How the Arab-American community in Southern California greatly affected my dance and changed me for the better
Guest Author – Adrianne (USA)
When I started out taking my first belly dance class I had no idea how this dance would greatly affect my life. I was painfully shy and I had not found my voice or strength yet. I still felt so young and naive, I was 26 when I started my dance journey. But something about this dance pulled me in, maybe it was the glitter or the music. But once I started working with the local Arab-American community here in Southern California something in me changed for the better.
Years ago at one of our local bely dance haflas I meet some of the gigging dancers in town and they asked me if I wanted to work and make some money. The manager would book me at local Arab-American night clubs here in Southern California and take a cut of the money for booking me. I honestly still don’t know why I agreed to join her. I’m a morning person, I can’t stay up past 10pm, I hate being in situations I don’t know what’s going on and I never leave my comfort zone. But for some reason, I said “yes”.
I had “the look” and a basic understanding of the music and culture thanks to my class training from Sa’eeda and Tamra Henna here in Los Angeles. So my gigging dance career went form zero to 100. It only took a couple of weeks for me to start dancing at multiple clubs each weekend. The next stage of my dance education was about to begin. Seeing how the dance exists among the people. The doors opened wide for me into the Arab-American community. I was invited into their homes, personal celebrations and life’s biggest moments. I was finally able to see and practise all the knowledge that was given to me in my first dance classes. What I didn’t expect was how they would change me, teach me to be a better, stronger person.
The Dancer Persona
I have always been a shy introvert. I barely spoke up in school and I was always known as the quite one. When I showed up to my first solo gig the Egyptian owners assumed not only that I knew what I was doing but I would command their hookah lounge. They made it clear I needed to get every single person up to dance. While I had a very extensive education in Egyptian dance, nothing really prepares you for your first solo gig at an Arab-American establishment. I was absolutely terrified once I walked in, completely out of my element. I’m usually in bed by 9pm, I hate crowds and loud music and now here I am at midnight waiting to dance as laser lights and smoke fill the room.
I had to pull from deep to find my confidence. It was sink or swim and I needed to really put on a great show. I don’t like not succeeding, so from there I created her: The Diva. They always say fake it until you make, it so I changed my persona and became someone else, confident, full of life and joy. The Egyptians in the room would sing loudly and gesture to the music and encourage me even more. The louder they clapped the more into my character I would dive. They gave my inner-diva permission and acceptance, she started to grow bigger and stronger. It was in these smoky rooms the I was able to grow my dance persona. I was the boss.
As I would dance I would watch the women and men, I’d analyze their reactions and take notes. After each gig I’d sit and think about which moves and actions I did that had the most reception from the families I was dancing for. The more I fell into the “Feminine but in charge” category the more they loved me. Soon I could easily accept the challenge of convincing every one in the room to dance or engage with me. Within 3 months of gigging I went from faking confidence to actually having it.
I started noticing this new found confidence creeping into my life off the stage too. I walked a little taller, more sure of my decisions. I knew if I could control a rowdy crowd of men on the dance floor, I can really handle anything. My whole life I had been searching for confidence and I found it on the dance floor in the smokiest, loudest of lounges.
I have always hated confrontation. Any time I had to stand up for my worth or ask for what I needed I would usually give in or give up. I remember one night early on in my gig career the manager handed me my payment and it was $20 short. My heart was racing, I was going to have to speak up and convince them to give me the the full promised payment. I stood my ground, showing them text messages and making it clear I wasn’t going to leave without my full payment. This was very new for me and terrifying. I had never really spoke up in my life before! And to my surprise, I got the full payment. I was honestly shocked. I didn’t know I had that in me, and at first I didn’t even know why I won that negotiation.
I soon learned that the art of negotiation was a very big part of the Arab-American community here and it came into all their business dealings. For them negotiation was expected and they enjoyed it too. I started studying how my clients would approach me for work, the words they would use to try and justify a lower payment amount. I had to quickly learn some solid tactics and approaches to get my preferred payment amount. It was perhaps one of the most challenging learning journeys I’ve ever undertaken. But soon I found that these skills were helping me in my normal life too.
I was easily able to negotiate more transactions in my daytime life. I was able to get bills corrected at a higher success rate and refunds from bad services. I always thought I would never be able to speak up for my worth, but I found it’s like a muscle that I you need to strengthen and it’s possible. Even at my corporate job I’m now easily able to negotiate with vendors for lower rates, and that has been noticed by my bosses. When my husband and I visited Morocco many shop keepers would say “You negotiate like a Moroccan not an American”. That’s because I learned from the best.
Hospitality & Relationships
I don’t think I ever left a gig without being offered food, ever. Numerous times my payment was followed with “Do you want some falafels to-go?” I’ve had the food at most major Middle-Eastern establishments in the Southern California area. Many times the restaurant managers seemed very adamant about giving me food or tea, they wanted me to stay and chat. My inner American was confused, why can’t I just get payment and leave, we don’t need to be friends this is business.
But I soon learned how important hospitality and relationships are in business for my clients. For years I did graphic design and marketing for an Egyptian family that would host major signers from Cairo here in the United States. All our business meetings had to be done over a meal. Even when we meet in one of their 5 businesses, a back room of an AC repair shop surrounded by scrap metal, equipment and file cabinets from 1987, I was always served tea and lentil soup over our meetings. For them it was rude to pay me and for me to leave. Building that relationship made our business dealings stronger. I was more in-tune with their marketing and event visions because of our meals together.
Soon I was able to easily sit and chat with them get to know why the singers were so amazing and create marketing materials that made everyone happy, including the stars of Cairo. It was sitting and listening that I was able to see just how valuable relationships are in a business. My clients wanted someone they can trust, someone they know gets them. And we’re not going to get there by only talking about the project and payment. It’s deeper than that. We need to make sure we are comfortable and welcome and what better what than sitting at the table with tea and food, breaking bread together.
I found that in my day job I started building relationships. I would bring people in other departments food and check in on them and their families. I soon found my bosses noticing I was one of the most resourceful people at the office since I had connections across so many departments. I was because I took the time to feed people, sit with them, talk to them and build those relationships.
My family never listened to music. Not while working around the house or on the car, we had family parties with the TV and radio off. I’ve never heard my mother or father sing a song. Music was not something my family brought into my life. Being a 1980’s latch-key kid with unlimited access to MTV greatly impacted me, but that’s another story for another day. Once I started working in our local Arab-American night clubs it instantly struck me how much they loved to sing along to my set music. Especially the classics. My western-taste assumed they’d prefer my drum solos and modern remixes more than the classic songs, but I was so very wrong. Early on in my gigging career I saw a dancer play Batwanees Beek by Warda and I was so moved by how into this song the audience was! They sang along , they waved their hands, they sang to each other with such joy in their faces. I immediately added the top classics to my shows.
As the Arab-American community soon started hiring me to dance in their homes for their private celebrations. It was common for me to arrive finding Un Kulthumm playing in the background. I was moved by how much music meant to these families and community. How much it was the background to their lives. It was more than just a song they liked. Personal memories were tied to this music. No wonder I’ve had a few clients scold me for cutting their favorite versus out of 10 minute song. Music is life.
Seeing how the music is so much more than a song gave me a much deeper appreciation in my dance and helped me better connect to the music. It’s more than a melody and rhythm, it’s life’s sound track. Now when I dance I still imagine the faces of families I danced for, their gestures and emotions as they sang along. It helps me find in myself those same life experiences to bring to the dance floor. This has really affected my dance and how I approach each song.
These days I rarely gig as I’ve gotten older and I’m done with the hustle. Over the nights of coming home at 4am with smeared eye shadow and dirty sore feet. My stable corporate job allows me the freedom to dance when and how I want. I can live my artistic life on my own terms now. But I’m a much different person because of the work I’ve done over a 10 year period in the Arab-American community here. They challenged me and made me grow. Families encouraged me, fed me and taught me. I’ve seen all sides of their complex lives full of joy and pain. I am forever grateful for the opportunities given to me and the challenges I accepted. I’m a better person today because of the families I danced for.I hope to never stop learning from this community.
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