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Bellydancing Gave Her Confidence and a Pain-Free Body

02/23/2015 12:43 pm ET | Updated Apr 25, 2015

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Mention bellydancing to most Americans and they'll envision sultry slave girls in a James Bond movie or sex workers in a tawdry lap dance club. But like most things the Western world has appropriated and perverted into something dirty, sex is not the focus of this ancient art form. Bellydancing was actually born to celebrate spirituality, motherhood, and family, and the incredible healing power of dance. Playing now through March 1st at New York's Theater for the for New City, you can witness one woman's transformation from both debilitating physical injuries and deep emotional insecurities through this multi-dimensional dance. Carol Tandava Henning has created a powerful and extremely funny account in Blood On The Veil which has enchanted both critics and audiences in previous productions. I recently met with her and was spellbound by her personal story and journey to heal herself.

Blood on the Veil is an interesting title. What do the "Blood" and "Veil" refer to?

"Veil" quite literally refers to a bellydancer's veil, but it is also symbolic of the feminine -- what's hidden, yet hinted at. "Blood" also is archetypally feminine -- for the obvious reason, although that isn't mentioned specifically in the show. But blood also represents injury and healing, which is central to the narrative, as well as emotion and vitality, which are key components of bellydance and this show.

The show is described as a "monologue-in-movement"? Is it a narrative story that uses bellydance to tell it, or a dance show with individual performances?

It is a narrative story, essentially a two-hour monologue, where I dance and talk at the same time, often using the bellydance movements to illustrate the words, which become a kind of music. In that way, it's very different from most dance shows as it is equal parts narrative and movement. There are several choreographed dances, and each show features three or more different guest dancers (there are 30 dancers joining me in the current run at Theater for the New City), but most of the dance is to the narrative itself.

The show is a seven-part autobiographical monologue about how I got into bellydance and the external and internal journeys it led me to take. The odd-numbered segments are actual stories -- "this happened, that happened." The even-numbered segments are reflections and meditations, describing how my internal reality began to change as I understood the dance more, and myself through the dance. In particular, how my appreciation of beauty and body-image began to change. In those segments, I also discuss the history of bellydance, through its roots in ancient matriarchal cultures, its current expression in the Middle East, and variations developed here in America.

Why are body-image and sexuality issues important to you, personally? Do you see the sexual aspect of bellydance as negative?

In first segment I talk specifically about having been shamed out of ballet dancing (and dancing in general) when I got too heavy as a pre-teen, and how bellydance helped me to recover my enjoyment of dance specifically because it is a form of dance that celebrates all different body types.

Initially I had reservations because of its image as a sexual dance. But as I learned more, I realized that, first, any dance can be used in a sexually seductive way. If you've ever seen Riverdance, you know even Irish step dance -- possibly the least sexual dance form -- can be sexually seductive. Further, seduction isn't just sexual. Every time I step on stage I am seducing the audience; I am showing them why what I have to offer is valuable and desirable, and hopefully inspiring excitement and interest. But that doesn't mean I want to have sex with them! And sexual seduction isn't necessarily objectification. Burlesque explores this aspect of sexual performance more fully, as many burlesque dancers find it empowering precisely because it embraces sexuality in a lighthearted and creative way that is enjoyable in and of itself to the performer and audience.

Sexual seduction only becomes objectification when the object of seduction is not seen as a full human being but is defined as an object that will accommodate another's sexual pleasure at the expense of their own authenticity. If your sexual expression remains authentic and enjoyable to you, then I don't see it as objectification; if your enjoyment comes from exerting power over another by embodying their sexual ideal, then the dynamic qualifies as objectification and manipulation. So inasmuch as bellydance expresses sexuality, it does so in a way that is healthy and authentic.

But the dance isn't necessarily sexual or sensual. As I mention in the show, bellydance - which is more accurately called raqs sharqi, Arabic for "dance of the East" or "oriental dance" -- is performed socially in the Middle East with no sexual intention at all. It is the folk dance of the region, done by men, women, and children who love it in the same way we love breakdancing. Plus they love that it can also be a dance of profound emotional expression.

Is this why you specialize in bellydance, as opposed to other forms of dance like ballet or ballroom dance?

Yes, appreciation of the body is the most important reason. Many western dance forms teach you to restrict the hips and torso in favor of the movement of limbs or the movement and position of the body as a whole. And while there is a great deal of form and technique to bellydance as well, it is centered on articulating the hips and torso while the limbs frame and accentuate.

You say bellydance has "emotion and sensuality"; can you elaborate on that?

As a dance focused on the hips and torso, bellydance is an excellent way to connect to that area of the body -- the belly -- that is disparaged in our culture. In the beginning of the show, I discuss my gym-obsessed days where my attitude towards my belly was to "crunch it, rip it, blast it, flatten it."

We direct these incredibly hostile words towards this highly sensitive part of the body -- the part that creates life! The belly also holds emotion -- some Asian traditions consider it the "hara", the source of the body's power -- and it is the first to tense and sicken when we are upset. So bellydance celebrates rather than restricts this power center.

I never thought I'd find a dance form where a jiggling belly made the moves look better! But heavier dancers can show the nuances of this dance better than a tight, cross-fit body type - which is exactly what happens with hip locks, shimmies, and other bellydance moves that send vibrations through the flesh. There is also a greater focus on feeling over form. Some of the best teachers use deep breath and vocalization techniques to access emotion and sensuality for movements with powerful internal contractions and isolations. These techniques are very similar to those used in acting to access strong, authentic emotions.

Now, authentic sensuality is important to emotional wholeness, but the sensuality of the body - the belly in particular - is what people often try to negate when suppressing emotions. Therefore accessing the belly can reconnect us emotionally.

So what is the difference between sensual and sexual? You said you don't see it as a dance of seduction that objectifies women. Can you elaborate on that? Why do you believe it has a positive effect on women?

First of all, if bellydance were an objectifying dance, then in our rehearsals and classes we would be imagining the effect our movements have on a man. But neither I nor any dancer I know does this. If anything, the focus is so internal there is no room to consider how the male gaze may interpret our dance.

But it does connect us to our bodies, which are by definition sensual because it's through the body that we sense the world around us and our internal state. And accessing and honoring the belly is vital for women's appreciation of and respect for our bodies, which makes it profoundly positive for women.

So much in our culture demands that we restrict our natural expression, to be what others want us to be, to hide our vulnerable, authentic selves. And I believe that connecting with authentic emotions is a path out of that trap. For me, bellydance created that connection because it forced me to work with my belly directly and consciously, to celebrate it as important and expressive -- and beautiful. Through bellydance I began to appreciate the body's expression in movement, rather than trying to jam it into a particular mold as I had when I studied ballet.

Ballet is beautiful too -- but the beauty of ballet comes from its transcendence of the body. The beauty of bellydance comes from lavishing in the richness of the body -- this is what I mean by sensuality. As a largely solo, improvisational art form each dancer must find the unique expression of his or her body within the vocabulary of the dance, rather than imposing the dance on the body. One of the greatest insults to a bellydancer is to be told: "You are a box of steps."

Then what type of audience does this show appeal to? Men, women, children? Why or why not? Do I need to understand anything about bellydance to appreciate this show?

The show is geared for people who don't know anything about bellydance, though dancers enjoy it as well. And so far our audiences have included a wide variety of ages and genders (yes, I think there are more than two genders) -- many of whom get up to dance at the end!

One of my goals is to help the general public understand why we love bellydance so much, and to appreciate it as a unique and sublime art form that should be on par with ballet, ballroom, flamenco, modern, and other more culturally recognized dance styles. We also want the public to develop a discriminating eye for bellydance so that audiences will demand trained artists in every venue that features bellydance.

How did you get into solo performance?

I started in stand-up comedy in my late teens, which I thought was a kind of solo show until I was brought into a festival of women's solo shows called Womenkind, directed by Emma Palzere of Cosmic Leopard Productions. But my short-joke format was painfully thin next to the extraordinary performances of my colleagues. A few years later I took a solo workshop with Abra Bigham and began to develop some material, but again it felt thin and flat -- partly because I lacked a connection to my body and its creative impulses.

When I began to bellydance nearly a decade later, I was able to articulate what had been dormant for a long time. Back in '96 Abra remarked that it had taken her 10 years to articulate the ideas in her then-current show. It took me 15. But it was worth it.

What solo artists have inspired you the most and why?

The performers of Womenkind had a profound effect on me, and I realized that solo work was my calling. At that time, Anna Deavere Smith's Fires in the Mirror had come out and blew all of our minds. Andrea Martin's Nude, Nude, Totally Nude, Lily Tomlin's Signs of Intelligent Life..., and of course Eve Ensler's The Vagina Monologues inspired me to do work around women's issues, because women's stories need to be on equal par with men's in our cultural narrative. Incidentally I am donating BOTV's dark night -- Monday, February 23rd -- to a V-Day presentation of The Vagina Monologues.

Lastly, and most importantly, a student in Abra's class -- Cheryl King -- began to develop her show Not a Nice Girl -- exploring the difference between being "nice" and being good -- which she developed into a national success and became the cornerstone of her acclaimed theater Stage Left Studio. Watching Cheryl develop her work over the years was a polaris to me: There I saw what I wanted to do, and how it could be done.

Blood On The Veil
February 17 - March 1, 2015
Theater For The New City
155 First Avenue
New York, NY 10009
212 254-1109
Tickets: Pay What You Can Tuesdays
$15, $20, $25
Bloodontheveil.com

Photo: Tom Henning