From The Hip

by Pele



By the tender age of 19 eleven years had passed since being torn from my humble beginnings in carnival life. In that time I had been moved from a comfortable country life to the insecure closeness of a small city. In my new school I was the freak, based more on my interests and incessant habit of doing all my reports on sideshows, magic and the paranormal, which lead to a literal illness at the thought of going to school each day. I pushed through high school to graduate early with college credits and to appease my parents I began my studies for a degree in education with minors of my desire in theater arts and literature.  By the time I dropped out I was so miserable I had full-blown bulimia and was quite ill. I decided to pack up my bags, withdraw my meager savings from the bank and head down the road two hours to Syracuse, NY, which seemed a lifetime away and very like a foreign country to a small town girl like me.


Syracuse turned my life in directions I never thought possible. I ended up back in school, working one full time job and two part time jobs and still very ill.  Then one day, a friend re-introduced me to my passion for sideshows quite by mistake and in the most unlikely of places, a belly dance class.


Truthfully she did not know what it was. She took yoga at the same studio as the class. She was told that it helps with body image, confidence and in her head that is just what I needed. It was her idea of a tough love intervention. For me it was a savior in a sweat lodge. There was something about the exotic music floating on the very top of the air, the aroma of incense drifting lazily between the swishing skirts, the natural feel of the impossible looking moves that was intoxicating. Most importantly was how for an hour once a week even the most aesthetically unappealing woman in the room was confident and captivating. I knew without hesitation that I had to know this art, that all of what I had seen I needed to know about.


When I questioned the instructor about the dance history she informed me that she really did not know much except that it was adapted from dances the women of the Middle East, Greece and the Romany shared with one another. I was appalled that any teacher of such an old and sacred art could not know anything about it! This set me on my mission. I scoured libraries, magazines, and the internet until my head was full and I thought my heart would explode.  Through this research I discovered that my new passion in Middle Eastern dance was introduced en masse to American audiences in the late 1800’s in none other than my lifelong passion, sideshows. It was as if some divine intervention thought to bring me home. The more I studied, the more I understood how entwined the dance and sideshows were.


Obviously we all know the plentiful wealth the Arabic culture seems to be for their mind-over-matter religious and sacrificial physical feats, which are not strangers to the sideshow community. Middle Eastern dance seemed to slip comfortably into this. The jubilant way the women isolated parts of their bodies in motion, as if the rest of the form did not exist, seemed such a mystery to the corseted conservative nature of western culture. The exhilarating enticement was not as haunting as the freak acts, nor was it as gasp worthy as most working acts but it enticed audiences nonetheless.


Most of us are aware of the story of W.O. Taylor’s bastardization of the phrase “D’Allah Hun (pronounced Hoon)” into what is now commonly referred to as Ballyhoo. Little do many people know that his lack of linguistic appreciation forever changed Middle Eastern dance as well. At the 1893 World Expo. in Chicago, in an attempt to attract people into the Streets of Cairo he would encourage the Beledi (a Middle Eastern term for dance) Dancers to come out to perform. However, finding it easier to say and more understandable to hear he changed the term Beledi to Belly and the term Belly Dance was coined and has stuck ever since.


In addition to this, prior to its incorporation into the sideshow there has been no evidence of Middle Eastern women dancing with either swords or snakes.  This discovery literally got my heart racing. I had known snakes were used in the sideshow, though my fascination with them had been one of those unexplained childhood things. To read that the sideshow had influenced the use of snakes into this new passion I had found in Middle Eastern dance was such an exciting thing for me. Of course there are many dancers who choose to ignore this aspect of dance history, attempting to validate the use of snakes and swords in historic terms that have no conclusive evidence or support. They seem to view the involvement of the Sideshow in the history of the dance as a blemish or bastardization on the folkloric perfection of this dance. But then, in the dance community, there is a lot of false smiles and none of the warmth and honesty, none of that sense of truth and reality I remembered from the carnival of my youth.


I spent 3 of the longest years of my life in Syracuse. I studied, worked and absorbed all I could. At 21 I left a single mother, feeling defeated heading back to my hometown, where everyone who had the opportunity to say I told you so did. I danced it all way though, in the living room in the shadows cast by the street light after the 3am feeding of my son. In those solitary cathartic moments I knew somehow everything would be okay. To this day there is a comfort in the dance for me, whether on stage with my sword or snake, or with the members of my troupe, or in my living room at night. It is a thin connection to that “something more” I was searching for. A tiny piece of a rich historic tapestry that I could contribute to but more importantly that no one could take from me.


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