(Here is an article from Springfield's own Brittney Laleh Banaei, who recently completed Suhaila Salimpour's level 3 certification and has an editorial featured in Suhaila's newletter. Holy crap, Congrats on level 3! Thanks Sa'dia for forwarding the article).
From: Suhaila Salimpour...the Newsletter
by Brittney Laleh Banaei
When you get ready to perform….what do you feel? Nervous? Excited? Ashamed? Yes, that last one was ashamed. When you are in dance class how do you feel? Empowered? Amazing? Dirty? Yes, that last one was dirty, and not the good kind either. The world of belly dance in the west holds a beautiful and unique place for women to empower themselves and escape into a new and exotic culture of beads, fringe, language, haunting melodies and even a new name in some cases. It can literally be a re-birth for those of us who are looking for it. But what if you aren’t looking for it? What if you dance because you don’t have a choice? The music starts and your body moves, end of story. What if the lows and highs of the tabla and the lazy whine of the mizmar are not only the soundtrack to your new found passion, but are a part of you, like an arm, a leg or a heart? Although this may sound like a romantic idea, it is both a blessing and a curse. Consider this: many of us, when choosing to dance, have to stare down some kind of misunderstanding or preconceived notions about our art. In America, dropping the bomb on your parents that you want to pursue ANY kind of art form usually brings about a lecture of financial security and social acceptance. On the other hand, growing up in a Middle-Eastern culture, you are instilled with an almost nationalist appreciation for arts, including dance, but are faced with ashamed, stone cold faces when the threat of them entering the family is looming. What if every time you stepped onto a stage or into a dance class; you had to face an internal battle in order to allow yourself to participate? I am a Middle-Eastern/American woman and these seemingly unreal stipulations are my reality.
So, what does it mean to me to have both Middle-Eastern and American cultures in my life? It means I love Gormeh Sabsi as much as I love steaks on the grill, listen to Shahram Nazeri and Nancy Ajram as much as I listen to rock, and belly dance brings me just as much pain as it does joy. It means that while I talk with my fellow students about the next workshop coming up, or squeal and giggle about costumes, I also see my father’s scowling, disappointed face in the back of my mind. As I experience the rush of walking through the doors of Suhaila’s studio for my training, I hear his words as I have so many times in relation to dance class: “Off to the whore house again?” It means that every time I am asked to do a paid gig, teaching or performing, I feel my Aunt’s hands on my shoulders, shaking me and begging me, as she did when I first started dancing, that if “you insist on dancing, at least don’t EVER do it for money”. It also means that when I hear the first cadence of drumming in a dance song, I flash back to sitting with my grandmother, learning how to play the Persian tombeck, laughing and learning with her for the first and last time.
Believe it or not, it is because of these memories that I am able to continue dancing. The negative memories drive me to be better and work harder; the tender ones, I hold in my heart as a reminder of a culture that belongs to me no matter what. The older I get, the more I begin to own what I now recognize as a gift.
The catch is that I own it on my terms. Yes, I am a Middle Eastern woman, and I am proud to say so. With that comes the responsibility to a culture that on some levels I have to refuse. I refuse to be ashamed to call myself a dancer. I refuse to APPEAR to be subservient. (Trust me, for the most part the impression of subservience we have of Eastern women is just that: an appearance. They are fighters.) These things and more I refuse. However, I welcome the tears that come when I hear Om Kalthoum; I welcome the pride that comes after a performance when I have not only shared my soul, but have represented the soul of my culture. I welcome the rich smells of saffron and rice, and glorious, amber-colored hot tea with sugar cubes and mint. These things and more I choose, because as an American woman I have a choice.
My mentor, Suhaila (Middle-Eastern/American as well) and many of my close friends in the dance community have experienced some of the same trials of Middle-Eastern dichotomy. Their strength and empathy have helped me to accept my culture on my terms. My Arab/American friend Lisa Samaan insightfully wrote: “As the old adage goes, ‘blood is thicker than water,’ so while I do live in America, and have lived here my whole life, only visiting my family for short durations of time in the Middle East, there is so much that separates me from my other American counterparts, that truly defines me as Arab.”
This is so true. While we live and function as American citizens and American dancers, just below the surface lies a boiling passion and culture that will constantly set us apart, and never truly allow us to let go of our heritage and be “normal.” Yes, Middle Eastern dance is fun, expressive, and a serious endeavor for some of us. But when you are from the Middle East it is a whole different perspective. We are tied not only by our dance, but our families, friends and reputations when we take the stage or take a class. It is our blessing, and our curse. Now, every time I dance, it brings me one step closer to acceptance, and it is with joy and gratitude that I am able to teach, perform, and continue to spread the love that comes with Middle Eastern dance. My culture, my femininity, and with pride: my dance.
Brittney Laleh Banaei is a lifelong dancer, musician, and artist. She is currently working towards a degree in Somatic Therapy with a minor in Dance Ethnology. She is training to be an instructor at the Suhaila Salimpour School of Belly Dance and she is a member and featured choreographer in the Repertoire Ensemble presented by Suhaila Salimpour. At 22 years old, she is the youngest, highest certified dancer within the Suhaila Salimpour Format and currently holds level 3 certification. She can be contacted at Laleh.Banaei@yahoo.com.