Dancing in a Whirlwind

Dancing in a Whirlwind

A Dramatic Review by Halowah

Introduction

Any dancer is going to find the play “Dancing in a Whirlwind” controversial on some level. Yet, all dancers will relate to many of the images and performance stories, both tragic and comic, recounted in the first person by solo actress Anne Galvan, who plays retired bellydancer, Zoumiah Hanoum. In the long term, this play may help chronicle the lives of American belly-dancers in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s.

Zoumiah Hanoum. Photo: Franziz Kakis.

The play is written by Richard Caulfeild Goodman, and based on an oral history he compiled from Zoumiah herself. In fact, Zoumiah was present all the nights I attended the play, and maintains a keen interest in all aspects of the production. Its premiere was produced by Tailspinners Theatre during June, 1994, at the Cable Car Theatre in San Francisco. Paul Hellyer directed. The play may next be produced in Los Angeles, so stay tuned for more details.

The Healing Powers of Self-expression

With its humorous vignettes on the life of a professional bellydancer, the play should delight any fans of dance and dance performers. On a deeper level, the play explores how a woman used dance to heal terrible wounds and to recover her inner strength. There are moments when the protagonist and soloist says things that simply make you, as a bellydancer, want to cringe. However, the underlying drama is so powerful that most dancers can overlook the occasional unlearned remarks about the art form.

The play brilliantly shows bellydance as a means of healing, and a sometimes spiritual expression that helps Zoumiah miraculously emerge from horrible experiences of her childhood. Into the first act, the play describes the brutal gang-rape in a New York parking lot when she was twelve years old. The gang almost ritualistically mutilated her with switchblades, slicing her cheeks and slitting open her abdomen. Not only is the stomach the softest, most vulnerable part of the female body, but it is also the seat of a woman’s creative power. Later in the play, Zoumiah places her hands on the center of her body, just below her breasts, and says simply, “This is the seat of my soul.” The audience realized this is a woman who is not only physically scarred, but goes through life with a wounded soul. The raw intensity of language, and Anne Galvan’s emotional power in this scene leave the audience in frozen shock.

 

The Whirlwind as Metaphor

The rape and its repercussions become the dark whirlwind that sweeps through the play and carries Zoumiah along — a well-chosen visual image. It seems that sometimes she controls it by centering herself through dance:

“(Dancing) calmed the storm in my mind. The storm stays with you and torments you, but it was as if I moved into the eye of the storm, into a patch of calm where I could recover my being.”

Then there are times when Zoumiah cannot control the storm. At one point, Zoumiah must (under her old marriage contract) ship her children off to school and ends up in the hospital with a drug overdose, “as if that storm in my mind sprang out of control, spinning me into total darkness.” And, finally, at the end of the play, Zoumiah looks back on her tragically shortened childhood:

“Those boys, the boys who raped me, were blown in like leaves in a whirlwind of destruction. They sure as hell came from abused backgrounds, and they spread that abuse like an airborne disease. I was lucky. I went in another direction. And THAT was SOMETHING!”

A month after the rape, fleeing from an uncaring mother and a father who simply did not know how to help her heal, Zoumiah lived on the streets for a month before she was taken in by a house of gay male performing artists. The men treated her as their daughter, feeding and clothing her, sending her to parochial school and Duncan (Isadora Duncan-style) dance classes.

The Making of a Dancer

While living with her Greek immigrant father (a musician and maker of ouds and doumbeks), Zoumiah had been exposed to Greek and Arabic music and culture. But it was within the Duncan milieu that she began to express herself emotionally, even when it meant she must experience suppressed emotions from her tragic past. By the end of the first act, Zoumiah tells us she married young and left the gay house. We don’t know much about this part of Zoumiah’s life from the play. It picks up again in the second act when she describes herself as a working single parent of four, bravely deciding to make a living as bellydancer. In an effort to distinguish herself from others, she traveled to Egypt, stayed with her father’s relatives and sought out dancers she could learn from. After lessons from a young village girl whom she carefully selected as her teacher, she embarked on her professional dance career in Florida and the Bahamas.

(Editor’s note: In a recent in depth interview of Zoumiah and playwright Richard Goodman, Haloweh and Zulya touched on Zoumiah’s performing years in the sixties and early seventies, when she was in her twenties and early thirties. Zoumiah commented: “New York had excellent dancers…Morocco, if it is the same one…Yzula, or was it Zula?…I started in New York, but I sprung out in Florida…the Fountain Bleu…” and other hotels on the beach. She also owned and operated Zoumiah’s Egyptian Gardens in Tarpon Springs, Florida.)

It is in the second act that the focus is truly on Zoumiah’s dance experiences. Although abuse and exploitation continue to plague her, the woman Zoumiah has new strength (and anger) with which to face them. When a well-known movie figure visiting her Bahamas nightclub extinguished his cigar on her hip (!), she dashed his drink in his face and called him a bastard. Of couse, she also finished her set. Dancers in the audience grinned when Zoumiah told how she punched a sleazy night club owner who then crumpled at the feet of his non-plussed Haitian chef who looked at her approvingly, and murmured, “Tres bon!”

Many phrases from the play are timeless classics for dancers: “When I came back from Egypt, I was BROKE!” or “I had to have a coupl’a ouzos to calm my nerves” (before a big audition at a club on Eighth Avenue in New York).

 

Actress Anne Galvan as a feisty Zoumiah

Anne Galvan’s portrayal captures Zoumiah’s fieriness and feistiness as well as her incredible vulnerability and depth of emotion. There is a pixiish charm to her when she tells a humorous story. Just don’t expect her to give a brilliant dance performance, because she’s had only two dance classes from Zoumiah. However, you can expect great mastery in her use of simple props on stage to evoke complex images, as well as in her emotional pull of the audience into Zoumiah’s rollercoaster life. She cuddles up in a huge woven straw chair when beginning a story, and strokes its large round back as if dusting off a painting or a mirror. Her ability to emotionaly pull the audience into Zoumiah’s rollercoaster life in a grueling solo performance earned a standing ovation at the show’s end.

Bellydance in the Play — Lofty Art or Lowly Trade?

The writer’s inability to grasp the artistic aspects of the dance is apparent from the beginning of the play. At first, you think it might just be slightly crude humor. A middle-aged Zoumiah in leotard, tights and coin belt frantically rummaging through a box of cassettes mumbling “Where IS it…where IS it?” starts the tone of the play with a soft laugh from the audience (especially in a house full of bellydancers). In her brassy New York accent, she playfully and offhandedly describes a bellydance performance to an imaginary potential student as “a dance of seduction…a great art, but STILL a dance of seduction.” She rattles on in a didactic tone, “And there are five phases of seduction —fastslowfastslowfast.” Everyone laughs again.

Admittedly, the play does have a direct, raw, and graphic style — as the protagonist herself says, “You think I’m frank? Good! I’m just telling you how it is. It’s human — natural!” However, an example of exactly how “frank is frank” is when Zoumiah describes the five phases in great detail. The first three phases are mostly tolerable. The first phase is, of course, the entrance: “project an image of youth and beauty — like a proud, beautiful girl.” The second phase (veilwork) causes a few eyebrows to raise when she describes men’s hands disappearing under the table as “you build your sensuality to a crescendo.” The third phase probably rings true to most dancers: “Show ‘em what you got!”

And the fourth phase, the one where dancers in the audience cringe noticeably, is described as “the act of fornication — what else can you call it?” which is graphically illustrated by the actress as she sinks back onto the floor pumping her hips vigorously and energetically. At this point, the “non-educated” element of the audience is hooting with laughter and the various dancers present are shrinking into their chairs, wondering how to apologize to the colleagues they’ve invited along. After the fourth phase, of course, the fifth phase seems tame, casually described as “some offbeat thing to show your gratification or thank you.”

This interpretation of the “five phases” clearly shows the writer’s unfamiliarity with and confusion about the nature of this art form. This was confirmed in subsequent conversations with Zoumiah, who seems caught in a typical conflict with the writer over truth versus more “saleable” fiction. The actress reminds the audience that there are certain things you have to do for the money, and “you’ve got to earn the rent.” The next part of the play describes Zoumiah’s ambiguous fascination with strippers, especially with their ability to “tease and leave” their male customers.

Yet, Zoumiah insisted in a conversation after the show that while belly dance is a dance of seduction, it is not performed just for men. “That came out of Richard’s head. I really don’t think he understood what art bellydancing is until we saw live performances at the Grapeleaf Restaurant last week,” is how she left it. The way the play is currently structured, however, unenlightened theatregoers may be led to believe that the only difference between stripping and bellydancing is that bellydancers leave their clothes on.

Recommendation: No regrets!

Towards the end of the play, Zoumiah says nostalgically, “Bellydancing — it was a great career while it lasted. No regrets!” This reviewer has no regrets about seeing the play, whose astute study of this vibrant and expressive woman greatly outweighs its inability to depict the dance as art.

Halowah (a.k.a. Betsey Flood) currently resides in the Bay area, where she is a marketing consultant and writer. She began her illustrious dance career in the library at Bryn Mawr College, where, inspired by a roommate’s dare, she took a beginner class with Habiba (Barbara Barber), who was the serials librarian at the time. A veteran traveler to Egypt after one trip in 1993, Halowah is now considered an expert in Middle Eastern affairs. She owns two Mdme. Ablas and performs every Friday night at Marrakech Moroccan Restaurant in San Francisco. helwa1@pacbell.net

Copyright © Habibi Publications 1992-2002, Shareen El Safy, Publisher.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.