01.12.2004

A Dancer's Act of Grace

A journey into the heart of the Egyptian desert calls for a bold spirit at the best of times. But in this worst of times, well-known Western Australian bellydancer Belyssa is determined to "build a bridge" with the people of a traditional Bedouin oasis. Margaret Evans spoke to her before she left recently on another odyssey of dance and music.

A journey into the heart of the Egyptian desertcalls for a bold spirit at the best of times. But inthis worst of times, well-known Western Australian bellydancerBelyssa is determined to "build a bridge" with the peopleof a traditional Bedouin oasis. Margaret Evans spoketo her before she left recently on another odyssey ofdance and music.

It's a commonly accepted wisdom that adversity isthe true test of character. and, if that's the case,the self-proclaimed "grandmother of bellydancing inPerth", Belyssa, has firmly established her credentials.While the world recoiled in horror after the eventsof September 11, she instead saw an opportunity to extendcompassion and understanding to some of the most traditionalpeople in the Muslim world. A regular visitor to Egyptsince 1989 - "Egypt along with Turkey is the hub ofbellydancing" - Belyssa has made it her passion to researchand document the long Bedouin tradition of music anddance. Every year for the past three years, she hasmade the arduous journey 400 kms and four hours by buswest of Cairo to the oasis of Bahariya, a communityof seven villages, to renew her bonds with people oncefamed as desert nomads.

"After the shock had settled a few days after September11, I began to realise I have been in training for this,"said Belyssa in the lounge of her Beckenham home spillingover with colourful mementos of her constant travels.

"Everything I have been striving for, learning, documenting,teaching school children here, all of that is so importantnow to build tolerance and understanding. I know nowmy work has somewhere to go."

Passion for her art and her beliefs defines the womanwho, more than any other, has put bellydancing on themap in Perth and is now known internationally as a teacher,performer and choreographer. Her Academy of Dance Orientalereaches between 150 and 200 students a week in Perthalone and two troupes of dancers, one of advanced studentsand the other her professional group of six, ensureher name and "bellydance" are a natural pairing.

But ask Lithuanian-born Belyssa (her stage name isnow firmly her identity) how she has come to embracea dance form so closely associated with the East, shesimply answers that it was beyond her control. "My husbandand I were in New York when I heard some music in thestreet and I was just drawn to it."A Christmas presentfrom him of a course in bellydance after that streetencounter 26 years ago started her on a quest for knowledge,both of herself and the cultures where the dance hasbeen a centuries-old tradition.

She believes two questions have provided a crucialframework for her searching: the Aboriginal notion ofself worth contained in the question "Who are you?"and a confronting challenge to her own work by a Maorigirl who asked "What right do you have to do what youdo?".

"I've found those two comments very useful and I supposeI have to thank that girl because she convinced me totravel so that I could teach and perform from real experience."

Belyssa's holistic notion of self encompasses a lifeof domesticity as "wife, mother, lover and friend" forsix months of every year, while the other six monthsare spent in the Middle East, mainly in Egypt. "My friendsthere ask how my husband can bear to let me go. Buthe's an immensely generous man who tolerates my obsessionwith the Middle East and allows me to rejoice in allfacets of my nature, my tapestry if you like.

"I am my work and my work is me."

A supportive circle of friends in Egypt, both in cosmopolitanCairo and in the harsh environment of the Bedouin oasis,adds a sense of homecoming to each of her visits- butBelyssa has no illusions about how bellydance is viewedeven in its traditional home.

"I've come to realise the difficulty of an artist'slife in a culture like Egypt, where there is a deepconflict between what's acceptable in public and inprivate. In Cairo, a city of 20 million people thereare only two famous bellydancers, compared with 56 dancersregularly performing in Perth. It's a society wherethere are layers upon layers - dance is not really accepted,but they can't live without it!"

Belyssa remembers one wedding of a friend's daughterwhere the contrast between public and private, localwoman and respected Westerner was painfully obvious:"When I danced they protected me like I was a pieceof gold, yet the dancer before me was treated like atart. I think they really judge you on whom you associatewith."

Like many of life's most inspired choices, her discoveryof her spiritual purpose at the Bahariya oasis happenedquite by accident - and only after deep disappointmentat the other end of Egypt. "I was trying to researchculture and dance in the Sinai, but probably becauseof its proximity to Israel, the people there weren'topen to being questioned and having their deepest thoughtsdocumented," says Belyssa. "They had a real feelingof vulnerability and I walked away from that quite sadly,got on a bus and headed off in the other direction -west."

Her journey ended four bumpy hours later deep in theWestern Desert at Bahariya - and so began an extraordinarynew chapter in her varied life.

Even while she documents the daily ritual of the oasiscommunity, as a trusted companion of local sheik, businessmanand parliamentarian Saleh Abdallah, Belyssa knows thelife she is observing is slowly dying.

"Just in the three years I've been going there, theoasis has changed, there's a sense of loss.

"There is no sense of conserving resources like water,the pumps run day in and day out. The people look aftertheir crops and their animals, but beyond that there'sno sense of caring for wildlife, no flowers bloomingin the oasis. They don't see their bad practices asdestruction, it's just a way of life."

As she accompanies Saleh, at only 38 a respected villageelder, on his rounds to discuss men's business of "politics,agriculture, religion, personal problems, land disputes,corruption, everything", Belyssa knows she is "privyto the tapestry of the oasis".

"It's an enormous privilege because only men cometo him for advice - women don't have problems," shelaughs with heavy irony. "And the information I collecthelps me understand the dance and the music of the communityby putting it in a wider context of life."

During her long stays in the desert, she has regularlybeen invited to perform both privately and publiclyincluding at a recent wedding at the oasis. Regardlessof the setting, Belyssa is always conscious of the respectaccorded her as a woman prepared to sacrifice much toshare her devotion with the community and its culture.

"It's always so different from my career here in Australia,"she said. "I've danced for so many different groups- men in their caftans in the desert, men and womentogether, weddings in Cairo, in the lounges of privatehomes, in the street. It's always a risk but only oncehave I had a bad reaction and that was at a weddingin the Sinai where I was made to feel like an uninvitedguest. I suppose it was the audacity of a woman askingto dance. But it was still fantastic to learn from thatexperience." The events of September 11 have made Belyssaeven more aware of her role as a "bridge-builder" betweenWest and East. "Even though I had just returned froma 10 day visit in August, the community was very worriedwhen I didn't make my usual weekly call. It was onlya few days' delay, but they felt I had taken sides againstthem." As she speaks, the tears well at the memory.

While the women of the oasis are still confined totheir centuries-old roles of caring for their homes,their menfolk and extended families, Belyssa is tryingto chip away at the prejudices which deny them opportunitieslike education. "I'm hoping to get my message acrossin a very small way to the men I talk with that if yourwife wants to paint or just grow something beautiful,maybe you should let her. She may even be able to helpyou in your business. I'll keep trying."

While we in the West prepare for our own season ofspirituality, Belyssa will be absorbing once more theintensely moving experience of the desert. "I'm a deeplyspiritual person and I've been in many different churches.But I have never been as moved or as close to God asI have been in the desert.

"In daytime you're on earth, but at night when thesand reflects the midnight blue of the desert sky, you'rein heaven."

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