to the Houri's Siren
by Najia El-Mouzayen
August 28, 2000
After having read Martha Graham's
autobiography and then her biography, I absorbed her dedication to
her career into my own heart, deciding that since she performed until
the age of 92, then I also should attempt to do the same. I have
made numerous boastful references since then about my determination
to follow her famous footsteps.
was then, and this is now!
What I had not considered was
that she and I practiced our art in two widely divergent fields of
dance and, moreover, the world of Oriental dance as an occupation
has rarely been an art form in which senior citizens are received
with open arms! I grant you that many mature dancers perform and
teach Middle Eastern dance.
one were willing to subject one's self to the plastic
surgeon's knife, the performing part of the dance as
an occupation is best left done to those young women
who can better shed the late hours and difficult working
conditions plus audience expectations than I.
I imagined that I would feel
satisfied and happy to dance at special occasions and festivals in
my role as a dance instructor, but a sizable obstacle thwarted my
fantasy. That daunting obstacle was the specter of my former self,
the "Younger Najia". She was bright eyed and bushy-tailed
with her grand figure, her dazzling wardrobe of cabaret costumes
and her embroidered and specially designed "ethnic" costumes.
She was always
there dancing at my shoulder and up-staging me in my
own mind, and I had not counted on that competition!
As my next birthday approached,
which was also my thirtieth year of dance as an occupation, I decided
that it would be best if I bade farewell to performing in public.
It felt to me that it was a "career suicide", full of poignant
and sad, if mistaken romanticism. I had only thought about the lovely
video that Bert
Balladine, my mentor, gave me featuring the famous
belly dancer Samia Gamal at age sixty-five dancing her come-back
performance against her friends' advice. I thought about the display
of loving support from her fans and thought, "What a lovely
way to end one's performing career!"
Accordingly, I decided to schedule
a student recital for in a restaurant where I had once been featured
as a popular regular dancer week after week for several years. That
was only my first mistake. I scheduled it to be on the eve of St.
Valentine's Day and decided not to make a big production of it but
to dance, then simply fade to the sidelines. Oh, yes, I would go
quietly! My imagination about the event was probably far more dramatic
than the actuality, but the choices I faced amazed me. I had to contend
with the annoying little specter of "Young Najia" darting
about over the years performing sword, cane, candle, and veil dances.
She had performed Saudi dances as well as Turkish, Egyptian, and
Where does one
begin in order to represent one's body of work?
I wanted to display my expertise
with finger cymbals, so that goal precluded dancing in the Egyptian
style (in which an orchestra member plays cymbals). I had worked
hard to perfect my Egyptian style from information I learned on more
than a dozen trips to Egypt. It was easy to eliminate Turkish music
because it no longer made my dance energy flow as it did during my "pseudo
gypsy" period. Instead, I chose a favorite Lebanese instrumental
with varied rhythms and set about letting my moths out of their container.
I had become very complacent with Egyptian dance and rarely played
cymbals except when teaching. Additionally, I chose a taqasim with
a Chiftitelli rhythm for my Hawanim (stationary) dance so that I
could demonstrate "layered movement", and at least, finish
my set with an Egyptian drum solo. My second mistake was settling
on a place with a faulty sound system.
I was surprised
by the sounds that the audience made as I stood to dance
in that dark space, fit only for dining, in which no
dancer sparkles, though she wears sequins and palettes.
Had I forgotten that glitter counts in showmanship? Had
I been absent from performing for so long that I had
become unaware that the audience anticipated my dance?
Apparently, yes. I had already been away too long!
Never the less, I played my
cymbals and featured them in every fitting way that I knew. I featured
my ever-expanding belly rolls in the taqasim just as I had done twenty-five
years ago in Las Vegas. I shimmied as best my aging body could accommodate
with the complex drum solo, and I entertained as an actress, imagining
myself to be Mae West. Breathlessly, I sat down with a sense of finality
and drank a glass of Arak (an Arabic anise liqueur) traditionally
milky from its ice cubes.
An amazing transformation
and understanding began to permeate my evening. Students
and long-time friends took the opportunity to tell me
words that my heart longed to hear. They said they were
proud to be my students and have the chance for their
friends and families to see me dance. One exclaimed, "You
are just awesome!" and I murmured, "Thank you.
That means so much to me just now! You can't imagine!" She
reminded me of my other self, dancing when the adventure
was new. I knew for a certainty that she could not imagine
the turmoil in my mind and emotions.
A couple of diners who had
been seated in the back of the restaurant began to leave. They had
not been part of our student night, but the gentleman approached
me smiling and said, "It was you and your dance that made this
evening worth it for us. We just wanted you to know."
His words may ring in my memory
for years to come. I cannot adequately explain what a difference
a few loving words that evening have made for this current phase
of my dance career! His kindness in seeking me out simply to compliment
my dance has forced me to realize that I may not be able to plan
or orchestrate the end of my dance career. I
must admit, though, that I will attempt to be more careful about
choosing future dance occasions and staging them. I will limit my
performances to those occasions that are more appropriate to my present
age and position as both a performing dancer and instructor.
We probably will
not know which dance finale will be our last, since quarter-toned
music calls us dancers to dance in spite of nearly all
conditions. It is the dream of our next dance that keeps
the creative spirit alive. As Bert Balladine told me
recently, "You and I have stayed too long at the
ball. Now we have a case of dancing in the Red Shoes,*
and we cannot stop!" Meanwhile, the call of familiar
Middle Eastern music is a continuing Houri's siren to
my red shoes.
*Refers to Hans Christian Andersen's
tale, "The Red Shoes".
by this author:
Recorders-The Best Kept Secret for Music Lovers
Emotion, Part 2
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