Washington, DC–Every Saturday, the Middle Eastern restaurant posts a picture of a young blond woman in her twenties, with thick eyebrows and glowing reddish lipstick, posing for the camera. She is wearing a purple veil and a two-piece suit that reveals more than it hides. Underneath the picture the ad reads: “Dinner for $9.99 only.”
Everyday, early in the morning, the same woman walks down Washington, DC’s Nebraska Avenue Complex. But this time, she wears thick eyeglasses and a formal blue suit as she heads towards the headquarters of the US Department of Homeland Security (HS). In her office at the immigration department, it is hard to recognize Asala, the 25-year-old part-time belly dancer.
The young dancer sees her job at HS as a means of generating a steady income, while her weekend belly dancing shows represent a break from her government job and busy life. For her, there is no contradiction in this.
In downtown Silver Spring, Maryland, Asala arrives fifteen minutes before 8:00 PM every weekend. Through the decorated gates of this Moroccan restaurant, Asala drags her purple suitcase to her dressing room, bare of furniture expect for a wall mirror and makeup table. She replaces her eyeglasses with contact lenses and pulls on her belly dancing outfit.
There is no stage and no musical accompaniment — only an old stereo system in the corner. Asala is greeted by more empty tables than occupied ones and a waiter with a white robe and red turban serving a table of six Middle Eastern men. A second waiter helps an American mother with two children learn the names of Arab dishes listed on the menu.
At 8:00 PM sharp, the snap hip shake — accompanied by a mixture of oriental rhythms and drums — silences the whispers of the modest audience. For thirty minutes, there is a seeming disharmony between Asala and her audience, members of which appear to think twice before clapping for the hardworking dancer.
But something else is missing. Asala’s wide smile fades as she attempts to grasp the meaning of the Arabic lyrics of the love song to which she is dancing. “I’m taking Arabic lessons, but I’m still in the beginning,” she says. “I only know a few words.”
Nevertheless, she continues her act with confidence: the hip shake, arms flying in the air, a stainless steel sword across the waist in a balance game.
Belly dancing is one of the most ancient forms of dance — and one of the most mysterious in terms of when and how it first appeared. Some have suggested that the first belly dance was performed by the ancient Egyptian goddess Isis, while others think it began as a child-birth ritual.
There is no firm answer as to the art’s true origin. What is certain is that modern belly dancing has been widely perceived as being the oriental equivalent to the "strip tease," generally performed by women of ill repute — at least in the conservative countries of the Arab Middle East.
With this perception in mind, Asala is careful not to make any moves that might be misinterpreted. “I don’t move in any way that might be seen as suggestive or seductive,” she said. She also says she avoids making eye contact with men in the company of wives or girlfriends. “I try to be classy with my dance,” she said. “I respect my art.”
Could this self-censorship be the reason for the apparent disharmony with the audience? Or is it the gap between an art form from the East performed in the West?
Asala complains of the “reserved” nature of American audiences, who let her down when she extends her hand to them to join her dance. “The American lady sitting next to her kids seemed interested in my dance, but she refused to stand up and join me,” she said.
The group of young Arab men, meanwhile, is debating the killing last month of 12 American military men by a Muslim psychiatrist of Arab origin in Fort Hood, Texas.
Born in New York City, Asala was first introduced to belly dancing as a freshman in college, where she joined four other dance enthusiasts to form a belly dancing troupe. “I loved it!” she said.
During her junior year, she worked as in intern on Capitol Hill while taking private belly dancing lessons given by an American dancer married to an Egyptian musician. “I saw belly dancing as an expression of feminism that taps into the strength within,” she said.
After graduating college, Asala continued with her lessons, all the while applying for various jobs with the US government. In less than two years, she was hired by HS. She doesn’t like to get into the details of her job, though, sufficing to say that she works "in the administration."
Asked if her colleagues were aware that she moonlights as a belly dancer, she said: “I invite some of them to attend my shows but not everyone. I don’t see it as a problem."
She says that she earns more money dancing at night clubs and private parties than she does from restaurants. For tonight’s show, she will be paid between US$80 and US$100. At private parties, though, she can earn twice as much.
Ultimately, Asala sees the art form as a supreme expression of feminism. “I think of belly dancing as a kind of sport that is not as abusive as ballet,” she said.