The Gilded Serpent


The Gilded Serpent presents...
Who Died and Made You
Queen of Dance?

by Najia Marlyz
February 26, 2004

Rather than a burr under my saddle, it was a source of delight when I received the email (several years ago) asking me the question: "Who died and made you Queen of the Dance?"

To me, the question meant that I had struck a nerve with my comments, and I imagine that the response was supposed to make me feel ashamed of myself and my "careless, thoughtless words" written-not on Gilded Serpent but in a time-eating chat-room on the Internet!

It concerns me, more than just a little, that the current common sentiment is that one is not entitled to express one's opinion openly and freely. Further, one's authority to have or form any opinion is also called into question.  Additionally, few days ago, I received another email from one of my former students, containing a forward from another Internet chat-room of which she is a member.  The statements contained in the forward were explosive fuel for my thoughts:  "Who are they on Gilded Serpent to criticize and write critiques of our work, anyway?" one dancer whined.  The answer from another person was even more prejudiced than the writer could have envisioned:  "They are probably just dancers whose careers just never took off."

"Now there is a sensitive someone with some very sharp judgmental feelings!" I thought to myself as I read onward.  Later it occurred to me, as the group continued discussing their old credo: "If you can't say something nice about someone, you shouldn't say it at all" that it apparently never dawned on any of them that the majority of the dancers who write columns for Gilded Serpent, or any other dance

magazine, usually have had very long and successful careers in dance.

Just because these particular dancers had not heard of the critics  or known about their careers as dancers, did not invalidate their authority, erase their history, or the expertise that brings these critics and writers to extend themselves to the dance community in the painful labor of writing a critique of someone else's work. 

Sometimes the works assigned to the critic are excellent and inspirational, but more often than I would prefer, they are mundane, uninspired, and produced as a cash cow to be milked. The assigned works to be subjected to review are quite difficult and time consuming to audit repeatedly in order to produce the written critique.  Early in Gilded Serpent's existence, I wrote a few of these, mainly because nobody else would volunteer. 

However, without exception, I can say that it was thankless toil that required more tolerance than I cared to give to someone else's endeavors when I have so many projects of my own on my desk and my career docket.

However, it is not easy or simple to find people to write their own career stories and anecdotes-let alone write what amounts to promotional material for the work of others! 

Even a negative review of someone's work becomes free advertising for the object or event being reviewed; also, this is time spent in an altruistic way that does nothing to win friends and positively influence people about one's own career.  Had I wanted to become a critic, I would have actually become one and, perhaps, gone to a journalism school.  It is good to remind yourself when making commentary on the quality of writing in a trade journal: these writers are not primarily interested in writing or they would have made their careers in writing.  Instead, they are usually dancers, former dancers, and dance instructors who have been asked to share freely their time, opinions, and expertise as volunteers in a forum without monetary reward.

Would it be unkind for me to point out that the persons in the chat room felt free and qualified, however, to criticize for the sake of prattle, but none were game to take on the task of making a real commitment to their points of view enough to submit their opinions in writing to worldwide public scrutiny? 

You cannot have it both ways, dancers; if you want to be part of an art form, you have to treat our dance as if it were one.  It cannot masquerade as a therapy, coated in protective wording.  If you want to be considered professionals, you are obliged to withstand the slings and arrows of negative comments as well as accept the supportive bouquets of roses from those who have been involved in the field for much longer than you have, whether you know their names or not; this is not Mayberry, and we dancers often do not know each other.

Recently, I was speaking to a group of dance students attending my workshop about so-called "veil-work" in American Belly dance.  I mentioned that Loie Fuller had given the west a tradition of working with materials incorporated into her dance that is now firmly imbedded in our collective western dance psyche. I stated that it is natural for the western dance artist to have contributed a fancier form of "veil-work" than is contained in the authentic work of the original ethnic dance of the Middle East, because of the work Loie started.  "Who is Loie Fuller?" I was asked.  "Is she a local dancer?"

I was incredulous (but did not say so)!  As I described Loie Fuller's career, her contribution to dance, and the hatred and discredits given her by her contemporaries, I realized that many of today's dance students have very little interest in the dancers of the past that are still famous in the dance world, like Isadora Duncan, Ruth St. Dennis, Mary Wigman, and Martha Graham.  However, far worse than that, I also realized that we are part of a dance form that has garnered very little creditability from other dance forms even to this very day! Moreover, there was a whole different genre of performers to whom we owe our history-such as it is.

The particular performers to whom I refer were actresses and singers such as the stalwart La Belle Otero, beautiful Anna Held (who was Zigfield's lover), infamous Mata Hari (Yes, she was a real person.), petite silent movie actress Theda Bara, Mussolini's mistress-the gorgeous actress and singer Lina Cavalieri, and Lys Cordova (who posed for many a portrait in Middle Eastern-styled costuming).  All of them, and many more, played roles in the theaters of Europe and America and left a lasting impression, all be it largely fantasy, of the essential Belly dancer. 

Could they dance?  We can only wonder because, for the most part, there is no existent recording of their performances.  Like all the other exquisite and breathtaking performances of the past, they are gone-into the stratosphere without a trace. We can only trust those who saw them and wrote about them that they were outstanding, unique, and moving.

Can we trust those writers?  Who died and left them the title of Artistic Judge?

I think that there is literally no other form of dance whose well known major instructors never really have been performers at all.  They have progressed from the classroom strait into their own brand of teaching!  This lack of background basic performing experience would be unheard of and un-tolerated in any other dance form.

Most dancers who have performed for many years, as I did, had at least a few memorable gigs without compare from which they could garner rich experiences to pass along to their dance students.  I cannot chose only one among the many I treasure as being the apex of my career, but certainly, among those I cherish most, for instance, was the gig I did for Variety Club International, arranged by the agents of Disneyland.  In this contract, I was on the bill with The Meraklithes Greek Band with which I had been performing for a number of years and also with Ted and John Sofios who were Greek dance exhibitionists and enthusiasts.  We were performing before a packed house of hundreds of famous media performers, actors, and actresses at the Fairmont Hotel Ballroom in San Francisco.  A special stage for one person, high on the sidewall highlighted by a spotlight from the back of the hall, was built for my dance.  In those days, many people were smoking and my spotlight cut through the blue haze like a laser light and lit me as never before!  I do not think that anyone else's career-even La Belle Otero's-could have been more thrilling than those moments were for me. The audience was comprised of over two thousand people, and as I waited in the darkness for my spot to flash across the hall, peering off the edge of my lofty stage front, I saw below, face after familiar face of well known and not-so-well-known actors and actresses from both film and television, alongside other celebrities from their industry! There were many older stars such as Gregory Peck, John Wayne, Carey Grant, Jane Powell, Loretta Young, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, and Ozzie and Harriet Nelson and newer ones from that current era too. The sight caused the nape of my neck to tingle.

Oh, yes, I have had a career (that certainly "took off") and it was not in the field of writing; many other dancer/writers of whom you may never have heard have had similar experiences.  So, I respectfully request that until you are mature enough as a performer to form an artistic sense of judgment, which you are fully prepared to defend, daring enough to express your opinions and artistic judgments openly, and share them with the world in writing, that you take care not to denounce and diminish the efforts of those who do as invalid simply because you have not heard of them.

Have a comment? Send us a letter!
Check the "Letters to the Editor" for other possible viewpoints!

Ready for more?
more from Najia-
3-18-04 Najia's List of Recommended CDs, 2004 update
Print and compare this list to your present collection or take it to the next festival to help you find these treasures!
2-25-04 Live Music and Me: The Third Sunday at El Morocco, Photos and story provided by Faridha, Written by Najia Marlyz
Live musicians, whether hot or just luke warm, always confront the dancer with a set of variables.
12-31-03 The New Year's Dance
Poetry by Najia
12-24-03 Dancing Inside Out
The state of Oriental Dance in America, as it is most often seen today in festivals and restaurants, is at a crossroads of change from which there will be no way to return.

4-5-04 Rakkasah West Festival Photo Teaser March 2004, Richmond, California
photos by GS Volunteers including: Biram, Clare, Cynthia, Krista, Lynette, Michelle, Monica, Sandra, Valentino, Yasmine and probably more! Let us know if you recognize faces!

4-3-04 Part 2 of Photos by Ram, the Featured Stars, Aida Nour & Magdy El-Leisy, and Wafaa Badr
in Dallas, Texas, January 9-11, 2004, sponsored by Little Egypt








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