YOUR RESTAURANT IS STALKING YOU - So Are Your Costumes
We interrupt this program with a word (or twelve-hundred) from our sponsor, Vomitrix Maxima. We are crude today. We are crass and insensitive and vulgar.
Okay, we're all those things more than usual. Ahem.
Afterwards, we'll return to our regularly scheduled series:
SHE-ROS, VILLAINS & SIDECHICKS - The Characters That Made Me
Speaking of Salome and the arts of stripping things off one's body...
People have been playing tug-of-war with me over this issue since I started belly dancing. The Dance Department at my university thought I was showing way too much skin; many other people wished I would show more, but I only ever wanted to perform striptease in my bedroom for that one special guy.
I actually stopped leaving business cards in public places because of the number of calls I would get for bachelor parties, frat parties, frat-boy birthdays, and "Hey, so...yeah...my friends are over here right now partying. Wanna come dance for us? We'll pay ya reeeeal good."
I'm sure you will.
Even in the restaurants, I couldn't fully escape this stigma. Since Valentine's Day always brought in copious couples, the restaurant always had a dancer, whether or not it was the weekend. One year on the Holiday of Lurve, the owner turned down the lights for my heartfelt, sacred-priestess candle dance. Oooooh... Into the safety of darkness, the female half of one of these couples sneered, just loudly enough for the whole room to hear, "Oh, this must be where she starts stripping." Her tone and cutting laughter assured us that, to her, this was NOT a compliment.
Due to the confusion between the words “bellydancer” and “stripper” from regional ignorance influenced by a century of the dance forms' intertwined histories on this continent (see previous posts for that rabbit hole), I endured a constant state of mistaken identity any time I told people what I did to earn money every Friday and Saturday night. "Whoaaah," they'd drool upon seeing the way I could move. "Do you have any idea how much bank you'd make at the Lump-Lifter?" (A.k.a. the Lamplighter, one of our only strip joints.)
Had I pursued a career in erotic dance as passionately as I pursued belly dance, I dare say they might have been correct. Occasionally, I was even mistaken for or encouraged to work in various sex trades. I have nothing against people who do any of these jobs. If they were legal and protected, perhaps they could finally be celebrated as any other career calling.
But that's not what I wanted to do with my life.
I was caught in a quandary. I couldn't completely satisfy my heart's desire on the conservative, judgmental stages of my university theater, yet every time I danced at the restaurant, I yearned for the deep-meaning, artistic appreciation of the classical stage, as well as its freedoms.
Don't misunderstand. Being a belly dancer in a restaurant is a boatload of fun. Compared to events with the general public, it's actually quite rare that you're disparaged as a 🐍lut, wh😱re, or Salome's Eve-il cousin, provided you have respectful, protective owners doing the advertising, setting the ambience, and keeping out a watchful eye. Blessedly, I always had that.
That's why that cruel comment about my candle dance struck me so hard. It had been years since I'd been treated like that during a show, because by then I was only performing at the Moroccan restaurants and on stages specific to belly dance. This safe environment is one of the many reasons why procuring a regular gig in a restaurant is so highly coveted.
But it comes with its unique set of thorny issues.
You see, dancing between tables in a restaurant means that you're dancing like a canned sardine all night while hunting for any open space large enough to perform the myriad props required to keep an audience entertained for the requisite 45-minute stint: veil(s), sword(s), fan(s), cane(s), fire. In some establishments, you get to allow your audience and yourself a break between two 20-minute sets, but this was not the case for me in Colorado.
Either way, jumping through these widely varied hoops is highly encouraged, because if the restaurant patrons are not interested in the entirety of your show, you become an annoyance after about five to ten minutes, distracting them from what they came there to do: eat a magic-carpet-ride dinner with friends and/or that special someone. You and your clangy finger cymbals and your blaring, performance-volume music make it impossible to hold a decent conversation.
Heavens help you if you adore thunderous drums and what many Americans call "screeching cat music".
I do adore thunder-drums, mizmars and zurnas, so...yeah. I needed to be able to hold their attention if I wanted to dance to music they couldn't talk over. (2)
As a dancer in a garish, skimpy outfit, your very presence lurking over the tables is distraction enough. Your shaking tushie and glittering smile rotating over and over through the rooms like vinyl will be especially unwelcome on any romantic couple-occasion unless both participants are wowed by your show.
Sidenote: on nights when your audience's mind wallows around in the gutter, the females can be more lecherous in their encouragement for you to do lewd, rude, crude public acts to their embarrassed male counterparts than the counterparts themselves. They can also be just as crass when they'd like you to do those acts to them personally. Consider yourself warned. Binary ASSumptions are not your friend here. Belly dance-positive vaginas do not guarantee respect and safety; testicles do not guarantee vulgarity.
Dancing in a restaurant without a designated staging area also means that any notion you had of choreographing an artistic, meaningful, technical, or intricate performance has to be flexible enough for the gazillion times it'll get blown to smithereens by:
waitstaff performing tea-tricks
patrons with full bladders in need of the restroom
new patrons with empty bellies following the owner to their seat
patrons with over-stuffed bellies needing to pay and leave
patrons so impressed with you that they want to tip you
growling patrons demanding with their eyes that you need to keep your distance from their table, right next to the boisterous group who really want to tip and talk to you
too-handsy, inebriated patrons you need to avoid while still entertaining their friends and neighbors
the now tantruming toddlers who didn't get to toddle
Amidst all that, there are the dastardly rugs, chandeliers, tables, cushions, chair legs, goblets, candlesticks, tajine lids, pointy-lidded baskets, smoking hookahs, flaming saganaki, hot-cross soup, potted plants, lamps, hanging decor, and ceiling draperies.
Let it be known: those fuckers are simply out to kill you.
Except the ones with suicidal tendencies that throw themselves under your blades or the strangling garrote of your veils right at the climax of your song. Others are simply masochistic. They prefer to take a beating from your cane, a hit from your sword hilt, or a smack from your flinging hand amidst impassioned arabesque. They'd like you to use your whipping hair like a flogger, too.
Your restaurant owner, however, will not thank you for providing them with such services. Neither will your waitstaff, patrons, their toddlers, or the owners themselves.
At my first restaurant gig in Minnesota, I didn't understand how spoiled I was with the Greektown's open floor plan, wooden floors, simple tables and chairs, and distinct lack of ceiling decor. Of course, at that place, you also had two sets of staircases to navigate in long skirts with your hands full of props, and you had to deal with the fact that Minnesota salted their roads. My feet developed massive cracks every winter from the salty damp tracked in by the patrons, because I despise belly dancing in shoes. Badger balm became my friend.
After four years, I moved to Colorado where I was introduced to an eye-feast of Moroccan wonders--and hazards.
Ah, our beloved Tajine Alami and Mataam Fez. How we miss you!
Pay particular attention to every happy little pointy and protruding object, winking and lying in devious wait to snag the attention of your veils, skirts, fringe, and flowy sleeves. Dance for enough years, and your fabric WILL wind up in the soup. It is law. Do not believe the goblets who swear they didn't mean to. They did.
Also. Let it also be known: when powdered sugar is launched into the air and subjected to fire, IT IGNITES! Oooooh-shiny.
But seriously, this is why it is important to have clear signals with your waitstaff and a plan of attack for when they need to squeeze past you. It is even more important that you, as the responsible dancer, ensure your fellow workers that, NO--there are zero circumstances in which they will ever be capable of accomplishing "just a quick-sneaky-deaky past" while your back is turned toward the kitchen door because it's the only open spot in this room where you can safe(ish)ly do all those candle tricks.
You may use me as your horror story example:
No shit, there I was with my pair of oil-filled, flaming cottonballs inside my brass candleholders. I streeeeeeetch out my fireball palms with the music. The music swooshes. I swoosh with it, about-facing to streeeeeeetch the other direction: straight into a silver tray of powdered-sugar-covered chicken bastilla. (1)
Sugar: ignited midair.
Flaming cottonball: catapulted out of the candle holder to go rolling across the Moroccan carpets.
Yummy food: smithereens across said carpet.
Waitress: scoops up flaming projectile on metal tray to save the restaurant.
Aftermath - the waitress to the dancer: "OMG! You told me, you told me, you told me and I promised I wouldn't do it. I'm so sorry! I thought I could just sneaky--"
AND NOW WE KNOW: Terrify your waitstaff into procedural compliance with horror-licious tales of fire, brimstone, and flaming textiles. Never trust their promises to comply. CHECK.
This has been a public service announcement to all prospective dancers who think they super-duper want that job performing at that groovy restaurant. It's awesome fun. It's also a series of mishaps waiting to happen.
(Don't even get me started about your costumes. Those glinting assholes chortle and high-five over the notion of you unintentionally getting sent to jail from booby-licious malfunctions. They also plot these things in your costume closet while you're asleep. Ever wonder why you have all those nightmares about not being able to get costumed in time for your show? Now you know.)
(Oh. Is that just me?)
Okay, screw it. If we're gonna digress, let's just really go there, shall we? History lessons absolutely need commercial breaks. So do writey-fighty-dancer gals. (I was originally in the middle of writing about Salome when my keyboard was hijacked by AllTheSnark.)
So, no shit, I had this costume once. It was one of my earliest attempts to make a bedlah. (For anyone who doesn't know, that's the sparkly two-piece bra & belt number.) (3) This was during my second year of belly dancing, and I'd never made a dance top in which I replaced the original elastic straps with a fancy-dancey, sequined and beaded one. I wanted a halter with a bead-draped back, not an over-the-shoulder number obviously made from a department store bra. Oooo-la-la.
Wut? I'd never seen a genuine cabaret costume up close, much less from the under-side. My teacher had made my first one from a velvet bustier we found in the lingerie section of a women's boutique. She tacked on a gold chain with some dangly charms and called it good. I had no idea that the real things have heavy-duty stiffening and molded architecture under all that sparkle, even for someone with tits as teensy as mine. Even my Costume Department roomie tacked fringe and coins onto a pushup bra, so...monkey-see-monkey-doo-doo.
You know what's coming already, don't you?
I was about thirteen minutes into my second 20-minute set of the night. Ah, how excited I was about this new costume when--
Not so excited when the strap popped off my right side bra cup. Thankfully I scrabbled at it before anybody spied anything they didn't wanna see (or maybe they did, I dunno). The show must go on, so I transformed my sweeping, wafty-handed gushy number into melodramatic, one-handed camp. Yes, I finished like a champ. Face burning like a lamp. Embarrassed smile a-clamp, along with my right hand around my bra cup and that derelict strap for the duration of the song.
My audience was great. I mean...what are ya gonna do, right? Not like anybody had missed what had happened. I was three feet away from their faces--all of which were at boob-level in this chair-and-table restaurant.
The song ends. They laugh and clap. I take an overblown, drama-queen bow. "Thank you, thank you! I'll be here all week... Okay, only for the next few songs." My free pointy finger thrusts into the air. "I'll be right back."
Putting on my uber-dork face, I bound up the stairs and disappear into the dressing room. One safety pin later, and I was able to finish out my closing drum solo and get everybody up to dance. We had a lot more people whooping and hollering, "Opa!" that night from their feet instead of from their chairs, so...yeah. Bonus.
AND NOW WE KNOW: Always use upholstery or button thread for all weight-bearing hand-sewing of your costumes. Even when you think you've reinforced your straps enough, attempt to break said straps with vigorous, overblown shoulder shimmies before performing in them. Jump up and down. Give them a good tug. Still never trust those traitors. Be prepared for recovery mode at any moment. CHECK.
See...this is where that whole having a teacher for more than eight weeks thing would have been helpful, in addition to...you know...the dance instruction?
ADDITIONALLY: dancer mishaps handled with humor and humility (or is that humiliation?) endear most audiences. AND CHECK.
The Traitor Costume
So I had this costume once. 👆Okay, it was the same costume.👆 I dunno what it was about this thing. It did not like me. I eventually stopped liking it and it became my least favorite costume, even though it was one of the prettiest ones I had. After awhile, I didn't wear it much as a result.
Because what you can't see in these photos is that the outfit had two long purple panels made of the same purple glitter-dot fabric as what's underneath the black lace on the bra and belt. It was glorious and oh, how it shone under the lights. Given that I am the consummate mix-and-match queen (especially while I was a college student with almost nil for a costume budget), I wanted to be able to wear both panels, or only the back panel with one of my other fancy-fronted skirts, or using a panel as a groovy headpiece.
Sounds reasonable, right?
Can you hear the drool oozing in the costume closet, as well as the rustle of twisting mustaches? I can.
Okay, now I can.
But at twenty years old, I had no clue.
Multiple nights I had double-safety-pinned said panels to whatever skirt or pants I wore underneath with no problem. Then the nighttime costume plotting came to fruition. No shit, there I was! Hips a-fly, sparklies a-glimmer, grinning like a clueless ass and wondering why my audience was suddenly squirming amidst the climactic fury of my culminating drum solo.
People were usually oohing and aahing at this point.
Not that night. Unbeknownst to me, I had shimmied my front purple panel straight onto the floor. If I'd been wearing any other under-layer it would have been fine. Funky and distracting; fine nevertheless. But nooooo, my costumes had lurked and waited and cackled quietly in the closet until the day I paired the loose purple panels with my original panel skirt, lovingly made by my first teacher to match that velvet bustier. The center panel of that skirt covers me from hip-to-hip. It is made of black chiffon.
For those of you who don't remember that word from our veil-licious Salome 1 post, chiffon is semi-sheer material. Back when I danced in whatever Hala gave me, alongside other women dressed identically except for the hue, nobody batted an eye about our chiffon skirts and our coordinated velvet underpants. Nobody even batted an eye when I performed solo in that old costume from start-to-finish of a set.
But when that opaque panel dropped off the front of my crotch in a way that was obviously not part of the show, leaving nothing between their eyes and my underpants but a thin layer of chiffon...
I'm not sure whether it would have been better to lose the back panel or that front one. Prolly the back. Kinda like that dilemma on the airplane when you're in the window seat and have to pee.
Now...how this was accomplished against two safety pins and a tuck-job, I still have no idea to this day. The pins had not popped open. There were no rips in the fabric. It was purely a feat of treacherous, costume-plotty sorcery.
AND NOW WE KNOW: The Force is strong with costumes, and they are all Sith.
Oh yeah! There was that time the center-back zipper of my $900 snow-leopard extravaganza blew in the middle of a show--first time I ever wore it. Thank all the chortling gods that I happened to be wearing a circle skirt underneath it, so all the audience saw was a gaping wad of turquoise satin, rather than my bare, jiggling ass cheeks and my leopard-print thong because that costume has cut-outs around the hips.
Come to think of it, something really similar happened with my turquoise-and-silver number as well. So take note: those amazing velvet mer-skirts with the sewn-in hip decoration of beads and sequins and crystals and fringe? Those evil beasties just want to turn you into an unintentional mooner. Thankfully, that happened while I was rehearsing in it.
Too bad my rehearsals and overblown shake-it-to-break-it attempts in the snow leopard had only produce a popped bra strap. Which, of course, I fixed before performing in it.
AND NOW WE KNOW: always try to break the straps of your fancy-dancey imports, always reinforce said straps with upholstery thread even if you can't shake-n-break, and replace the zippers in the skirt before performing in them no matter if they appear sound or not. Those zippers suck. They're totally in league with the chortling costume gods, who all have the same sense of humor as the Fates. Trust No One. CHECK.
I can't tell you the number of times that my veils have tried to strangle me, that my skirts have tried to trip me, and that my bracelets have mated onstage with my costuming, thus producing a reprise of the one-armed wonder. Also. Fringe mates with everybody.
So does long, unbound hair. Prepare to swipe it off your lipstick and sweaty face, pry your earrings out of it, cut your super-ornate earrings out of it, and pluck it out of that Moroccan metal lamp you just snagged amidst that glorious hair-tornado spin because you didn't realize just HOW long your hair had gotten since it was cut in a bouncy bob. (Your notorious depth-perception issues will not aid you in this.) Ahem. Hopefully the lamp is still living. Hopefully you are, too.
Also. Be prepared. Someday you WILL have your neck stuck in the cranked-back position because your sequined back strap suddenly needed to lock in an embrace with your luxurious tumble of perfumed tresses--which are now soaked with sweat and tangled from all those tornado spins and hair-infinities. Soooo sexxxy. Rawrrrr...
Oooh, have I mentioned that your props are out to get you, too? And so is your sound-system. Man, I could go OFF about the pitfalls--eeeee!--of dancing onstage. That would require a post of its own.
But not today, because back in college, I was only belly dancing in the restaurant. So now we will return to our regularly scheduled villainy.
In the meanwhile, always remember: your restaurant is stalking you. So are your costumes. Dance long enough and they will get you, so hold onto your smile, your sense of humor, and your butt. Or your blown bra. Or...
CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE
--UP NEXT: CLEO - Narp. I lied again. I just got around to finally updating my Ko-Fi page about all the artistic shenanigans that have been going on around here in the past few months, and figured I should probably explain why things look drastically different around here. Maybe you only noticed that I changed my blog wallpaper. But nope: WHY I OBLITERATED MY WEBSITE - Again.
--OR if you enjoy these "no shit, there I was" dance adventures, here's another one.
--THE NAVIGATION TABLE OF CONTENTS
🤤 1) THE FOOD 🤤
Saganaki - Greek flaming cheese--OPA!
Avgolemono Soup - lemony goodness Greek soup
Pastichio - Greek lasagna with droolable Béchamel sauce
Moussaka - another Greek layered extravaganza
Spanikopita - Greek pastry of spinach and feta cheese
Tiropita - no spinach, all cheese...nommmm...
Baklava - same phyllo dough, gushing with honey and nuts
Don't forget the ouzo - licorice-flavored liqueur
Carrot & Chickpea Salad - one of the many refreshing finger foods
Tabbouleh - another refreshing salad
Chicken Bastilla - sweet & savory Moroccan chicken pie
Chicken Tajine - Moroccan earthenware dish of veg & meat, they served it on couscous at our restaurants
Mrouzia - Moroccan lamb with honey, almonds & raisins (my tajine fave)
Moroccan Spiced Coffee - droooool
Greeeeeat...now I'm starving and have a gazillion cravings. And what did I just do? I had a tooth implant embedded into my jaw and an old one yanked out of the bone, so I'm on a liquid diet. Dance Gods truly believe in cruel & unusual punishments. Off to slurp a protein shake. Go me!
2) Middle Eastern musical instruments
3) Theories on the origins of the Bedlah
--By Leyla Amir, Gilded Serpent
--A brief history by costume designer and historian, Dawn Devine