The following is an excerpt from Fire In The Belly, a memoir by my friend Zaina Brown (https://www.worldofdancers.com/about-zaina.html) about the thrills and hard knocks of dancing in the Middle East and traveling solo in Africa, Asia, and Arabia. It is set to be released in January 2019 – follow on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/FireInTheBellyBook) and Instagram (https://www.instagram.com/Fire.In.The.Belly) for publications updates and more sneak peeks.
I’ve long enjoyed Zaina’s wit, humor and honesty. We’ve had some great chats over the years about dance, culture and the joys/frustrations of writing. I hope you enjoy the excerpt… and the book!
I sat on the floor of the empty dance studio and stared into the mirror. Last time I was in Lebanon, I had been an anxious wreck. This time, I was pissed. I was supposed to be working! My agent Panos didn’t directly blame me for what happened in Bahrain, but part of me wondered what he was really thinking. I had now lost two contracts, in less than a year’s time.
I have to do something, so nobody can claim I’m not a good dancer, ever again.
I got up and started re-examining how I did my entrance. In Cairo, every star dancer had her own way of beginning the show. In the Gulf, individuality had no value. In order to pass the smell test, I had to stick to the formula. From now on, I would start spinning the moment I entered the stage. I would shimmy like Godzilla, so big and boisterous that the kitchen staff would think there was an earthquake. I would flip my hair up and down, whether the music asked for it or not, like it was a tick I couldn’t control. No nuances or subtlety, only speed and fury. Art was for later in the show – if even then.
Some years earlier, I had sat on the floor of a studio in Manhattan, just as eager to better myself. The bellydance class had just ended, leaving the air steamy with body heat. Flamenco dancers battered the ceiling from the studio above, and car horns chimed in from the rowdy Eighth Avenue below. The dilapidated building hummed with history. If you squinted, you could see the footsteps of Ginger Rogers, Fred Astaire, and countless other greats on the creaky, wooden floors.
I waited for further explanation as my teacher, a portly Egyptian man in his fifties, lit a cigarette. He had the appearance of a blue-collar professional – an electrician, or maybe a janitor – and the accent of a bodega clerk. In reality, he was a renowned bellydance instructor, who packed rooms with hundreds of adoring hipscarf-clad women around Asia, Europe, and South America. When he wasn’t touring, he taught five weekly classes in these time-worn studios. I took every single class. He was the reason I had come to New York, and a big part of why I stayed. I often referred to him as my guru, and I was only half joking. As I sat on the floor, at his feet, I didn’t care if the world went up in flames.
He continued to speak, his words slowly framing the image in his mind, yielding to the drags from the cigarette.
“You know that woman on the street…that everyone turns to look at? She may not be the most beautiful one…but there’s something in the way she walks. She draws all the attention.”
He paused to gauge if I was following.
“And she’s not rushing.”
I nodded in understanding.
“That’s how I want you to dance.”
Maybe I can’t.
Minutes ago, I had been dancing a choreography with twenty other women, in my usual front row spot, joyful and confident. But these moments of truth, however constructive, had a way of stripping me bare and defenseless.
This dance is all I want.
I was disappearing between the floor planks like a loose, cracked crystal from Ginger’s tap shoe. My throat constricted. I picked chunks of dust from the soles of my pink ballet slippers.
“Nothing,” I said without lifting my eyes.
His tone softened.
“When you dance…you really have to love yourself. Everything about yourself.”