These Hips Don’t Lie

The first thing I notice about the “Belly Dancer of the Universe” competition is how out of place I look. I enter the Long Beach Convention Center wearing sunglasses, a baseball cap, and a hooded sweater. I also have a beard, completing the overall Unabomber effect. I try flashing my Morkan’s Horse press pass to get in free, but the belly-dancing gatekeepers are not swayed—either by the pass or my attempts at charm, which (i.e. my attempts to charm) I realize have gotten me into shockingly few establishments. I resolve to look into this matter further when I get seriously enraptured by a kiosk selling scimitars.

Cursory Internet research tells me that belly dancing pre-dates Islam in Arabic countries, where it may have developed both to impress the men-folk and as an aid in childbirth. Go figure. Americans first got wide exposure to it at the Chicago World’s Fair. Men went to the midway in droves to ogle the dancers entertainment director Sol Bloom brought in from Arabic and African countries. This introduction came with the usual notoriety, outcry, and rising popularity that always accompany sexy things. Tommy Edison made films of belly dancers, and D.W. Griffith put one in Intolerance.

I arrive at the Belly Dancer of the Universe Competition (BDUC) knowing very little. I expect to see drishti bhedas, which are the cool and elaborate eye movements I remembered from a World Music class I took seven years ago. None of the dancers do any drishti bhedas. (When I get home and look it up, it turns out the bhedas come from an Indian dance unrelated to belly dancing.) The point is I’m an utter novice in the field of dance. I haven’t even seen Black Swan.

But that’s not the whole truth: I’ve always had a dance prejudice, in that I secretly suspect that dance is the worst art form, “worst” meaning that it is the least likely to engender any feelings in the human soul, other than “Those sure are some unusual movements.” It’s not that I think dance is bad or unworthy; I just think every other art form is better and worthier. The BDUC will do a lot to both confirm and challenge that judgment.

Like many esoteric competitions, the BDUC suffers from a case of Short-Man Syndrome—as evidenced by the U. I find it suspect that all the belly dancers in the universe can fit into one medium-sized ballroom whose space is mainly occupied by audience, costumers, and assorted vendors. I cheekily wonder aloud when the Saturn contingent will arrive, and the woman sitting next to me responds by staring intently at her program, a move I will become familiar with[1].

I grab a seat in the only row that is almost empty. I am about thirty feet back the stage, which features a couple of fake Doric columns and two tinsel palm trees. The trees have gold tinsel for the trunks and black tinsel for the fronds, a pretty horrifying color scheme that may have been trying for exotic but to me seems nightmarish—like that Calvin & Hobbes strip where all the world’s colors turn photo-negative.

I have entered in the middle of a performance by a group of women who are positioned squarely on the eastern slope of the female-weight bell curve. Throughout the day, I notice that nearly all the women who dance at BDUC have at least some measure of B and many are downright ample. I had expected the opposite—that everyone would be trim lady-Adonises, and I am pleasantly surprised to see this is not the case. It is clear that these women are proud to show off their moves in a way that is refreshingly un-self-conscious. 

There is, however, no getting around the fact that belly dancing is probably the sexiest dance ever developed[2]. One of the express purposes behind its creation was male arousal, unlike, say, ballet, which I can only assume was invented to turn otherwise attractive humans into pipe-cleaner-people. The costumes and movements in belly dancing all showcase a woman’s body. The undulating movements, which are pleasing when performed by an adult woman, frankly terrified me during the all-ages showcase. I was briefly reminded of the TLC train wreck Toddlers and Tiaras, where our society’s tendency to sexualize girls at younger and younger ages is brought into crisp, horrifying focus[3].

The BDUC’s hosts, Tonya and Atlantis, are an exercise in weird contradictions. They are both rarely off-microphone, and yet are hardly ever on stage. Instead they address the audience from the no-man’s land between the judges and vendors. They seem intent on being professional (I don’t think they sit down once) and yet their desperate patter is reminiscent of an amateur comic at a bar mitzvah. E.g. Tonya or Atlantis (and no, I never figure out who is whom) mentions that we are all waiting for one of the judges to return from the bathroom, noting that: “They forgot to give them catheters this year.” At another point, one of them blurts out that one of the judges is pregnant, to confused applause. During a lull between performances, Tonlantis instructs the audience to introduce ourselves to the people around us, in a sort of peace-be-with-you Catholic Mass-type thing, during which I bury my nose in my notebook because I always hated Mass.

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There is, however, no getting around the fact that belly dancing is probably the sexiest dance ever developed. One of the express purposes behind its creation was male arousal, unlike, say, ballet, which I can only assume was invented to turn otherwise attractive humans into pipe-cleaner-people.

While the BDUC is held in a pretty nice ballroom in a very nice convention center (paid for no doubt by the $90 performers’ registration fees), it is not a very tightly run ship. This is partly because of the hosts’ washed-up comic vibe, but also due to some stage mishaps. During one of the large ensemble dances,[4] one of the Doric columns falls in slow motion onto one of the dancers. There are several gasps, but evidently the columns are made of something light, as the dancer is barely fazed. Rather than removing the felled column totally, a stagehand sets it back up after that troupe has finished. Of course, it and a few other stage decorations continue to fall during the course of the event—to the point where I begin to suspect poltergeists—but the dancers all bear it in good humor.

Ton-lantis are not the only ones worth watching. Up front, near the judges’ table, is a 10-year-old boy wearing a too-big red fedora and doing The Robot. In the corner closest to the stage is one of the BDUC’s sponsors. He has full costumes as well as props like canes and large candelabra.[5] His table features mannequin heads wearing various hats. One of the hat-mannequins has a glued-on mustache to signify that he had it designed for a man. During some numbers, the audience begins clapping along, only to sheepishly peter out after 20 bars or so, except for one woman, whom I mentally dub Ol’ Steadfast. As the day drags on, her claps drift farther and farther from the actual beat, betraying her fatigue. There is also a tall VIP who looks just like Yanni, and he is rocking a truly bitchin’ fez. Come to think of it, for all I know, he may very well have been Yanni.

Behind me, a woman walks up with a ridiculous poodle-ish dog in a baby stroller. It is the kind of dog who must frequent beauty salons because that’s the only explanation for its hairdo and manicure. The dog is wearing a vest. I get a closer look and see it’s a “Service Dog” vest, though it has to be as homemade as my Kinkos-coined press pass. I can’t decide if this woman is an idiot for thinking anyone believes her hamster-dog is a service animal or if I am in the presence of a comic genius. Either way, she wins because the dog is here in the ballroom.

During breaks, I scope out the vendors, thinking that if I were a belly dancer, I would be paranoid about navel lint.

Hundreds of DVDs and CDs are for sale in the ballroom, but, based on the music the performers have been dancing to, I elect to save my money. (It’s a shame that the practitioners of a thirteen-century-year-old dance have to work with the same mindless propulsive bass beat that infects every piece of world music that makes it to the US.) Elsewhere, finger-cymbals and saris are for sale. Inexplicably, the scimitar kiosk appears to be the least busy vending station in the room. I check out the prices, which strike me as reasonable. Finally, a woman comes over and picks up a sword. She doesn’t appraise its edge with a plucked hair or test its heft by swinging it through the air like a sensible person. Instead, she balances it on her head. This is a thing, apparently. I see several other dancers do it over the course of the day. It is at this point that I decide I do not understand belly dancing at all. 

It’s hard to say at which point I notice this,[6] but there is a pronounced lack of competition/performance anxiety that I remember being pervasive any time I competed in high school sports or performed in music school. It may be because I am not backstage to witness it or because some of these girls have already gone on and are now relaxing in the audience, but the atmosphere is genuinely fun. I see no shaky hands or nervous pacing or even worried looks[7] that were my métier when I was their age. If anything makes me re-think my dance prejudice, it is the fact that everyone here is having such a good time.

There is one thing, though. The last dancer I see, the final contestant of her division, does badly. Even I can tell she’s bombing. There’s something faulty with her timing, and she never recovers. For a few moments the audience sees through the cracks in her smile. We see a fellow human panicking, looking utterly helpless.

Everyone in the audience seems to share the surge of empathy I feel. This makes me think: everyone in the room is mentally beaming this poor woman goodwill, and yet, for her, the three minutes of her dance stretches on interminably and she must want nothing so badly as for the dance to be over. But, there is nothing she can do, and it feels like the end of the world. 

This is what I remember about performing—that shrinking of perspective that unbearably magnifies every mistake.

I wonder: If I had realized that everyone in the room was silently rooting for me, would it have made any difference to the eighteen-year old me, who flubbed magnificently in at least one serious guitar competition?

I guess it doesn’t matter now.

[1] When dancers take the stage, the hosts mention everybody’s state of origin. Strangely enough, roughly 90% of the dancers are from California, though there is a small Ukrainian contingent.

[2] That, you know, I’ve heard of.

[3] I should mention that the similarity between BDUC and T&T is fleeting at most, and the level of horror I felt watching the young girls at BDUC was nothing compared to the “I-don’t-want-to-live-on this-planet-anymore”-ness provoked by even passing glimpses of T&T.

[4] By the way, before the Internet, I would have had no idea how all these women found each other for such a seemingly esoteric hobby as belly dancing. There are a lot of large troupes present, one of them apparently a college club.

[5] Two hours into the competition, a woman walks over to the sponsor. She picks up a candelabrum and puts it on her head. Oh, man: it’s a goddamned hat.

[6] It might be when I notice three very pretty women happily shopping for clothing that is at least 50% sequins.

[7] Of course, when the girls and ladies dance on-stage, they all wear the singer/dancer rictus of glee, which makes me think of the countless hours they must have spent getting screamed at by coaches to smile, dammit.

GRAHAM TOWERS is a friend to man and beast alike, except for remoras, which give him the willies.