Wednesday, 20 June 2007

Belly Dancers by the Bay

Text and pictures: Tim Coleman
A titillating trip to San Francisco and its tattooed belly dance troupes, Fat Chance, Ultra Gypsy and Indigo.

Published in: Skin&Ink Jul 07 and Taetowier-Magazin (German) Jul 07
Translation from English to German: Petra Tilg
Re-translation from German to English: Ursel Meyer (Tribester)

Note from Ursel: Please bear in mind that this text is a re-translation of the original translation, and that it can’t exactly reconstruct the original text. Potential mistakes or misquotes may occur due to these circumstances. Thank you.

Five years ago, when I first wrote about the dancers of Fat Chance, there were only a few tattooed bellydance troupes. (Re-translators note: either the author or the original translator has to be mistaken here, as his first article on Fat Chance was published in the November 1996 issue of the Taetowier Magazin. I know because I own that issue, too.) But things have changed since. Nowadays there are tattooed troupes all over the US. For this article I met with three of the most talented from the (San Francisco) Bay Area: Fat Chance, Ultra Gypsy and Indigo.

Fat Chance – The Pioneers

All eyes are on the wave of dancers, gliding gracefully into the room. Flowers adorn their hair, hands play zills, and traditional costumes reveal exquisitely tattooed waists. Welcome to an exclusive event in San Francisco: the 20 year anniversary of Fat Chance Belly Dance, one of the most gifted bellydance troupes in America, that has more than anybody else contributed to inspiring a blending of the art of tattooing and this ancient dance form.

“People keep telling me that our dance and our body art impress them profoundly. They feel so inspired that they change their lives radically to include both into their lives”, explains Carolena Nericchio, founder of Fat Chance.

Just like they were the pioneers of the new tattoo aesthetic in bellydance, Fat Chance have also introduced a new dance style, “American Tribal”.”In traditional bellydance the steps are improvised by the dancer”, explains Carolena, “in American Tribal the dancers move in formation while the leader calls out the steps for the others. We use codified steps, and we don’t digress from them.” Six of the eight dancers are tattooed. When the founding members first met they were astonished when they discovered that most of them had been tattooed by the same artist. Her name is Vyvyn Lazonga. “It felt as if our tattoos created the strong bond between us, that brought us together”, confesses Carolena, “we thought it so strange and exciting”.

It is not surprising that some of Carolena's tattoos are inspired by Middle Eastern culture. The blue diamond on her back, done by Bill Salmon, originates from patterns on amulets of the Tuareg, a North African tribe. The hand of Fatima is a symbol that is used in the whole Arab hemisphere to repel evil spirits. The Arab word “ghawazee” on her back has two meanings: dancer and prostitute.

Not only in the Arab hemisphere people connect bellydance and sexuality. Western club owners have debased bellydance for decades by announcing performances in ridiculing ways as cheap vaudeville acts, sexually stimulating or openly erotic. Outsiders all too easily misunderstand the undulating movements of bellydance as sexual animation. This assumption enraged any dancer that I talked to.

Ultra Gypsy – The “Sisterhood”

El Rio, a bar in San Francisco’s Mission District, is packed. The crowd waits patiently. Suddenly a group of beautifully costumed women glides out of the shadows and onto the stage, accompanied by a firework of folk rhythms. This is Ultra Gypsy, another one of the famous and talented bellydance troupes of the Bay Area, that perform at parties, in clubs and in theaters. The founder, Jill Parker, started to learn the dance in 1988. Today Ultra Gypsy consists of 13 members, five of them are heavily tattooed.

The name of the troupe bears witness to Jill’s fascination for the culture of Gypsies. “Gypsies were always at the fringes of society”, she explains, “I like that, and I fully identify with their lives as outsiders. Gypsies are tribal people. They have much strength and a strong company.” A characteristic that she finds as well in the world of bellydance. “Ultra Gypsy is like a family. We are a sisterhood”, she explains, “we have a strong connection. None of us wants to make big money by dancing. We fulfill our artistic dreams, and that can be risky. You have to love what you do, and the people who work with you as well, otherwise you’ve got a problem.”

Jill believes that their tattoos contribute to the atmosphere within the troupe. “I think it is important, because it demonstrates our will to show ourselves, bear art on our bodies and tell the world something about who we are.”

Jill got tattooed before she discovered bellydance. Freddy Corbin did her biggest tattoo, an elegant grape-vine that winds around her hips.

Jill remembers how it was when she went to a bellydance class for the first time. “When I entered this room full of strong women, who were sensual without being competitive, I knew immediately that this was what I wanted to do”, she says, “ and many women who come to my class for the first time feel the same. It is a very deep and healing feeling.”

Indigo - Bellydance and Cabaret

It is late afternoon. I’m sitting in a cafĂ© in Berkeley and waiting for the appearance of two members of Indigo, another great tattooed bellydance troupe from San Francisco. Rachel Brice, the founder, and her best friend Zoe stream laughing and giggling through the door. I wave with an issue of the Taetowier-Magazin (or is it Skin&Ink?) and they grab their coffee and come to me. During the interview they share the microphone and present such a funny double-feature that my sides begin to hurt. “Don’t worry”, says Rachel, “we’re always like that, especially on stage”.

For both women it was love at first sight when they first saw bellydance at the California Renaissance Fairs. To Rachel it happened when she saw Hahbi ‘Ru dancing. “I saw them, and I was so touched it brought tears into my eyes. I felt something release inside me, and I wept and wept. The next day I started taking lessons. I never stopped dancing ever since.”

Currently only Rachel and Zoe are heavily tattooed. Zoe lifts part of her top to show a sherry bloom (cherry blossom?) design on her shoulder, done by Philip Milic of Braindrops. On her back there’s a crowned fairy with an eye at the center of the crown. “What does the eye mean?” I ask. “It stands for the third or the spiritual eye,” Zoe replies. “Yeah, Zoe has three eyes” jokes Rachel. “It may sound odd,” explains Zoe, “but it stands for a spiritual connection that I have with myself and the world around me.” “Honey, you’re cheesy,” Rachel japes, and both start to giggle once more.

Now it’s Rachel’s turn to show her wonderful flower design by Tex of Cold Steel, that winds around her muscular belly. Some Sanskrit letters are artfully worked into it. “They originated in the yoga sutras, written by the Indian mahatma Patangali,” Rachel explains, “they refer to the necessity of practicing yoga consistently and in humbleness for a long time, to reach your goal.”

2003 Rachel founded The Indigo Dance Company. Where does this unusual name come from? “It’s such a beautiful word and so full of spiritual meanings,” explains Rachel, “the root is Indian, and some people believe that bellydance originates in India, so that is a connection. But also the Tuareg in North Africa dye their clothing with indigo, and I’m enthused with their aesthetics. Then indigo is a royal color, even indigo as tattoo ink. There’s so much in it.”

“We love calling our dance style Dark Cabaret,” Zoe adds, “we draw our inspiration from the time period between 1890 and 1920. When women like Mata Hari and Ruth Saint Denis took up bellydance and interpreted it in their own ways.”

When Zoe and Rachel were studying with Ultra Gypsy, Jill Parker didn’t only teach them to become better bellydancers, but she also inspired them to get more tattoos. “When I danced with Jill, “ remembers Rachel, “I only wanted to watch her tattoo wind around her hips. It was so beautiful. And I thought I had to work on myself more.”

Since Indigo got told that they could get a tax refund for their tattoos, they feel motivated even more. “Yeah, we want to thank George Bush for paying our tattoos,” jokes Zoe. “Yes, thank you, George,” Rachel adds, “you’re no good otherwise, but this was really cool!”

Indigo are delighted that bellydance is spreading so fast all over the USA, and with it the tattoo aesthetic. “You know, it’s unbelievable,” says Rachel, “but I found out that some grannies in my classes consider getting tattooed for the first time in their lives. Women in their sixties and seventies who have discovered bellydance for themselves are now getting their first tattoos, and their grandchildren as well – oh my God, ain’t this cool?”

Source: an Ultra Gypsy forum

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