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Cross that off the bucket list!

Posted on March 19, 2013 at 12:05 AM

I promised I would write more about the BellyDancer of the Universe Competition. I received my videos via email today, so it is a good day to post about that particular adventure.

While most people spent their President’s Day holiday weekend hitting the slopes or running with their dogs on the beach, I decided this year to scratch something off my bucket list- I entered the Belly Dancer of the Universe Competition in Long Beach, CA. A coincidence of events last fall, including my 50th birthday and being de-throned as the Queen of Latrine (kind of a crappy job, anyway, ha!) led me to decide to take on this challenge. I thought, why not? Why not me? It’s something I always wanted to do, I have the time and the wherewithal to do it, I should just go for it. So I did. I sent in my application and entry fees for two categories, drum solo and taxim. I made a reservation at a hotel. I set up a schedule for working out at least four to five days a week, two to three hours. I bought a private lesson with a local theatrical jazz dance teacher to find out if I even had a chance at succeeding. I picked music, I chose costumes, I did all the things I thought I needed to do to win. But the minute I stepped into that dressing room, I realized I was in a whole different ball game. I felt like a little-leaguer stepping up to bat at the World Series. Like I was driving a go-kart in the Indy 500. As if I was in the Kentucky Derby riding a Shetland pony. You get the picture. But let’s fill in some background first.

It says in my baby book that my first words were “Tuna Fish Sandwich” and “Ta-Da!” I have always loved to perform, either on the piano, the violin or onstage, both as a dancer and actress. I started ballet when I was five, went on pointe when I was eleven, did jazz dance in junior high, and jazzercise, hip hop, Groove, and now Zumba as an adult. I discovered belly dance later in life, at a variety show when I saw a belly dancer covered in coins making her own music as she shimmered and shook all over the place. I took one look and said “I want to do THAT!” I went home and called the number on the flyer I had saved to make sure the classes were still going on and that week, went to Pat Jackson’s American Dance studio to my first class with Mary Donnelly. That was fifteen years ago and I have not regretted a single hip pop. Well, maybe that one time, with the girl that admitted she was dyslexic right before we went on stage at a performance and she didn’t know right from left and wasn’t sure what the choreography was the she had made up and taught to us. Frustrating to say the least, but a good lesson learned. Know your choreography inside and out, upside down and sideways and in your sleep.

My training has mostly been in American Tribal Style, a group format that has a framework of steps that include cues and transitions that allow members of that group to move together like a flock of birds or school of fish with little to no rehearsal. I have actually danced ATS with people whose names I still don’t know, moving together in perfect synchronicity as though the whole thing was choreographed. I have since taken the Teacher Training to be a certified Black Sheep Belly Dance instructor and have been teaching a version of that lead-and-follow style I call Turbo Tribal for two years now. So, getting out there as a soloist and creating a choreography that never changes from beginning to end was outside my comfort zone, to say the least. It is a far cry from the synchronized group improvisation that I’ve been dancing for the last decade and a half, which is much more like a 3-D game of Tetris, where the pieces are the same, but are put together in a different way every time, even with the same music and the same dancers.

So there I was, little ol’ Tribal-style me in a room full of glitter and glitz, trying to do what they do, while still retaining my authenticity and technique. Tribal style tends to be much more earthy and grounded with almost a folkloric feel than traditional Danse Orientale or Raqs Sharqui, so I knew one of my challenges would be to remain uplifted and light on my feet, like a leaf on the wind. Looking at all those other ladies practicing, silently guided by the music piped in through their headphones, I realized I was outgunned from the start. Rather than let it raise my anxiety level, I decided to go out into the audience and just watch for a while, to get a feel for how the competition was going to go. First thing when I walked around the corner, I saw my friends Emile and Shaddy from Diamond Pyramid, a vendor of Egyptian costumes, accessories and musical instruments. Big hugs all around and lots of “I’m so happy to see you”s. Shaddy had played the drums for me numerous times at various Renaissance Faires since around 2003, and he knew what I was capable of in that regard. He said “You’ll do great!” That made me relax a little bit. As I wandered around the room, I found that I knew many more people than I realized from all of the belly dance shows that I have attended, including many of the judges. What I hadn’t realized is that most of these people were used to me running around with a clipboard and a walkie-talkie in my hand as a member of the organizing staff, rather than as a performer. Many of them had never seen me dance at all and those that had only had seen me dance Tribal Style in a group. I came in during the group performance, with not a since Tribal Style group in sight. These were the traditional forms that you might see at a high-end Cairo nightclub, with all the ladies in matching bedlah (the beaded bra-and-belt set very commonly seen in American belly dance performance) or in other matching costumes appropriate to the style being presented. Some of my favorites were those dancing a very modern style known as melayya leff, an Egyptian pop style local to the Alexandria area, very flirty and cute, with a narrow veil edged with paillettes or fringe that they twirl like poi balls. Melayya leff is obviously very popular among the Eastern Europeans that were there competing, but not as widely performed here in California. Definitely a style I want to learn!

That was the thing that really blew my mind- the number of foreign nationals here to compete. There were Russians, Ukranians, Romanians, Argentinians, Czechs, Mexicans, Canadians, Peruvians, Swiss, Turks and the Champion of Champions came from Poland. When I think about what they had to go through just to get here, with passports, immigration, travel, Homeland Security, et al, it made my journey very humble and small. They were all as nice as pie to me, dispelling my fear that it would be very competitive and shark-like as some people had warned it would be. I sat through the Egyptian Preliminaries and the Universal Preliminaries, and then had to head back to the hotel to change for the taxim category.

Taxim is an instrumental solo, non-rhythmic, sometimes with a non-linear progression. It can be performed on most any instrument, violin, oud, accordion, kanoun (an Egyptian hammer dulcimer) clarinet, mizmar or even a voice. The trick to this competition is that even though all 22 competitors danced to the same music, no one got to hear the music before they stepped on stage. It was all improvisation, made up in the moment, a dancer creating a 3-D interpretation of the music as she heard it for the first time. You can imagine it was difficult to practice for this, since no matter what music I practiced to, it would be different than what was played on stage. Fortunately, when I had taken my private lesson with Princess Farhana, a former competitor herself and a judge of the Egyptian category, she gave me a CD of taxim music that I could work with. She also told me “Even though it is impossible to choreograph to an unknown piece of music, you can ‘map’ your performance. Try to use up all the stage, make the majority of your big traveling movements at the beginning of the song and end up downstage center for the end. Pause when the music pauses. Go up when the melody rises, go down when the melody falls. Remember to smile and breathe!” Excellent advice all around, but still no match for the anxiety I was feeling standing on that stage waiting for the music to start. I knew that I knew what I was doing, sort of, but my mind raced from one thing to another as I tried to fit my steps to the song. To this day, I can’t tell you exactly what I did, but the video is coming in a couple of weeks, so then I’ll be able to see how I interpreted that piece of music. One of the judges complimented me later saying that I was the only one who heard the descending scale and got down on the floor to do some floorwork for that few seconds that called for it. Another judge told me I had “great musicality but needed to be more grounded”. So much for that “leaf on the wind” business.

I was relieved and exhausted and in need of a drink. Fortunately, the promoters, a mother-and daughter team, Tonya and Atlantis, had figured out a long time ago that a necessary element to this soiree was a bar, so I was able to slake my thirst with a nice cocktail and watch the rest of the show. I had seen some of the Specialty Props category earlier, which included some fine sword work, a lovely tambourine solo by my friend Nilay of Bakersfield and a double-cane piece that made the dancer look like a shimmery helicopter in the middle of these twirling blades. I went to bed inspired and looking forward to the next day’s challenge.

Day Two: I woke up with glitter in my pajamas and hair stuck to my face with eyelash glue. I knew I had to be at the venue by noon, but I thought I’d get there earlier to see what some of the other categories had to offer. I showered, packed up my second costume for the drum solo, did some yoga to stretch out those cramped muscles from the day before and headed down the street. I came in during the “little” and “junior” solo categories. All I could think was “if only I had started at age seven or eight like some of these girls, I would be so much better now”. Regrets aside, it was by far the cutest thing I had ever seen. If you like fluffy kittens or baby ballerinas, these tiny belly dancers will blow your mind! And relative to what we see on “Toddlers and Tiaras” or “Honey Boo-Boo”, these girls are serious athletes, with great technique and stamina. Not nearly as suggestive or sexual as I think some naysayers would believe.

And then it was time. I had thought from the beginning of this journey that the format for the drum solo was kind of weird: a set choreography to a recorded piece of drum music. I had learned the drum solo as a kind of a game of “tag” between the drummer and the dancer, with the drummer creating different riffs as they go along and expecting the dancer to make up steps to match. In a sense it is the counterpoint to the taxim, with the dancer using pops and locks and isolations to create a 3-D interpretation of the rhythm, all spontaneous in the moment.

This was a version of that, with a choreography that I had made up all by myself. Remember, I’m an improv kind of gal, used to making stuff up as I go along, mainly because I feel like choreographies are difficult to remember and besides, the audience doesn’t know the script, so if you mess up, who can tell? I stood there at the edge of the stage, waiting for the announcement of my name, and I spotted Sadie at the judges table. I knew her from Middle Eastern Dance Camp (yes, there is a summer camp for belly dancers), but I also knew that she practically invented the drum solo and is one of the most famous drum solo performers in the world. My stomach dropped, my heart raced and the music began. By the time I was halfway through, I could feel my cheeks straining from the big old grin on my face. This was a blast! And I was doing it! And they liked me! They clapped in the right places and laughed at the funny parts. And when I got to the end, a huge round of applause! I’m a belly dancer, we live on applause and glitter, just like Tinkerbelle. It was amazing and wonderful. I stepped off the stage to a big hug and pat on the back from Atlantis, the organizer. What a relief. I changed right away because I knew that as well as I had done in my own mind, there was no way I was going to get called back up on the stage for a trophy. I had seen some of the other 22 competitors in my category and knew that I was not in the top four. They were really all that awesome. I did stay for the fusion category and boy, was that a lot of fun. This was kind of the catch-all category, which required that the dancer fuse Raqs Sharki (traditional belly dance) with any other “legitimate” dance form. There’s a loaded word for you. Some of it was very obvious, like the girl who did salsa and bachata in a gorgeous fringed dress, and the other gal who did a fabulous Mexican folklorico fusion in my favorite yellow outfit of the contest. Some were more successful than other. Some did not seem to understand the concept of fusion, that is, taking two forms and melding them in such a way that they became seamless and new. And some were just strange, including one that could only be described as “pirate fusion”. Those in the know will understand what I’m talking about.

The finale was impressive. This is a format unique to the BDUC, with all four finalists in the Egyptian and Universal categories on stage at the same time, dancing to live music they’ve never heard before. The Universal category finalists are required to use both veil and zills as well. And then, at the very end, the winners of each category reprise their winning dances, with the winner of that being crowned the Champion of Champions, rewarded with a trophy bigger than me and a $1,000 check.

I went to dinner with a couple of dance friends, who peppered me with questions about how I did it and wouldn’t it be fun to be in it next year. I agreed that it’s addictive; now that I’ve done it once, I already have a thousand ideas for what I can do better the next time. The important part is that I tried it and I went through with it. As many say, it’s the journey, not the destination. Most importantly for me, I’m someone’s favorite Belly Dancer of the Universe. 


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