Why bellydancers, anyway? (part 1)

This is a question we get asked on occasion–and it seems to have popped up more recently than it had before.

Rather than give the same “origin” story of how we hooked up with Zweena bint Asya and Troupe Taleeba ( http://taleeba.tribe.net/ ) back in December of 2004, I’ll give y’all some of my background, which may (I hope) show that this history of collaboration isn’t just something that happened out of the blue.

As some of you know, I (this is Jon the cellist, btw) was born in Thailand and am a Thai citizen (I still haven’t bothered with getting US citizenship) and came to the states with my mum when I was a wee little lad. I grew up here in the states and spent the first several years of my life in a relatively bi-lingual environment. The first songs I learned how to sing were Thai songs–alot of the first music I heard (discounting the music I heard in Thailand) was Thai pop and folk music (I’ve since come to the realization of how much Indian filmi music, especially from Bollywood music, has influenced Thai pop music from the 60s and 70s).

But I’m talking about dance, not music, right? Well, my mae (“mae” is a transliteration–terrible one since Thai is also a tonal language–of “mom”) would also show me what traditional Thai folk dances, especially Lakhon, looked like. Of course, Thais, just as Arabs and Arab-Americans have their own style of dancing to their indigenous music (I’m sure many of you have been to Arabic music concerts and seen this). So I grew up seeing this, too.

Here’s a youtube clip of traditional Thai dance style: http://youtube.com/watch?v=fEyFDC8_ZIo
**note the prominent usage of hand gestures (called “jeeb” in Thai) that shows traditional Thai dance’s roots in traditional Indian dance hand gestures (called “hastamudra” or simply “mudra”). Thai Khon (a classical court dance for men) shows the Indian influence even more. Oh–the song is in “maw lam” style (not that the person who posted it noted that) which is a folk song/music style of the Isan region in Northeast Thailand and Laos (where I was born–this is the first music my ears ever heard). The photo above is Kristi Renee dancing with Thai fingernails used in the traditional Thai dance, Fawn Lob, and me singing in Thai Classical Chant style to lyrics that my mae wrote called “Ter Jaak Pai” (January 13, 2007 at Kira’s Oasis).

As most of you know, or have guessed, I am a classically trained musician. I started playing violin at the age of six, and then cello at seven.

Again, this isn’t about music, but about dance. Having the classical music background means that as is usually the case (especially at and after the secondary education level) you get some knowledge of classical dance (otherwise known as “Ballet”). While I never got the chance (in high school, at least) to work with ballet dancers, after my father remarried, I spent my junior high and high school years getting to know ballet relatively well as both my step-sisters and step-mom were all classically trained ballet dancers (my youngest step-sister eventually went on to intern with the Louisville ballet, and presumably–though I haven’t been in touch with her lately–is dancing professionally now). Of course, part of the classical music repertoire includes concert suite arrangements of ballet pieces (probably a good third of most classical music that is normally heard in live performance is ballet suites–even without the dancers).

**Interestingly, and probably ironically, Kjell Skyllstad has proposed a hypothesis ( http://www.intermusiccenter.com/Articles/Northern%20Creativity%20across%20cultures.htm ) tracing French ballet (note that all ballet terms are in French, where the dance solidified as an art form) to South East Asia (especially Thailand) since Monsieur de La Loubère recounts his trip (in 1687) to Thailand (known then as Siam) with the young André Destouches (15 at the time) who was later to introduce Opera-Ballet to the French stage. It’s not really all that strange a thesis, really–recall also that the French martial art, Savate (also known as “French Kickboxing” or “French Footfighting”), purportedly has its history in French sailor foot games–the French have had a long history of colonialism in South East Asia (hence French Indochina) and who better to experience the native South East Asian martial arts–which coincidentally is sometimes called “kickboxing” (because of the prominence of attacks involving the legs and knees)–than French sailors who have tons of leisure time when not actually sailing.

By the time I was studying music at the university, I had the chance to formally work with dancers of many types in either performance or in workshop settings. Well, I suppose that I had that opportunity as early as junior high school, since I’ve played in a number of musicals (pit orchestras) where many of the musical numbers were for choreographed dance, but that wasn’t as intensely focused an experience as it was by the time I was in college.

So I’ve played for, or worked with, ballet dancers, modern dancers, show-tune dancers; I’ve taken workshops in traditional African Dance, Brazilian Capoeira, Modern and experimental dance. I’ve even danced in live performances (yeah–me), especially in mid to late 90’s. more about some of this in “part 2,” however. You’ll just have to be patient– 😛

I first saw a “real” belly dance performance (albeit, on DVD) in 1999 (outside of most of the cheesy, and often inaccurate depictions in the cinema, of course). It was a dual release (CD and DVD) by cellist, Erik Friedlander ( http://www.erikfriedlander.com ), and his world jazz quartet, Topaz–a release titled “Skin” ( http://movies2.nytimes.com/gst/movies/movie.html?v_id=203179 ) on (ironically, another South East Asian reference) the now defunct label SIAM records.

The dual release included an instrumental jazz cover of Iranian pop diva, Googoosh’s, “Sahel Va Darya” (Incorrectly titled “Sahel Va Danya” on both the CD and DVD release). On the DVD belly dancer, Amira Mor, performs. So, back in 1999, I knew it was my destiny to work with belly dancers. And yes, il Troubadore will eventually be covering that Googoosh song. It will be neat to have a tune in Farsi, to add to our other two dozen langauges, after all, eh? 😀

more to follow in “part 2″…

originally posted here with some comments:


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