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Eileen Obser | Dancing Hussy

This was published in Proteus, the literary magazine of LIU Southampton. I am at work on a memoir at this time about the belly dancing years.

I’ve always felt that belly dancing saved my life. I was so miserably unhappy in my marriage when I started taking dance lessons. I didn’t eat right; I drank and smoked too much. The dancing made me take better care of myself for the two years that I was in transition from the marriage into a new life. The act of dancing, of learning isolation techniques, and of melding these into one, fluid, joyous dance, became an act of liberation. The music was thrilling and took me out of myself – “myself” being a suburban drudge I no longer could accept.

Many afternoons and nights I’d play music from the Café Feenjon Group in New York, like the Arabic Mustafa, the Hasidic Chiribim, and the Turkish Rampe Rampe – all fast and fiery music filled with joy. Then I would play slower music – John Berberian’s “Mideastern Odyssey,” for example. I was no longer the stuffy, unhappy suburban single mom, but a free-spirited lady of the desert, the favorite in the Sheikh’s harem. My children, ages eight and ten, would laugh and laugh, and follow me around the living room, trying to master some simple steps. We bought a tambourine and a Turkish drum or dumbek, which added to our fun.

I began teaching Mideastern dancing on the east end of Long Island in the late 1970s. I had never taught anything formally to anyone in my life, but I was in my gutsy, new divorcée stage. Besides, I missed the classes I had been taking in Tenafly, New Jersey. I missed the dancing and the music. I also missed the camaraderie I had found with my dancer friends. These women seemed above average in intelligence and in education. It was the so-called “Me Decade,” and the decade of women’s lib preachers such as Betty Friedan, Gail Sheehy, and Gloria Steinem. These writers encouraged people like me, middle class suburban women, to get in touch with our bodies, to open our minds to new experiences, and to change our lives.

I filled out the form in The East Hampton Star that asked, “Do You Have Something to Teach?” mailed it to the school, and put it out of my mind. A few weeks later a listing in the paper told me that my proposed classes would be offered. No one had even called me. How did they know I was qualified? And now that my teaching debut was imminent, the bigger question was: could I do it? Did I know enough to stand before a class and teach all that I’d learned in the three years I had been a student and performer?

Months earlier, I had asked a woman sitting in the lobby of Guild Hall, East Hampton’s renowned museum and theater, if I could teach there. My children were with me, and they listened to our conversation. I spoke softly, as befitting the dignified museum setting and the docent’s genteel demeanor. The docent misunderstood and thought I wanted to teach “ballet dancing.” When I corrected her, she was horrified. “Belly dancing! Oh, my dear, that would never do. No. No. I don’t dare even ask.” And she all but shooed me out the door. My children, bless them, saw the humor in all this. Mom vs. the stuffy natives. The exotic dancer comes to town and shocks the bubbies. I already knew about Goody Garlick of local history. She was tried for witchcraft in the 1600s and was found guilty, even though there was no proof of her crime. I could see the headline in The Star: “Dancing Hussy Causes Mayhem in Village.”

I called the East Hampton School, where my children were now students. “Can you tell me when I’ll know for sure if my class will run?”

“You’ll know about a week before,” I was told. “Maybe sooner. Call again in a few days.”

A few days…

“What am I going to do, kids?” We were having pizza in town this weekday evening. “You said you wanted to teach,” my daughter said, between bites of her pizza.

“Yeah,” my son said, between gulps of Pepsi. “So teach.”

We headed back home so they could do their homework and I could make a phone call.

“Silvana?”

“Eileen, dear! It’s so good to hear your voice.”

“Likewise.”

“How are you managing out there on Long Island?”

“Oh, fine. Really fine. I love it out here.”

I wouldn’t mention the long days of confusion, of loneliness and isolation, and sometimes of depression as I attempted to adjust to a whole new way of life. “East Hampton is amazingly beautiful,” I said. And I told her how incredible it was to be living on Sammy’s Beach, with the incredible sunrises and sunsets that were ours every day. I told her about the people I was meeting and about my new boyfriend, Ted.

“I miss you and I miss the dancing,” I said finally, “and I may be teaching out here.”

“Really?” She seemed very surprised and – could it be – less than encouraging.

“Silvana, I’m scared. I didn’t expect to actually teach, but now it looks like I will be. I need your help.
Fast!”

We made arrangements for me to see her the following weekend for private coaching.

On the Thursday prior to my trip I learned that 15 women had signed up so far for my class. It was a go. I was both elated and scared: my new career belly dancing teacher was about to begin.

By Monday afternoon, one day before my classes would start, 21 women were enrolled. Twenty one!

“My God,” I said to the kids and, over the phone, to Silvana. “How on earth will I pull this off? I don’t know what I’m doing.

“Yes, you do,” Silvana said. “You’ll be just fine.”

“Relax, Mom,” my daughter said.

And my son gave me a hug.

I dug out my good black leotard with the short sleeves. The good, push-up bra that I used for dance practice was packed with the leotard. Except for the past weekend, with Silvana, I hadn’t used this stuff for over eight months. Out came the coin belt, the snake bracelet, and the “gold” drop earrings. If I couldn’t get ’em with my teaching, I’d dazzle ’em with my appearance. The professional dancer meets the locals. The new sex symbol teaches the women in town a thing or two. Hip thrust. Pelvic thrust. Shimmy, shimmy, sway right; shimmy, shimmy, sway, left. I gathered a few of my Mideastern records, wondering which music I should use.

I noticed a tic developing in my left eye. And there was a red flush on my face. What in hell did I think I was doing? As I practiced to teach, I had a gin and tonic; I had another. I had about six cigarettes. I turned on the stereo and played some of the music. I had to make a class plan. With a plan I could control the group; I could teach them the basics.

Glasses. What about my eyeglasses? I looked too scholarly in them. I wouldn’t be able to wear glasses and look like a glamorous belly dancer. Image was very important. Never once did I see Silvana in eyeglasses.

I decided not to wear them.

Then I got the bright idea of writing out my first class in large print, large enough so that I could just glance at the pages and know what I was supposed to do next.

Tuesday came. While the kids were at school, I went over my notes. The large, hand-printed class plan covered two letter-sized, lined sheets of a yellow pad. I placed the sheets on the floor and practiced reading them from standing position, while dancing around to the music I would be using. We would begin with head, neck and shoulder movements, and work down to the torso, then to the legs and feet – all very slowly. I would repeat movements, pausing as necessary so that every last student got them right.

I left for school after an early dinner. I ate very little, knowing from experience that it was real easy to get indigestion on a full stomach. God, I prayed, as I drove to the Village, help me pull this off without making a jerk of myself.

Twenty-two women showed up at the elementary school, and we met in the music room, a large, airy, carpeted space.

“I’m Eileen,” I announced, “and we’re going to have a great time together over the next six weeks.”

Except for a few moms I knew through my children, all the women were strangers to me. After stripping down to my leotard and coin belt and black Capezio pumps, I did a roll call and wondered how I would ever remember all the names.

I advised the women on where they could buy leotards and suggested that comfortable pumps were preferable to barefoot, because this made the dance look so much more graceful. Silvana was right there on my shoulder, giving me words to say. I placed my class plan on the floor before me.

“Bring your arms up to encircle your head. Bring them down. Gracefully. Bring them up again. That’s right. In an arc. Down again. And up.”

The women were silent and respectful, their eyes glued to my every movement. If I scratched my nose, I thought they would all scratch their noses. If I coughed, they would probably all cough. I felt an overwhelming sense of responsibility to look good, to be good, and to be correct. Stay with me, Silvana, I thought a few times. Don’t go away!

I had my chosen LPs stacked by. I played slow Mideastern music, as planned, by musicians George Abdo and Eddie “The Sheik” Kochak, among others. I stopped. I played it again. I stopped. Silvana used this music for beginners, and I really liked it. It was mellow, not overly exotic, a combination of Armenian, Arabic and Turkish folk music, slow to medium tempo, then fast. The women seemed to take to it immediately.

“You’ll be wonderful belly dancers in no time,” I told them.

And they laughed as if to say, oh, yeah, sure. Don’t count on it. Oh, how I remembered that feeling when I first started to dance.

“Trust me,” I said, and I led them through the Hindu pose and a few head and shoulder movements, before getting into hip slides and circles, followed by more arm work – “climbing the ladder,” Silvana called it, and “reaching for the corners,” with relaxing the arms in between. “You don’t want to stretch anything too far or too fast if you’re out of shape,” I cautioned them. “You can practice all of this at home in front of a mirror. Do it every day and see how quickly your arm and shoulder muscles get stronger.” In future classes I would give them as much individual attention as possible.

I was becoming downright fearless by now, very much in control, and actually enjoying this whole teaching experience. I had the attention of the entire group of women, and they were obviously having a good time.

We did some deep knee bends and some foot movements – the Greek hop and the step drag step or rhumba. “Now I want you to shake your legs in and out.” I demonstrated, and then watched. “That’s right. In and out. In and out. Now, walk. Front and back. Follow me. We’ll go around the floor. Next week, I’ll bring veils, and we’ll do veil work. And a few weeks from now, you’ll be using zils.” I held up my finger cymbals. The women smiled, but they seemed skeptical.

As I neared the end of the class, I noticed that Silvana was no longer sitting on my shoulder. She was gone, and I was in control – an independent woman, and a pretty good teacher.

Off I danced around the room, my merry band of 22 close behind me, our arms and shoulders and torsos moving to a chiftatelli rhythm, doing the harem walk.