Belly dancing is, along with gymnastics, one of the most beautiful art forms designed primarily for women. Gymnastics may be the better of the two, in that it not only encourages feminine skills (without defining "feminine" as a limit) but also builds graceful, well-proportioned bodies. Belly dance has on its side that it allows any woman, through mastery, talent, and grace, to be beautiful. A fat ballerina is a joke; witness Miss Piggy and the Fantasia hippos. An overweight belly dancer, executing her art with confidence, is, for the duration of the dance, beautiful. The dance embodies the woman, for her time, in beauty.
I've "collected" belly dancers for nearly twenty years. The hobby began at the Salt Lake City Belly Dancing Festival in 1981, when I saw for the first time the tremendously talented Kismet company. At that festival, the best dancer was a woman whom I remember now, for some reason, as "Sonny," from Billings, Montana. Sabrina, I think she called herself, was the proof of my opening observations. On the street, she'd have seemed a short, broad-bottomed, disproportionate, rather plain woman. She was built like an old bass guitar, nearly twice the circumference at the hip as the breast. And she was forty, possibly fifty years old. An unpromising beginning, when she came on stage.
Then she began to dance. She moved with the fluidity and grace of a running mare, as if every muscle, every pose were inevitable, exact, and natural. Her fast dancing made your eyes hurt; her floor work was the living geometry of twining plants; her slow sequences sexy and gripping as the eyes of deer. Cheers, whistles, and zagareets (the startling trill sound the dancers make) proclaimed universal appreciation when she was done.
So I collected dancers. In a new town, I would look for Greek restaurants. In Salt Lake, the dancers, not the food, got me into restaurants like the Grecian Gardens and Cedars of Lebanon. I attended the festivals when I could. We left Utah for six years. I met, and became friends, in Dallas, with a woman I consider one of the best. Isis, a Fort Worth housewife, was a California blonde with a fine blend of showmanship and craft. She looked like Rita Haworth, but she danced like she was born to it. Her husband wore a rodeo belt and pearl-button shirts; her daughter was a dancer as well. There were others in Dallas, none memorable, and then, back in Salt Lake, the valley's bounty and discoveries elsewhere:
Princess Rahsheema Sha, unearthly pallid, whose costumes were Las Vegas extravaganzas. I think she talced her body for shows; she once danced wearing white lipstick. One of her costumes had a dozen ostrich plumes on it. She was a scandal, I think, Mata Hari at a church social. Under the frivolous tinsel was a very accomplished dancer.
Gadjea, an apparition who appeared at the festival one year. Electric blonde, with breasts like grapefruit and abs like marble ice cream, dressed in a simple, unadorned black halter and harem pants, with one black veil, she took over the stage for five minutes of raw animal extravagance that nearly closed down the show. All of it without a moment of expression on her face.
Jalena, half Polynesian, sixteen and slathered with baby fat, like a slick young puppy. She danced two cultures, the angular Middle-eastern and the formless, swaying islanders'. She was the daughter of a dancer and granddaughter of a dancer. The mother I don't remember; her grandmother was seventy and a woman of great skill, as good a dancer as any of the younger women that year, better than most.
Apollonia, minimalist and the most cerebral dancer I ever encountered. Younger than Zahirah, perhaps a student if not a disciple. Her dancing was very inward without seeming unnaturally controlled. She could milk more significance from a shift of a few degrees than most women could from banging their hips on the doorjambs.
Sulisha, the most beautiful and somehow least engaged of them all. She was swan-angular and tall, delicate featured and trim bodied, almost thin, with a fall of honey-blonde hair that reached her knees. Her dancing was very professional, very controlled, very much a performance. She danced for us, for her boyfriend in the crowd, not for herself. That is second-best. The great dancers would dance alone on a silent stage, if no one came to see.
Yasamina herself, rowdy queen of revels, the founder of Kismet and the spirit of the new belly dance, which is for women (men get to watch). She seems to be a raucous housewife, witty and self-deprecating and then, suddenly, the sensei of an amazing craft. She was one of the best dancers from the first time I saw her, twenty years ago; she trained many of the others.
The best of them, the queen of the belly dancers, not just in Salt Lake but in all my travels, was Zahirah. She was a Lebanese woman, I think, a junior high teacher in Salt Lake. In 1980, she was the youngest member of Kismet, a teenager, I'd have guessed, with tremendous talent and the athletic build of a gymnast or a slim swimmer.
She did not have the earthy charm of the company's doyen, Yasamina, who was a great dancer in her own right, all Dionysus and humor to Zahirah's crystalline elegance. She projected a cool, contained, meditative calm not at all otherworldly or faux spiritual. When I returned to Salt Lake from Dallas, in 1987, she had matured into a woman of Apollonian grace and developed a mastery of her craft that was impeccable. She possessed that perfection of intent and execution that sustains itself by constant challenge and improvement.
When Zahirah dances, it is a transfiguration of the flesh. There is nothing ethereal about her style. She is a powerful, muscular physical presence, meat moving bone, her eyes as intently on you as yours are rivetted on her. She possesses that indescribable talent for creating silence. A pause in her motions, held longer than you expect, brings the world to a brief halt. I associate no sound with her dancing except the steady clink of zills (finger cymbals). Such is her grace and balance, that I can't imagine her making a noise as she places her foot, however firmly. She once executed a move that looked like nothing less than sliding sidewise three yards across the floor without moving her feet. I know; I saw it.
Madeleine was jealous of my enchantment with this dancer. She needn't have been. In the first place, one minor appeal of Zahirah was that she resembled Madeleine a bit — height, coloring, build. But that was trivial. The fact was, it was not Zahirah who fascinated me, but the dance manifest in her. She was attractive, but not beautiful. I stood next to her for a few minutes once at a festival, and observed that she was plain-featured. I don't believe I ever, in fifteen years' association with the festival, heard her voice. I would like to think she was smart and eloquent, but I can only assume she was reasonably intelligent, since she taught school. Beauty on the stage and mastery of an art tell us little about the person. And her greatness no more appealed to my desires than a sunrise would seem edible.
She was, I have to bear witness, a manifestation of divinity. Her dancing, like the flight of a great bird, the shifting drama of sunset, the brilliance of intention in the charge of a lion, expressed that indescribable beauty we all, when it appears to us, gather up in memory and hoard while the details fade. And there is in that beauty more than the trivial accidents of configuration and flesh. To be beautiful is a passive thing, not an accomplishment at all. But to make beauty, even when the clay and vessel are your self — that active, creative, choosing — suggests a depth of character and strength of will. She projected that dimension of depth; her dances were not the play of butterflies in a meadow, all random and brilliant, but the strokes of a fine painting.
There were times when I thought I should tell her, somehow. I know now that it would have been wasted breath. She wouldn't have believed me. Words would have failed, as they have here, to convey my meaning. She would have thought it was a pickup line. It would have reduced the ineffable to the mundane. She was the greatest of them all; still is, I hope. And even if she has retired, she dances still in my memory's stage, luminous as the moon in veils of grey and taupe and silver like clouds, her feet delicate geometries of stress and release, her arms bearing her up like wings on a sure thermal, her face as beautiful, as calm, and distant as Michelangelo's Madonna and the Maja herself. Poised in my memory, she is immortal.