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This is a colorized photo take of me while I was performing on the “Naji Baba Show,” broadcasted on a San Francisco station in the early 1970s. This costume featured a bright lavender jacket with long sleeves that zipped tight at the wrists and had a built in bra.  The costume piece was designed and sewn in Hollywood and was worn by a famous figure skater in the movies.
Gilded Serpent presents...
Part Five; Lace and My Muses:

by Najia Marlyz

I was looking at a piece of artwork featuring a classical dancer of the past, turning it this way and that to get a better view, and suddenly, I realized that I had lost contact with my treasured mentors and had also abandoned my sense of artistic direction that they had helped to foster within me. I mulled over my strong conviction that an artist has to constantly re-evaluate his or her work.  An artist must continually take new perspectives in order to keep the work fresh and viable. By chasing the adventure of discovery and learning with the maps drawn and given to me by previous dance artists, I had admitted ordinary and trite content into my dance unwittingly. I had done this in the name of authenticity and correctness of form. Previously, creative adaptation (similar to poetic license) had been a major element of my dance that had brought me early recognition for ingenuity among my contemporaries in everything I was accomplishing.

To be outstanding, a dancer (or any other artist, for that matter) has to become more than an excellent reproducer of what others can do and have already done.

I thought it would be simple to write about the many ways in which costuming the Belly dance has changed. I imagined that I could show you photos of some old costumes and tell you how I made them from revitalized items gleaned from local garage sales and flea markets.  However, after going through my photos, I realized that actually, I had done more of the reclaiming than I had remembered, and each item had become a special project in itself. Moreover, each one had progressed through several metamorphoses. 

I will focus on a few of my favorites to represent the process of transformation (--from Victorian window shades to Middle Eastern fantasy dance costume like Scarlet O’Hara in “Gone With the Wind”). Those of you who have talent with needle and thread will be able to figure out your own solutions toward transformation for the purpose of individualism (should you dare to chance sacrificing an antique or two).

I would like to see some of today’s accomplished performers expand away from the styles that the current costumers of Egypt are turning out like widgets on a production line!

 I hope to be instrumental in beginning to banish the phenomenon of the overly ornate and elaborate “dancing costume on a dancer” (as opposed to someone dancing in a costume befitting her dance, her body, and her dance style).

  • This is a colorized photo (see top of page) taken of me while I was performing on the “Naji Baba Show,” broadcasted on a San Francisco station in the early 1970s. This costume featured a bright lavender jacket with long sleeves that zipped tight at the wrists and had a built in bra.  The costume piece was designed and sewn in Hollywood and was worn by a famous figure skater in the movies.

I paired it with an antique color-variegated fringe shawl that was a half circle and had extraordinarily long (variegated in color) fringe.  I do not know if it had been a to drape over a musical instrument in a former life (as was the practice of the time).  Since it was relatively clean and dust free, I suppose that it had been worn as a light-weight wrap for an evening party dress.

  • I was wearing the same fringe shawl in another photo with Bert Balladine in the early ‘70s. The white costume was made entirely of antique silk and the long sleeved blouse tied up in the front was nearly sheer and felt airy to wear.  It was like a dream to feel it flutter against my skin while dancing. It transformed my dance into a sensual experience for both my audience and me.

 Perhaps you can see from the photo that I refrained from tying the relatively heavy shawl on my hips with a knot, preferring instead to strategically tuck it into my dance belt (which, by the way, we ‘70s dancers wore much lower than is the practice today.

In America of the ‘60s and ‘70s, we dancers only began our routines with our bodies elaborately covered and soon shed the large, and usually heavy, drape of the dance veil, learning to remove it in such a way that we “hid our mechanics” as Bert required of his students.  The term meant that we had practiced the art of attention diversion. Some of us become so adept at removing these items without a fuss that our audiences were rarely aware that we had unfastened anything for removal; instead, it seemed that magically, hair or fabric appeared, deftly flying through the air.

  • To my way of thinking, the long fringe of the shawl shown in this photo echoed the movement of my hair. I tucked, released, and flew them both with great awareness of the sculptural patterns I could produce using both as shown in this 1975 photo taken by Jules Kliot at the now defunct Helmet Club in Berkeley.

 In this photo (approximately 1976), I am wearing:

  1. A dance belt made from the crocheted lace I removed from an antique Victorian window shade.
  2. A bra I made from two sides of a metal link gold purse.
  3. Antique gold tassels with crystal beads (reclaimed from an elaborate lampshade).
  4. Additionally, I wore a hand made silk embroidered fringe shawl.   

 It occurs to me that there may have been less body image discomfort to the psyche three decades ago than exists today. Some of our dancers nowadays have become almost Victorian in attitude—some dancers resorting to wearing two and three skirts with harem pants underneath. 

  • Here is a photo taken at the Casbah Cabaret on Broadway in San Francisco during the brief time when I danced there professionally. The sleeves of my bolero were handmade exquisitely for some other garment and were about 100 years old --or possibly more.  Here I had paired the little jacket with a cabaret sheer skirt and another piano cover in gold. The look and style of the costume was too heavy for cabaret work, and soon I began to look for lighter, and more shear, laces and fabrics.
  • Floor work (a la Turk) has fallen into disuse these days, but in this photo, I am dancing on my knees, displaying my long mane while wearing a costume bra made from the flower collar of a 1930s dress.  The beads were pearl white and the mirrors were shiny and set into silver bezels.  Things seldom matched but they were always, somehow, co-ordinated.
  • This 1976 posed photo of me became my favorite trademark publicity photo because I believed that it combined both the idea of a modern cabaret costume and the classicism of the sensual antique hairstyle. I am wearing a sheer iris sequined skirt crafted from a 1920s flapper’s dress.  I spent approximately 200 hours painstakingly designing and creating the bra and belt with my needle, carpet thread, cake of bee’s wax, pliers, and a kilo of deep blue bugle beads and sew-on jewels. Jules Kliot of Lacis in Berkeley was my photographer.
  • This 1982 photo shows me dancing at the Belleview Hotel in San Francisco as part of Jamila Salimpour’s Middle Eastern Faire.  Jamila whispered to me as I came down from the stage, “Exquisite!” I felt that her comment was an extraordinary compliment because of her invitation to me to perform in the first place, and because I had arisen from another style of instruction in the second place. In the accompanying photograph, I am wearing an extremely sheer tulle skirt made of handmade sprang-lace, sequined and beaded in the art deco style.  It was living its second life after having existed as a 1920s dress during the flapper era.

 Over all, in the ‘70s and ‘80s, we showed more leg and more torso than one commonly sees now and yet, we maintained our dignity because we had learned to hide dance mechanics and create an air of simplicity.  Veil dancing (or fringed shawl dancing) rarely featured what I think of today as frantically and frenetically performed “Irrelevant Veil Tricks”.  Though vapid veil tricks may seem impressive and reek of slick professionalism for a short time, they are still tricks, and tricks will only rarely illustrate the mood or lyricism of the musical score. 

I recall of one of Bert Balladine’s favorite class sayings, “No matter how much lipstick you put on a pig, it is still a pig!”  For me, veil tricks are just tricks that one dancer teaches another; they are usually irrelevant to the intent of the music and illustrate nothing more than a great memory for detail and a dancer’s intent to dazzle. It is worse than lipstick on a pig!

 In this 1979 photo of Eddie the Sheik and me in Riverside, California, I am wearing a beaded belt in my hair that I had worn while dancing in the show to hold back my contemporary  “big hair.” (The belt was from a 1930s dress.)

  • The antique postcard dancer I chose for my recent Gilded Serpent ad is wearing the gold serpent necklace that I bought from an antique store in Berkeley during the 1960s.  I have loved it and worn it for dancing and social events centered on dance ever since. I wonder if there were hundreds of them, or do I own the same necklace as the one she is wearing?

 In my quest for authenticity, both in dance and in my costuming for the dance, I had gradually ceased doing one of the things that was truly authentic in this dance form: I had stopped making both the movement and costuming individual and unique. I no longer melded envisioned, reused, fused or re-vitalized design elements from various countries, times and literature as I once had. 

At last, I remembered that the great dance stars I had seen in Egypt were unique and different from each other. With that sudden moment of insight, I began to reunite with the many beautiful and neglected items from the years past that I had stored away. 

 As each piece re-emerged from storage recently, it seemed a new treasure!  My collection continues to be a source of pleasure and a poignant reminder for me and for my students who come into my home studio today, where they can see it framed and displayed as if it were in an art gallery. Purposely, I have made my home into a gallery/museum, and I live, dance, and teach among my objects d’ arte, antiques, travel collections, and items of fascination and curiosity. 

Najia’s next article:
 “The Fund Raiser, Showtime at the Helmet Club in Berkeley
Photos of a very special show that I produced in 1975 with the help of Bert Balladine, many members of the dance community, and Jules and Kaethe Kliot of Lacis (formerly Some Place).  We raised funds to support the studio for Middle Eastern dance that I had opened two years earlier in the East Bay Area of San Francisco in 1973.  The studio name was The Dancing Girl Studio, and then later it became Belly Dance Arts Studio when the women’s movement during the seventies became contentious and made the concept of a mere girl dancing become offensive and verboten in Berkeley.  How was I to know that the term ‘Belly Dance’ would soon follow the suit, becoming politically offensive in the ‘70s, instead of just a simple matter of a dancer’s personal choice?

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Ready for more?
2-16-05 Lace and My Muses, Part 4 of 5:Tarnished StarDust
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.

3-31-05 Defiant Dancer: How I became a Dance Pioneer In a small 1970s California Community Festival My attitude turned from community spirit to outright defiance.

9-14-05 Behind The Nile Group Workshops in Cairo by Zeina
How absurd it sounds! How could we, in a small country that a lot of people couldn’t even locate on a world map, compete with her enormous festival in Cairo?

9-13-05 What is a Ghazal? by Leigh
“Ghazal” is a word in Arabic that means talking to women.

9-9-05 Rhythm and Reason Series, Article 4, For Whom Do You Dance? by Mary Ellen Donald
Who do you dance for – your audience or yourself?

9-8-05 Belly Dance, Burlesque and Beyond: Confessions of a Post Modern Showgirl by Princess Farhana (Pleasant Gehman)
“BUT WAIT!!!” I can hear you screaming, “ BURLESQUE IS STRIPPING!”

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