75017 Paris, France

Arabian Belly Dancing at l’Atelier Z

June 5th 2009 at the Centre Culturel Christiane Peugeot: 62, avenue de la Grande Armée 75017 Paris

This performance was at l’Atelier Z, an arts and culture centre which hosts regular avant-guard exhibitions, philosophical debates, musical soirées, creative fashion shows, book launches, theatre moments, animal shows and… me. Here I am dancing in the basement during a festival organised by Jocelyne Laurent. I so love dancing in enclosed spaces like this where the music is captured, the audience are standing and so more likely to join in when invited. The video was shot by the talented photographer David Henry.

Cairo is where I first saw a live Egyptian belly dancer—I was enthralled, enchanted, mesmerised—never had I seen anything as graceful, feminine or dynamic. It was as if all my own imaginary ideas of what dance could be were embodied. I was won over—converted—as I sat at my giant, round table containing 22 delicious mezzes in mini bowls all for me. My vegetarian travel companion had dropped out of dining in the luxury hotel (not ours) when she discovered a couple of meat items on the fixed menu. What a night of exuberance and delight I had myself—a night which changed my life.

During the rest of the holiday in Luxor, Aswan and Sinai, after the day’s visit to the tombs, temples or pyramids we sought out musical gatherings where we joined in whenever the opportunity arose. The Arab men were incredible dancers too and could follow those percussions with such virility and ease. I was so totally flattered when one Berbère commented that I was a natural. I chose to believe him and recalled winning a disco-dancing competition at school to the hit “Indian Reservation”. As soon as I got back to Ireland I canvassed the dance centres around Dublin but had to wait two long years, contenting myself with Irish set dancing, before an Iranian dancing teacher came to our shores.

Persian-style dance Moti instructed us in, us the first handful of girls to learn belly dancing in Ireland. Our first public performance was at the millionaire Ben Dunne’s home—a prestigious affair that involved passing security guards at the gate. Once you don that tinkling, sparkling semi-transparent costume the challenge is to live up to the image in the mirror which promises an audience a scintillating show. Refuged behind a silk veil, tiptoeing onto the stage helped camouflage the stage fright that weakened my knees and made my heart thump. To our delight the well-heeled set clapped and whistled and thus sealed our first success. Irish audiences are marvellous—they imbibe freely and so are always eager to make merry. Out of the blue an organiser asked were any of us available to do the show at the airport early next morning—alas the day job (teaching children for me) and thus it was Yasmina who got to dance for Bono. I had to wait another few years until my lucky break came following the sweeping success of Riverdance.

The next person to inspire me was Azmara, a New York based dancer from Middle Eastern roots. She was so creative and pushed boundaries mixing jazz with Arabic sounds. She gave us intensive group workshops and was on call for individual lessons. It was with Azmara that I grew into my own, in that she explained a performer could follow a particular instrument within an orchestra, while naturally heeding the framework of the rhythm, be it the flute, oud, keyboards etc. Ah! It clicked. That’s why I was always inclined to do snake-like movements in improvisation moments—I’d spent 10 years with an Irish fiddle at my ear—no wonder I chose to follow the violin melody or harmony. Azmara “licenced” me to invent my own choreographies and from then I started to express myself.

Once I had myself a store of choreographies I was able to go freelance and dance solo. Here is a sample of venues where I danced while I lived in Dublin.

—Maria D’Arcy

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