SALOME 1 - Strippers & Satins & Silks, Oh My!
SHE-ROS, VILLAINS & SIDECHICKS - The Characters That Made Me
Image by Beth Shell
If you've followed my adventures in the order in which I wrote them, you might have been asking yourself why I took such a hefty and protracted sidetrack into boys, bullying, and sex before returning to the topic of dance. While it is true that I needed to push pause to do more listening than speaking about the social issues that exploded last summer, there was another reason we took such long detour.
Are you beginning to understand that topic's direct correlation with the one we’ve been discussing in this series?
Being an intelligent, eloquent, artistic, athletic tomboy while simultaneously blossoming into a sensual, passionate, erotic descendent of the American sexual liberation and feminist movements…in Northern Minnesota in the early 90s...from a family of Catholics.
Yeahhhh...I was in severe need of mentoring.
As we've previously covered, I certainly didn’t find it with my relatives or at church, because I was "weird" and had more in common with the Eden Serpent than I did with the Virgin Mary, or even the original apple-muncher herself. Eve was at least a wife and mother. I wanted to be neither.
I was caught between a multitude of extremes: I wanted the loving husband but not the babies or the religious shackles. I was even dubious about the legal ones. Then there was my branding as the Super-Slut versus my reality of being monogamous and barely initiated into sex. My bouncing around from boy-to-boy in eighth grade had never been my preference. I had wanted to find The One and dive in headlong with him for-happily-ever after.
Alas, the fulfilling of that dream was not written in my shiny, happy tarot cards.
Escaping my hometown via college at least blasted the notion that I was horrifically ugly into smithereens once and for all. When I hit the college scene, I was a kid in a candy store. “What do you mean I’m not icky?! Whoaaaah…shweeeeeeeeet.”
Annnnnd then it was on.
It was also off--with my clothes, that is. No, I don’t mean because I was passed around the campus like Juicy Fruit. I wasn’t. In college I engaged in a few flirtations, and had two longterm boyfriends, one of whom became my fiancee.
Nope, I mean onstage.
Ohhhh, how I longed to wear the gorgeous, skimpy costumes worn by belly dancers and the women in all those Orientalist photos I'd drooled over in Serpent of the Nile. (3, 6) But I did not wish to remove them onstage. Burlesque truly would have been a missed calling for me, if not for the striptease aspect that I wasn't comfortable doing myself. (8) We did, however, strip off our veil--or a number of them--in American cabaret belly dancing.
This beautiful post by Alexandra King gives a quick summary of using the veil in belly dance, as well as its other cultural significances. The veil is a touchy article. It can be a sacred garment, a fashion choice, protection against a harsh environment, a signifier of social status, a mesmerizing artistic paintbrush of fabric upon air, or a prop wielded in the act of sexual seduction.
Heck, it can even be a weapon. My Guro has an entire series of using a sarong or a scarf in combat. Whenever he's shown us that stuff, I have always pictured myself as a Bond Girl, belly dancing with a veil and then out of nowhere, the assassin springs at her and--
It's all intertwined in me. Dance, martial arts, storytelling...I can't not.
Anyway, back to stripping off one's veils while belly dancing. When I first started telling people that I was a belly dancer, the second most common question anyone asked was, "Whooaah, isn't that like stripping?" (1) It was topped only by, "Ooooh, do you do the Dance of the Seven Veils?"
For many years, my answer was a slit-eyed, not-quite-eye-rolling brush-off and, "No," until the answer became, "Yes, on occasion when I want to tell particular tales or create a dance that deals with the seven chakras." (7) For we dancers of a certain era, this widespread fascination with the Seven Veil Strip was paired with the assumption that all belly dancers wear a jewel in their navel and roll quarters on their stomach.
Why? Not because it's a stamp of authenticity for a "real" belly dancer. Nay, we have makers of titillation movies squeaking through loopholes in the old Hollywood Hays Code to thank for this, (2) because we all know that a woman's navel when combined with certain dance moves is the quick route to the Day-evil.
I had a snappy answer for the quarter-rolling though: "I don't do it, but I know a gal who can. She is so talented that she can not only roll quarters up and down, but side to side." That would be our beloved Cori, my first student who came to me already possessing this Silly Belly Dancer Trick.
Since those questions were most often asked of me in the middle of a show, giving that answer usually staved off disappointment while allowing us to move along to the show I did give. It's been almost fifteen years since I was involved in the restaurant scene or dealt regularly with audiences that were not comprised primarily of experienced belly dancers who don't ask those questions, so I don't know if these are still the standard inquires to this day, or if we've finally been able to stamp this image out.
There are so many misconceptions, stemming from the combination of Orientalism, Hollywood, legends of stage mystique designed to sell tickets, the cross-pollination between the belly dance, burlesque, and vaudeville scenes in North America, and a little thing called an ocean. (1-3, 5-6, 8) No internet back when all these fantasies were being painted. Heck, even with the invention of the telephone, the tall tales carried from Chicago to New York could get blown up and twisted into all sorts of shenaniganry far more easily than hearing the truth about these dance forms and their cultures of origin.
Ever played the Telephone Game?
And--pfffft--who wants to know the truth anyway? Ummm...*raising hand.* That'd be me, especially back when I was scouring every nook and crevice of my limited world for any hint of this dance form I could find.
But truth doesn't put nearly as many butts in audience seating, or sell nearly as many dance classes for nineteen-year-old girls yearning to move in a way that feels good to body, heart and soul. Or for owl-eyed girls in search of female mentorship and connection. Or for passionate girls aching to express their soul-deep desires to crack open the cosmos in ecstatic sexual union, like they'd read about in that Cosmo article on Tantra in 1991.
We'll get back to that article, because it's super important. But it pries the lid off an entire Tupperware box of worms that I'm not ready to get into yet--namely those repressed memories that rumbled undercurrents through my whole life as I was learning to undulate my spine, do snake-arms, and draw the healing symbols of Eternal Life with my hips and the cage around my heart.
But I didn't know that on the day when I first picked up my three yards of discounted, semi-sheer, white satin and waved it around like I was Isadora Duncan or Suhaila Salimpour. I did not, however, wave it like I was the stereotypical Salome. There was a practical reason why it took me so long to perform the Dance of the Seven Veils. Because for my first few years, I only had one veil. To own seven? It would take nearly that number of years for me to acquire such a treasure trove. I was a college student with almost no costume budget, remember?
My first veil was heavy. The translucence of it was interrupted by a pattern of opaque squares. The second one was even heavier. Sage-into-rust-into-pine polyester. Next came the coral-red, gauzy number with the starburst of silver sequins, and the two cheap lining satins: royal blue and goldenrod.
(I don't have the gold one anymore--it's been upgraded by better satin.)
Later I was introduced to the glories of half-circles and double-veil. But before that, I'd inherited a 3/4 circle skirt of tiny, busy paisley. Although I didn't like wearing it around my hips because there wasn't nearly enough fabric for my satisfaction, I whacked off the elastic waistband and started twirling it like a matador. Remember how much more easily I could get ahold of Spanish influenced music than Arabic? I am the Muse's bitch, and especially the bitch of the music. She speaks; I obey.
When the Muse demanded that I pin my half-circle veils to the shoulders of my costumes in a Loie Fuller impression, I did. Why? I dunno. It was fun. Dramatic. Different. I'd not yet seen Isis Wings, and certainly wouldn't have known where to get ahold of any if I had. (No Amazon or Google back then.) I was simply choosing the parts of the music that called to me, then painting those sounds on the air with flowy fabric.
My discovery of silk veils changed everything. (4)
Many more than seven. It became a bit of an obsession.
There is nothing like the heaven of silk. The most high-quality chiffon can come close, but it has to be wielded differently, and my budget was usually too tight to afford any but the cheap kind. I actually hate dancing with most chiffon. It's too...crispy for what I do, but not the right kind of crispy like lamee. Plus, it attracts static too easily, and I lived in Colorado for most of my belly dancing career so I'd originally preferred satin.
Silk is like wielding water. I found it to be more like painting in the air than ever before, but in a richer, more vivid, luscious medium. It has all the ease of watercolor with all the visceral depth of oil. In motion, silk can be floated, rippled, or buoyed atop an air bubble. It lays beautifully when draped upon the body, and it feels great against the skin. The heavier grades can even be whipped around like a matador cape.
So if I was going to drop my precious, precious money on something more expensive than clearance lining fabric, there was no choice for me. When one of my students who was an art teacher and our self-proclaimed "fiber bitch" suggested holding a tandem workshop weekend--one day where she taught us how to dye our own veils, and the next day when I taught how to use them--I jumped at that.
Here is what I made, and what Jesennia of Akai Silks dyed to match for the skirting (4):
The veil in the next video was designed by our FiberBitch SilkFaerie, Bean Cummings. (4) It was the star of a piece I performed in my ohhhh-so American, mix-and-match style to a song I fell in love with in my earliest years of belly dancing, one of the legendary Umm Kulthum classics. (I know. I'm such a dastardly hack-bastardizer. But I can't help loving Egyptian music. And Lebanese. And Turkish and Tunisian and Tango and...)
Around the same time as I made my transition to silk veils, I started studying the chakras--the seven primary ones, drawn up the body in a rainbow. (7)
Just after this immersion came my deep dive into Inanna's Descent through the Seven Gates of the Underworld where she meets her dark sister, Ereshkigal. (8) Yes. Seven gates. Where the Goddess' seven articles of power are removed (from many places coincidentally containing a chakra).
By the time I started studying veil dance, the Descent of Ishatar/Inanna was hailed as one of the foremost inspirations for the Dance of the Seven Veils. It was touted quite authoritatively by dancer after dancer that this was the real heritage of this ancient, sacred, ceremonial dance. I would guess one of the biggest reasons was because we had read it in the original version of Serpent of the Nile. (3) "That Salome nonsense" was disparaged as a bastardization and hijacking of feminine power by the lightning-and-brimstone One God patriarchal religious oppressors.
Shira has a wonderful article about the potential origins of this dance. The truth is, we really can't know with 100% certainty where the ultimate authoritative source of this stuff comes from. Most of it is a combination of history and myth. Fragmented or lost history. Twisted and slanted history. History written by winners of wars and conquerors of territories. Myths painted in hues as colorful as the veils we Western belly dancers peel off and swirl.
So who was Salome? Did she really dance her veils off? If so, how many were there? And that big question, just how DID that head get onto the platter?
Depends on who you're reading or watching. 😈🤓😈
If you've never delved much into her history, here's how you probably know her, as her age-restricted, salacious, stripping self:
But there is soooo much more to this tale.
CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE
--UP NEXT: SALOME 2 - Villains & Sidechicks Part 4
--OR if you want a sneak-peek of that time I did use the chakra-hued Dance of the 7 Veils to tell the tale of Inanna's Descent to the Underworld, you can pop over here.
MORE LINKS FOR YOUR GEEKING PLEASURE
More articles by one of my favorite dance historians, Shira:
3) The original 1989 version of Wendy Buonaventura’s Serpent of the Nile (This visually stunning book has since been revised for the second time in 2010, but I haven’t read it to know if it more appropriately reflects and respects the cultures in question.)
4) My silk veil artists:
--Akai Silks - my fellow coffee-nerd who is now the Legend Herself
--Bean Cummings - the FiberBitch SilkFaerie Extraordinaire
--Dance, the Divine, and the Devious Other: Orientalism and the Presentation of Race and Gender in the Work of Ruth St. Denis by Krista Kee
8) THE WIKIS FOR YOUR RABBIT HOLE INTRODUCTIONS