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The Goddess of Big Things

  • October 18, 2005

By Leah Ray

Belly Tribe – don’t you love the name? – was staged at Velvet Underground, Zouk, one sweaty Sunday night two weeks ago by resident belly dance masters Nancy Bakhshy and Paola Blanton. They are the co-founders of Yalla Bina! (Arabic for “Come On Let’s Go!”), a department within The Dance Space at Plaza Damas, Sri Hartamas. Nancy, an Azerbaijani steeped in Middle Eastern dance and music from childhood, initiated the craze for belly dance in Kuala Lumpur some three years ago. Macedonian-born Paola, who has a Masters in Humanities, has been teaching here for two years, and she draws on her eastern European heritage and influences from as far away as Brazil to create her electrifying style.

Yalla Bina! recently invited the Paris-based Kamellia, one of the foremost Asian master of the belly dance, to KL to inspire its Asian students. “Sometimes they get discouraged,” Paola told me. ‘They say ‘We’re Asian, we don’t have rhythm,’ which is nonsense. I wanted them to see an Asian woman who is at the very pinnacle of this art.”

Kamellia, of Korean-Japanese descent, whose figure is more ballet than belly, proved that you don’t have to be zaftig or full-figured to belly dance, although it may help. (I heard someone next to me grumble, “She doesn’t even have any hips!”) This multi-talented dancer, who is also a superb singer and musician (who is also fluent in Arabic), taught a three-day workshop hosted by Yalla Bina! prior to the show at Zouk, where she performed with dancers from Malaysia and Singapore.

Roaming along two dimensions

I never expected to see so many goddesses in one place at one time in my life! They took to the floor that night (2 Oct 2005) in a brilliant belly dance show. Belly Tribe opened with a ritual blessing of the performers. Drummer Claudine Gabriel led the way as four young women – Nancy’s daughters, Mandana and Niloufa, and Kim Davis and Stefanie Burger – took to the stage. As they knelt at the four cardinal points, the stunningly beautiful Nancy whirled and swayed around them, cleansing and purifying the performers and the space with incense. She told me later that in Iran, she would’ve used spand but here, she said, “We used Chinese incense for safety and convenience.” The purpose was the same: to banish evil and make a space for good.

Paola, entered next and did a warrior dance expressive of strength and determination, gracefully undulating her perfectly sculpted body while balancing an immense curved sword on her head. The opening built to a climax as Kamellia, in a flowing hibiscus-red caftan, joined the others and swept around the stage beating a drum. The audience seemed to fall into a trance, mesmerized by the sinuous movements and pulsing drumbeats. I know I was in a reverie, my mind and spirit roaming along two dimensions, one geographical, the other chronological.

Belly dance grew out of the movement of nomads across Asia and Europe. From its roots in northern India, nomad dance journeyed via the Asian trade routes to the Middle East and North Africa, developing distinctive styles in each region it crossed. Ultimately, it was carried to Spain, where it contributed to the evolution of flamenco. Today, Nancy is working with Kayla, one of Kuala Lumpur’s premier flamenco masters, to develop a fusion of their arts.

In Belly Tribe, this geographical aspect of nomad dance was present in many ways. Firstly, Claudine, who is from Ireland, played a Celtic drum, which perfectly complemented the Middle Eastern drumming of Kamellia. “I hope what people came away with was that our heartbeat is your heartbeat,” Paola said later. “The tribal heartbeat cuts across politics and culture.” Borders continued to dissolve as 17-year-old Mandana, inspired by her love of Indian movies, performed an Indian dance with great poignancy and expressiveness.

Paola then gave a spectacular solo performance inspired by Greek mythology and modern dance. In flowing white draperies fitted with ‘wings’, she danced with the fluid lines and emotive gestures of a modern Isadora Duncan. “The Wing Dance is my public meditation on the long agonizing wait for the touch of the muse,” she told me. “We wait with full hearts and empty hands for inspiration to come. When it does, the soul flies up and transcends the material world.”

Dancing to a Turkish Sufi melody called “The Long Wait,” she whirled and spun, crouched and stretched upward, drawing down the sacred into the space of the nightclub and casting a spell over the audience. In one stunning move, she flew to the front of the stage with her arms held high, the living embodiment of the Winged Victory of Samothrace. “I wanted to open myself completely to the audience,” she said. “I wanted to express, if only for a moment, ‘I want to fly and I want you to fly with me.”‘

Improves with age

Kamellia performed three solos, each distinctive and charming. Her self-described ‘Oriental’ sensibilities expressed themselves in an ethereal, highly refined style that was more cerebral and less visceral than classic belly dancing. Her first performance, in a slinky black gown, was her most traditionally sensual. It was followed by a mysterious and highly controlled dance in which she played the zils or finger cymbals and finally by a zestful, outgoing and upbeat solo that was a joyous whirl of flowing hair, colorful scarves, vibrant smiles and youthful movements. Her exquisite dancing demonstrated another aspect of belly dancing that turns modern standards of female attractiveness on their ear – not only is it an art best performed by the unfashionably curvaceous, it is also one that improves with age.

The teenaged dancers were lovely – evoking images of temple virgins – but their dancing has not yet attained the passion and conviction of the adult women’s. Not to be crude, but there is a fire in belly dancing that probably only comes with experience. It was wonderful to see three stages of life present on the stage together: the girl, the mature woman and the matriarch, embodied by Kamellia, who has clearly discovered the source of inspiration sought for in Paola’s waiting dance. She glowed with an inner light that only years of seeking could achieve.

Nancy, with her hourglass figure, Cleopatra eyes and breathtaking blend of passion and perfect physical control (I swear that woman can dance with every single part of her body, even her eyebrows!), epitomizes classic belly dancing. Swathed in shades of sky blue, she did a solo that was an enchanting and exuberant encyclopedia of Middle Eastern styles. Later, she told me, “I included Persian, Shomali, Turkish belly dancing, Bandary and Kurdish dance. Even the lyrics for each were in different languages. I hope people understood that.” I’m going to guess no on that! “Some people complained that we should’ve had an MC to explain what we were doing,” she said. I think it would’ve been helpful and fascinating.

Even the most shrinking violet can blossom

The chronological dimension of the show became clear to me as the dancing continued. I felt as if a window was opened and I was looking back in time to the very roots of religion. Frankly, I’ve always taken the feminist/Margaret Murray tales of ancient Goddess-worshipping cultures with more sceptical salt than is good for my health, although I felt they were useful, in righting the balance of history, and even beautiful. But after experiencing Belly Tribe, I am a believer. Transcendence rooted in the vitality of the female body became a reality to me. I understood how a temple filled with priestesses dancing in honour of the Goddess would generate an awesome hum of power. The physical, emotional and spiritual energy on the dance floor that night could’ve shifted a tectonic plate or two.

Apparently, the management of Velvet Underground/Zouk had some qualms about allowing a belly dance show on their premises.  Perhaps they had a mistaken idea that it would be racy or vulgar. (In fact, the name Belly Tribe was in part a concession to their nervousness, a way to avoid using the term “belly dance”.) This was also the first public belly dance performance before a mixed male-and-female audience in Malaysia, which may have added to their anxiety. Belly dancing is definitely earthy and passionate, but it is also good-humoured and convivial. Mothers and daughters belly danced together that night. Sisters belly danced side by side. This was no strip-tease show or lap dance, it was a joyful celebration of a very feminine art, one created by women.

Towards the end of the show, Nancy – in a body-hugging sheath of gold beads imported, she told me later, from Lebanon and costing a bomb! – and Paola fronted the troupe together and put on a charming display of ‘challenge’ dancing, trading sassy and stunning little moves back and forth.

After the show, the DJs turned the club into an Arabian disco. The less inhibited in the audience, including some men, rushed onto the stage to join the dancers in shimmying, strutting and shaking. Nancy and Paola led them in circle dances, which not only create a sacred space but also a zone of safety and comfort where even the most shrinking violet can blossom. Nevertheless, even those who are happy to do belly dancing seem a little shy about explaining its appeal. Ask most Malaysian women who study it why they like it, and you’ll probably get a bland answer along the lines of “It’s fun and it’s good exercise.”

Get real! So is tennis, but it ain’t the same thing by a long shot. A friend who came with me was closer to the truth, I think, when she said, “It’s exhibitionism! Look at how proud of their bodies they are. It’s wonderful to see women really enjoying and expressing their own physicality. Especially here, where we tend to be so repressed!”


Leah Ray is a wandering American who writes for both pleasure and profit. She loves mambo music, mysteries, Tarzan movies, and cold beer. She has a blog about monkeys.


First Published: 18.10.2005 on Kakiseni