THE MAKING OF AN 8-WEEK WONDER: My Transition to Kismet
Did you know that the movie Iron Will was supposed to have belly dancers in it? Yup, in that big Musher's Banquet scene where Will comes to gain entry into the dogsledding race, there was supposed to be more than singing.
Seriously. Belly dancers and dogsledders. Not a lot of people know that. Even fewer know that I was supposed to be in that scene.
Alas, I had made one of the most clueless, naive blunders of my life, so while everybody else went to the shooting location, I paced my parents' living room, wondering where my ride was.
Ditching me, that's where.
19 years old
I've never been in this restaurant before. I've only heard of it, last spring while sitting on the stairs of the university theater with my fellow dancers, awaiting our turn to rehearse onstage. Laurie had told me that, since I caught on so quickly to the Polynesian dancing we had learned, that I should take belly dancing and then take her weekly performance slot at this Greek restaurant after she moved back to Minneapolis.
Since the start of the school year, I have received bwong after bwong on the head about her suggestion. In October, I finally threw my hands up. "All right, already! I get it, okay? I'll take belly dancing! Sheesh!"
Turns out Laurie was right. This really is the way I was born to dance. Within weeks, my teacher invited me to join her performance troupe, so I've come to the restaurant with my dance partner, Diana, to find out if we can perform here, too.
Hala doesn't know we're here.
When she first asked me to join the troupe, I told her about Laurie's suggestion. "Oh, yes," my teacher said. "I know that place. We ate there a few times. When I danced with their girl at the end of the show, the owners--they wanted me to perform there very much, but my husband said no."
Oh, did he...
Well, Diana and I have been plotting what to do about that. That's why we've come to the Greek restaurant for lunch today. Covertly. Shrewdly.
(Plus, if we fail and get turned down, nobody will be the wiser.)
Our plan is simple. If we can get hired here, we'll ask Hala to get up and dance with us at the end of our show. The three of us can perform one of her choreographies together. Then the next time, we'll invite her up for two dances...and then three, and then eventually, maybe her husband will see that it's okay. After all, he doesn't forbid her to perform at the retirement home or all the other places where the troupe has danced, so maybe he'll see that, if we're all dancing together, there's nothing wrong with performing at the restaurant either.
When the owner and his wife have a break, they sit down with us as promised, and I tell them about Laurie's suggestion.
"Oh, we miss her so much," they gush. After a bit of banter about how she's doing and about Diana's and my interest in performing, the owner's wife says, "We haven't had a regular dancer since summer when Laurie left, and we would love to have entertainment on the weekends again. Why don't you both come in on New Year's Eve? Our old dancer is doing a special holiday performance that night. You could get up at the end of her set and dance with her as your audition."
Diana and I finish our on-the-house baklava, clink our pop glasses together, and come back on New Year's in our matching costumes. After performing with their bubbly, blonde dancer, Gina, amidst the packed crowd of other guests, Diana and I are not only offered positions as their new house dancers, we get paid for our audition.
They want us to each take a weekend night and dance solo, but we say that we love dancing together so much that we'd rather keep performing as a duo (soon to be a trio--shhhh). "We can't afford to pay you both on both nights," they say, to which we don't care. When we say that we would rather make the same amount of money but get to stay together and dance every weekend, they agree.
Back in the dressing room, Diana and I also agree: it's not the money we care about. I mean, that's great, but we're not used to being paid anyway, so even if we have to split it three ways or less--we're still students, after all--that won't matter. We just want to dance, and we want Hala to be able to dance with us like the American woman she has become.
After we get changed, the staff all toast us with another round of Ouzo (we're underage so we get Cokes) and we hang out for the after-hours carousing. After all, we have just become staff too, so we stuff ourselves full of more moussaka and spanakopita, have another round of flaming saganaki, shout, "Opa!" and declare ourselves victorious.
Yeahhhh...can you see it flowing down the pipe from where you sit?
You do remember how old we were, right? Nineteen and eighteen. You remember the Kool-aid I'd been swigging since birth, too, don't you?
And you do remember that, just three months prior, I still blushed about being naked in front of other girls, and had never seen thong underwear in real life? What I haven't yet told you is that, except for the occasional thimble full of Lambrusco on Christmas, I had never even drunk alcohol until the fall of my freshman year of college.
So at the start of my sophomore year, I was still a very naive nineteen.
Let's get this over with, shall we?
After New Year's Eve, Diana and I practically peed our pants while awaiting the next troupe rehearsal. Whole-body vibrating, we marched in wearing ear-to-ear grins (and invisible gold medals). There we announced to our teacher that we had been hired at the Greek restaurant and hoped she could come eat dinner on the weekend, so that we could--wink-wink--ask her up to dance with us at the end of the show in a way that would be just fine with her husband--nudge-nudge.
Needless to say, the reaction was not what we had expected.
"I can't believe this! How could you do this to me? You stab me in the back!"
Wait...WUT?!? Nooooo...kinda the opposite.
"Well, if you want to stay in my troupe, you can't dance there."
Annnnnd I probably don't need to tell you how we reacted to her reaction.
Two huffy girls stormed out. One huffy teacher slammed the door on our asses. Everybody shouted, "Ya done me wrong!"
Eventually, tempers cooled off, allowing my partner-in-idealistic-crime the chance to re-explain to Hala our grand plot and our intentions in auditioning at the restaurant. Once Diana gave me the all-clear to call, our teacher told me that she understood. We were welcomed back to the troupe, and she forgave us for the misunderstanding.
Well, she forgave Diana.
Remember that movie shoot I mentioned earlier? Oh, what a buzz our whole region was in, because the big-shots of Hollywood had descending into the Northland to film a Disney dogsledding flick. Some of the locals had even gotten roles, including one with quite a prominent speaking part.
Apparently, the show also had a need for belly dancers, and the Northland could deliver: Gina with her dance friends, and Hala with her troupe.
On the weekend of the shoot, I was home visiting my parents. Hala had said that our scene would be filmed two hours away, at some big hotel in the woods. Since my parents' house was on the way, she offered to drive me after picking up Diana. Awesome. I figured that that two hours through the winter wonderland would be plenty of time to make nice.
In my pretty-pretty makeup with my hair all curled and my costume packed, I waited.
At fifteen minutes past the scheduled departure time, I called Hala's house. Her husband answered and informed me that she and Diana had left for the shoot two hours before.
I hung up.
Now I was PISSED. And deeply hurt.
What I didn't know that day was that I had been lied to--and not only about my teacher's understanding and forgiveness. First, the shoot we were scheduled to attend had taken place at a hotel downtown, not out in the Minnesota toolie bushes, so even if I had decided to bomb out there by myself, I would have gone to the wrong location.
But there was a bigger lie afoot.
A more important lie, and it started an avalanche that never truly stopped crashing until my grand belly dance adventure at last ended in rubble in 2014.
20 years old
I've come into the Greek restaurant between classes to satisfy my teropita addiction. Don't get me wrong, I love the spanakopita, but the pastries stuffed with only the cheese? Ah, heaven...especially when dunked in the avgolemeno soup.
Since it's afternoon in the middle of the week and the lunch crowd has gone back to work, it's not long before the owner and his wife sit down to join me.
"How did the movie shoot go?" he asks.
My eyes roll and I huff out through my nose, then gulp down my last bite of cheesy goodness. "It didn't." I go on to explain what happened--and why. "The whole thing just sucks. All we wanted to do was find a regular place to dance. All of us. I know her husband won't let her perform solo here, but c'mon. She gets to dance with us at other places, and he even let her go to that movie shoot. I mean, if he's okay with her dancing on the big screen, what's the problem about performing here? If she just would have let us invite her up, a little bit at a time, I'm sure he eventually would have allowed her to tell you guys yes. But noooo...I'm the back-stabbing Devil now. Although somehow she's fine with Diana."
Across the table, a pair of confused looks pops my direction. "What do you mean, 'tell us yes'?"
"From when you guys asked her to perform here ages ago, but her husband wouldn't let her."
Confusion shifts to cringing.
"Actually," the owner's wife says, "Hala came in one night for dinner and she approached us about performing here."
My eyebrows lift. "Oh?"
"Yes. I don't know why she said that. Her husband is American. He came with her that night, and seemed completely supportive of her performing here. We were the ones who told her no."
My jaw drops, along with the last shredded dregs of desire to make up with my old dance teacher. I'm suddenly super glad that I've finished my teropita. Shutting my mouth, I blink a few times as some formerly confusing pieces finally begin to make sense.
After a bit more wincing and fidgeting, the owner chimes in, "Her style was...well...we thought she was a bit..."
"Her dancing was too sexual for a family restaurant," his wife says.
I stop blinking. "Oh."
So there ya go. That was the rat's nest that introduced me to the world of belly dancing. These issues would come up over and over in my thirty-year adventure. Honestly, when I look back, I'm amazed that I stuck with it for so long. I must have loved it, just a little.
Now before we go any farther, let's analyze some things.
Why DID they hire two college-age, American newbs still technically in their teens, while rejecting the skilled, knowledgeable, experienced dancer who taught us?
Hala was certainly more attractive than I was. I barely had boobs, was still five years out from growing into woman-hips, and desperately needed two more cheeseburgers a day to combat the hours I danced and my overactive metabolism. My movements were even more gawky, spazzy, and awkward than I am today, and I barely had a clue what the bleep I was doing to this foreign music except loving it and embodying how it made me feel.
But the owners of the restaurant were correct. In that region of the country at that time, Diana and I would have been far more appealing--read: less threatening--to the majority of the clientele dining in the restaurant. Heck, even I had taken slut-shaming fallout time and again since eighth grade, yet before college, I'd only had sex 6.5 times between my pair of longterm boyfriends.
By the time I auditioned for the restaurant, I had not grown into some sort of awakened sex-goddess to terrify the Northland with my Phenomenal C-Word Powahhh. Quite the opposite. In the nine months before I started belly dancing, I had carved vast cross-sections out of my sexual memory and stuffed them into Tupperware containers in the back of the mental freezer with the label "Never Open Me."
That conversation at the lunch table with my new employers hammered another four nails into the boarded-up places within me that constrained my juicy, sensual femininity to levels that my homeland could tolerate. The lesson stuck with me, and was repeated over and over.
You're a belly dancer so you have to be sexy. But don't be too sexy!
I made damned sure that I wasn't.
So then? Was the driving reason for Hala's blacklisting truly about the way she presented herself? Or were there other unspoken factors?
The restaurant was not of an Arabic flavor, after all. It was Greek, owned by a Greek native, in early-90s Northern Minnesota. I have no clue how the owners felt about people of her heritage, and wouldn't have even known to wonder back then.
I do, however, remember how a lot of Minnesotans felt about people with dark hair, dark skin, and dark eyes, because I had two of those three qualities. Even my pale skin hadn't been enough to save me from being called "ugly" once I lost my coveted toddler blonde. I doubt a Middle Eastern accent made things easier for Hala.
But on the day I sat at that restaurant table? It would have never occurred to me that such things could be a factor of why I got hired and she didn't, because AllThatRaceStuff had "gotten handled in the 60s." Remember?
Maybe it wasn't a factor. Maybe it was. We'll never know for certain.
Either way, no shit, there I was. Freshly informed that I'd been--not just betrayed--but lied to multiple times by my once-trusted and revered mentor. Then I was zapped yet again by the warnings of what happens to strong, powerful, sexually awakened women.
So joyous of joys, I was hacked off and hurt, and thus did I become that most reviled of creatures: The 8-Week Wonder. I also was transformed into a clueless, juvenile dipshit who accidentally stabbed her first teacher in the back and usurped a position of monetary gain ahead of the way more qualified Woman of Color.
Granted, I would have made vastly different choices if I hadn't been lied to like that. By her. By my culture. By dance documenters who fed us way more Orientalist fantasy than history.
Nobody behaved well.
Especially once the Iron Will Incident happened.
As it turns out, I never would have danced in that movie anyway. "Oh, it was a fiasco," one of my dancer friends told me the next time we got together. "We pretty much went up there for nothing. After the choreographer taught us the dance and placed us all in position according to height, they started rolling the cameras and we started dancing. Unfortunately..."
Unfortunately, one of the taller dancers who had been placed in the back didn't like being put in the back and kept dancing her way to the front of the configuration. They called, "Cut!" The choreographer put the dancers back into position. Cameras rolled again. They cut again for the same reason. And again, until they cut the whole scene from the film.
Now, since I spent those hours fuming in my parent's kitchen, I can't give a firsthand account of that incident. I can only tell you what I was told, and that, knowing the heights of the dancers in question, I know which ones would have been put in the back. Given the interactions I've had with all those women, I see no reason to call "Bullshit!"
You can, however, see one of my old dance-mates about a half-hour into the movie, singing her guts out along with "Kaiser Bill." At least one of us got to be onscreen for a second.
Clueless Belly-Nerd, 20 years old, 1993.
In the first costume I made from a pleated thrift-store skirt,
and as much gold lamee
that a college student could afford.
Is it good that my first teacher and I cut ties as permanently as that Musher's Banquet belly dance scene was cut from Iron Will? Probably, given our personalities.
On the Not Good scale, however, was the fact that I suddenly had this new job--a job I was utterly unprepared for. In fact, I was so unprepared for it that I couldn't begin to fathom just HOW unprepared I was.
I had been hired to dance two twenty-minute sets, twice a weekend, every weekend, which I did for the next four years to the ranting, raving, gushing, and adoring of my restaurant owner, staff, and patrons. "We have never had such an amazing dancer!" they told me. They named me Kismet--"Destiny"--and I was their darling.
Those were some of the most enjoyable dance times I've ever had, back when ignorance truly was bliss. For four years, I lived for those weekend nights, for making costumes and practicing my twenty-some tushie off.
Diana didn't stay much past the first year, so I wound up covering the entire gig every weekend with a smidge of instruction, a wide variety of ideas about how to put together a dance show, my college degree in History & Dance, my ginormous heart and smile, and the fact that most people watching me knew even less about belly dance than I did.
Yet I remained as diligent and hopeful as an archeologist, turning over the tiniest pebble and dusting off anything that might be another clue that could bring me a millimeter closer to my new passion.
We've already covered my inability to get my hands on instructional materials for the first two years except for one VHS tape, one unhelpful technique book, and one highly misleading belly dance "history" book from the library. At least I discovered the SCA in my junior year of college, through which I learned that A) there were entire folk dances from which the glitzy belly dance scene had descended, and B) there was a second belly dance teacher in town.
Wait...WUT?! How had I missed that?
Well, hot-diggity-dog, I hightailed my blingy butt straight to her class. By then, I had combined my eight weeks of belly dance lessons, that Polynesian choreography I'd learned for Twelflth Night, and my university dance instruction with that one National Geographic special on Egypt's reigning belly dance queen that I'd recorded--yes, also onto a VHS tape that I eventually killed with my obsessive watching.
So when I arrived at my second class, I had already spent two years honing every move that my new teacher showed us. But she did teach me the more efficient ways to do what I had hacked and pieced together in front of the mirror with my tongue sticking out and my eyes crossed. Hallelujah! I asked her a gazillion questions and soaked in everything she offered like a shriveled-up sponge.
At the end of the three month session, I asked if I could take her next level class. I'd seen her troupe practicing the advanced choreographies and they were amazing. Our teacher had been belly dancing for almost as long as I'd been alive, so I couldn't wait to finally--truly--learn.
She told me no, that I could retake her beginner class again for another three months. In other words, I could go all the way back to the start with the newcomers.
For the second time.
The way she said it made it very clear: she hoped I wouldn't do that.
So I didn't.
Some months later, I spoke to the man who had introduced us and asked his insights about why she had been so cold with me when, at the start, she had seemed so enthusiastic to teach me. Another round of cringing ensued. "Well...you're a restaurant dancer."
I blinked. Furrowed my brows. Lifted one of them. "Yeah...?"
He shrugged. "She only dances onstage in festivals or for nonprofit events. Her opinion of what you do is..."
"Well, restaurant dancers accept body tips, so she considers them to be..."
He wore the same expression my restaurant owner had worn while trying to think of the polite way of saying, "Slutty."
"Oh. Got it."
What I didn't get was a mentor in the years when I most desperately needed one.
And I'm not just talking about dance.
So I kept scouring my sparse world for any information I could find about these things that had moved me so deeply, and had sparked my initial journey of healing and self-discovery into what kind of woman I wanted to be.
Beyond that, I filled in the blanks any way I could.
CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE
--UP NEXT: How I filled in those blanks in BEAUTIFUL, SEXY, SILLY, SAVVY: Unearthing Missing Black Muses and Founders in my earliest dance influences.
--OR: For an in-depth (and humorous) look at the realities of being a restaurant dancer, I've spilled a bunch of it here: YOUR RESTAURANT IS STALKING YOU. (So Are Your Costumes)
--OR: Curious about my own adventures being...too sexy for my hometown, too sexy for hometown's going to shame me... You can find those tales here under LOVE, SEX & VIOLENCE: My Earliest Experiences
--THE NAVIGATION TABLE OF CONTENTS