NEVER BELLY DANCE TO THIS SONG! - It’s About A Prostitute.
If you aren't familiar with Orientalism and belly dance history of the 70s-90s, don't take this opening section as a dance history lesson. (5, 6) If you don't know me yet, don't take it as a disparaging judgment about all the scawey S-words either. (1) Take it for what it is: the conservative, prejudiced indoctrination of a clueless baby-bellydancer from the Midwestern US. A small-town girl trying to navigate…ohhh…
Twenty-two years old
“You should never, ever dance to this song,” they say. “It’s about a prostitute,” they say, with that look that reminds me that the mere mention of prostitutes is a bad thing, especially for a belly dancer--
Crap. I keep doing that.
We are Middle Eastern Dancers, not belly dancers. Apparently there's a big difference around the campfires of the SCA. (10) They call those kind of dancers "jingle-bunnies." (They also call them "sluts," and I've already had too many awful experiences with that label to know that I don't ever want to go back to it.)
I mean, I get why people make so many assumptions about us, especially in such a conservative place as Minnesota. The way we move, the way we dress--especially in the restaurants with our skimpy, glitzy two-piece costumes. "This dance form is sensual enough as it is, simply by the movement vocabulary and costuming," they say. "We don't need to go adding to it by conducting ourselves in degrading ways."
Ways like making the wrong steamy face while we're dancing, facing our crotches toward the audience during certain moves, and showing too much flesh. We definitely should never use it as a seduction tactic unless we want to get seared with terrible brands. I have enough trouble with that simply by being a fighter-chick. (People make all sorts of assumptions about us, too. Namely that no female would ever put on armor and fight except to get up close and sweaty with the guys. Oh. Wait. Unless, she's a lesbian.)
Plus, they told me all about the historical connection between this dance form and its use as advertisement for prostitution. So to dance to a song that openly touts such history is a bad thing and just propagates all the stereotypes and ASSumptions we are battling so hard to undo.
I get it. But this latest warning really bums me out, because this is one of my favorite songs on one of the only albums I can perform to at the restaurant.
Some dancers can put on whatever and dance their hearts out no matter what is playing in the background. Not me. I have always been a music-driven dancer. The musical inspiration almost always comes first for me, and if I don’t Feel it…I mean, sure. I can move to it. But I can’t Dance to it.
The loss of a song that moves me as much as this one does is a noticeable setback, because I perform twice on both nights every weekend. Often I dance for some of the same people who were there the weekend before, so I try to vary up my routines throughout the month. That’s something else I’ve never been able to do--keep dancing to the same music over and over and over and...
Having so little access to belly dance music ensures that every inspiring song is a precious treasure. I’ve only been able to get my hands on four albums so far, and some of them have a bunch of music that doesn't blow my hair back.
I suppose my new SCA mentors' warnings about this song shouldn’t come as a surprise, considering that the album that it comes from is called “Exotic Belly Dancing.” (4, 5)
As a conscientious performer eternally searching for the most respectful and respectable ways to portray my favorite art form, the last thing I want to do is to ignorantly degrade such a powerful and sacred rite. I've been learning that this ancient ritual of fertility and sisterhood originally had nothing to do with titillation. Instead, it's a soulful art form and spiritual ceremony that has been twisted and sullied from its wholesome celebrations of women-dancing-for-women into a striptease, a hoochie-coochie novelty, and advertisement for prostitution. (1, 5, 6)
Unfortunately, nobody has a word-for-word translation of these lyrics so I can make up my own mind about them. Since I can't find them anywhere, I figure it's better to be safe than sorry.
I grudgingly, mournfully yank this beloved song out of all my performance sets, and I stop dancing to it.
Okay, I stopped dancing to it except in the privacy of my living room.
(Where I also corralled all my fantasies of seducing a man with my dancing by flickering sultry firelight.)
(And yeah, okay. Once I moved to Colorado, whenever my favorite violinist burst into those old familiar strains around the campfire, I let the skirts and hair fly to this song even though I had damning chastisements and wagging fingers bombarding my mind the whole time.)
(Wut? Outlands was a verrrry different kingdom from Northshield, particularly where Middle Eastern personas, music, and dance were concerned. Entire households were built around this flavor, including the one I joined. Our motto back then was, "Sorry. Outlands." And we weren't sorry for a damn thing we did to ruffle hoity-toity feathers from other realms. For me, that included fighting among a household filled with Huns, dancing joyously to "bad songs," and honoring my old flamin' bonehead horns with my Fire Coat.)
One of the most important lessons I learned from the Bad Song Incident was something that should have been obvious, yet wasn’t: that translating lyrics to foreign songs was just a little important.
But when I first started belly dancing, it never occurred to me. I imagine this mostly stemmed from:
My age (I was a super-sheltered nineteen).
Hala had never told us what the songs were about (it was a casual community ed class for exercise, not for deep cultural education).
I was too untraveled, too domestically insulated, and too overwhelmed with the fire-hosing to think of asking (I got bumped into her performance group within weeks of starting the class).
Plus, you know, pure musical desperation up there in the north woods.
By the time I joined the SCA, I had managed to scrape up three CDs and one cassette tape, and not all those songs were danceable for me. First, there was a boatload of Turkish music on those albums, and my too-brief instruction had been in an Arabic style watered down for the American obsession with working out. From those eight weeks of wonder, I couldn’t have hoped to glean a clue about why my body struggled to make sense of a bunch of this music.
Because the time signatures were at odds with the steps I’d been taught.
There are a lot of 9s and 7s and 5s in Turkish music (3), and I could never figure out how to get my feet and hips to jive with it. Not until I moved to Colorado, and especially after I studied Turkish dance in the early 2000s. I finally had to smack my forehead. Of course! Duh…
But as a baby newb trying to pull off any hope of looking like a belly dancer on too little instruction, I hoarded every song that made sense to my most beginner-basic vocabulary yet also stirred my heart enough that I could fill in the yawning chasms between my knowledge and my ability to passionately perform every weekend.
In Northshield, the majority of dancing at events was European court dancing. We few coin-and-tassel-swishers often danced to "bards in a box" because we didn’t have many drummers at events. When we did, it was usually one guy who knew what he was doing, surrounded by a few others he’d been teaching--or had just taught that afternoon, or was teaching right there at the fire.
In all my years as a Northshielder, we never once had melody instruments unless they came out of a boombox speaker. That was a treat reserved for Pennsic, and it was one of the greatest culture shocks when I moved to the Outlands--so jarring that I almost didn't know what to do with it the first time I encountered a drum circle there.
I knew how to dance to memorized orchestral pieces, and I knew how to improvise to percussion. The combo really kinda broke my brain for a few minutes. So did the sprawling variety of rhythms they used, and the seamless ways they wove in and out of them, including all those odd time signatures.
Before I left Minnesota, I had only just been exposed to the base concept of Karsilima (3) while sitting under a sunshade, learning how to play finger cymbals. Anybody who knows my dancing well knows what a sucker I am for a 9/8. But almost none of the drummers knew how to play it, so I had never actually danced to it around the fire.
Mostly we danced to the three main drum beats in use in that region at that time, all of which are in even time signatures, not odd. These were the Masmudi, Chiftetelli, and the bread-and-butter beat that was usually the first rhythm one ever learned as a drummer or dancer: most called it Beledi. (2)
A few called it Maqsoum, and said that Beledi was a variation of this, with two Doums (low heavy beats) up front, rather than Doum-tek (one low, one higher). Others argued that Beledi was one of the Masmudi variations. Some people got very testy about their stance on what to call this rhythm; others just happily played their drums or danced their hearts out, and didn’t care what it was called.
It was all very confusing. (2-3)
At bigger Northshield events, we were lucky to even get this level of musician craft around the fire. Often the Middle Eastern drummers were drowned out by mind-numbing repetitions of the rhythm we called, “IGoddaNewDrum. I GoddaNewDrum. I GoddaNewDrum.” Occasionally they would break this up with “It’s Super AWEsome. ICanPlayRealLOUD!”
Not like I couldn’t dance to those rhythms. Not even like I didn’t enjoy them. I could have tranced out for hours, but “proper Middle Eastern dancers” stuck to the vocabulary, yo. We did not wiggle willy-nilly like the “jingle-bunnies” in their cheap, stamped coins and fur bikinis, especially not in public where we might muck up people’s ideas of what was “period and authentic” and what was not.
(As we covered last time, I’m pinning my lips closed right now and smiling my IGotZipperMouth, IGotZipperMouth, IGotZipperMouth smile about “period and authentic Middle Eastern” when it comes to the general SCAdian dance style of the 90s.)
(But I will show off my clamped teeth in a big grin while eyeballing those horns on top of my head. Because in direct and equal contrast to my conscientious desire to "do it right," I secretly wanted to disguise my face in wild makeup, rat out my hair, and sneak up to The Bad Hill. I had fantasies about begging the dancers up there to gratuitously use me as a dress-up dolly so I could play with them. But I'd recently been sexually assaulted again, and the guy who'd done it was usually prowling around somewhere at those events. The chickenshittery was strong with this one so I never did. Prolly best that I saved all that for my later years.)
Some of the musicians and belly dancers I met through the SCA really knew what they were doing, but they were few and far between in my neck of the woods, and they came from contradictory lineages.
Turkish style was disparaged as “vulgar” by many Egyptian and Arabic style dancers.
I never got to study with any Turkish style dancers until I moved to Colorado (and then fell in lurve).
Some Persian dancers lambasted all belly dancing in the SCA as non-period.
Some didn't care and danced however they darn well wanted, blending it all into a jaw-dropping fusion that blew my widdle-dancer's impressionable brains wide open.
Mutt-blend American Cabaret dancers did the best we could around the campfires with an aspect of history that was abysmally undocumented by filling in the blanks with passion, props, and other dance styles. (1, 5, 6, 9, 10)
Mostly what I encountered was a mix-mash of 70s-90s Am-Cab, injected with Renaissance Faire circus flair, frosted with “ethnic” earthiness, and dotted with the rainbow sprinkles of Persian, African, and Indian Dances--all while wearing metal, textiles & tassels instead of beaded fringe, satin & sequins. Then the Tribal styles started sneaking in from the coasts, which added a whole new flavor to our variety cupcake tray, as well as the battle lines we discussed last time.
I flippin’ loved it ALL. (Still do.)
At SCA events, I devoured any smidge of these styles from any camp I could get my hips on. Which means that, as I absorbed everything I was taught and tried to make sense of all the CONFusion, my auto-weaver Muse began blending it all together with everything I’d learned from Hala, Suhaila Salimpour, Kathy Ferguson, and Madame Lucy.
Oh. And all my college studies in theater and classical Western dance.
And all the dance and theater I’d done as a kid.
Then I saw somebody dance with fire using the exact kind of brass candle holders I had found for illumination at SCA events, and my Knight gifted me a dance sword, so all that heavy weapons fighting I was learning? Yeahhhhh…that got smooshed in there, too.
Ollllld shots - 1998 at Mataam Fez, one of the Moroccan restaurants I danced at in Colorado Springs - combo of homemade Cabaret and SCA styles:
So back to the “bad song.” Oddly enough, it’s in 9. *badum-tek.* But in contrast to the other 9/8 songs that I couldn’t figure out how to dance to on my tiny collection of CDs, the melody was such that I could follow it, and the pace was slow enough that I could make my skirts fly and sweep a veil around to it.
Not so with a bunch of the 9s on my third album purchase, a special order of All the Best of Belly Dancing. (4) When I listen to this album now, I can track my oldest favorites that I danced to for years at my first restaurant by the time signature. All but one of the songs I used in my sets were in the familiar increments of 4, whereas the fast-paced 9s baffled me so I didn’t fall in love with them until much later.
As for lyrics, many of the songs I adored the most were instrumentals, so I didn’t have to worry about that. But then I acquired my one George Abdo album which is chock full of singing in Arabic. In my desperation for music with a severe lack of Google Translation (or any translation), all the voices and these foreign words became the equivalent of another instrument to which I (cluelessly) expressed myself.
Upon being told that my favorite bouncy song from the Exotic Belly Dancing album had "bad lyrics," the reminder that these were foreign languages came like a bolt of "DUH" to my forehead. It set me on the mission to find out what these songs meant.
Alas. When I had first started belly dancing in 1992, I didn’t even have email. I wouldn’t get that at its most basic level until halfway through college. Double alas, Arabic was not an option in the Language Department at my university, much less Turkish. Triple alas, finding these language studies on tape proved 1001 times harder than finding music I could dance to at the restaurant.
Eventually, the internet happened in my home.
So eventually, I gained access to Shira’s lyrics translation page (7) as well as the slowly growing collection of other lyrics translations that became available online.
Unfortunately, so many of the songs that most ardently moved me were not on anybody’s translation pages, and my requests for help on the message boards were met with crickets and clueless shrugs. I once asked a prominent lyrics translator to help me with a song from the first album I ever acquired: An Evening at the Cafe Feenjon. (4)
Instead of helping me translate it, she shot back, “Why would you ever belly dance to a Jewish song?”
Ummm…that would be because I am a notorious hack-bastardizing fusion dancer, not a traditionalist. But originally, it’s because my Greek-born restaurant owners not only gave me the cassette tape, they asked me to dance to it every night I performed because it was their favorite. So I always included at least a few songs from that album in every set I put together.
Quadruple alas, I never could get a bunch of my favorite songs translated to save my spangles. So when the Greek restaurant closed, I phased out most of this album. By then, I had acquired a plethora of new music from my trips to Minneapolis, as well as the guiding arms of older, more experienced dancers. They were always happy to provide translations to any songs they knew.
And to warn me off of songs with religious connotations.
Or songs about prostitutes.
Eventually, Shira provided us with a translation of this (in)famous song, as well as some contemporary verses. It is called Rompi Rompi. (Or Rambi Rambi or Rompy Rompy because...foreign language and reeeeally old song.)
Did you go read them?
Did you scratch your head and say, “Hey, wait a second! That didn’t say anything about a prostitute!”
Which brings we non-native dancers to our second, and even trickier dilemma amidst language translation: Inflection. Slang. Nuance. Foreign idiots--I mean idioms that we foreigners don’t understand unless we have it explained to us.
So when they say, “Rain dripped on my tent,” are they literally talking about a wet night? Or are they talkin' about a wet night? Could it be inferred that Rain Dripped On My Tent is as much about drinking and dancing to pass a miserable stormy night under a canvas roof as El Enab is about a guy who just cannot get enough grocery store produce?
EDIT 1/7/23: I just found the lyrics translation I was originally given for this song back when I danced to it. Alas, it was on a belly dance list a long time ago and I don't remember which one, much less who generously provided it. 🙏🥰🙏 I had no idea that someday I would be uploading it and blogging about it so I didn't think to save that information.
This just goes to show that, even when we do make the effort to obtain a translation, interpretations can vary greatly. Here is the version I was given:
That’s one of my favorite pop songs in any language EVER. Why? Snark. Nuance. Flirt. Wink. Nudge. Play.
So back to the mystery of Rompi Rompi.
If all that talk about putting the coffee pot on to boil is actually about puttin' the coffee pot on to boil, is there money being exchanged for said coffee or not? I mean, there are definite money references in the song. I would have to ask a Turkish person or a dance/music anthropologist who is familiar with all the nuances of this song and its original language to--
Oh gee. My next door neighbors just happen to be from Turkey. They were as baffled as I was when I asked them about these things, assuring me that the lyrics included no snarky sex-idioms, and definitely no hidden references to prostitution that they'd ever heard of. "It just sounds like a fun party song to me."
The plot thickened.
After polling my musician friends who used to play this song, after asking them about its origins, inflections and meaning and still coming up clueless why I had been told that it was "so bad," it was recommended that I write to the illustrious Omar Faruk Tekbilek, Turkish musician and peacemaker. (8)
He wrote back to me and did, indeed, set my heart and mind at peace. He’s been singing this song for decades. It’s very old so even he doesn’t know its origins, but he assured me that there is no reason why I should ever hesitate dancing to it.
So? Do ya wanna hear this song?
I still love it. I still dance to it.
Here it is. Don’t sit still. I sure can’t:
So it looks like this whole big musical witch-hunt was yet another instance of the telephone game, incited by that old prejudiced hangover that "Turkish style is vulgar and ill-bred, so if you want to be taken seriously and seen as a quality dancer--heck, as a quality woman who isn't asking for shitty treatment and sexual violations, you should steer clear of it."
(Obviously I don't listen too gud.)
Ahhhhhh my country's issues with sex. Each region and subculture has its particular flavor of troublesome mindsets, and I am not remotely wise enough to have a clue what to do about it. Except…I dunno. Clean up my own yard.
And flap my lips about--*glances down at keyboard* Fine. Fingerbang my keyboard about my personal experiences.
Because when I was warned against dancing to this "dastardly song," the more experienced dancers were not just protecting the traditions they had been schooled in:
They hailed from the camps of those who sought to elevate belly dance from the sewers of degraded sexual appetites, mistreatment, and social notoriety.
They sought to help our post-Desert Storm nation learn to appreciate and respect Middle Eastern music, dance, art, culture, and the people who created it.
They sought to remind practitioners of this dance form that there are millennia of traditions and a rich history behind the jingle-clad alternatives to working out.
They sought to inspire appreciation and respect for women’s bodies, minds, hearts, rights, and self-expressions, and to rejuvenate the celebration of the Divine Feminine.
They were also trying to protect me from a myriad types of attack in the ways that their teachers had (or perhaps not) protected them:
Predators and satyrs who would ASSume that my identity as a belly dancer meant I was sexually ripe for the plucking, whether consensual or not.
Prudish SCA conservatives who touted, “Belly dancing? We’ll have none of that here!” and who treated “jingle bunnies” far more harshly than “authentic and period Middle Eastern Dancers.”
Other dancers and historians who staunchly roared that belly dance, with “its prehistoric traditions that hail back to the Goddess-worshipping cultures of the ancients, is sensual and sacred, NOT sexual!”
Unfortunately, my travels all across the country brought me into conflicting theories I could never reconcile. My home region was so concerned with, “Don’t show your skin. Don’t move ‘like a stripper’ or use your eyes and face ‘like a whore.’ Don’t add any more fuel to the fires that we respectable dancers combat all the time by giving us a bad name.”
So I tried really hard not to do that.
Other dancers were far more concerned with “Don’t do it wrong. You have to do do the right moves and wear the right costume to the right music or you are a disrespectful hack, an irresponsible artist, and therefore a horrible person.”
No matter that nobody could agree on precisely what "right" was because so much of the dancing in the SCA--yes, even in the official classes--was a hacked-up blend that wasn't even purely Middle Eastern. It even included--gasp!--Turkish influences: floor work, arm carriage and hands, dynamic hair-flinging, whirling and dramatically dropping to the ground.
Navigating these contradictions was more confusing than Beledi.
Nevertheless, I worked as hard to do “do it right” as I worked to “do it modestly.” With all my neurodivergent hyperfixating obsessiveness, I built a massive binder of notes, articles, photocopied book pages, and drawings. I set to work memorizing its contents, gobbling up as much information as I could over the course of every SCA event weekend, or the heavenly weeks of a big war. Whenever I wasn’t fighting or taking a class, I hunted down every experienced dancer I could find. I even forewent days on the battlefield to study with dancers and musicians from across the country.
This only gave me more conflicting information that I could never concretely verify with original sources. Even articles that started trickling onto the internet and books I could special order had conflicting or downright false information. (5, 6)
Which I then unknowingly passed on, just like many of my teachers and mentors had done with me.
In other words, I did not have Fusion. In those days, I did not yet want Fusion. Instead, what I got was a tangled mess of CONFusion.
That’s never bothered me overly much. The only reason it ever did was because it bothered a whole lot of people in a whole lot of ways, and they were very vocal about it. Sometimes their vocalness got me blacklisted. It lost me jobs and students and money and “friends.”
But I’ve never had that big a problem with dancing CONfusion. It’s a necessary part of creation, innovation, and learning, and I like sorting order from chaos. I like painting with a myriad hues and seeing what they’ll do when I throw them against the wall. I like mixing and matching as much as I like filing and organizing, and I like those as much as I enjoy blending new hues--yes, even when it makes mud. I happen to like mud. Dirt. Shades of earth. And I really like to make messes, then play with all the ways I can clean them up.
That’s one of the primary jobs of an artist, and especially a beginner artist. It’s especially-especially the job of an innovator.
I didn’t start out wanting to be an innovator. It happened by pure necessity. I could either keep dancing with the severely limited resources and the great whopping mess I had, or I could stop. Quit. Freeze. Dance tentatively like Baby in the corner for fear of doing it wrong or offending somebody.
And ohhhhhh have I done a ton of both.
Some of the dance projects I’m currently tinkering with are guaranteed to explode a few volcanoes if the wrong people catch wind of them. You do NOT mix-and-match several of the elements I’m splatting against my studio wall right now. Many people say they are anathema to one another. “Heavens! To combine those two elements has the makings of combustion!”
I’m a Fire Sign with a catalytic personality. I’m a mad scientist in my laboratory, and sometimes I enjoy blowing shit up.
Especially when it’s my shit.
There is so much fear, shame, guilt, hesitancy, tiptoeing, all weaving their threads--excuse me, their strangling and undermining tentacles--through my dancing. Through my writing. Through my martial arts. Through my psyche and my attempts to connect with other people.
One of largest insidious threads is sex.
For me, it’s no surprise. All but three of my most significant traumas revolve around sex. Two of the non-sex ones are car wrecks caused by negligent strangers. The third segues directly into sex: non-sexual childhood bullying that got slathered with slut-shame, sexual preference slurs, sexual harassment, and the fully-clothed renditions of sexual assault when it grew up to become adolescent bullying. Even the final straw that eventually catapulted me out of the SCA was a combustive blend of mean-girl pecking order bullshit and rumor-monger slut-shaming.
Given my culture’s issues--many, many cultures' issues with sex, gender, touch, intimacy, sensuality and sacredness, and given the passions and professions I pursued, I find nothing surprising about this.
Atrocious? Unconscionable? Shocking?
But never surprising.
THIS. (11) This right here is why I have chosen dance to express my heart whenever words fail me. Or sometimes, because words simply aren’t necessary:
CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE
--UP NEXT: BELLY DANCE IS *NOT* SEXUAL! - It’s Sensual.
--OR: All my writing about EXPRESSION, CREATION & INNOVATION
--OR: My adventures FIGHTING IN THE SCA in heavy medieval armor
1) Sex Workers.
2) Three SCA Campfire Standards and some traditional origins:
Western (for lack of a better word) Masmoudi - in other words, the execution of this rhythm more commonly heard around old school SCA campfires (I don't know what they play these days), drum circles in the US, and in certain music composed by American musicians, often for Tribal Styles of belly dance
MAQSOUM & BELEDI
3) Odd Time Signatures
4) My first belly dance music albums
Orientalist Dreams: My journey with Ruth St. Denis & the Orientalist sides of Modern Dance
Shira's review of Serpent of the Nile - The original edition was where much of the "ancient belly dance was sacred, not sexy" theories that I was exposed to as a baby belly dancer came from, and then naturally passed on to my students.
6) Belly Dance History
"Middle Eastern Dance" Mixmash performed to "Amerabic" music with--gasp! nooo...yes!--a hefty Turkish influence.
The 70s - Dance of the Mother Goddess, the seeds of Tribal, the disparagement of Turkish in favor of Arabic styles, the rise of workout belly dance and its backlash efforts to promote deep knowledge and respect for the traditional dance forms
Coasts Apart - the divergence of sparkly, glitzy American Cabaret & earthy American Tribal that fought to banish objectification from belly dance
The 80s & 90s - West Coast women-for-women, East Coast Arabic takeover that welcomed men, and we middle children. The shift from "Arabic" preference to "Egyptian" but still with those old school Am. Cab. hangovers.
8) The incomparable and gracious Omar Faruk Tekbilek
11) Pina Bausch's Rite of Spring - "Opening," - originally set to Stravinsky. Changing the music to Omar Faruk Tekbilek's Kolaymi changes the entire mood of this piece, and for me, the meaning. It originally depicted an ancient rite in which spring was ushered in by sacrificing a young woman who had to dance herself to death.