Who are the men who show up at Haflas and event nights?
By: Maani Vadgama
First and foremost there are the ubiquitous husbands and boyfriends who, on the whole, don’t look entirely at ease. The partners who have, under duress or through free will, immersed themselves into the world of hip drops and chamadans. Bag carriers, PAs, chaperons, and sturdy fellows who are ready to help at the drop of a veil. They should be admired and recognized. I’ve spoken to many dancers who’ve been forced to make a choice between their passion for the dance and their relationship, and that is not fair. To their credit most performers have chosen the former. I empathise. Were I to be given an ultimatum between my photography and my relationship the decision would be clear and emphatic. This conflict tends to boil down to the partner’s insecurities and ignorance. More on that later.
Then there are those who appreciate the dance. They have an affinity for the music and see it as a fun, entertaining and colorful night out. They will be dancing in the interval and at the end of the night. You know the ones. Broad smiles, clapping enthusiastically, toes tapping, arms aloft ...... regulars. They have their opinions on technique and choice of music. And even though you may disagree with their view the important detail is that they have one.
There are also the peripheral players. Sound and lighting technicians, website designers, photographers, musicians etc.... and before I get a spanking, I’m not suggesting that women can’t / don’t do all the above too. But, toys tend to be the realm of boys. We love to connect wires, press buttons, adjust lights, and feel generally useful. Woe betide the person who attempts to meddle in our work. There is nothing more irritating than having a dancer telling me how to take photos, just as I imagine there is nothing more irritating for a dancer than being told by a photographer how to dance.
Of course there are the men who really are in belly dance - male dancers. I have to be frank here and admit that I know very little about male belly dancers and I’ve never spoken to one at length. I have, however, done some homework. It seems to me that this is a bit of a contentious and debated facet of belly dance. There are varied opinions on the topic and I’m not about to stick my neck out and proffer my own. What I do know is that I’ve always enjoyed watching male belly dancers and, from observing the mainly enthusiastic audience reception, it appears that most women are not hostile to it. There is the inevitable discussion on their sexual orientation but I think this is rather spurious. After all, I don’t sit there are discuss the sexual orientation of a female dancer. You don’t have to be gay to feel the urge to shake your hips - I should know (you should see my veil work too!).
Last, and certainly least, we have the lascivious creeps who think it’s a pick-up opportunity. These cretins may also be dancing at the end of the night but tend to be drunk and trying to rub their crotch onto anything that moves. They cling to the ill perceived notion that if you belly dance you are cheap and easy. Clearly, that could not be further from the truth. They are deluded enough to believe that the dancer is performing for them rather than for themselves, the audience and their peers.
So where do I fit in and how was I lured?
A long time ago in a city far far away...............
................. a young girl fell in love with all things ancient and Egyptian. In the hustle and bustle of Cairo she discovered rainbow colors and reams of silk laden with sparkles. Amid the dusty antiquities and scented tea houses, nestled in the bazaars, she stumbled upon many an Aladdin’s cave of bling and fabric. A few years later, enter stage left, a boy from Iran. A relationship blossomed and each encouraged the other.
She grew to become a keen and talented belly dancer whose passion for the art-form was central to her life. Outside of her 9 to 5 job she would spend hours understanding the rhythms, practicing her choreography, scouring e-bay for coin-belts and veils, attending classes and going to Haflas. Being a supportive and encouraging boyfriend I would help out as much as I could. I accompanied her to shows, gave my opinions on dresses, listened to Middle Eastern music ad-infinitum, critiqued her dances, and even tried to learn how to play the Tabla. Maybe one day we could have been the drumming and dancing duo to take the Belly Dance World by storm! It transpired that I was able to drum as well as George Bush can orate.
After a year of being a good boyfriend I started to become a disillusioned one. I was growing bored of listening to the same type of music the whole time. I felt out of place at weekend workshops. I no longer found her practicing interesting. This, of course, was my fault. I chose to involve myself, yet I didn’t have the nouse to find my own interests within her world. The relationship fell apart.
After we split I was looking through photos that I had taken and realized that I had a talent for capturing the mood and feel of the dance. Paradoxically it was thanks to her that I knew when to take the photo. Having spent all that time watching her practice and listening to the music I knew exactly when a dancer would turn, where the arms and hands would be, the exact span of the Isis wings, the camera settings in different lighting conditions, and the most flattering angles. Now we are good friends and, sweet irony, I do the photography for the Hafla she organizes.
My relationship with belly dance was born from the demise of another. I owe my understanding and confidence to an ex, a friend and a dancer.
So which category do I fall into? All of them in a way. I was one of those jittery looking partners, I’ve done the bag carrying, I have an affinity for the dance and the music (must be in the blood), I’m now a peripheral player, and I do see the sensuality in the dance. But, fear not, you’ll not find me trying to chat-up a performer or attempting to drunkenly ingratiate myself with them. I hear terrible tales from dancers, mostly from those who perform in restaurants. It seems most restaurateurs feel it’s their right to make passes at and pester performers - “Exactly how much do you want to dance here?” There are a lot of men out there who make my job that much more difficult. There is a good reason why dancers bring their partners, friends or children with them to photoshoots. After all, I’m a man. What’s my angle? What’s my interest?
Well, it’s more than an interest, it’s a passion. A passion for images, motion, emotion, expression, beauty and talent. To watch a body (male or female), contort and convey is to watch expression in it’s purest form - it’s primal. Over the years I’ve learned a lot about dance and dancers. I’ve watched women grow in confidence and strength, both on and off stage. It’s tangible and attributable to belly dance. Vicariously, I’ve discovered talents and traits residing within.
We men do have a place in Belly Dance but, as with everything in life, the attitude and approach are key. If we respect the fact that it is a dance of women, by women, and for women, we can provide a tangible contribution. More than that, it can enrich our lives.
More info about the author visit: http://www.maaniphoto.com
Article appeared in NAFOURA Magazine (July 2009 issue)
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