Little by little the pace increases, the hips oscillate with astonishing control and the tiny flicks whisk the tassels bewitchingly back and forth and suddenly you find yourself hypnotised by a virtuoso display of Egyptian dance. The control of the pelvis is impressive. One is used to seeing the feet used as a percussion instrument: flamenco, kathak, tap, clogging etc. It always comes as a surprise to see the backside used as one. You begin wonder if you and she are working with the same materials. Should the spine be able to do that? Can everyone's buttocks oscillate independently?
Wendy Buonaventura's certainly can, and to prove it once again she has revived her 1994 show Dancing Girls for a one-week season at the Lilian Baylis Theatre. Arab dances are performed by Buonaventura and Jacqueline Jamal, while disembodied voices recount the experiences of Western travellers to the Middle East and reveal the 19th-century tourist's fascination for "the two great mysteries of the orient: its wealth and its women". In their writings the travellers often reveal more about their own prejudices and hang-ups than they do about the foreign culture. Some are beguiled and intrigued by the artistry of the heavily veiled but secretly voluptuous Eastern women, others are repelled by it: "It would be difficult to describe the dance without shocking the reader." Napoleon's soldiers fell into the other camp and Bonaparte felt obliged to have 400 dancing girls beheaded to prevent their distracting his men. Buonaventura juxtaposes the readings and dances with great wit and skill and charts the history of Arabic dance without letting us lose sight of its beauty.
This artful synthesis of instruction and delight cries out to be made into a documentary, although the camera would be hard put to capture the charm and spontaneity of live performance. The show is 30 minutes too long but picks up towards the end during a danced duel in which the two women show off their speed and control. Buonaventura, with her juicy round bum and exquisite little feet, flicks her body, causing the chain mail of her skirt and bodice to tinkle like a bead curtain. At the climax, Jamal stands quite still while her buttocks first shiver uncontrollably, then flounce imperiously from side to side to the crazed rhythm of a little drum. At one point she dances topless while we listen to the sad account of a dancing girl made to perform naked for an insensitive Victorian visitor.
The sexual tourism of the 19th century span a web of sex around the women of the orient but, as one commentator ruefully reminds us, ritual female circumcision meant that for all the dancing girl's pelvic gyrations, her air of abandoned sensuality was merely artifice.
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