I have been obsessed with theatrical belly dance since watching my first Bellydance Superstars performance DVD in college from 2005. There are definitely differences between belly dance before BDSS, and afterwards.When dancing on stage, the practicalities of distance, audience members with MTV-fueled ADD and lack of familiarity with Arabic music meant that to make an impact to someone sitting in row 52, the moves had to be bigger, arms wider, the turns more balletic, shimmies deeper and juicier, the floor patterns more interesting, and no one song lasted much longer than three minutes. The gimmicks–heavy use of props, elaborate costumes, the comedy belly dance routines, generally fast club-inspired music–all were used. And the use of live musicians proved the exception to the rule. Dancing for stage is very different than next to someone eating hummus in a hookah joint, where big moves would be vulgar or oddly executed as a soloist.
Since the early 2000s, there has been greater experimentation with stage by established cabaret and tribal belly dancers, though typically cabaret. (Tribal has a tendency to dance in wonderfully odd places already, like bars and concert halls and Burning Man.) I think, anecdotally, that there are several reasons why there are more performances for stage: non-belly dance people understand recitals on stage, where Western performance art form tend to live, and therefore accord such performances with a level of respect and legitimacy that dancing at a local restaurant does not. Most belly dance performances for stage are choreographed for groups, which also gives an opportunity for burgeoning newer belly dance students to perform, especially in places where the competition for steady nightclub and restaurant gigs are fierce. Many students may only have the opportunity to otherwise perform at community haflas or other low-key events. Dance teachers feel pressured to dangle appropriate performance opportunities before students to keep them motivated, many of whom have the expectation to being in the public eye dancing within six weeks of starting class.
Crafting belly dance for stage, on the flipside, also allows room for incredible creativity. Here are my top handful theatrical belly dance people or groups, some of which I have seen in person, and others only by repute. Most of them are, not surprisingly, New York-based.
If you can’t imagine doing a dance piece in a restaurant or worry about violating fire codes or slicing open a patron, you can bet stage may be best.
An experimental Middle Eastern dance-inspired dance company originally based out of Los Angeles and now in New York, Desert Sin has long been pushing the envelope for what constitutes belly dance, raising hairs, hackles, and eyebrows alike. But they tell stories through dance that many others try–and fail–to do effectively. While other dancers try to do “pretty,” Desert Sin will often reach for darker and perhaps more thought-provoking ideas. They have danced with aerialists, giant puppets, half-naked in blue body paint, and backwards, from X-Med to Labyrinth of Jareth to Dances of Vice. Here is a piece they performed at Bellyfusions, arguably the world’s leading conference for fusion belly dance.
World Dance New York
Originally part of a series related to the group Venus Uprising, a collection of the top theatrical belly dance professionals in New York, World Dance New York used to stage incredibly elaborate and thoughtful theatrical belly dance productions, which were then recut for DVDs so that others could enjoy. Previous ones included “Fantasy belly dance” and zoo-themed performances, but my favorite is Tarot. The incredible diversity of dancers and talent they represent is world-class.
Jillina, former master choreographer for the Belly Dance Superstars, outdid herself creating several Bellydance Evolution shows, taking them around the world staffed by dancers who competed in each city to learn and perfect the entire theatrical show and storyline within a week before performing, complete with male characters, lush costuming, and dancing in every scene. No one had done it before, but she did! Her current BDE story revolves around the murder of a beloved queen and the hunt for her killer whilst a successor is chosen from amongst her three daughters. The next one will be Alice in Wonderland.
Kaeshi is the co-founder of Bellyqueen, a versatile belly dance company and school based in New York, who had previously danced with BDSS and put on theatrical belly dance shows every year or so. The most famous one is the Journeys Along the Silk Road, which will be restaged for its 15th anniversary next weekend. If you don’t have plans next weekend, get tickets before they sell out!
Considered by many the undisputed queen of belly dance technique in the US, Suhaila has brought her talent to stage many times, including for her production Scheherazade. She is currently staging Enta Omri, an all-new show, to hit California theaters very soon.