Sacred Props

When I was six years old, mama Rhea took her sword, finger cymbals, black liquid eyeliner and all the belly dance costumes she had ever made and moved from San Francisco to an entirely other country called Greece. Mom's costumes were hand-hewn. She drilled holes into hundreds of antique foreign coins, used pliers to attach jump rings and sewed them one at a time on to her hip belt.

At the time, I had never heard of this place called Greece, but I was intrigued to find out about the ancient ruins there that were very often dedicated to Athena, powerful goddess of war and wisdom (with her props of shield and owl), or Zeus, head honcho of Mount Olympus, (with his spectacular lightening bolt props). At the time Mom left the states, I knew a lot about belly dance props and what you were supposed to do with them but I didn’t know much about Europe or Greece or Athens – I barely knew about the rest of the U.S. for that matter – but now I was going to be with my mom in this mythological ancient city, a city that she said had called to her, and now, through her, it was calling to me as well.


I mentioned a sword. Rhea’s teacher, Jamila Salimpour, had first placed that sword on Mom’s head and said “Dance”, and thanks to Jamila, Mom became one of the first American belly dancers to take sword balancing into the context of a belly dance cabaret show. (Check out the story: its in Kajira Djoumahna's Tribal Bible). The sword became Rhea’s signature prop, and she is still a master of the balanced blade.


In Greece, Mom would glide from gig to gig through the streets of Plaka, and when I finally arrived in Athens, I walked each night by her side. She wore a long purple velvet cape covering her costume and in her hand carried a sword in its scabbard. Every night waiters in the outdoor tavernas we walked by would yell out:

“Rhea! Are you going to KEEL ME WITH YOUR KNIFE?”

And other brilliant remarks in the same vein. Every. Single. Night.

We would regally ignore them and keep striding, goddess-like, along, which was brilliant on our parts. I imagined that Athena was up on the Acropolis looking protectively down at us with her shield and fluttering little owl. Athena had our back should we ever actually need to 'keel' those waiters with our knife.


Nowadays, belly dance students rush to balance the blade before they have even learned to dance, or adequately developed as artists. In their haste to show off a skill, they miss opportunities to create personal sacred balance ritual, to make magic with their prop. Some common mistakes: Dancers unceremoniously plop the sword on their head and then shimmy like speed demons. They try to make it look too easy, put their fingers all over the ‘sharp’ end of the blade and rush to show all they can do under the blade. If you’re going to put a prop on your head, take your time and treat the whole process with respect. You are enacting dance theater, an otherworldly, revelatory slow motion moment of power and drama in your dynamic dance repertoire.


Be present in the moment, take the time to practice and develop a real relationship with your prop, and be clear in your mind about what that relationship is. What is your dance story? What ideas and images are you projecting with your prop? Make sure your priority is still to be a good dancer who radiates awareness and presence under the blade. Above all, don’t let dorky people take your prop from you and run around restaurants slashing the air like pirates. Woe to those who touch my props without asking. And if you do ask, I will smile, say no, and secretly skewer you in my mind. If I offer to show you, that is another story. Like the international circus performers I have worked with and still learn from, I take props very seriously: they are alive; they are my livelihood. Like Athena’s shield, they are important extensions of myself and my craft. Word to the wise: never touch anyone's prop unless they offer. It's none of your business. It's their magic.

The first time I was asked to teach a seminar on balancing, I wasn’t sure whether to do it. I asked my mom what she thought, she said no. My mom had always made a point of NOT teaching sword balancing, figuring that people should experiment on their own. Her idea was that dancers should observe the craft and technique of established, expert dancers at work with their props then work things out for themselves, hopefully adding their own original ideas to their act. You never want to ‘lift’ ideas, undigested, from other dancers – you want to create your own original concoctions. I agree with her on that count, students don’t do enough observational fieldwork anymore (though perhaps with YouTube that is changing – its just sad there aren’t as many real, non-computer venues to frequent in order to see great dancers accompanied by a live band doing a real 5-part show as there were in the 70s). But I went ahead, thought things through for myself and taught the seminar anyway. I sat down to think through our ‘family secrets’ so I could translate them to the students in some organized, meaningful way.

In the end it felt a bit unsettling to reveal our trade secrets, but it was also liberating to share, and the response I got was gratifying. Students have told me they pinned my hand-outs above their mirrors for inspiration, and incorporated balancing work into their lives on a daily basis. They were being given permission to take risks, try things and be creative. With a sword on their head.


Process not Perfection

Learning to belly dance is like learning a new language -- you can't expect to speak it like a native speaker right away. You learn a few words (movements) here and there, then develop the grammar of how to link the words, how to use punctuation and pause... and then slowly, with practice, you gain fluency. Relax into your body and enjoy the journey. And remember - once you are proficient, there is always still more to learn, especially if you want to create a poem with your dance and treat it as more than just a form you are filling out. Belly dance, like its infinity shapes and circular movements, is a lifelong discovery. When you stay curious, when you stay engaged with the process, it can lead you deeper and deeper into yourself.

I was so happy to find the following interview with Michael Cunningham from the book The Very Telling: Conversations with American Writers By Sarah Anne Johnson. Cunningham reinforces the notion of the artist as one who diligently follows the vein of their passion. Patience, perseverance, and fascination with the process itself are key to an artists' work:

“I’ve come to think that what we call ‘talent’ is inextricably linked to a bottomless fascination with the process itself, that an artist of any kind possesses, among other qualities, the desire to do it and do it until it comes out right.

It took me some time to understand that what I needed to do was not reform my natural inclinations, but to give in to them.

I’m not convinced that writers must only write about what they know, but I’m sure we should only deal with that about which we care passionately.

Have patience. Don’t panic.”

Belly Dance Marketplace

This piece first aired on NPR's Marketplace in 2003. I got to record it for the radio on location in the WBUR studios. I was told that in my speaking voice I had a "sibilant s" which is the first time I had ever heard that term. I liked the word and thought it should be spelled "sibyllant," like the Cumaean Sibyl. A prophetess, yessss. But no, my "s" sounds more like a hissing snake...which given the fact we are dancing the 'dance of the serpent' is entirely appropriate.

This photo was taken in 1978 at the Athens by Night Taverna where I performed every night with my mother Rhea of Greece. I was 8 or 9 years old.

Belly Dance Marketplace

My first lesson in economics came backstage at the Parthenon Taverna in San Francisco where my mom belly danced on Saturday nights. I was two years old, and already I knew exactly where money came from: it came right out of Mom’s coin girdle after a show. It was my job to pluck out the cash and count it up. One by one, I’d pull out the sweaty dollar bills, carefully uncrinkle them, and make humid piles of ten as she changed into her evening gown. The next day, we’d go to the supermarket and spend these same bills on fruit roll-ups and Ho-Ho’s – or at least that’s what I remember buying. Not only did I learn to count this way, but I intuitively knew that the number of grocery bags we carted home was in direct proportion to the amount of tips Mom had made the night before. She was a popular dancer, which translated to a lot of groceries in the trunk of our Morris Miner.

During that same year I made the more personal connection between shimmies and cash. One night I decided it was time to take to the raised stage with a costume pinned to my diapers. Audience members, beside themselves before the spectacle of this diminutive toddler belly dancer, leapt to their feet to tuck tips into my Lilliputian hip scarf. Among these admirers was a little boy, sent up by his parents to add to my wealth. Upon seeing my cash bounty waving gaily at him from my costume, the boy sought instead to make a cash withdrawal. We wrangled over the money and I won, of course. My mother didn’t teach me to sit back and just let things happen to me. I learned early that once having acquired money, you must fiercely protect it to prevent its loss.

It wasn’t until the age of seven, after Mom had moved to Greece, that I began to dance professionally in earnest. The currency was now foreign, but the fiscal concept was the same: if I danced during Mom’s performance, she would pay me 100 drachmas a night. Since I enjoyed dancing and preferred to be up on stage with Mom rather than getting my little freckled cheeks pinched by the Greek waiters in the kitchen, it worked out rather well. Plus I learned that if you saved up your money over time, you could buy things that really mattered. By the end of the summer I had it all: a bicycle, a bracelet, and lots of magazines with Charlie’s Angels on the cover.

The one thing that Mom never really taught me about was banks. For whatever reason, we saved our money in hats, boxes, books, hollowed out cabbages in the fridge. Our cash may not have earned interest, but it did gather dust and mold. Eventually I learned that a penny saved is just that: a penny saved. I stopped saving up to buy stuff and learned to love the process of just saving up, watching my stash grow, thinking that eventually I might need it for something really important and I’d be able to provide it for myself. Indeed, my childhood belly dancing earnings quickly got swallowed by my college tuition bills, but I’m pretty sure it was worth it: after earning a B.A., M.A. and PhD in French Literature, I’m back to belly dancing for a living (that's a whole other story!)

The Marketplace essay had to be very short and ended there, but here are more of my thoughts on tipping that could come in handy for dancers or audience members. Aha - finally we reach the crux of the double meaning of my blog, "Tips from the Hip." OK I will spell it out: I am passing on "tips" about what I have learned about the nature of "tips" (money given by audience members as appreciation for a belly dancer's performance). These tips are things I learned from a childhood dancing literally at the hip of my mother, who also received tips in her hip. Have I beat this double entendre to death or what?

In the belly dance world, tips can be a hotly contested practice with two major camps:  those who accept tipping as part of their dance performance and those who do not. There are valid reasons to stand on either platform and I respect everyone's choice especially if they have thought it through. I stand with my mother, my sister, and the long tradition of cabaret belly dancers who do accept body tipping at the hip, as long as there are off-limit zones and the practice is done tactfully and with humor, dignity, cultural sensitivity and wit. Belly dance has long struggled to attain a reputation as an honorable art form, as important, reputable and well-considered as ballet, modern and jazz dance.  Great belly dancers have worked hard in this country and others to elevate the art of belly dance and bring it to the theatre stage, removing it from the lively taverna atmosphere and cleansing it of its "hootchie kootchie" dance reputation from the time of the World's Fair in the 1800s.  My sister Piper did her part in this by founding the BellyPalooza festival in Maryland and staging the "Belly Dance Magic" Show at the Baltimore Museum of Art theatre.  My mother Rhea always does her best to rebel in these more rarified settings by leaping from the stage and dancing into the audience for a more immediate transfer of energy.   She hates how theatre lights blind her and always makes the lighting guys put on the house lights when she dances -- she wants to see the audience and her affect on it.  Guess which dancer got a standing ovation in the last Belly Dance Magic show!  You can take Rhea out of the taverna but you can't take the taverna out of Rhea!  

There is something magic about the taverna context and the community aspect of the tipping ritual. This is the time where the audience can show off to their friends and display their wild good natures, their wealth, their appreciation of the dance artist and join in the dance.  Instead of passing the hat, belly dancers are given money showers, money necklaces, or respectfully tipped at the hip.  If money falls to the ground we dancers do not stoop to pick it up with our hands - this is considered very bad form.  Tipping time is often an expected part of the dance in a taverna / restaurant context, and the dancer must be a superb diplomat in nonverbally guiding the audience to the most respectful way to tip her.  She must understand different cultural mores.  When I haven't "gone around for tips" customers have mournfully approached me later with the reproachful "you didn't come around to our table," and pressed a crumbled bill into my hand.  

The art of going out for tips is a performance unto itself, where the dancer must be able to read the make up and mood of each table, decipher what country they might be from, divine who is the one everyone would like to see celebrated or teased, understand who would like to get up and dance, who would prefer to stay seated, and who would, after protesting they don't want to dance, actually secretly enjoy be dragged on to the stage. You can learn a lot by just placing a hand lightly on a shoulder and reading the person's energy. If it resists and is hard as a rock, better leave the person alone. If you sense a movement, pliability... they want to come and dance!

Tipping time is the ultimate improv situation.  The dancer must be ready for anything. She must be gracious and quick -- and above all, not act like it is about money, for in the end, it is not.  It is about the ritualized interaction between a modern day goddess and the audience who has just been transported by her hip work and grace to another dimension.  

I always tell dancers I mentor: Never count your money in front of the customers!  Never pick up tips that fall to the ground!  Never leave your tips unattended in the bathroom.  Never let your boyfriend collect your tips.  Always tip others who help you.   Beware little old ladies who lean in to tip you in your bra strap.  One elderly woman once knuckled my nipple when I least expected it.  I didn't waste my energy getting pissed off -- I just laughed it off and moved on, marveling at the new ways I realize I must be on guard when I'm in the tip zone.  Spectators, please don't tip me when I'm balancing a tray of lit candles on my head, the fire is real and the tray is not held on by glue!

Tipping is the ultimate landscape for social anthropological study. What type of person will first tip the dancer? Whoever you are, we love you! If they leap to the stage and shower you with a stack of bills, goddess bless them!  Others follow suit. If they come up on stage with a $20 bill and respectfully tuck it into your hip for all to see, goddess bless them!  Others may follow suit.  If they wave a $1 like its the Hope Diamond and summon you over whispering "this is for you if you take care of my friend over there" - whoosh!  You will see Melina disappear from your orbit leaving the dollar waver still gripping his dollar which is now fluttering in her wake.  If you find little kids trailing you like the pied piper -- train them to pick up all your tips and put them into your prop box -- goddess bless them!  Don't linger by patrons who haven't tipped you or lunge for money just because its held out.  Dance, laugh and keep it family friendly.  

I have uncrinkled steaming money from every country of the world.  It connects me to the world and the world to me.  It is an honest tangible exchange.  I learned the many techniques of dealing with tips and tipping from watching my mother, who has a knack for humor and human relations.  You learn how to engage, who to ignore, and when to run.  

Melina's belly dance and circus arts studio is Moody Street Circus in Waltham, MA. Ongoing classes in the dynamic, organic Daughters of Rhea "vintage oriental" style - check studio calendar for listings.

The Show Must Go On

Gritty Little Essay

I grew up in show business life surrounded by artists, dancers, performers and musicians. My family and most of their friends made a living performing in theaters, circuses, bars, nightclubs and tavernas, from the funkiest shit holes to palatial rock star stadiums. No matter what the venue, they all shared the same dogged work ethic and "show must go on" mentality. For the committed performing artist, even if the sword you are balancing slips off your head and glances into your thigh and now you are spilling blood onto the stage (case of my mom), the Show Must Go On. With rare exception, you show up and do your thing. The audience rarely sees the blood, only your passion.

Just a few weeks ago, while acting in a play in NYC, an actor in the family suddenly couldn't remember any of his lines, even with prompting. He stayed onstage, read his lines, play book in hand, then immediately went to the Emergency Room. He was diagnosed with having had a "little stroke" while on stage. It was "little" because even as he wasn't remembering his lines, he knew he wasn't remembering his lines, and he could recall everything else about the experience afterwards. The doctor told him to lay low for a bit. The actor had another idea: he went back to work the next day and remembered all his lines. His chances of having another little stroke are higher now, but then again, another one may not come along at all. One thing is for sure: he was not going to sit at home "healing" instead of following through on his life's work.

My dad remembers playing his guitar in a wheelchair in front of a half million people outside of Paris with Country Joe and his band. Elton John had just been playing this venue, shortly after the release of his "Get Back Honky Cat" album. While on the France tour, Dad found himself crawling around in agony on a plush carpeted hotel room in Marseille, puking his guts out. Turns out he was having an appendicitis attack. After surgery, he was stitched up and lay around in a haunted chateau, not eating, not drinking, attended to by a massive doctor with a goiter coming out of his chin. He couldn't yet walk and the scars were fresh but there was a big gig coming where the "Paris sessions" were going to be recorded live and he would be damned if he wasn't going to be there with his guitar and wawa pedal. Dad was wheeled onto the stage -- a big picture of the band with dad in the wheel chair was featured in Paris Match magazine. Dad was always there for a gig -- "you get a're not gonna miss a fucking gig - somebody's gonna pay you to do this? (play your guitar). There is a certain heroism to the show must go on mentality -- other people are depending on you to show up and do the gig - "I played sick, I played high." With his street singing, "you don't work, you don't eat."

My husband Sacha, a circus performer whose family goes back in circus 5 generations on both sides, can't even remember a time when he missed a show. One incident he does remember is about a tiny little boo boo he suffered. One day he was bringing a heavy teeter board (part of his family's act) backstage and dropped it on his toe. His toe nail turned black and the toe swelled so much he couldn't squeeze it into his white unicycle boots for the next act. He quickly cut out the top part of a tennis shoe so the bulbous bandage could stick out while he was on the unicycle.

When I was a teenager growing up performing multiple shows at multiple venues nightly in Greece, there was a time I had to cover for my mom's belly dance shows at the Athens by Night tavern in Plaka. Mom was away doing an extra contract performing on some island. I came down with a terrible flu and had a fever of 104. Did I call in sick? No. I performed all through it. Mom would have lost her jobs to other hungry performers if I didn't show up. At one point in my show I perform a Turkish drop -- after spinning in place I leap into the air and then land (safely when executed properly) on my back with my knees bent and my legs tucked under me. I remember enjoying the fact that - for just a moment and to dramatic effect, I could just lie still, breathe and rest. Lying there, I indulged in the passing thought that perhaps I would never muster the strength to rise again, and then, mustering the inevitable strength, I slowly ascended in a back-bended position to execute elegant snake-like movements on the floor, glowing in a feverish and holy sweat. Another time in my 20s I was in Circus Flora playing the role of Hope, the winged allegory from the Greek myth of Pandora. I started the show in a Pandora's box in the center of the ring and had to climb out and dance in my golden wings after all the sinful imps were let loose by Pandora. But this one day, Hope was gripped by a horrible bout of diarrhea and fever. Bet you can guess whether Hope made her cue or not! I went into the box, nearly fainting, but I went, and somehow managed to contain the runs until I got back to the port-o-potties behind the tent.

So when a belly dance student or colleague calls me up to ask my advice on whether they should do a show because their neck is acting up or they have a fever / foot twinge / emotional distress, I say -- "Are you sure you want my advice? Its probably not gonna be what you want to hear." I myself do not put this question out into the universe, it only gives the problem more life. Most of the seasoned performers I know don't even talk about their pains. They aren't going to stop doing their work no matter what, so why gripe about the twinges, the swellings, the pain?

I grew up in the school of hard knocks -- you go on stage and smile through you pain. The more you rise to the occasion the stronger you get. In the end it comes down to a choice you are making, a pact with yourself. Are you going to be true to this gritty and wondrous artistic path or not? If you are, then show up and do it. If you aren't, then get out of the frying pan, douse the fire and find another line of work.

And then there come the times when the show can't go on. The one and only time my mom had to cancel a workshop she was to teach was when she fell down a steep flight of stairs the night before. I found her lying bleeding from the head at the foot of the stairs, mumbling on about how she was pretty sure she could still teach the next day. It wasn't until she couldn't stop throwing up and her concussion was confirmed that we realized she wouldn't make it to the workshop. I went in her place, refunded everyone in full, and taught them all for free for two hours. The Show Must Go On. Mom hasn't been the same since this fall, has traumatic arthritis and bikes around Athens because it is too painful to walk -- but she still teaches and does her exercises everyday. "If you rest, you rust" says on a post card framed in my studio. I was always impressed by Jack Lalanne who said if you are injured in one part of your body well you can sure as hell work out the rest of the parts. Never give up. Or, as my mom says: "Better live on your feet than die on your knees."

You have to choose to think this way. I am lucky because I was brought up to think this way, and examples of performance artists with fortitude, foolhardiness and courage surrounded me. I'm fairly sure this work ethic was how I made it through my Ph.D. program. even as I had to deflect strange, overly-affectionate behavior from my dissertation advisor. Excuses and victim-mentality are distracting and feed the hungry maw of weakness and resistance. I'm not saying other ways are right or wrong -- you just have to recognize what choices you are making. The more you practice this type of thinking and action the more you see that you can survive and you will survive and the world survives around you, even as you plunge yourself into your art. You emerge from the challenge stronger and more self-confident as you are always testing your limits and exceeding them.

NOTE TO MY STUDENTS: This method does not apply to my teaching, where protecting your body is of the utmost importance. I want my students to have a long dance life and not take silly risks. This philosophy only applies to those have chosen the gritty, holy road of show business. Although it can apply to life, if you feel the call.

Joseph Campbell

There are so many reasons I admire Joseph Campbell's work and writing. He always inspires the artist to be brave and live by the strength of their own convictions, even if it goes against the sentiments of prevailing society. Here is a quote from his book "Hero with a Thousand Faces:"

"The modern hero, the modern individual who dares to heed the call and seek the mansion of that presence within whom is is our whole destiny to be atoned, cannot, indeed must not, wait for his community to cast off its slough of pride, fear, rationalized avarice, and sanctified misunderstanding. 'Live,' Nietzche says, 'as though the day were here.' It is not society that is to guide and save the creative hero, but precisely the reverse. And so everyone of us shares the supreme ordeal - carries the cross of the redeemer - not in the bright moments of his tribe's great victories, but in the silence of his personal despair."

The day is here. It is not always easy to heed your own call, but you must. What are you going to do about it today?

Breathing and belly dance

What are you doing with all parts of yourself when you dance? Are you going inside, feeling the earth, following your breath, sensing the sky, giving love to your audience and yourself? And are you breathing while you're at it? A lot of people lose track! And that is totally natural. We all hold our breath when learning new techniques in any discipline. I even find myself holding my breath when I'm plugged into the computer in the course of my cyber business, stopping my inner flow and bracing myself as I bump along the choppy internet river. And its true, in belly dance there is a lot to keep track of -- like how are you standing? What's going on with your pelvis - where is it looking? Are your knees rotating inward or outward? What part of you is bearing the weight? If one arm is up in the air looking gorgeous, what is the other hand doing? Is it a dead energy hand, dangling by your side in sad neglect? What part of your body is initiating a movement? Tune into the whole of your dancer self, from feet to top of head, through hands and arms. The path I take is breath. Breathing into all parts of you to keep everything energetically pulsing, even if its just a gentle, relaxed charge. In the warm up I try to tune everyone into how to stand and to go inward, following the breath inside of the body as the lungs fill, then exhaling fully while visualizing and locating our center. Relax, center, pay attention to your inner workings, and your outer expression will sing more beautifully.


The temple bell stops--
but the sound keeps coming
out of the flowers.
(translated by Robert Bly)

I love this little Basho poem. What bells are we ringing? What are our actions and how do they affect the quality of energy that we offer to the world? When I ring my bell I hope the reverberations are sweet for the flowers around me.

The Goldfinch.

This beautiful excerpt is from Donna Tartt's latest book The Goldfinch.

"...we can't escape who we are...As much as I'd like to believe there's a truth beyond illusion, I've come to believe there's no truth beyond illusion. Because, between 'reality' on the one hand, and the point where the mind strikes reality, there's a middle zone, a rainbow edge where beauty comes into being, where two very different surfaces mingle and blur to provide what life does not, and this is the space where all art exists, and all magic, ...And - I would argue as well - all love."

Trying to live with the greatest clarity in that space where magic exists.