Saturday, August 7, 2021

Belly Flap: an article about my TV Show, The Joy of Belly Dancing by Peter Gilstrap

I found this old article written about myself and my TV show, The Joy of Belly Dancing from the Phoenix New Times. My TV show ran from 1990 - 2003. It was so much fun and I met so many wonderful people from all over the US.

Belly Flap


[Phoenix New Times]

If I said, "Excuse me, but if I were to serve you a fragrantly seasoned lamb kebab with a side of kibbe-nayeh, would you be interested in watching a little belly dancing?" you'd probably say, "Yes. Please bring on the lamb kebab, the side of kibbe-nayeh, and, by all means, I would really be interested in watching a little belly dancing."

Now if I were to say, "Excuse me. I cannot offer you food of any kind, but would you like to read a column about belly dancing?" you'd probably say, "No. Without Middle Eastern food, what could possibly be interesting about belly dancing?"

At this point, a knowing smile would play across my lips as I said, "Ah, but there is much to learn about belly dancing, right here in our very own Valley." You might still scoff, but determined as I am, I would simply ignore your scoff and continue, staring you down.

"In fact, this whole belly-dancing thing is big, and it's getting bigger all the time. And it's all happening out there in the suburbs, barely concealing itself; it's spreading like crazy, and there's nothing you or I or anyone can do about it." Now you would look at me like I was nuts, but I wouldn't care. I would have your attention, kibbe-nayeh be damned.

And I wouldn't be exaggerating.

There is the Arizona Middle Eastern Dance Association bimonthly newsletter. There is the weekly Cox Cable show The Joy of Belly Dancing. There are festivals, classes, workshops, videos and studios that cater to BD fanatics from beginners to advanced. There are traveling BD superstars who come to town to offer seminars. There are women of all ages, shapes, sizes and coordination levels spending hundreds of dollars on revealing, glitter-laden outfits, women who can do astonishing things with finger cymbals, women with bellies great and small who live to apply them to dancing.

The moon is high above the desert as the dancers begin to arrive to film the special Christmas episode of The Joy of Belly Dancing. What used to be a Bank One building in Tempe is now the Cox Cable television studio; the space is small and dark with a couple of cameras on the floor.

Yasmina has been hosting her show here for the past six years. You've probably seen her as you flip through channels, a red-haired woman in a two-piece costume leading her gang of dancers through the steps in a small black room.

Outside of belly circles, Yasmina is known as Pam Parker, technical librarian at Intel Corporation. But in the staid halls of Intel, chances are you won't be seeing her bare midriff, which means you'll also be missing the large, flowing rose tattooed to the right of her navel, not to mention the impressive, four-color dragon on the lower half of her right leg.

But Pam is nowhere to be seen tonight as Yasmina sweeps into the tiny studio in a magnificent outfit laden with multicolored beads that wink in the light, an outfit that can best be described as something only a belly dancer could wear.

And there are others.

Morgiana, Adayna, Noorjahan and Nila, all with similar get-ups, all with bellies open for viewing. In the normal world, they are Helen, an inspector at a machine shop; Dayna, a surgical nurse; Renee, a part-time Farsi teacher; and Pat, a retired catering-truck driver.

Filming for The Joy of Belly Dancing, which takes place twice a month and airs Wednesdays at 7 p.m., is a family affair. Yasmina's father and sister run the cameras; Dennis, boyfriend of Morgiana, is usually in the booth with Yasmina's husband John doing the audio and the credits. And Yasmina's mom is the gofer. The show goes out all over the state, where Yasmina tells me there are serious pockets of die-hard belly-dance fans from Jerome to Kingman to Yuma.

As everybody knows, you can't have a Christmas belly-dancing show without Christmas belly-dancing decorations. Which is why Yasmina is hanging up red, white and green veils on the wall in what is more or less the shape of a Christmas tree. Then Adayna arrives with strings of beads and big plastic snowflakes. Those go up, too. Then the stuffed camels come out, and the pillows and a brass drum.

Darned if it doesn't all add up to a really warm, homey Christmas feeling. It's like being in some Bedouin holiday tent in the desert, if Bedouins believed in Christianity.

But what of the music? On the platter is traditional Christmas music, customized for belly dancing. The ladies will shake it to "The Little Drummer Boy," "Jingle Bells," all your Yuletide favorites, but they're performed in a kind of skewed key and drum-heavy rhythm. Strange. But then, this is a slice of the exotic, mystical world of the Middle East.

Morgiana is up first; she does a "czar dance" which involves her kneeling on the floor and whipping her head around--and I do mean whipping--for something like five minutes. This is supposed to drive out the evil spirits. The belly plays virtually no role in this one, but it's still very impressive.

Then Morgiana has to cut out early to go see her son play football on his high school team. Such are the ways of belly dancers in the exotic, mystical world of Tempe. These women clearly get a huge kick out of doing this and are great friends. Before leaving, Morgiana kisses "the girls" on the cheek. During later filming, each dancer will find that her cheek has huge red lipstick prints on it, and tapes have to be rewound while they wipe off.

As the evening progresses, bellies are shaken, lots of flesh quivers about, and it's really quite a sight. Everyone does a solo turn, then dancers join each other in different combinations. Swords appear, and are balanced on heads. Red candles in snifters are produced, and they too become part of the dance. Yasmina does what looks like a limbo. When she gets bent completely backward, she puts the sword on her belly and makes the thing vibrate. Sequined hips are wiggling. Bangled arms undulate. Cleavage heaves. It's hot in the studio.

The Joy of Belly Dancing, indeed.

A couple nights later, I am visiting Yasmina and John, her husband of 20 years, a part-time cable-TV audio tech and full-time auto-parts salesman. This is a dedicated couple; they've raced cars together, gotten tattoos together and for the last few years, they've taken on the world of belly dancing. Together.

Would you be able to tell that this cute little Mesa house is home to a belly dancer? Well, it's got three pythons in the living room (Fethe, Kaa and Atika, all of whom make it on stage now and again). Next to the 51-inch TV there's an enormous painting of what appears to be a Bedouin desert scene. And, scattered all over, there are stuffed camels. Seventy-five or so. Yasmina just likes them.

I ask her why so many women would want to put on expensive, revealing outfits and rapidly move their flesh.

"Maybe it's the camaraderie," she says. "And the music; it's hard to explain how it makes you feel. It's your interpretation of that piece of music, and you get lost in it . . . When I started 10 years ago, it was as a way to get in shape, and it became something more. I never dreamed that I would perform and teach and have a TV show--I just wanted to have fun."

Fun may or may not have been behind ancient belly dancing, apparently.

"It's a woman's dance, but they really don't know how it got started," she offers. "Some say it started in the harems because they were bored, so they danced for each other. Then, of course, the sultans got in on the act. Some say it could have been a religious dance or a birthing dance performed when someone is giving birth to show them the muscles to use."

Well, that would do it. But the dances performed now are not necessarily what they were doing a few thousand years ago.

"Belly dancing changes like everything else--ballet, jazz, modern dance. In the Middle East they didn't really teach dancing, you learned from watching, and that's how it's taught today," she explains.

And, perhaps most important, you don't have to possess a body that would get you tips at Bourbon Street Circus. Yes, it helps to have a belly.

"You've got to roll it. I've had several Middle Easterners call me and say, 'I don't want the skinny, scrawny, I want a woman who has some meat on her.'"

So the art of belly dancing will continue to grow here beyond the kebab-and-kibbe-nayeh circuit--as long as we can remain at least remotely friendly with our brothers in the Mideast, that is.

The oil embargo and belly dancing did not mix, Yasmina admits.

"Yeah," she says, "when everyone was waiting in line to get gas, they didn't want to be reminded of the Middle East." 

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