Nazaree, Djalaal, Jilayne, and Troupe Tunisia

at Club Lower Links

July 25


at the Blue Rider Theatre

July 27

You don’t expect a belly dancer to be a feminist, or to have revolutionary ideas about how and where dance is presented. Yet the trend among Chicago’s Middle Eastern dancers is one of liberation from the confines of the male-dominated nightclub scene. Traditionally, Middle Eastern dancers are women (though there are major exceptions in the United States, like Ibrahim Farrah); club owners are men. Some of them treat the belly dancer not like a trained artist, but with a distracted air of tolerant disdain, as if she were a necessary evil. The emphasis is not on her act, but on luring more paying customers to their establishments. The dance becomes an elaboration of the decor, just more glitz to impress the clientele.

And because the clientele is mostly male, the club owners cater to them, providing the image of women they want to see: professional seductresses who aim to please and arouse. The dance gets lost; art becomes moot.

So it’s more than coincidence that in one week there were two performances featuring Middle Eastern dance in more theatrical venues: belly dancers are looking for receptive sponsors who will treat them like professional dancers–artists, not artistes. Ruth St. Denis went through the same tribulations trying to take Indian dance out of the disreputable “dance halls” and onto the concert stage.

Veteran Chicago dancer Nazaree, who regularly organizes evenings of Middle Eastern dance throughout the city, recently brought one of her programs, “Evening in Cairo,” to Club Lower Links, a space known for its openness to experimental and off-beat presentations. The environment at Club Lower Links was congenial: almost a feminist nightclub, with no condescending or leering clientele or management (programmer Leigh Jones is a woman).

Toni Bark, a newcomer to the Chicago Middle Eastern dance community, turned her show, “Toni Bark and Friends,” at the Blue Rider Theatre into a giant party: she hosted by dancing in the featured items, then invited everyone to join in at the end. In both cases the spirit of oppressive sexism and exploitation was lifted, though Bark’s presentation owed more than Nazaree’s to Afro-Caribbean dance, which has had more acceptance on the concert stage thanks to Katherine Dunham.

“Evening in Cairo” focused on the intermingling of cultures and influences in Middle Eastern dance. Of course Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Libya, and Egypt are all part of North Africa, and North Africa is part of the Middle East, but it’s still surprising to see how much the two dance styles have in common. One isn’t likely to think of traditional African dance in conjunction with belly dancing, the cabaret form of Middle Eastern dance; yet each subtly incorporates elements of the other.

Nazaree brilliantly illustrated how one stems from the other in her duets with Djalaal and, particularly, in her “grand finale” solo. Dressed in bright orange, the ultimate in sequined chic, she went from the slow, langorous undulations and emphatic hip thrusts of Middle Eastern movement to the fast-paced torso and hip contractions and releases of African dance. Then the joyous upsweep of the tempo, in time to the North African drumbeat, gave way again to the shimmying hip shakes characteristic of Middle Eastern dance: the ethnic origin of the music set the tone. The smooth transitions indicated how seamlessly the two styles can be joined.

In Africa and El Noba the elaborate costumes were works of art in themselves, with layers and layers of beadwork, tassels, and sequins so that they were almost sculptural in quality. They emphasized even the most minuscule movements–because the eye is trained to pay attention to such abundant costuming detail, it is also led to notice all the muscle isolations, no matter how small.

Djalaal added some elements of modern dance to her solo danced to songs in a mix of languages–English, Algerian, and Greek. She also added some humor to the first section: to the words “Don’t turn your back on me, baby” from “Black Magic Woman,” she turned her back to the audience. To the words “Got your spell on me, baby,” she pointed at audience members with an emphatic flirtatiousness. Especially in belly dancing, where often the woman becomes a passive object whose purpose is male arousal, the performer’s conscious acknowledgment of her own power, no matter how implicit in the choreography, is rare.

Jilayne’s Ghawazee Sword Dance, with roots in tribal culture, has the same sensational appeal as the circus performer’s act: there’s always the chance that the performer will make a mistake and get hurt–that the lion tamer will literally lose his head, the acrobat miss the trapeze swing when there’s no safety net, the knife thrower hit the person holding the target. Here, the sword may slip and slice into the dancer as she balances it on her hip or cut into her neck as she whirls it around her head.

A Russian man sitting next to me commented on Jilayne’s costume in the sword dance: “So many clothes everywhere, and everything is still open.” There was double the amount of material in her headdress as in the costume covering her torso. While lush lengths of cloth drape the women in Middle Eastern dance, much of the dancer’s flesh remains exposed. It’s worth noting that ghawazee, the name for professional women dancers in Egypt (in Algeria they’re called ouled nail and in Morocco schikhatt), were not considered respectable. They performed in public, and their morals, like those of the geisha in Japan, were always in question because of the conservative standards of the society.

Troupe Tunisia (four of Nazaree’s students, who are capable performers in their own right) offered a different kind of spectacle in Cane & Balady–the razzle-dazzle of costumes and canes flashing magnificently under the light. There are several theories about the origins of the cane dance: it may be that Egyptian sheepherders, turning from work to dance, adopted the Pharaoh’s crook, the symbol of control over his people. The costumes, as well as the dance itself, always have a folk flavor. Troupe Tunisia continued the tradition of going back to cultural roots (as did the rest of the performers on the program): they mingled with the Middle Eastern aspect of the dance the North African dance forms of their own African American heritage.

Toni Bark’s performance as part of the “Nights of the Blue Rider” festival also combined Middle Eastern and Afro-Caribbean dance, but not in the same dance or as innovatively as Nazaree had. Bark’s strength is her technical prowess, and her enthusiasm was infectious. The dancing isn’t a rote reproduction but a joyous reenactment–what the traditional dances should look like if danced in the right spirit. Her dances were like miniature versions of full-scale operas; they managed to suggest the scope of the full-length opus.

Part of the power of her performance was the unusual costuming: a succession of leotards with a few accessories to suggest the more conventional look: a flouncy beaded African belt over a full-body black leotard in the first dance, a bare-midriff top above tights in the last dance, which had a distinct samba beat. Her marvelous technique seduced the audience into accepting the innovations. Traditionally the cloth of the belt and skirt are meant to move with the dancer, but the body itself is hidden. Here every muscle movement was exposed, as if the secret rites of some ceremony were suddenly on view. Another kind of revelation occurred in Geneva (named after Bark’s dance teacher in New York): the choreography was so clearly and distinctly visible that watching the dance was like seeing a house built, each movement a new layer of brick.

Despite the billing as “Toni Bark and Friends,” the performance was essentially a series of solos for Bark. She was accompanied by a drummer, Prince (no, not that Prince), and in an introductory “exercise” dance, she was joined by a female friend. In the closing dance, the same friend and Bark’s husband appeared, wearing the African belt. I found the mixture of spoofing and innovation in this last piece–made up of traditional African dances to rap music–funny but uncomfortable and almost offensive.

The spoofing was much more successful in The Valentino, a send-up of melodramatic sheik poses. Prince did them first while Bark imitated him, then they reversed roles and she led him offstage. She would take one big hop, pose in some dramatic but humorous way, and he repeated her steps as he drummed. Her costume, with pink chiffon pantaloons, was pinned in such a way that it resembled the garb Valentino’s ladies changed into once they’d shed their Western clothes.

Bark wore the same costume in the dimly lit lengthy Middle Eastern dance that followed, but unpinned the top so that it became a veil. Here Bark lay prone on the floor and Prince stood regally off to the side; but the element of male dominance was clearly self-conscious. Suddenly Bark was the traditional harem girl, dancing sensuously to arouse a man, transparent, mysterious veils flying. She drew Prince into the dance with her, their shadows on the wall adding an extra dimension to the dance’s moody look.

Bark, Nazaree, and Nazaree’s guest artists all broke away from the mold of Middle Eastern dance. Let’s hope they can do for belly dancing what Ruth St. Denis did for Indian dance, raising it in the public’s mind from nautch girls doing skirt dances to the full splendor of classical Indian dance.