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Bert Balladine and Najia Marlyz
at the Dancing Girl Studio in Albany, CA
Gilded Serpent presents...
Lace and My Muses:
Tarnished StarDust

Part Four
(of Five)
by Najia Marlyz

(Continued from Part 3)
By 1973 or '74, I had become dance partners with my instructor, Bert Balladine, who was then, and still is, absolutely an exceptional individual!  Stardust and glitter sparkled from all aspects of my dance career even though (I reminded myself often) Bert was like a salty sailor with a dancing girl in every port.that is: Bert managed to scour up a dance partner in every city, burg, and one-horse watering-hole in which he taught.  That did not deter my sense of wonder and accomplishment however, because, in addition to my duets here and there with Bert, we also became partners in teaching Belly dance in my own Albany dance studio that I opened that same year, 1973.  People tell me now that I looked about 18 then, but I was significantly over thirty that incredible year. 

I attended all of Bert's classes to troubleshoot for him, and to collect student fees on his behalf.  Bert was very thoughtful towards me, and he suggested that in order to create some sense of teaching authority for my career, I should audit his lessons and not participate in the actual dance lesson itself.  After lessons were over, we would sometimes rehearse our dance duet and plot our next dance career moves.  He gave me many pieces of his hard-won stage and show business wisdom during those sessions!  As I sat through his lesson one evening, preening my feathers and feeling as if I were living a life touched by magic, one of his students said to me in a haughty and excessively loud voice,

 "Why don't you sweep the floor instead of just sitting there?  My feet are getting dirty!"  

Jules' Brass Hair Ornament and Stage Makeup
Her acidic question certainly tarnished the stardust that had been falling all around me.  Definitely, it burst my shining bubble of self-importance, and I realized that to honor and become an asset to my muses and to Bert, I had to be more than just Bert's groupie, class monitor, and dance partner if I wanted to make my own artistic statement out of a career in Belly dance! 

I had begun to gather a number of ethnic oddities, aging textiles, and Assiut cloths (also called Mummy Lace as discussed in Part One of this series) and had learned how to repair and care for them from my dear friends, Kaethe and Jules Kliot of Berkeley, who had set me on the road to my career in dance.  By the time I had opened my dance studio then, they had become a significant part of my daily world.  They were my muses and mentors, being resource points for all kinds of antiquities, including items for costuming such as the Assiut cloths and other, even more exotic fabrics.

At the time, Jules created costume jewelry of brass wire; the pieces were remarkably lacy looking works of polished brass made for his Berkeley shop, "Some Place."  (Later, the shop became merged with "Lacis" as it is today.)  At Lacis, Kaethe specialized in the collection and sales of antique laces and the pursuit of the skills to recreate hand-made lace in many techniques.  Jules designed for me a couple of Belly dancing belts, upper-arm bracelets, a hair ornament for dance, and other jewelry of these lace-like structures with which he was experimenting.  I backed his metal pieces with velvet-covered felt and finished them with chains holding interesting foreign coins purchased from the San Francisco Coin Exchange. 

A collar bra and rhinestone belt

Understandably, most of the costuming that I (and other dancers) used during those years had a decidedly Turkish harem or Orientalist fantasy about it because we fashioned many things from our memories of Orientalist paintings of the turn of the century.  Much of that artistic era mixed together elements from very divergent countries.

It did not occur to us dancers that we ought to have all articles of a dance costume match each other in style, color, pattern, or place of origin (an concept still in question for me).
In my fantasy-derived dance works, I utilized things that I purchased at the flea market, re-cutting them and sewing together the materials that were not available to be  purchased new.  A few examples of this are: gold mirror edging, antique laces, tapestries, hand cross-stitched silk fabric, crocheted edgings and the like. 

Overall, one might even see some logic in our eclecticism, since there was quite a bit of movement from culture to culture by our dance form in its early days when the Middle Eastern countries commonly took slaves from their conquests in Europe and Turkey and other places.

Orientalist Slave Market Painting
Giulo Rosati's "Picking Favorite" (detail)

Examples of the Hand of Fatima

Today's dancers should never forget that some of the early Oriental dancers were concubines and slaves from the wars of the old times, and many beautiful young dancers were simply women who were victims of a nasty and unromantic capture. 
They were subsequently enslaved and made to perform dance --among other things.  There is not much romance or fantasy in that, I think! 

My husband, Eugene, a physical scientist by profession and Renaissance man at heart, figured out how to make beautiful finger cymbals for me that were hammered with a ball-peen hammer, tempered of half-hard brass, polished by tumbling with peach pits, and incised with my stage name and several decorative rings.  He dabbled in photography and took some pensive and demure shots of me in an authentic ethnic antique headpiece I purchased at the Alameda Flea Market one Sunday safari with my friends.

In these ways, my husband managed to support my interest in dance even though he admitted that he did not much care for Middle Eastern music and hated the idea of dance and show business for his wife (that special arm-piece from the 1960s, --me). 

Posing in Ethnic jewelry, photo by Eugene

Erte' Oriental Costume

Najia dancing in a skirt made from a 1920's Flapper dress. The event was the Sci-Fi convention in 1979 held at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco
I remember having purchased this authentic Middle Eastern head ornamentation that is shown in the photo from a very exotic vendor whom I met at the Alameda Flea Market and who instructed a large belly dance troupe in San Francisco.  She was the incredibly resourceful and creative Masha Archer who was one of the very first troupe teachers who created an entire troupe in the style of dance has now evolved into "Tribal" dance in America.  Tribal style began to take shape as an actual style of dance that she taught along with more traditional style Belly dance.  Masha  (pronounced "Mah'-shah") certainly gave me fresh insight into the local politics of the Belly dance along with her pithy, dry humor and her irresistibly strange persona, though I never took a single class with her.  She treated me with a great deal of respect, and because of that, I saw her as a role model of how to remain aloof though surrounded by dance politics, yet friendly and involved with dance at the same time.  She sold a large variety of silver hands-of-Fatima, many in sterling silver, German silver, brass and many with blue stones in the center and sprouting other pendants dangling from the fingertips.  I bought several prize examples that I have and wear even today.  The hands are supposed to protect one from the harm of the Evil Eye who has the power to maim, steal, and kill. 

At the flea markets, and in the used clothing boutiques around the San Francisco Bay Area, I searched relentlessly for flapper dresses from the 1920s with Kaethe and Jules and their children.  I learned about theater designers such as the famous Erte` who designed and influenced the western sense of flamboyant stage costuming used throughout the world even today in places such as Las Vegas, Hollywood, Broadway and community theaters everywhere.  

Kaethe loved antique clothing from all eras, and she called to my attention the unique and interesting beaded designs that were reminiscent of the Oriental style.  Of course, we made a way to re-use them for my dance ! 
The dresses we found were usually silk and beaded in lovely patterns that were somewhat reminiscent of the style of stage wear that the designer Erte` created.  The dresses converted easily into straight, sheer and sequined dance skirts.  They usually transformed into an unusual, one-of-a-kind costume theme that I would then complete with a co-coordinated (not usually matching) veil of some sort.

During one photo shoot in Berkeley, Kaethe asked me to pose with a very large, black, handmade lace veil she had then recently acquired.  The veil's shape was square, and because I loved posing with it, I began to rethink all that I believed constituted a proper dance veil along with my routine utilizing it.  I began to re-envision "outside the box" many of the movements that I had seen on stage, and specifically, re-envisioned my dance using special stage props and pieces of costuming.

 I began to think by dance concepts rather than direct instruction, and that one change in direction led to some momentous restructuring of my entire dance performances.

Posing with Kaethe's lace veil
I figured out how to make my dance truly memorable for audiences by trying to conceptualize instead of simply copying whatever was being taught at the time.  We dancers created our home-grown costuming for dance in the '60s and '70s reclaiming, recycling, transforming, and making old things new again, including antique laces, vintage clothing and jewelry.  In turn, the accoutrements influenced how we danced, how we thought about ourselves as dancers, and how we thought of ourselves in relationship to the dancers of the past. 

Sadly, during the early1980s, I inadvertently derailed much of my creativity because of the ease of purchasing ready-made bedlahs from Egypt rather than creating my embroidered, sequined skirts and lace dance veils from antique sources as I had before.  Rather than investing generous amounts of love, time, and effort on my costumes, as I had previously, I began to devote more of my energy to my dance studio in my home in El Cerrito, California, and my actual dance gigs.  Much of my dance began to evolve into what resembled current Raks Sharqi.  The change was not necessarily a good development in my dance or my life though it may have been a necessary step in the evolution of my awareness and understanding of both.

In my quest to gain credibility with the Arabs and the star dancers of the '80s, I can now look back and understand that I had lost the real spark of creative dance along with the adventure of my hunt for items of antiquity (or exceptional oddity) needing rescue.  Frankly, now I needed to be rescued!  Not until very recent times, could I admit, even to myself, that I had lost a large part of my creative thrust along with many of my treasured friendships because I had perceived wrongly that I needed to become more like the Egyptian and Lebanese dancers of the day.

Some of those losses affected me so personally that I now feel urged to look carefully into the past for clues that are leading me back to my original path of fusion, creative style, and the legacy of my very real human muses. 

All of those beautiful memories, special times, and extraordinary people have been woven forever into my thoughts and again live within my dance.
In Part 5 of "Lace and My Muses: Treasures of the Past" I will present a photo gallery containing more photos of my costumes that I conjured up from my "found treasures" and flea market odds and ends as well as how it was done.

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Ready for more?
12-16-04 Raven of the Night: Dancer’s Allegory for New Year’s Eve 2005
Raven of the Night was the name by which he thought of her–but feathers? Raven had none! She was the castle’s Dancer of Dreams and aspired to become Jester of the Court...

11-08-04 Lace and My Muses: In Search of A Personal Style Part Three
I suggest that “elevating Belly dance” to the standards of western dance would be counter-productive in the long-term rather than a valid goal for us to desire.

8-3-04 Lace and My Muses: Everything Old Becomes New Again Section 1, Part Two
Now it was the ancient, exotic art of Belly dancing and my fantasies of the bizarre life of a Belly dancer that smoked incense into my heart.

6-15-04 Lace and My Muses Part 1: Egyptian Mummy Lace or “Assiute Cloth”
I fastened around my hips a white Assuite cloth encrusted with gold knots throughout, forming pictographs of falcons, pyramids, crosses, and diamond shaped designs.

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