Diversity is the word for Princeton’s Middle Eastern dance troupe, Raks Odalisque’s, show this spring. It is a medley of dances, moves, costumes, colors, music and women.
Their repertoire ranges from Turkish pop hits to Armenian and Bulgarian folk dance, from gypsy dances and flamenco to drum solo beats. This year’s show will open up with the energetic "Zill Piece," in which they dance with "zills," which mean finger cymbals in Turkish.
In this dance, the dancers do not only have to get every single step right, but also play the "zills" right while dancing, which takes a lot of effort, but creates an image and sound that makes it worth all the work. Not only the dance itself, but also the rhythm of the "zills" takes you away.
"Fiery and Exuberant"
Another part of Raks Odalisque’s repertoire, the Armenian folk dance, looks simple but truly beautiful. Yana Krasteva ’05 pointed out that the dance is not as simple as it looks.
"The same intricate footwork [the girls do] along with the flirtatious attitude captivates the attention [of the audience]," she said.
Krasteva will also perform a Bulgarian folk dance with Candace Mootoo ’05, the president of Raks Odalisque. Yana described this dance as "a fiery and exuberant one that taps into the Balkan passion and temperament." These folk dances move the group toward a more ethnic and diverse direction, reminding the audience that the dances of the Balkans, Anatolia and Middle East go far beyond belly dance.
It is impossible to go this show and leave without getting drawn to the beautiful, ethnic, colorful costumes. As people who have seen Raks Odalisque shows know, the costumes are not as revealing as the usual belly dance outfits, but carefully picked, so that every member can be comfortable with what she is wearing.
Another eye-catcher is the accessories, which could definitely be used more.
The dancers do not only use musical instruments such as "zills" and tambourines while dancing, but also veils and colorful shawls that they wrap around their hips, with golden coins hanging form the edges. As they swing their hips side to side, the color and the glitter takes you on stage with them.
The performances and style of a new dance group like Raks Odalisque are influenced primarily by their members. As a result of the change in membership, Raks Odalisque’s dance style has changed slightly from last year. According to memeber Irina Marinov GS, the groups’ dances are centered around Turkish style this year, rather than the Egyptian style, which was dominant last year.
This is a consequence of the departure of last year’s seniors, who used to dance in Egyptian style. Egyptian style is one that is closer to ballet and more refined, whereas the Turkish style is more earthy and closer to the way Gypsy, or more politically correctly, Romany people dance.
Another outcome from the departures of the founders and the core members of was a sudden decrease in their membership. It was obvious to the group that unlike the other dance groups, they needed to stay inclusive in order for their show to go on. That is why one needs not audition, but simply take belly dance classes at the Dillon Gym to join the group.
The membership is mostly made up of dancers who are first and second year belly dancers, although most of them have had dance experience in other dance genres. The atmosphere during their practices and rehearsals are not intimidating at all, since all of the dancers are learning together, regardless of how much dance background each has.
Besides the membership decrease, one of the problems they complain about is the finances. Putting on a show at Princeton costs a lot, especially one that needs costumes as intricate and unique as this one.
"While other ethnic dance groups, like Naacho, are able to rent their costumes, there is no such market for the rental of expensive Middle-Eastern costumes, so we have to buy the costumes at relatively high prices," Marinov said.
Since the funding from the University is inadequate, sometimes they buy the costumes with their own money. As I was talking to them, the girls were paying Mootoo for the clothes she had bought. The fact that its is a rather new group, without extensive membership and a broad alumni community to help out the members has led to a financial struggle.
Celebrating the female shape
Yet, this group of women is strong enough to face anything. This year it is impossible not to notice the diversity in their membership. The dancers come from Japan, Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Taiwan, Canada and the U.S.
One thing these women of different colors, different ethnicities, different ages and different bodies share in common is the confidence they have in their figures, in their femininity and the interest they have in movements that celebrate the female shape.
"We are all feminists at heart and proud to be women," Marinov said.
While the media influences masses to associate belly dance with nudity, sexuality and objectification of women, it is amazing to see intelligent Princeton women from all sorts of different backgrounds to break these prejudices, and show us this art form cleansed of all the presumptions about it.
On the stage beyond their bodies, you see skill, concentration, flirtation and empowerment through movement, and respect them all.