"A Star Remembered,
The Maturation of a Career in Performing"
by Najia El-Mouzayen

Originally written for Caravan Magazine, November 25, 1995
Revised for Gilded Serpent, October 18, 2001                            

It's strange how our perception of things changes with the perspective of time past.  There was actually a time when I thought that the last thing in the world that I wanted for myself and my own dance career was to be a "forty year old belly dancer".  That aversion existed, of course, because I did not know at the time how it really felt to become forty, nor did I know I had not realized my potential in the field of Middle Eastern dance.  I did not hit my full stride until a decade later! When my first husband left me for his secretary in the heat of his mid-life crisis, I was thirty-something and professional a belly dancer with two agents and an active clientele of dance students.  I was faced with giving it up to "get a real job" or making what I was doing into a real full time occupation.  At that time, as any one of my friends could tell you, my goal changed to "staying an active dancer as long as Martha Graham did (to age 92)". That was quite an adjustment and a leap of faith!

What I never really stopped to analyze was that Martha's game was “art” and was perceived by the public at large as "culture".

By contrast, Belly dancers and Oriental danseuses have been locked into long career struggles for recognition of Belly dance as a legitimate form of dance, instead of a chuckle in the joke of life. Is it any wonder the ballerinas scoff at us when we ourselves rarely approach our dance with any sort of dedication to discipline, truth, or reverence toward the dance itself?  I rarely deal with new students who hunger for the beauty of the dance so much that they have an unquenchable thirst for Middle Eastern travel, or any sense of commitment to the cultures or history from which our dance has sprung.  More and more these days, Belly Dance has become the chosen substitute for the failing marriage, the remedy for secretary's bottom, sagging self-image,  or therapy with an appropriate psychiatrist.  Yet, I have stayed beyond my original cut-off mark because of a deep belief that there are more facets to the gem than can be explored by the young dancers alone.

As my cat, Grey Sea, and I roared down Interstate 80 from the family home after Thanksgiving with the family this year, I chanced to tune into a radio talk show. The topic of conversation was the host's horror that his life-long singing idol, Frank Sinatra, had over-stayed his apparent usefulness to humanity as a singer. "His voice was shot!" he complained. "Why is it that performers do not know when to retire?  Why, when he was only a shell of his former self, did he continue to crank out those lousy CDs?"

Well, he certainly had my attention!  Each word he said could be applied equally to any long-time Belly dancer.  Yet, one caller after another on the phone continued to defend "Old Blue Eyes".  One of them said he understood that the voice had gone but that he had gone to one of Sinatra's last concerts and that it was no longer about the fabulous voice of yesteryear or the sexy body of the voice's owner.  He said that there were hundreds of people there and all of them had been entertained and uplifted. Undaunted, the radio host stated that he was appalled, and that the general public is wrong to encourage old troupers to haul out their aged talents and thereby "destroy our memories of their greatness".

(Now he really had my emotions stirred!)

"Stars should really retire at the penthouse of their career rather than riding the elevator back down to the basement," he insisted.

"Oh, this is really something to consider," I thought!  "Maybe Martha Graham was grotesque when she danced at 75, 85, or 90!"  I thought about the stars, Martha and Frank, as the callers continued the discussion.

"Maybe he did not feel he had accomplished all he could with his music at that point," one woman offered.

"No, he was just staying out of greed for money and applause," the host shot back.

"Yes, I am staying for the money and applause too," I thought.  Yet, I have accomplished a new understanding and a new style to my own performance that did not exist when I was forty. Had I retired at that age, I would have missed all the lovely dancers with whom I have worked and whom I have influenced during my recent experiences. Worse, they would have missed me!  Had I retired back then, I would have been limited to the understanding of dance that only my youthful body understood. 

As my body ages, I am forced to explore dance in many more heartfelt and dramatic ways, incorporating emotional movements and techniques that never would have occurred to me if I still had had the nubile attributes upon which I originally based my dance.

This is where we put-up, or shut-up, fellow fringe shakers!  Either the dance has sustaining substance, or it has only the exhibitionism of the "body beautiful".  Not that I advocate exhibiting our deteriorating bodies and the public be damned!  Instead, I think that older dancers must search out individual ways to grow within the dance without buying into the notion that the only growth possible for a performer is to be all that you were… and then some!  Instead, there are choices to be made and deep changes to be eagerly anticipated.  No, I will never fully retire from dance, as long as I can adjust and continue to evolve within my dance.

As an audience, we are only remiss when we force stars like Tony Bennett to continue to warble beloved favorites such as "I Left my Heart In San Francisco" for the millionth time.  Perhaps he would have preferred to sing a new tune more suited to his aging voice.  One would not confront the pain of comparing his ability now to his youthful vocals.  I think there is nothing sadder than watching an aging actress or actor attempt to be a leading love interest in a play or movie when other character roles would better fit.  Best you say to yourself, even now while you are young, "There will always come along a dancer younger and prettier than I, so I had better learn to emote dance and touch the music with a magic that the public will not soon forget."

Ready for more?
more from Najia-
10-19-01 Follow the Bouncing Butt; in Defense of a Teaching Method
Some of the "Follow Me" teachers should be more aptly described as "inspirationally oriented".

11-17-01 Scared Silly, A Letter of Advice to a Beginning Performer by Lynette
Don't give up on the improvisation!

11-11-01 SUMMER CARAVAN 2001 Lumbers Through the Bay Area with Heavy Feet by Lilly
Born and raised in Lebanon, Lilly puzzles over an American bellydance festival in Oakland, CA


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