FROM SHIM-SHAM TO SHIMMY - The Threads of Tap & Swing in My (and others') Belly Dancing
Updated: Feb 17
MAKING OF AN 8-WEEK WONDER: How I Lost My 1st Belly Dance Teachers
*ALSO* A BELLY DANCER - The Making of BellaDancer & the 'Beast
BEAUTIFUL, SEXY, SILLY, SAVVY - Unearthing Missing Black Muses
Remember how I've been doing archeological digs in search of how I filled in all the holes of my belly dance instruction when I lost my teacher and had almost no access to legit source materials? That means I had to do what American belly dance enthusiasts have no doubt been doing since the art form crossed the Atlantic:
Fill in gaps with cross-pollinated moves.
Add in other moves and props from the surrounding dance styles that melded in spectacular fashion and appealed to local audiences.
Evolve differently from dancers in the art form's countries of origin because transcontinental flight was in its infancy, there was no YouTube--there wasn't even VHS, and many Americans wouldn't have had access to intensely study films of the belly dancing that was being shot in the "Exotic East". (1, 4, 6)
(Not that these are the only styles going on in that time period. They're just the ones copiously captured on film.)
In our current days of YouTube, Google, and Amazon, I think we sometimes forget how much harder it once was to find and get ahold of things. Those who grew up with the internet can't have a clue. Simply trying to find music that wasn't rock, soul, classical, or country in Northern Minnesota of the early 90s? There was only a tiny World music section, and most of that was of Spanish or Irish influence, not Middle Eastern.
So finding music I could belly dance to was a feat. Finding video footage to study was almost nonexistent. Finding video footage like the clips above?
We had a few Blockbuster Video locations, as well as Waldenbooks, B. Dalton Books, Suncoast Video, Sam Goody, and Tower Records. (2) I'm trying to remember if we even had Walmart yet. If so, it was very new. Instead, we had Target and K-Mart. Yes. Remember K-Mart? (One of our biggest department stores was also Montgomery Ward, if that tells you anything.) They definitely had no belly dancing. We had one store downtown that sold vinyl, tapes and CDs, new and used, and I scoured that place month after month to ever-mounting frustration. The few items we could order in, we did.
For the first years of my belly dance adventure, this was the extent of my hunted, scoured, unearthed, special-ordered, and prized music collection--BOOM:
Unfortunately, I didn't even know how to dance to half that stuff, and I was so clueless about this art form that I couldn't figure out why I could never make the moves I'd learned feel right--because two of those albums are full of Turkish music and odd rhythms, instead of the 4s and 8s I was accustomed to from Hala's class. Only years later, after I was introduced to the Turkish style in Colorado (sooooo much more heaven to my body and soul), would I revisit those songs and smack myself on the forehead in comprehension. "Ohhhhh. Now I see. And now I know what to do with these songs I've always loved but could never comfortably dance to."
In my Northlands days, I only had one other album on cassette tape--the first one, gifted to me by the owners of the Greek restaurant where I danced: Belly Dancing at the Cafe Feenjon. It was their favorite, and they always lit up when I put on this music.
But getting my hands and hips on video footage of knowledgeable and skilled dancers I could at least try to mimic like a four-year-old, cymbal-clanging, vacuously grinning wind-up-monkey?
That was not an option.
In my early years of college, the idea of driving down to Minneapolis alone on a wild fringe-chase terrified me. I was just starting to get comfortable driving in a mid-size town, but I was nowhere near ready to tackle a metropolis I'd only been to a few times on a school bus and in the back seat of a friend's mom's car in elementary school. I remembered what Twin Cities traffic looked like.
Plus, I didn't have extra money for lessons that included gas and trip expenses. I certainly didn't have time to make that a regular thing. My course load was always two-to-five credits beyond full, and after the spring of my freshman year, I had no idea that I was drowning under the weight of repressed memories. I was so screwed up that I changed my major four times and almost dropped out, so tackling Minneapolis to pursue this obsession that countless people tried to steer me away from was not something I could do alone.
Eventually, the Society for Creative Anachronism would give me the in I needed to take on our capital's twin conglomeration. It would also introduce me to the folkloric and blossoming Tribal styles. But until then, all I could do was play with my toys alone.
So what was a belly dance-obsessed, collegiate-trained theater-and-dance nerd to do after losing her belly dance teacher, when she couldn't find any dance clips like the ones above?
She fortuitously gets ahold of an instructional video by the most famous Californian belly dancer of the day, and proceeds to kill the VHS tape from watching it so many times. (3)
Which brings us back to our cross-pollination and fusion hunt.
Suhaila Salimpour not only had Ballet, Tap and Jazz in her repertoire, but she also studied with a tap dancer who brought the street dances of Oakland Boogaloo to his style. (11) From this collaboration, she developed another distinctive aspect of contemporary American belly dance--pops, locks, and intricate isolations.
So in this same tradition, I added what I learned from her to my own studies. Besides taking Ballet, Modern and Jazz Dance, I also studied Tap, Ballroom, and Swing. (11) You can see it in the rhythm and structures of the way I often combine shimmies, foot-initiated hip work, and footwork (both percussive and traveling). Like Suhaila, you can hear it the way I play finger cymbals.
I play them way more like another percussion instrument in a jazz band, rather than as time-keepers sticking to one repetitive rhythm. I also don't adhere to the "you may only play this rhythm to this type of song" rule. I didn't grow up with that. I grew my zill chops sitting around a campfire being one of the musicians, or chiming out the same rhythms I would have clacked and stomped out in my feet.
Then somebody put castanets in my hands and changed out my tap shoes for flamenco heels. That changed everything. In addition to "chicka-ching, chicka-ching, chicka-chicka-chicka-ching" I acquired "dikka-da-da, dikka-da" and rolling triplets. A lot of times I'm not even playing a named rhythm. I'm blending with the background music, or providing melodic accents like the lead percussionist at a drum jam.
We'll return to finger cymbals when we get to my SCA days, because they were a much later addition that I was only comfortable using in performance once I got to Colorado.
I college, I had my hips and I had my feet for rhythm. For me, unless it's a gushy song with a melody that captivates my heart, it always begins with rhythm for me. The heartbeat of the time signature, the changes in layering, and the accent shifts of the percussion. When I start playing with a new song or when I'm dancing to live music, the movement always begins in the feet. That's where I find the song. That's my in, and everything builds from the ground up.
As always on this side of the pond, the topic of Tap leads us back to our missing Black muses. I might not have been able to find any of the originating African-American dancers performing the Black Bottom onstage, but in the earliest footage, I was able to find lighter-skinned, male Tap dancers who surreptitiously broke the "two-colored" rule --naturally, only until being outed as Black. Le-heave-of-siiiiiiigh... (7, 8, 10, 12)
This is the Shim Sham Shimmy by Leonard Reed and Willie Bryant (8, 12):
If you watch the difference in hip work between Erin Stevens and Swing Dance legend Frankie Manning (9) below, you'll start to understand what I took from Tap and exaggerated in my hips, combining it with what I'd learned from Hala, Madame Lucy, Suhaila Salimpour, Jazz, Mambo, and Funk.
I've never "done it right" in belly dance. Heck, I've never "done it right" in anything. My dastardly belly dancing infiltrated my Modern and my Tap; everything else corrupted my belly dancing. This is a big reason why. Because as I was learning to belly dance, I was also learning intricate isolations, fall-and-recovery, contraction-and-release, and this:
Moving into Swing Dance (12), as I wrote in the post that kicked off this whole series:
...my study of dances like the Charleston took place in the 90s, way before YouTube, even before Google when I only had dial-up email, in cultures dominated by that "quintessential look" of the 1940s-50s white kids. Back then, nobody I learned from was talking about the controversial roots of these dance forms. They only talked technique and tricks.
But we've definitely got some footage that reminds us of the African-American roots in Swing Dance, as well as showing in glaring clarity the societal roles to which these dancers were still relegated in the 40s--just look at their costumes.
We'll let this video sum up AllTheSentiments for the unacknowledged Black Founders/co-contributors for all the dance forms mentioned in these last three posts and beyond:
Let's actually see the clip she's talking about because these athlete-artist-innovators are too awesome to pass up:
Here's the most overt example of my American footwork making lurve with my belly dancing - that time I got requested to do a swingy/jazzy/belly fusion. So I did. (2007)
The smartassery is strong with this one.
Okay, I may have done this more than once (2005):
CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE
--UP NEXT: JOY AS A WEED - It's Everywhere! The art of finding sunlight in the gray, and of dancing in the asphodels while stuck in the Underworld. Including my newest dance, "Blossom," and ode to Persephone, and the glories of springtime in the Ozarks.
--OR: if you'd like to skip directly into my next fill-in-the-blanks dance adventures, you can find that in ORIENTALIST DREAMS: Following in the Footsteps of Ruth St. Denis
SOME LINKS TO LEAD YOU FURTHER DOWN THESE RABBIT HOLES:
2) Yeeeee! A blast from the past: the mallrat stores that raise the hair on the back of my neck. Hahaha!
3) The Salimpour Legacy that branched in both the American Cabaret and Tribal Belly Dance directions, and which has roots in both the circus/faire/vaudeville scene and in classical Western training like Ballet, Tap and Jazz Dance.
6) The Shimmy: long before the Harlem Shake
7) A dance legend who broke through the "two-color rule" and pushed the bounds of racism further toward the bottomless cliff that it needs to be booted off, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson.
8) Some stuff Wiki doesn't talk about: Leonard Reed & his tap partner, Willie Bryant
10) Tap is Timeless - Its evolution and adaptation over the years
11) My previous posts about the influence that Ballet, Modern, Jazz and Vaudeville had upon me can be found in the Making of Bella & the Beast section of my DANCE Table of Contents
12) The Wikis to scratch surfaces: