Reluctantly, I dance.
December 23, 2022
“I need God.” These were the words allegedly whispered by the Lebanese dancer, Dany Bustros, to her confidante before she tragically took her own life with a bullet. In the moments leading up to that fateful shot, Dany found herself besieged by financial distress stemming from accumulated losses and a lawsuit she had filed against a lover, a lawsuit she swiftly retracted. Furthermore, she had also endured the heart-wrenching loss of her son, who tragically drowned in 1994.
I delve into these details as we approach the twenty-fourth anniversary [Dec. 27, 2022] of the demise of this audacious dancer who fearlessly challenged the unwelcoming aristocratic milieu that cast a disapproving gaze upon belly dancing. Additionally, the significance of the number twenty-seven holds sway over me, although I don’t know why. Alas, my memory no longer echoes its former self, but that is a tale for another time.
An Anthology of Trailblazers
Before Dany, numerous dancers rebelled against the norm and achieved greatness. A handful managed to escape a troubled past or a destiny fraught with anguish and destitution. If we cast our gaze solely upon the graduates of Casino Badia Masabni—who herself had endured the trauma of childhood rape—we bear witness to a staggering chronicle of rare suffering that spared no dancer.
Among them, some were prematurely snuffed out by cancer in their forties, like Naima Akef, while others met their end unnoticed by neighbors, their demises only discovered when a putrid stench permeated the adjacent apartment, as tragically transpired for Zeenat Alawi. Nearly all the luminaries of the “golden age” fled from homes where beauty waned, making way for cruelty. It was the cruelty of a father or the tyranny of a brother, as exemplified by the lamentable case of Taheyya Kariokka.
Poverty also befell many of these trailblazers, individuals who had amassed considerable wealth through their artistry and talents, only for their husbands or ex-husbands to seize their assets. Even Casino Badia itself succumbed to closure, and the queen of dance underwent a transformation from the stage to the dairy and cheese business. How many pioneering dancers were compelled to surrender while beset by illness, their cries muffled by the inability to afford the exorbitant costs of treatment… and the list goes on, forming an anthology of rebellious and shattered dancers.
It becomes arduous to disentangle the sinuous hip movements from the toll exacted by their revolutions.
“Fire unveils the essence… I lost half of my body… I became disfigured,” Carineh expressed after enduring decades of suffering during the cherished “golden age.” She, the Lebanese professional dancer whose body was engulfed by flames at the pinnacle of her artistic career during the transformative “reconstruction era.” Carineh embodies resilience as the fire attempted to extinguish her, only for her to triumphantly extinguish the flames when she resurrected.
Dance typically arises from deep within, composed of ancient manuscripts or particles of oppression that have become ingrained in the body’s memory, or from a yearning that intimate secrets cannot articulate. Yet, it is rare for dance to resurface from burns that have etched their indelible marks upon the body. However, Carineh demonstrated the improbable. She wholeheartedly embraced her identity as a dancer upon her return from the fire, undeterred by its horrifying impact.
Between the proclamation “I am grateful to God” that Carineh uttered as a proclamation of her revived existence, and the plea of “I need God” that Dany voiced as her flame was extinguished, there is little difference. Like their predecessors, both sought with audacity to discover a flicker of life amidst the abyss of death.
So Carineh returned to her joy and her wounds, two sides of the same coin. I had the ambition to get to know her, and I had the honor of dancing with her two or three times in 2014 or 2015—I no longer remember. My memory is not the same as before, and that’s another story.
Thus, Carineh reclaimed her joy and her scars, two interwoven facets of her being. I aspired to acquaint myself with her, and I had the privilege of sharing the dance floor with her two or three times in 2014 or 2015—I no longer recall. Alas, my memory no longer echoes its former self, but that is a tale for another time.
Carineh imparted to me her observation that my body executed a few movements with imprecision. I believe I resorted to those motions at the time to release a fragment of my essence into the open air, within a new world that I alone could possess. That was the day I comprehended, through the disappointments of my futile psychotherapy sessions, that a facet of femininity I endeavored to craft for myself awaited my knock upon its door.
I honored it, knocked, yet the door remained closed, and swiftly I comprehended. I understood that I could not rely too much upon my reflection in the mirror to survive while I danced. I could not remain confined forever, for I had to gather my scattered fragments and draw strength even from my remnants.
I possess a body in this world
Then it dawned on me, my struggle with the realm of physicality and techniques. It appeared that I often sought the conclusion of a scene before embarking on a fresh beginning, hastening its closure before allowing it to fully unfold.
For years, this translated into a constant battle to execute the dance in its entirety—from the elevated shimmy to the low one, from fleeting belly flutters to more protracted ones, from a slight tilt of the head to a graceful arch of the back, from a complete revolution to a measured half-turn, from the shimmy of a petite midsection to that of a more ample one… or however you may wish to describe it.
All I yearned for was to devour every movement and emotion, encapsulating them within a single moment. The blueprint was crystal clear within my mind; it merely awaited the image that would bring my journey to its culmination.
Then arrived the most daunting of challenges: distributing the comprehensive movement across the precise number of beats spanning a chest drop and a belly pop, allowing the hips to respond in an interplay, back and forth, eventually culminating, perhaps, in the swaying of the buttocks, thus forging a unique closure.
The original body that invented all of this must have harbored a personal desire to torment me and remind me that the adage “Oh, I am so feeble, and yet so young” was written expressly for me, as I spend the majority of my time snuggled up within my own thoughts.
But something compelled me to cling to this corporeal art, if that is the appropriate terminology, despite not perceiving myself as an artist nor pursuing any specific designation. I lack the luxury of time to indulge or train as diligently as I ought to. I hold fast to dancing because it serves as a reminder of my physical existence. It imparts a subtle message, whispering, “You possess a body in this world.”
Reflecting upon my journey, I discern how my exploration of feminism and dance matured in perfect harmony. Reluctantly, I discovered that suffering and strife possess distinct identities. I sought, and reluctantly, I unearthed the notion that the body harbors a narrative that belongs solely to itself, and so I danced.
Today, I grasp onto the hem of my “dancer” costume as steadfastly as I grasp onto the essence of a feminist’s garb, engaging in a perpetual dialogue that shapes and transforms me. Practice becomes infused with fury and then pacifies, rebels and ferments, ascends and eventually descends, much like the classical preludes in the vibrant paintings of the 90s that kindled our movements, perhaps because they delighted our mothers. In truth, I find little disparity between a dancer who commands the stage and a woman who claims ownership of the streets.
Nor do I perceive a significant distinction between a dancer who births joy and a young woman who reclaims dominion over her body. Likewise, the demarcation blurs between a dancer who shatters taboos and a mother who rebels to simply fulfill her desires.
And thus, reluctantly, I dance. Despite the fleeting nature of my breath.
By Maia Al Ammar