Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Performing the belly dancer – an actor’s role

It’s not uncommon for belly dance teachers to be approached by individuals who want to study privately so they can put a dance together, often for a special occasion like a milestone birthday. Less common is an approach from an actor seeking to play a belly dancer, on a small budget and with a tight time frame.

This was the situation I found myself in when a young actor, Cassie Baker, contacted our school for help preparing for her major role as Shirin, an Iraqi café owner and dancer, in the Court Theatre’s production of “Baghdad, Baby!” last year. Cassie had never belly danced in her life, though she did have a background in other dance forms, and was eager to gain some skills before rehearsals began. This was a project I had to make time for!

Working with Cassie was very different from my usual experiences of dance teaching. It was obvious to me, even before I read the script, that my normal approach with brand new dancers would be no good in this case. We would not have time to go through all the basics and drill them first before learning a choreography. We also had no idea at that stage what music she would be asked to dance to, how the stage would be laid out, or what the director’s requirements would be.

The script also put many very specific restrictions in place. First and foremost, Cassie’s character Shirin had to be “dead sexy”. Her primary job in the play was to be gorgeous and seductive, the usual symbol of the mysterious exotic East. However, she also needed simultaneously to be a real person – a young Iraqi woman doing whatever it took, including prostitution, to get out of war-torn Iraq. We didn’t know whether Shirin would look like a “typical” belly dancer or like an Iraqi girl with a scarf round her hips who happened to be belly dancing. The character also had to deliver monologues during her dance scenes, which further reinforced that we were going to have to take a different approach. Belly dancing and talking at the same time is only easy to do once the movements are largely unconscious.

Cassie needed to embody a belly dancer rather than actually be one. She would need to move like someone who had always belly danced, which meant the usual beginner level choreography wouldn’t look right. And she would need to be able to improvise to some extent. I decided the best approach was to work with what Cassie *could* do, rather than try to make her able to do things she couldn’t, and explore ways she could, as an actor, find ways of embodying her character that would include dance movements.

We did a lot of walking to music, with a few movements that looked more like social dancing than technically difficult orientale. I was mostly determining what Cassie could do easily and what looked nice on her figure. Being young and flexible she could rotate her hips easily and she turned out to have a fabulous hip shimmy! As a singer and songwriter, she also had a good natural feel for music. I was very impressed with Cassie’s dedication to making her character as rounded as possible. As well as working with me, Cassie read widely, made contact with the local Iraqi community and at one stage visited Wellington to spend time with Ban Abdul, the actress who originated the part. We talked a lot about the kind of confidence Shirin would have about being sexually desirable. I pointed out that women who dance professionally in the Middle East are not necessarily the best dancers, so it didn’t matter if she just stuck to a few simple movements. All she had to be was self-assured. We talked about what kind of clothing Shirin might really wear, and how she could be sexy even covered up. I directed Cassie to footage of Fifi Abdo – not Iraqi but a great example of a tough but sexy Middle Eastern working woman who can work a galabeya like it’s a bikini – and some other footage I found of current Egyptian TV stars in action. I also showed her the documentary “The Bellydancers of Cairo”, which would give her some idea of the position belly dancers hold in the Middle East. Cassie was instantly smitten with Dina, feeling that she would be Shirin’s idol, and took a photo of her as inspiration. We also the costume designer, who had a look at some of my costumes and some web pages I recommended.

We had about four lessons working on basic movements before rehearsals began, working with some music I had and some that Cassie had sourced, that she liked and that seemed to suit the mood and pace of her dance scenes. As the director started having input, our lessons changed to workshopping the dance scenes to incorporate his ideas, using the music he had selected from Cassie’s collection. Sometimes this was quite hard – the director had some quite different ideas than Cassie and I had. Costuming was a big part of this.The director and costume designer were excited about being able to show off Cassie’s trim figure in a bra and belt not just in her dance scenes, but for the whole play. Their justification was that in her own space, this transgressive young woman would wear what she felt like. As any belly dancer knows, no sensible human would wear a bedleh all day, least of all in conservative Iraq. Fundamentalist Islamic values aside, they’re not comfortable and you can’t sit in them! But this was a play and not meant to be naturalistic, and so Cassie was fitted for a black and gold number. She did get to wear a chador in her “outdoor” scenes and pants and a hip scarf in the second act, but she wore her bra and beaded gauntlets throughout. I shared key belly dancer secrets: the vital need for safety pins, the danger of catching a beaded gauntlet on, well, everything, particularly the beaded curtain from which Shirin had to emerge on a regular basis.

The last two classes took place at the Court Theatre, where I got to meet Cassie’s co-stars, the director and technical crew. The first was in the rehearsal room, where the intended stage set-up was laid out for the actors to work on. The second was in the theatre itself, with the beautiful set in place, just a day or two before the show opened. By this time, though Cassie was clearly under pressure and stressed about the role itself, her dance was becoming more confident and she was bringing her own ideas to the pieces.

I was lucky enough to see both the first and last performances of the play, and it was interesting to see how all the performances changed during that time period. Cassie’s last dances were more assured than her first ones and she was interpreting the music more fully and in a more personal way. Was it great belly dance? No. Was it a hideous mess? No! Did it work for the role? Absolutely. Was I happy with what Cassie achieved? Definitely! I always knew intellectually that a dance scene in a play or film was the sum of many levels of input but now I understand that process much better. I’m a lot more forgiving of dance scenes in movies that are not “accurate” as a result.


  1. What a great opportunity! It sounds so interesting - you put so much research into it and so did she!

    Too bad about the costuming - it does seem vastly unrealistic but I suppose a tight galabeya and a hip scarf wouldn't have had the same visual impact for a western audience (i.e. she'd look as covered up as all the other woman).

  2. It was really fun. Yeah, the costuming thing was kind of silly - and she was the *only* Iraqi female in the play! The other female character was an American CNN journalist, who I thought was costumed really well - pants, tank top, jacket, and a scarf for her head that she took off as soon as she got into the cafe. The other characters were a Kiwi backpacker, a Kiwi expat dodgy businessman supplying the regime/military/whoever paid, a conservative US soldier, and an elderly Iraqi man with rebel connections. Everyone was basically a "type" rather than a real person in a lot of ways.