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The Dancer’s Musings

Fire and Embers

Recently, I had a poignant, sad, joyful and profound experience. I’m still working on processing the whole thing, through a range of emotions which are still startling me with their depth. It’s painful for me to think about, to process, and difficult to write…but I feel that I must.  The circumstances and story are SO expedient, and SO important for us, as Middle Eastern dance artists, to think about and understand.

Just before the Holidays, a beloved and respected member of the Boston area ethnic community passed away. He was a virtuoso musician, the oldest brother in a family of Armenian traditional musicians, who played in clubs in and around Boston, Las Vegas, and California. Any bellydancer who played on the same bill knew him as fun and supportive to work with, a respectful gentleman, and someone with a heart of gold.

I and two of my good friends, bellydancers all, who had worked with this man were invited to a very exclusive family gathering, a celebration of his life. I felt compelled to go, as did my friends. (Personally, if they hadn’t gone with me, I wouldn’t have by myself. I’ve attended enough funerals and memorials for those I love ( and so have they) so my face crumples and the waterworks start in earnest the second someone’s eyes water, or a voice cracks. But there’s strength in numbers, so we walked into the beautiful church hall together…and into a timeless space.)

The warmth and beauty of the decorations, the delicious aroma of Armenian food permeating the air, and the familiar sound of treasured songs from our past rolling from the twelve musicians onstage made us feel instantly welcome, although we knew only a handful out of the two hundred and sixty relatives and friends gathered there. All older now than our memories registered, familiar onstage faces broke into grins as we were recognized. We sat together at a table close to the band, as the room filled to capacity.

A feast was served: many tables full of mouthwatering appetizers were brought out first. The amount and profusion of these alone were more than enough for a meal for us all.  We savored them as we chatted and enjoyed requested songs from the past which poured from the band. Then platter after bowl of the main meal were brought forth, each aroma more delicious than the last, the band took a break, and we all indulged and savored the amazing repast. Every morsel was a labor of love prepared by our hostess, the daughter-in-law of the Armenian patriarch. In chatting with her as she paused in her work, she told us it had taken six weeks of painstaking planning, shopping, and preparation to produce this wondrous meal for us all!


As folks relaxed after indulging, loving stories and anecdotes were shared by family and friends of the departed one. They were punctuated by outbursts of tears, and more often by brays of laughter at the ways he kidded his family members. Hearing them, I wished I had known him better as a person, not only a musician. Intelligence, humor, kindness and talent were all wrapped up in the soul of this beloved man.

Then, oh, THEN! We stepped into one of the strangest, yet most familiar roles. As the band played fervently, we were warmly invited to chiftetelli and dance in the line dances with the family. And as all these folks saw the way we danced, they all encouraged us more, urging us to lead the intricate footwork in their line dances, and folkdance solo in the middle of the floor, clapping, snapping fingers, and whistling for us. It was exactly the same as if time had slipped back thirty years!

Grown grandchildren of their patriarch brought their shy children over to us at “the bellydancers’ table” (which was said in reverent, slightly hushed tones) as we took infrequent breaks, asking excitedly to meet us and be taught the line dance we’d just lead. (“We’ve never seen that one before!”) We happily complied, and felt their inclusive warmth and love, and a sort of respectful deference surround us as we danced the afternoon away. There was an agelessness, a special grace, and timelessness to those hours spent in celebration of one man’s life, and the larger legacy he left in his family.

From long years of habit, I caught myself closely watching my friend chifti with a little Armenian lady whose special footwork, sassy cock of the head, and lovely hand motions fascinated me. I would have added them all to my repertoire back in the day. (This is how we tailored a dance performance to the specific audience watching. We added the subtlest of timing, attitude, facial expressions and movement which we’d observed and studied at past ethnic celebrations and clubs where first-generation patrons danced between professional performances. And the surest way to get any ethnic crowd’s roaring approval has always been to observe that nationality’s most requested traditional songs, then include them in your show!)

We felt a unique love, honor, and appreciation from them as we shared the older knowledge of the folkdance we remember still, with a younger generation who’d forgotten it already. It felt to me as if we were able to light their new torches from the familiar ones we carry. I was grateful, and humbled by it.

As do all good things, the evening reluctantly came to a close. We trickled from the warmth and light of the hall in small groups into the chill darkness outside. Our conversation was sparse, and the car was quiet as we drove home. A tumble of emotions and thoughts in all our heads was too intense to process at the moment. Loss, validation, respect, affection, deference; we’d been honored as guests to share them with the family.

Looking back, my thoughts are these: As bellydancers we are, and have been, a different part of the local Middle Eastern communities. A part of them, yet separate, for many of us don’t carry one drop of Middle Eastern blood as our heritage. It is the people, the culture and its music that flows through our hearts which bind us to them.  Yet our use of the subtle, wonderful moves and attitudes we have learned from countless family parties, gatherings, haflis, kefs, glendis, and maharajans are what endear us to these same communities. They are what we still have to offer against a profound forgetting. Like the old torches lighting the new, we still have treasure, an ancient fire to pass on.

Often these days, I feel that the fire has faded to a tiny ember, yet one that still glows.

Right now, I am grateful for that timeless space I shared with friends and a warm Armenian family.  For that precious space, the ember caught, flared, and shone, burning brightly; yet its light was not without shadow.

Am I doing my best to fan its flame, and pass it on? Am I the only one who wonders?