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Dancing from the Belly
by Melinda Heywood (a.k.a. Melina)
About the writer: Melinda Heywood (Melina) belly danced from the womb and grew up performing nightly with her mother Rhea and sister Piper in the tourist tavernas of Plaka in Athens, Greece. Throughout her life she has straddled the worlds of belly dance and academia, earning a doctorate in Medieval French Literature in 1997 from the University of Pennsylvania and performing and teaching the Art of Middle Eastern Dance on the side. As an adult she has performed extensively throughout the U.S. and Europe, and tours with Circus Flora, a European-style one-ring circus. Melinda is currently writing a memoir on her experiences growing up belly dancing in Greece with Rhea, and she is bringing up her own daughter in the tradition of oriental dance.
Mom has always said she gave her two daughters the best gift a mother could: in no matter what foreign country we might for whatever reason get stranded, we would always find some Greek or Middle Eastern venue in which to belly dance and make enough cash to get back home. It has been to her great regret that we never did get trapped in some strange land and need to perform our way out (although I can never travel without packing a costume, just in case). She is the one who courts adventure as a way of life; we have been boring and disappointing daughters who have chosen to get lost -- not in Morocco or Turkey or Prague -- but in the halls of academe, toiling away at our doctorates. (Momís impression of a stereotypical academic: ďLook! Itís alive! Letís kill it!Ē) Meanwhile, it is Mom who has chosen to live as a gypsy artist belly dancer in Athens, Greece for the last 23 years. It is she who runs off to Egypt at a secondís notice to dance by the Blue Nile and whirl with the dervishes; it is she who climbs Mount Sinai, dips her body in the Red Sea, breaks bread in Bedouin tents, and teaches dance seminars in Finland and Germany, while my sister and I stay on the East Coast of America banging our heads against books, not dancing full-time.
The first photo that I have of myself dancing is in utero. It is a black and white photo from 1969 taken at the Berkeley Fiddlerís Convention in California. My mom is six months pregnant with me, belly dancing with arms outstretched in coin costume, beaming at the outdoors audience. My older sister Piper, then 6, sits astride her shoulders, her little fingers reaching out to match Momís. Mom is accompanied by my dadís folk band, the Pittsburgh Pirates, playing ďLittle Egypt.Ē Piper, Mom and the as yet unborn I form a unique belly dancing triumvirate, a reconstituted PiŤta for the first dance of matriarchy. When I finally emerged into the world, three months later, I was primed for Middle Eastern rhythm, impromptu performances, folk music, and Rock ní Roll.
It was not long after that photo was taken that I first performed on my own two feet. At the age of two, I danced at the Parthenon in San Francisco with a costume pinned to my diapers. I shimmied fearlessly on stage, mimicking the hip movements and snake arms I had been witnessing since birth. A little boy, sent by his parents, came up on the stage to tuck a tip into my costume, but his plans changed when he saw the bills already waving at him out of my diapers. Instead of giving me his dollar he decided to take some of mine. We wrangled over the money and I won, of course. My mother didnít teach me to sit back and just let things happen to me.
Later, when I was learning to count, it was my job to pull out the sweaty ones from Momís coin girdle back in the dressing room after a show. I carefully uncrinkled the bills, smoothed them out one by one and put them all face up with the heads facing in the same direction. Then I counted out loud as Mom changed out of her costume, dried off, and donned her evening gown. The next day, at the supermarket, sheíd let me spend some of the cash on fruit roll-ups and Marathon bars.
When I was at Wellesley College, Mom would sometimes send me her tips made from dancing in the tourist taverns in Athens. She folded them into her long letters handwritten on torn loose leaf, letters usually composed in stream of consciousness style on a ferry boat in the middle of the night on her way to do some gig in Crete or Corfu. She always sent 13 one-dollar bills, because 13 is momís lucky number, and this denomination provided me with some kind of mystical protection. Poised in sweats before my dorm mailbox, I would thrill to see the air mail envelope with her familiar script because I knew that it doubtless carried tip money along with some unparalleled tale of adventure and human drama. Seated on the bed back in my room, I would bring the bills up to my nose and inhale deeply, smelling the sweat from her hips and back mingled with opium perfume and the retsina fumes of Plaka tavernas. I would spend the cash slowly and mindfully, dollar by dollar, on coffee in the student center, or a book.
Now I have a daughter, and though less than a year old she has already had dancing adventures with her Grandma in Greece. She also shows great promise as a dumbek player, banging on the drum with gusto as I teach private lessons. I muse that I will be happy to give her a skill that, should she ever find herself penniless and stranded in some strange country, she would be able to dance her way back home. And I hope too that she will write about it.