A fortune in her belly button: Asla Aydintasbas meets an entertainer from Essex with an Eastern secret. Introducing Princess Mardy . . .

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Zooming on stage in her revealing Egyptian costume, Mardy takes control of the Turkish tavern on Great Portland Street in central London. Forks freeze between plate and mouth as all eyes fix on the woman swirling and whirling to the music from a live band. She manoeuvres her stomach muscles in apparently impossible ways, belly button moving up and down and left and right. Outside the the restaurant, the sign proclaims: 'Princess Mardy - Belly Dancing and Live Music'.

Inside the packed dining room, an older man, amid a huge family gathering, is unable to concentrate on his wife's conversation. Other men and women are in the same trance.

On London's belly-dancing circuit, where no more than a dozen professionals compete for a small but devoted audience, Mardy is la doyenne.

But Mardy has a secret. Despite her dark eyes, black hair and olive skin, she is English. 'People ask if I'm popular because I'm a novelty. I don't think so -most people don't realise I am English. I could easily pass for Middle Eastern.'

At the next table, the news that the Princess is not Turkish is met with cries of astonishment. One Turkish woman says: 'I am surprised that a Western woman can get a feeling for the moves. My English friends always ask me to teach them to belly dance, but they just can't move their bodies the way we do.'

Mardy learnt the dance 15 yeras ago from a Turkish belly dancer at a restaurant where she was waitressing. 'For years, I played non-stop Middle Eastern music in the house to develop a feel for it. Although I now feel confident in my technique, there is no denying that most ordinary Egyptian or Turkish women have a natural propensity to belly dance and can dance as well as I do even without training.'

Part of the dance is the customary tour of the tables. Princess Mardy climbs on each table, and performs for the customers until one of the men takes out a fiver or a tenner and tucks it down her bustier or knickers. She then moves on. 'This is the part that some English find embarrassing,' says Mardy, although the ritual is an indispensable element of belly-dancing in the Middle East. The tips are indispensable, too; they provide the bulk of Mardy's income.

When Mardy finally departs, her costume bulging with notes, it is the customers' turn to dance as the band plays the same tunes over and over.

If it is surprising to hear that the Princess is English, it is even more surprising to find that she is also a chicken farmer. By day, the city's best-known belly dancer leads a bucolic life on her Essex farm surrounded by her dogs, pony, horses, goats and chickens.

On her farm, Mardy is not at all the femme fatale of the stage. In an old pair of leggings and a big T-shirt, she looks gentle, almost vulnerable. She doesn't miss the city night life. 'Most other dancers I know hang around and socialise after their performance. You get sucked into the night life. I've been through that stage but now I only want to come back to the farm.'

But if the animals and the farm mean a lot to Mardy, so does dancing - despite the exhausting schedule, the exploitative bosses and the men who harass.

'I love dancing,' she says, 'I tried to give it up once because it created too much tension between me and my partner at the time, but I had to go back to it again.' Mardy has danced for 15 years in Bahrain, Israel, Egypt, San Francisco, Spain and all over London, for charities, weddings, cheap restaurants, expensive ones, sheikhs, obscure princesses and tacky hotels.

The night that I watched her, she made over pounds 100 in half an hour in a single restaurant - only the first stop of the night. Belly dancers also perform at private functions where they charge a minimum of pounds 200 before tips.

Even without financial inducement, for many Western women belly dancing remains the ultimate fantasy: exotic, sensual, yet harmless. Each year, increasing numbers of women attend a dozen belly-dancing courses in Britain. 'Although most amateur dancers do not enter the commercial circuit, there is always the odd secretary who would dance on weekends for a hoot,' causing a few problems for the professionals. 'I am not really against it. But since these women dance for very low wages, restaurant owners take advantage of the situation and in the end it hurts my business.

'Part of the attraction for women is the way it complements the female figure,' says Mardy. 'I am a big woman. I have never been skinny. But I feel comfortable with my size on stage,' says Mardy. 'You need a bit of a belly to belly dance'.

But how does she feel about her body being the centre of attention, exposed in front of people who are dressed up and eating their dinner? 'You know,' shrugs Mardy, 'after 15 years on stage I don't even notice it. I might have been shy at the beginning, but that was so long ago I don't remember.'

Relationships have proved to be the hardest thing to reconcile with her profession. The lingering myth of the belly dancer as loose woman has created problems with some men. 'They either don't care about you and just want to show you off. Or if they really care about you, they want you to stop dancing. But I like my independence too much.'

Steve, her present partner, is a perfect match. Brought up by a mother who owned a night club, he has no interest in night life, and prefers quiet evenings at the farm. 'He doesn't get jealous about my profession and it works out perfectly.'

Mardy hopes she will be able to dance for another 10 years. Meanwhile, her home life is likely to become more exotic as she and Steve make plans for an ostrich farm.

(Photograph omitted)

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