What is the Dancer’s Real Job?

I’m Levantine on my father’s side, so when Aunty Ethel, my Dad’s sister, asked me to dance at her and Uncle Ed’s fiftieth wedding anniversary, of course I said yes. Never mind that it was Fourth of July weekend, smack in the middle of Elena’s Lentini’s weeklong. This was family, and you say yes.

The seminar show was the night before. Elena’s shows were way old school, and ran until 3AM. This was back when Fazil still had his studio in NYC. Those were the days! We (Stewart Hoyt and I) were barely conscious when we rolled up to the airport for our 7AM flight.

Airports, pre 9-11, were a relaxed affair. No check-in, no security. We eat a leisurely breakfast with my dad and Fran, his lady friend, and stroll up to the gate.

No seats.

“But we have reservations!” No, the flight is over booked. We checked in one minute too late. My dad and Fran, who were 15 feet ahead of us, with no one in between, are on the flight.

We wait five hours for another flight, while calling car rental agencies. On a pay phone (remember those?) There is not one single car to rent in all of Buffalo.

We luck into a cab to the Elks Hall in Dunkirk.

For $100. Plus tip. In 1999. Cash. 

So, finally we arrive. We are dirty, disheveled, eyes black with fatigue, and very, very hungry. Aunty Ethel greets us at the door. “Are you still going to dance?” I look around. Lunch is being served. A few cousins and a bunch of grey-haired old folks, eating grey food, in the grey, undecorated Elks club. No one is talking. No one is laughing. No one is having any fun at all.

“Of course,” I say, and go off to change.

Don't Prepare, Just Show Up
Don’t Prepare, Just Show Up

I slather on the concealer and throw on my costume. I give my cousin a CD (no mp3s back then). There is a tiny, tinny little cd player. My cousin holds a microphone up to it. It doesn’t help much. But the music starts.

And magic happens.

Suddenly everyone is engaged, clapping to the music, smiling, laughing, eyes gleaming like children because here comes the belly dancer!

I tease, I flirt. I get my aunt and uncle to dance together. I make all their kids dance. I get their friends to dance. Suddenly everyone is having fun. Everyone is happy. The party is a big success. When my show finishes, we put on debke music. As the overjoyed debke line snakes through the room, everyone gets up to dance, wiping tears of laughter from their eyes.

This is what we do.

We start the party.

We give the audience permission to have fun.

This, traditionally, is our function.

Traditionally. Really. This is what we do. It is a noble function. A noble calling. We make the party happen. It’s not about us, about people watching us and thinking we’re so beautiful or whatever. It’s about making the party happen. That’s where the smile thing comes from—this dance is about the expression of joy. We bring the joy.

So we can do all kinds of dramatic theatrical tribal gothic hip hop death metal fusion—in the right venue. But when we are the only dancer, when we are doing a party, this is what we have to remember.

Bring the joy.

PS, when he heard about the taxi, my uncle slipped me a hundred bucks–and my dad slipped me another hundred. So it was a pretty good deal, all in all.

Here’s some reallly oldschool Music From A Millionaire’s Playground

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