Troupe Zelzeleh
The Gilded Serpent presents...
My Troupe Adventures

by Aziza!

I have always enjoyed watching troupes dance – each troupe brings a different sensibility and style of attack to the belly dance. Also apparent in the performance is the personality of the troupe leader – is she (or he) a real disciplinarian, or not quite so strict? Does she (okay, I’m not going to say “or he” every time – we’ll take it as a given) want to stand out as The Star in the group, or does she do her best to blend in with the rest of the members? (This is often very hard to achieve.) Is the leader’s preference for tribal? Cabaret? Flash? And so on….

After I had been teaching belly dance for a while I started feeling that I would like to have my own troupe. I was at that time, of course, not real familiar with what it would take, but I thought it would be a fun thing. For several years I tried to make a troupe happen, but had no success. Finally, after I gave up, the damn thing arranged itself! I had participated in several shows with my students and we had called ourselves a troupe at that time, but what finally formed was a core group of five women, and I named us “Zelzeleh”, the Farsi word for earthquake.

The first thing that I discovered was that I hated to design or perform choreography – it was like having my teeth pulled - and I wasn’t too hot at it, truth to tell. I had never had to learn any choreography during my dancing career, as I had danced to live music and by myself probably 99.9% of the time, and that dancing was always free-form. Luckily, Lara was a whiz at planning the dances, so she did most of it for the troupe, though I did choreograph a few dances myself – another one of those things that I thought would be good for my character. (Like teaching the dance, however, it brought me no visible improvement!) We all learned all the dances, and we soon had a repertoire of probably 15-20 different dances. I did my best to blend in, though I usually took the center spot so that if I got fancy or something I could have the excuse of being The Center Dancer.

Pretty soon, the girls wanted to enter the troupe section of the 1980 Belly Dancer of the Year Pageant. We incorporated into our dances several of the other students who could dance well and who wanted to participate, and then we started to work. Well, I tell you – our name became a hissing and a scandal in the belly dance world, because we were the first troupe to incorporate humor into our performance in the Pageant!

First we did several conventional numbers, and then we had a sort of “subtroupe” do a number. I came out and set up an easel with a big vaudeville-type card on it, with two palm trees done in black and silver, with glitter, with “The Pharaoettes” in big letters. I then launched into a version of the classic Mae West routine, about how these girls “throw caution to the winds, and their hips north, south, east and west” and so on.

Then out the three bold ones came, dressed in costumes that were just horrifying! They had bras that were nude in color, with black sequin spokes and a big red jewel in the center of each cup. They had on very skimpy straight skirts and pharaonic headdresses made of a metallic leopardskin and little gold ballet slippers.

(In later performances they wore black tights, as one of the members – more modest than the other two – said she just wouldn’t do it again if she had to have naked legs!) Their makeup was exaggerated and included a large beauty mark. And their dance! It incorporated every move that I had told them they shouldn’t make – all worked into Lara’s brilliant choreography, done to a piece of music that we felt was classically Mid-Eastern hokum. Well, the poor audience just didn’t know what to think! Was this supposed to be serious and was just plain bad, or what? Finally, someone laughed, and then it was fine – everyone laughed – but they were still a little worried.

And after that, a worse thing happened! Shukriya’s troupe, “The Dancers of the Pharaohs”, had to follow us, and, to our horror, they used seriously the music that we had made fun of!

And we hadn’t thought about the fact that their name and ours were so close! And we hadn’t known that on their business cards they had two palm trees, one black, one white.And, though Lara had never seen them dance, some of her choreography came very close to parodying their straight dancing. I was just appalled! We had wanted to satirize the whole belly dance scene, and we wound up with an almost direct hit on one particular troupe. I found Shukriya, who was almost crying, and apologized profusely – it really and truly was a terrible accident, and we all felt very bad! Shukriya didn’t forgive me for a very long time – and I hope she has by now! Whew!

The next year, 1981, we entered the Pageant again, with some new dances, including one that started out with two of us balancing canes on our heads, draped from the cane down with black veils. My husband called it “the widow dance.” Unfortunately, in the rush between numbers backstage, our prop helpers gave us each the wrong cane and veil, and, since the balancing of each cane was so individual, we had a heck of a time trying to do the dance. We did do the nasty-costume dance again, but this time with some differences. The most noticeable one was that we had a camel on stage with the dancers! This camel started life as part of a float belonging to the Santa Rosa High School drama club for the Santa Rosa Rose Parade. It then mysteriously appeared in the office of Al Mansoor, a prominent Arab mover and shaker in Santa Rosa. An article appeared in the gossip column about it, so we called and offered the poor beast a home. It was made of plywood and was ten feet tall, so it was pretty funny to see it flying down the highway in a little Toyota pickup, a red sweater tied around its neck! We christened our camel Wazuli ( a member’s husband’s misnaming of “Ghawazi”), and made some changes. First, his neck had to be cut and hinged so that he could go through doors. Then we added some facial features and a tasseled bridle and saddle blanket. Then he was put on a wheeled platform so we could move him around more easily. The subtroupe’s name was changed to “Troupe Wazuli”, and they came on stage hauling him behind them. This year, people knew how to react!

After our participation in various dancing venues, in 1979 we decided that we wanted to put on a show of our own. I lived in the Roseland area of Santa Rosa, and was teaching in the Boy Scout House there. It was small, but it had a kitchen and a stage, and we decided that it would be fine for our first effort. We called our show “Ard el Zouhour”, the Arabic equivalent of Roseland, and we printed up invitations, beautifully designed and done in calligraphy by one of our members, for our audience. We decorated the place to make it seem as exotic as we could and planned a fairly ambitious menu, including such things as tabouli, spanakopita, moussaka, hommous and several desserts. There were a lot of dances, capped off by my getting a bunch of guys out of the audience to do a Sultan Act. The audience voted on who they thought was best, and then he got to sit on stage while I danced for him. It all turned out very well, and our (admittedly partial) audience was just delighted!

We did it again in 1981, though this time it was much more upscale. We presented it at the Sebastopol Vets’ Hall and had a fancier setting, live music (Jim and Diane Hershey) and actual guest artists, Leea and Kattoura! We had a similar menu to our previous show, and we had carefully planned how much we needed – at the last moment, one of our members, famous for being organized, suddenly feared that we didn’t have enough moussaka and cut all the pieces in half, leaving us at the end with exactly half the moussaka! We had a larger audience this time, and they got to sit in chairs instead of mostly on pillows on the floor. Wazuli got to be in the show again, to the spectators’ delight. We were delighted, too, by the whole thing, and quite proud of ourselves! Too bad we never did it again, though we did go on to do a bunch of other performances here and there, including, one year, Rakkasah, and one time at Jamila’s Great Eastern Faire.

The last time the troupe got together and danced as a group was at the Zelzeleh Dance Troupe Reunion at Fadil’s El Morocco Restaurant in 1986.

I was not, however, totally through with group dancing. Lara and I formed “Banat Zelzeleh” – “The Earthquake Girls”, and developed a Ghawazi Suite, which we performed at a number of festivals and shows. We began by wearing the modern Ghawazi costume as shown by the Banat Maazin – ours were all red and purple, and pretty accurate to the photos. Never ones to leave well enough alone, however, we soon made some new outfits. We called them our “haystack dresses” – that is, if haystacks were made of mylar fringe! The base of the dresses was skintone net, and onto that we sewed rows of peacock mylar fringe. The “belt” and other accessories were made of orange paillettes, some of which were just gigantic! We did wear the traditional taj, however. The dresses were economically described by Halame as Mistress of Ceremonies, speaking to the audience, thus: “If you’ve got dark glasses, you’d better put ‘em on, because these costumes are gonna kill you!” By this time I was well and truly sick of learning choreography, so I stopped doing troupe stuff. (Well, with one exception, to be recorded later.)

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