By Melanie LaJoie My first belly dance class was in September of 1972. I was 17 years old. Although I’ve seen belly dancers before, it didn’t dawn on me that this was what I was about to do, much less to make it a life-long career. The course was called “Orientale Dance.” I signed up for Martial Arts at the same time, so thought how they complemented one another, both being of “Oriental” origin, but I didn’t connect the dots that “Orientale Dance” was “Belly Dance.”
I walked into the class, and there was this beautiful woman with dark long shiny hair and olive skin. She called herself “Vina” (pronounced with a long “I”) but her real name was
Florence Haddad, and conveniently she lived just down the street from me. I later found out that she was the sister of the famous Middle Eastern singer: George Abdo. When she turned the music on, I immediately felt transported to another place and time. I knew this. I knew it was in my soul, my blood, my DNA. I started to dance along with Vina. She took me “under her wing,” and I became one of her three proteges along with Nazarin and Olana. I was honored to study her style of Classical Orientale Belly Dance that she flavored with her Lebanese roots and “Debke” steps. Her classical style arm movements and backbends were beyond anything I’ve even seen. She was elegant, graceful, and proud of her culture. She stressed this elegant dignity in her teachings and the cultural roots of the dance. She was like a mother to me, and I wish she was still alive so I can thank her for opening this door for me. To top it off, she featured me at some her workshops and performances, plus also introduced me to her brother, George Abdo. I performed many shows solo or along with my dance company, dancing to the exceptional music of George and his Flames of Araby Orchestra, (they sounded exactly like their recordings), plus a plethora of exceptional Middle Eastern musicians from Boston and New York including but not limited to: Freddie Elias, Eddie “the Sheik” Kochak, the Sultans (including Omar Faruk Tekbelik and his brother-in-law, Ibrahim Turmen), Joey Zeytoonian, Dick Barsamian, Mitchell Kaltsunas, and my Moroccan “brother” Mohammed Mejaour (Nye & Doumbec – watch for our upcoming workshops in early 2021). My greatest experiences in this “American Golden Era of Belly Dance” was performing with these musicians live and learning to “feel” the music. Coming from a musical and entertainment family, I felt that I had found my “niche” in this “new” world of Belly Dance. Plus, not only was I becoming proficient in the art of Belly Dance, but also in Zill playing. As a musician myself and having a professional drummer brother who practiced his drum rhythms on my head (literally! Don’t you just LOVE siblings! <3), I became a master of Mid-East rhythms on the Zills.
The Belly Dance scene in the 1970-80’s in Boston and New York City flourished with many iconic dancers. I became good friends with Kasim and his dance partner ZaBeth, who performed a dynamic duet. Kasim sponsored many belly dance conventions and shows with his good friend, George Abdo, and brought many great belly dancers to Boston such as Dahlena, Jemela Omar, Morocco, Riskallah, Serena Wilson (who also opened doors for me booking me on Bahamas cruise ships and at her New York City Café where her husband and son performed in her band), and a host of many beautiful dance talent including Suhaila Salimpour, and Dalia Carella, who I had the pleasure of dancing at many of the same venues with her and developing a fond relationship, and bringing her to Orlando in 2010! In addition to taking these workshops, I was also teaching at my own studio in Boston, throughout New England, at colleges, schools, museums, and TV spots. My career had taken off! During this time, Belly Dance was transforming and becoming more popular. In the Boston area, the styles of Belly Dance varied due to the abundance of different cultures in the area and the counterculture that emerged during that era. There were the Classical Orientale Dancers, such as Vina and Olana; Turkish style dancers (Adona), show style dancers (Kasim and ZaBeth); Greek Belly Dancers (Kasim), and American Cabaret dancers (Amir, a show-stopping male Belly Dancer in Boston). Because this was also during the “hippie” era (me included), a new style started to emerge. Many of us did it, myself included, although many times, I stuck to the Classical Orientale Raks Sharqi and Mid-East Folkloric dances (I can Debke any of you under the table!), but we dabbled in this “tribal” style fusing folkloric themed style dances with a modern twist, and in a group, it would be loosely choreographed with one member giving cues. Later that style became known as “Tribal Belly Dance.” The West Coast really capitalized upon it. Jamila Salimpour with her Bal Anat Troupe were instrumental in creating this new wave. Soon American Tribal Style Belly Dance was created by Fat Chance Belly Dance director, Carolena Nericcio-Bohlman in California. Mostly, my style was a combination of this “neo tribal style;” plus American Cabaret – a glitzy version of Raks Sharqi; Gypsy Romany (each of these styles may also feature sword balancing and fire dancing); World Dance Fusion combining Belly Dance with African, Asian, Brazilian, Indian, etc.; and mostly Classical Orientale Belly Dance, Raks Sharqi; Mid-East Folkloric: Egyptian Saidi and Assaya Cane Dance, Algerian, Moroccan, Tunisian Berber and Mahgreb dances; and folkloric line dances from a variety of countries. This was the well-rounded Belly Dancer
of this time and in this area of the United States. The style of dance performance would depend on the gig theme and audience. Many of the Belly Dancers I hung out with in the Boston area knew a variety of folkloric line dances from Armenia, Greece, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey and included many of those folkloric steps in our dance routines. We would get up together holding hands in unity doing these exhilaratingly fun and sometimes intricate dances in between our show performances or after or when visiting other dancers’ and musicians’ shows. The venues I loved to perform at were Lebanese Restaurants: Middle Eastern Restaurant in Cambridge, Bishops in Lawrence (north of Boston), and El Morocco (Worcester). They featured live musicians which was a great blessing in my career to perform live with a band! That is a performance skill within itself. There were other fun Greek restaurants that featured excellent musicians from a variety of cultures that played together. Their music reflected their individual cultures and music from Armenia, Greece, Turkey and Arab countries. This era was rich with a variety of Belly Dance and Middle Eastern music, and in the Boston and New York City areas, reflected how monumental this thriving culture was in the United States.
This cultural richness also sparked my thirst for more dance and music culture. Although I had taken different kinds of ethnic dances as a child coming from a multi-cultural heritage, plus my dad got me excited about tap dancing with him as a child, and as a teen I loved jazz dance. Now that I was becoming proficient in the performance and culture of Belly Dance, I was curious about the intercultural exchange from one area of the world to the next, and the dances of my varied cultural background including Romany Gypsy heritage from my Russian/Lithuanian Grandmother. My curiosity led me to study other styles of world dance. In the late 1970’s, I heard of this elderly dancer, LaMeri, who lived at Cape Cod. She was considered the “Grand Dame of Ethnic Dance” and formerly was a dance business partner with Ruth St. Denis and together formed a dance academy and company in New York City called The School of Natya in 1940. Although she was not really teaching anymore, she told me she would teach me because of my dedicated persistence! I guess you could say I kept inquiring into she responded, “yes.” She taught me a host of world dances including Flamenco, Gypsy, Classical Indian Temple Dancing, Japanese, and Siamese dances. I attribute LaMeri for my commitment to World Ethnic Dance study leading me to becoming a member of an Afro-Brazilian Dance Company in Boston (de Samba) and later finding traditional Chinese Kung Fu for lack of finding Chinese dance. One memorable night, LaMeri hosted a performance by a male dancer and his company from New York City, Ibrahim Farrah and his Near East Dance Group.
I never saw anything like their show! I was mesmerized! Bobby (Ibrahim) and his group were the first I’ve ever seen that captured the true essence of the Classical Orientale Raks Sharqi and folkloric Middle Eastern dances in a theatrical show. After that show, I traveled often to New York City to take Bobby’s seminars, from his dancers Elena, Jajouka, Yousry Sharif, Ahmed Hussien plus Indian Bharata Natyam from Carolyn Kay, and mostly, I studied privately with Phaedra, my other dance “mom.”
During this time, I was performing at Middle Eastern restaurants and clubs in Boston and New York City, plus at local dinner theaters that featured American cover bands and comedians. I danced many times to “Roll out the Barrels” (fun on the Zills) and “Jingle Bells!” One of the comedians asked me if I would perform for a tour group in Switzerland, Italy and France. Heck yeah! His friend owned a travel tour group. I left on my birthday, May 16 in 1977! I was 22 years old. A couple of years later, that same tour company was traveling to Morocco, and they asked if I would dance on the Moroccan tour in Tangiers and Casablanca. Heck yeah! But, this time, I wanted my dance company to perform with me. The owner agreed.
Our first stop was Tangiers. Although my current collegiate studies focused on Middle Eastern Anthropology and Dance Ethnology and studied the culture and traditions in depth, I was in for a “culture shock.” Our Moroccan tour guide advised that we visit Tangier’s Casbah on our free time. The natives were dressed in full Gallabiyahs, women’s faces and head were covered in veils. It felt like we were back 1000 years! We were a little alarmed when we were approached by men trying to touch our skin, calling out how much we were worth in their currency. Mind you, I insisted that we dressed “conservatively,” but still, we were Americans, and not “conservative” enough. We managed our way around, shopping, and eating Pastilla (pigeon) pie before we headed back to our hotel which overlooked the Strait of Gibraltar. Our performance that evening was for the Americans on the tour. The rest of the tour, we were on free time as we traveled to Fez, Rabat, into the Atlas Mountains, Marrakech, and lastly to Casablanca, for a final show. Enroute, we danced along with the Berber women who did the Guedra, an hypnotic trance-like dance, and Gnawas who did a kind of break dance, twirling their braided pony tail on top of their heads as they played a sort of double zills – two connected together on each hand totaling four zills. There were Moroccan Belly Dancers at many venues we visited who performed very much like the Egyptian dancers, but on a more subdued scale.
We found Casablanca to be a bustling city, and much different from the quainter places we visited throughout Morocco. We were to perform our final show at a restaurant called Hamedi Palace. We did a company Saidi dance and then I danced solo with the house Moroccan band. The following day, the Moroccan tour guide called me and asked if we would go to his uncle’s hotel for dinner that evening to discuss performing at the hotel before we depart for USA in a few days. Heck yeah! We were driven to THE Hotel Casablanca. Mohammed, our tour guide, introduced us to his uncle, also named Mohammed who supposedly was the owner of the hotel. What was curious though, was that there were at least a dozen men, most named Mohammed, who were now circling around us. We weren’t sure what was happening. The Mohammeds assured us all was well and escorted us to a private dining room without the crowd they had at the hotel bar. They provided us with a feast and poured abundant drinks. After a couple of hours had passed, I asked Mohammed
the owner/uncle when we would be discussing show business since there hadn’t been any discussion so far. He answered, “there is no business.” I said, “excuse me?” He repeated, “there is no business to discuss.” I said, “then what are we doing here?” He said, “we will let you know what you will be doing for us.” At that moment, it hit me! We were in a dangerous trafficking situation. The tour guide was “selling us.” The uncle was the potential buyer. Although I was young, 24 years old, and yes, naïve when it came to travel to this part of the world, I pulled myself together, and asked, “what do you plan to do with us?” “Whatever we wish,” was his answer. I asked, “and when will be able to leave?” “When we want, maybe in six months,” he said. I asked, “and where will you take us?” “To our villas in the Atlas Mountains,” he said.
At this point, I was a bit inebriated, and anger swept over me as I saw my dancers start to panic. It was fight or flight, but nowhere to flee! I stood up, looked down on him, pointed my finger in his face and said, “you won’t get away with this! You think you’re so powerful, but your power is limited to here. My father is in the CIA (ok this was a lie, but I had to think of something!), he’ll find you, he is very powerful, and he won’t let you get away with this, he’ll get you and destroy you.” I kept repeating this while shouting at him. Then I said, “what would your mother think? Haram (forbidden)!” He turned white and his composure rapidly changed! I’m not sure if his mother recently passed away or what, but he instantly got up from his seat and said, “let’s bring them back to their hotel now.” He immediately took us back. My tactic worked. He believed me, but what a lesson I learned. A few days later, we were in line at the Casablanca airport to board our plane to return home, when Uncle Mohammed came up to me and apologized. I couldn’t bring myself to accept his apology. My thinking was that if I accepted it, he may feel resolved to do this to some other unknowing woman or women. “No,” I said, and wouldn’t look at him. He left. We boarded. Bye Morocco – never again!
Two years later, 1981, the same tour company was headed to Greece and Egypt. Now, they owe us! I told the tour company owner that myself and one of my dance company members will perform. We performed at the Plaka in Athens and then joining in with the locals dancing their Greek line dances, then off to Cairo where we danced at the Sahara City Tent (heads up – don’t eat there!). While in Cairo, we made some good friends, who helped us return in 1983 to perform on a Nile Cruise Ship! But while were in Egypt during this trip, my dancer and I decided we wanted to do our own research. Ibrahim Farrah’s group did this dance called the Zar. It is a dance of exorcism, with the hypnotic Ayoub beat, head twirling, and pulsating to the beat. Really, this dance is great to relieve stress and anxiety! I wanted to find a Zar ritual. Mary and I hired a driver who said he knew where to find a Zar house in El Fayoum, “the Oasis” southwest of Cairo. We participated in a Zar, and feeling exhilarated, asked if there were local sights to see before we head back to our hotel in Cairo. He said Lake Qarun was an oasis to see. As we drove closer to the lake, we could see a few
Bedouin tents silhouetted in the background with fires burning outside the tents, as the sky was turning a beautiful twilight blue sprinkled with stars, and a crescent moon. By now it was dusk as we got out of the car and looked at this beautiful body of water. We decided to wade in the water, but it was very mucky, sinking knee deep into the stinky, sulfur smelling sludge. It wasn’t as romantic as we thought it would be, and we were about to move on. Although it was very quiet, almost like we were the only people on the lake except for the Bedouin tents in the distance, Mary and I “felt” something psychically at the same time. We both looked at each other, then slowly turned to look behind us. Standing in a straight line, were a dozen Bedouins pointing shot guns at us. We knew then that we were the outsiders in their watering hole, and it was time to leave. We looked at our driver and told him it’s time to go. He said, “Malesh!” (no worries!) I said, “heck Malesh! Let’s go!” and we left unscathed. Another lesson learned: stay with the tour!
While in Egypt, I made it a point to see my favorite dancers of the early 1980’s. My visits to Egypt wouldn’t be complete without seeing the legendary Nagwa Fouad who had a huge cast of company dancers backing her up as they danced a variety of Egyptian dances from graceful Classical Orientale to Saidi. Nagwa also sang a few upbeat songs. Another favorite dancer of that era was Souhair Zaki, and sometimes comical, was Fifi Abdou who also had a huge Egyptian orchestra accompanying her. Their performances were housed at Cairo’s 5-star hotels. We stayed at the Mena House in Giza across the street from the pyramids. When traveling to Egypt, I suggest you stay at the Mena House – my favorite hotel resort where Mahmoud Reda’s troupe would perform back then and in recent years, I’ve had the honor of hosting Reda Troupe’s Director, Prof. Ehab Hassan (Ahmed Hussien’s cousin), and featured dancer, Nesrin Bahaa at Orlando workshops and shows.
In 1987, I left Massachusetts and moved outside Philadelphia where I danced at the Middle East Restaurant in Philadelphia and briefly studied with Nagwa Said. In 1988, I moved to Tucson and taught Belly Dance at Pima Community College. In 1989, I landed in Orlando and have been here since. I started teaching Belly Dance classes and got a new company of dancers together, A MAGI. I got a job at Universal Studios in 1990 where I was a performer in entertainment, then promoted to entertainment management supervising, booking talent for events and production plus they allowed me creative license to develop my own character, a Russian Gypsy Psychic fashioned after my maternal Grandmother, plus other strolling characters. I was the “Cobra Woman” at Universal’s first Halloween Horror Nights dancing with a boa snake. A few years later, after the birth of my daughter, I left that job, and became an entertainment producer and performer for Universal Studios and other theme parks while simultaneously working as Nickelodeon Studios’ Gakmeister for several years and juggling performing and booking dancers at the Arabian Nights Dinner Theater pre-shows, at Café Tu Tu Tango, and dancing with the Moscow Circus’ Legends of the Caucasian Mountains show when they were performing in Orlando. For a few years at Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights, my dancers and I would perform on our own stage, and often I’d hire other dancers from all over Florida to perform when we were booked at other gigs. My relationship with Universal Studios continues as an Entertainment Producer and Performer booking Belly Dancers, Snake Charmers, Fire Eaters and Dancers, Sword Swallowers, and Psychic Entertainers for special events when there is not a pandemic!
The rest is history having been in Orlando now over 30 years where I continue to teach, including in the role of Professor at Valencia College, and perform, although now in a more limited way. In 2018, I was honored to return to Athens Greece to teach a workshop and perform at the UNESCO Council of International Dance 51st World Dance Congress. Due to my music media not working, I had to dance only with accompanied by my own Zills! My training from the Golden Era of Belly Dance paid off!
I’ve had a brilliant career, and like the ever-ready bunny, I continue to keep going and going. Dance keeps you young! Many of my teachers and music friends have sadly passed on. Some are older than me, and I’m now a senior citizen (love the discounts!!). I acknowledge the enormous value in what I’ve learned through these almost 50 years of Belly Dance from the iconic dancers and musicians I’ve had the honor of having them as influencing and propelling my dance career. I hope to help others propel their dance dreams into reality. I am honored to be able to pass on what I’ve learned, and what knowledge and art I’ve accomplished to other aspiring dancers, professionals and students.
Melanie LaJoie is the owner and creator of A MAGI World Belly Dance & Entertainment Productions, Orlando, FL. She is also the owner and Director of A Magi Studio where she teaches and holds workshops. For more information and to contact Melanie: