoke a traffic cop at a busy intersection, and my knees are a mess by the end of it all, but by gum, I’m owning it. Our mutual friend had extolled the womanly virtues of the dance, and she wasn’t kidding. The spectacle of twenty-some women gyrating together was so lovely and sinuous that I kept forgetting to do my chest circles. The costumes! The drapy Jasmine-style Aladdin pants! The midriffs, all ripply and tattooed and undulating! It put me in mind of the bathhouse; there’s something so sharply elegant about real shapes moving unashamedly, the way they’re meant to. And then there’s the delicious contrast between the sharp crisp hip thrusts of a shimmy and the jiggling that follows–that’s MEANT to follow, that is neither an embarrassment nor a reason to go to the gym, but a deliberate and choreographed aftershock.

Ah, the acid slightly intestinal fragrance of dishwater. I feel for you poor nose. I’ve taken to wearing gloves because I can’t stand that smell–as definite and recognizable as garbage or vomit or fart. No matter what’s in the garbage or the sink, the smell is so deadly and so consistent. We could bottle it. We could call it Organic Chrism–eau de toilette–and package it in red, yellow and blue bottles (depending on the detergent used in preparation). We could hire Heathers impersonators and have the appropriate 80s-color-coded Heather promote each varietal. “What’s your damage?” would be the ad campaign. Finally, we’d release the eau de parfum: the Veronica–more musky, less citrus, with barf accents replaced by bass notes of Drain-0 and milk. Our ad-line? “Want Big Fun?”

And this brings us to Mad Men, which I’m dying to hear your thoughts on. One more thing re: smells: Have you tried rubbing a lemon on your hands after? It helps! And if you squeeze it out onto a tomato with some olive oil and salt, it’s not even wasted.

I’m running off to read Gwendolyn Brooks’ thoughts on Dickinson, since I have to teach the latter this afternoon. That is all for now. Farewell, my lovely.

Fondly,
Millicent