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The “It Factor”
by Najia El-Mouzayen

May 12, 2003

Yesterday, I was asked to search through my hundreds of aging videotapes for a particular documentary video titled “Some of My Best Friends are…”(I need not complete the title; it is not available for purchase, anyway.) In it was some of our belly dance history of the San Francisco Bay Area; Bert Balladine was recorded in an interview giving his philosophy about the dance and about the lives of his professional dancers and his perennial students. He was also was shown instructing his dance class. How captivating it was to meet him in that era!

How ready we young women were to hear his explanations in deeply accented English as to how, as performers, we could reach out to others and to touch their emotions through our own.

We could possibly enrich our life experiences through the dance that Bert called “The Back Door of Showbiz”. He maintained then, as I believe that he may still, that many women have a backlog of pent-up sensuality that, in the American culture both then and now, is almost too scary for them to explore.

In my first dance lesson with Roman “Bert”Balladine, I did not realize that I had a “pent-up”anything.

However, time has proven that I did. It only took Bert a few moments to cement me to his dance program with a few well-chosen words. “You’re too skinny to be a performer but if you stick with me, I can make you a star.”Was it a line he gave to all the new students? I didn’t know, and further, I didn’t care. All I knew was that I had to fulfill his wishes and expectations because he believed in himself, and he believed in something he saw in me…

Bert arrived to each lesson wearing his curly mop of brown hair around his head like a monstrous halo just as it was in the video documentary. His deep-set eyes never missed an opportunity for him to compliment good dance movement by asking the girl to demonstrate it to the other students. It was fearful and intimidating to think that one’s reward for excellence was to repeat it in front of fifteen to twenty other dancers (some of whom danced in restaurants and nightclubs professionally, I soon learned). Bert changed his gnarly and worn cowboy boots for some yellow leather Moroccan pointy-toed slippers for the dance lesson. He fastened on a chain tassel with Middle Eastern coins on it onto a belt loop of his well-worn Levi’s, tied the front of his shirttails together, and he was good to go. In the documentary, he looked just as I had remembered.

Until Bert sprinkled me with his magical performer’s word: “star”I really had no aspirations to become an actual performer. It had been my intention to learn some of his dance steps and movements to incorporate into my teaching of choreographed women’s exercises to music. How little we sometimes know our inner longings and ourselves! Within the year, I had learned that I could demonstrate before the other dancers without shaking and quaking from fear of being wrong or inadequate. Furthermore, the other women actually admired my movements, commented on my graceful hands, and I was hooked like a sturgeon on a gaff hook. This heady success made me want to do more and became a powerful motivator toward fulfillment of every compelling statement that Bert (ever the bemused dance master) uttered, such as: You must “let go of the tension”and “make love with yourself to the mirror”(titter, tee-hee, and giggle from the girls in the video…) As I watched the video tape of Bert teaching in those years long ago,

I saw that his eyes were laughing as he instructed those girls to “Groove on yourself. You know what I mean!”(Yes, we did talk like that in the ‘60s and very early ‘70s.) We did, of course, believe that we knew what he meant.

Bert demonstrated each movement himself with a smooth and confident sensuality that we were well challenged to try to top. Whenever one of us would try something that worked with his agenda, we were always singled out to challenge the others. That is how it was in those times: women competed on an everyday basis for the recognition that envy sometimes brings with it. We were no exception. We did as he said, “Push harder, feel the emotion, give your heart. Put in everything you’ve got; it comes by itself.”The sisterhood and politically correct group dance lessons of today can never match that environment for challenging the charisma of a performer. The lessons of today are technical, correct, named (in many instances), categorized, and organized, but they are not superior. I was amazed that I could move in ways I had never before seen and could gather recognition for stringing them together in an ever-expanding repertoire. To me, the Tahedy (challenge) was like water in a dry desert. I was thirsty and needed more and more…

It helped my learning of dance that in those years I was wildly in love with a man who was devoted to arts and crafts. Because of his attention, I was doubly encouraged to excel at the sensuality that belly dancing emphasized. There was nobody limiting me or censuring me by telling me (for instance) that Egyptian dance was, by law, performed in a costume that provided covering from bra to belt (albeit sheer).

In the sunshine of a flowered meadow, my lover had decorated my navel with wildflowers; therefore, it wasn’t difficult for me to be sensual about moving my torso rather than my extremities. Additionally, he had made rings for my fingers and one for my toe. So when my dance teacher said to allow the energy of the dance movements come from inside my heart and flow outward to my be-ringed toe and my similarly decorated fingers, I understood, and the image touched me.

Between the two men, my dance teacher and my artistic lover, how could I not learn to bring the movements from the core (heart) to the outside? As Bert said, “To be authentic, Middle Eastern dance had to flow passionately from the inside outward.”Since that time, I have seen the dance in the U.S. and other western society become ever more closely aligned with the Lebanese style of exploitation of youthful frenetic energy shaking, shimmying and exploding on stage without much heart and almost totally devoid of any movements one might consider sensual. What a pity and what a loss to our dance!

Intellectually, there are ways that today’s teachers can make the dance student understand what is required; but it is another thing to cause one’s student to value passionate sensuality and to search for it.

No teacher can teach it to you. He can only teach you how to release it and to convey it to your audience. You either have it or you don’t. A talented teacher can remind you that it is required, valuable, and an idea worth exploring. A wise teacher also can tell you that though your movements may be executed perfectly, without heart they are so much frou-frou.

If a teacher or dance coach challenges you to exhibit more feeling, more passion, more heart, more emotion, then listen up and try for it. Remember that what you feel inside is not necessarily what shows on stage. You also have to learn dance technique and stagecraft that conveys emotion through gesture, facial expression, intent, focus, and other acting techniques. Bert says in his documentary, “You can only make a girl as good as she is underneath. If a person is a weak performer, she will always be a weak performer. You, as an instructor, can’t perform magic on her”. However, I saw him cajole it out of many repressed women of the late ‘60s until the present. I agree with him, and I believe that certain women are born performers who just need to find the comfortable vehicle for self-expression. The reality that you, as a dance student, must face is the “it factor”: Either you have it, or you don’t.

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