Nov. 12, 2007
Fifteen belly dancers in the valley earn their living entirely from the jiggly art, acccording to the Las Vegas Belly Dance Intensive workshop.
None is male.
However, as I am proving on a busy Saturday night at the Greek restaurant Opa!, there may be an untapped market for figure-eights traced out by a hairy paunch.
"Shakiro: the world's only beer-belly dancer" is a hit, according to the 20 customers hurling dollar bills at my bare feet and cheering (some with the traditional Arabic ululation).
Dressed like a visiting uncle from "I Dream of Jeannie," with enough bronzer to stand in for George Hamilton, I shimmied my midriff and did tummy rolls to the beat of a live Greek band. I even performed "snake arms" while balancing a 5-pound steel sword on my head and lowering my rear to the floor with my knees.
Now I've been called out of the dressing room for an encore, which I grant even though lack of material forces me to repeat all three moves the crowd has already seen.
"Belly dancing is freedom," said Farasha, my trainer and dance partner. "It's such a beautiful art -- just being able to express yourself and tell a story of ancient times."
Farasha -- which means butterfly in Arabic -- studied belly dance since she was 12 and went by the name Deneen Miller.
"Every Halloween, I dressed up as Cleopatra or some ancient temple dancer," said the Oxnard, Calif. native, who is in her 30s but won't reveal how far in.
The origin of belly dancing is murky, although the phrase was invented by a promoter at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893. (Arabs call it raqs sharqi, for "eastern dance.") Belly dancing is most commonly believed to stem from prehistoric Middle Eastern fertility rites designed to strengthen the female abdomen and pelvic muscles for childbirth.
"I feel like I am channeling women that came before me thousands of years ago," Farasha said.
Modern belly dancing -- popularized in Egypt 70 years ago -- is almost exclusively a celebration of the female form. However, males were more involved eons ago, as evidenced by Ottoman Empire miniatures of bare-naveled young men and boys in "Walk Like an Egyptian" poses. Regardless, I doubt that this argument would have curtailed the snickers and finger-pointing I received from the packed gym that overlooks Farasha's instruction studio in the spa at the JW Marriott.
"Those guys sure are enjoying you," said one of Farasha's female belly dance students upon entering the class.
Farasha the butterfly was a caterpillar until five years ago, when she found herself cocooned by what she described as an empty marriage, a provincial town (Leominster, Mass.) and a dead-end career (receptionist in an advertising office). Belly dancing on the weekends wasn't enough.
"I was dying inside," she said. "I didn't want to get a minivan and be a soccer mom."
Whenever the phone at her desk wasn't ringing, Farasha scoured the Internet for a way out. One day, she found the number for a belly-dancer agent in Las Vegas.
"I sent out a video performance of myself," Farasha said. "They flew me out here and I've never looked back." (Farasha's husband remained in Massachuseets, quickly becoming her ex.)
Before her regular weekend Opa! gig, Farasha also performed at Caesars Palace, Romy's Cafe and the former Desert Passage mall.
"I was told constantly, 'Oh, you can't make a living from belly dancing,' " she said. "But I proved them wrong."
In addition to her instructor salary from the Marriott, Farasha earns $80 for each 20-minute Opa! show, plus tips. But it's the private parties and corporate events that really butter her pita bread. They pay $150-$500 each.
OK, so what I haven't told you yet is that every move I have performed so far is wrong. Farasha basically alternated between two reactions while trying to teach me each of 10 basic moves: "We'll come back to that one" and "You're kidding me, right?"
Even snake arms, the most basic, proved impossible. On the way up, the right palm faces down, shifting gracefully to up on the way down. The left arm does the opposite at all times.
I can pat my head and rub my stomach at the same time, but switching always means trouble.
"People think it's easy," Farasha said, launching into a variation of a speech I get during most of these assignments. "Belly dance isn't something you can just learn in a few hours."
Nevertheless, Farasha figured out how to cover my weaknesses and make my movements appear correct. (Britney, see this woman before your next MTV Video Music Awards.)
For instance, instead of isolating my atrophied abs for a proper tummy jiggle, Farasha suggested running in place using tiny footsteps. The result is surprisingly similar.
Farasha was duly motivated.
"You have to do us justice," she insisted, "because people don't realize all the sacrifices we make. We go to classes, we spend thousands and thousands on costumes. And it's still not as respected as it should be.
"Especially in Las Vegas, the art gets confused with stripping," she continued. "And I am not a stripper."
It worked. None of Opa!'s 75 diners vomited their baba ghanoush. They didn't even seem to notice when one of my faulty snake arms accidentally thunked against my sword, sending it wobbling up and down and nearly off my head.
"You were great!" is the only review I am able to elicit from table after table. Henderson resident Pat Carrell goes as far as calling me "really sexy" (and, surprisingly, this Pat was female).
Littering the floor is about $50 in tips, mingled in with the $150 started, as per usual, by Opa!'s bartender from the tip jar. It is a good night.
"You should dance with me regularly," Farasha says, without a hint of insincerity.
Attention prospective Las Vegas male belly dancers: You can't say that I don't open doors for people (other than for my fiancee when we go out).
Fear and Loafing appears every Monday in the Living section. Levitan's previous adventures can be found at www.fearandloafing.com.