Not a Russian Dance, not a Russian Dancer

Not a Russian Dance, not a Russian Dancer

India is a huge market for bellydance… although sometimes I really wonder why it is such a popular form of entertainment here, as the majority of audiences (and even people in the entertainment industry) are not quite sure of what oriental dance is. Here it is a common misconception that bellydance is essentially a Russian dance. It is probably because a few years back, when the popularity of the dance began, most of the performers were Russian. And even now, the majority of bellydancers here are Russian speakers, either from Russia, Ukraine or Belarus.

To give you an example of what people think, here is a dialogue I witnessed backstage between a Bollywood dancer and Amira, a dancer from Argentina:

Dancing at Zerzura, a restaurant in Delhi where they actually know the origins of oriental dance ;)

Dancing at Zerzura, a restaurant in Delhi where they actually know the origins of oriental dance 😉

-“Where are you from?”
– “Argentina.”
– “I did not ask what your name is, I asked where are you from?”
– “I’m from Argentina.”
– “Oh, so you travelled to Russia to learn bellydance before you came to work here?”
– “No.”
– “Oh, so you came here to learn bellydance?”

As I come from an even more obscure country than Argentina, my struggles with the event anchors who want to announce me as a Russian dancer performing a Russian dance, are greater. I tell stories about Egypt, and draw maps of Northern Europe on napkins. Sometimes however it still remains confusing – by the end of one show the poor anchor was convinced that Estonia is located right in the middle of the Arab world. 🙂

It is not just the bellydancers who go through this. It is also the Egyptian tannouras who sometimes have to explain that they did not learn their art in India, because the sufi traditions also exist elsewhere.

But we don’t give up… we go from show to show, correcting, explaining, discussing… and as my French colleague Leela says – every time we do it, it is like a drop of water… and one day, we will make it into an ocean.

Like dancing in a Bollywood movie

Like dancing in a Bollywood movie

Wedding entrance

Photo by Suhas Goel

I’ve been dancing in India for almost three months now, and I have performed in a lot of different venues. There are nightclubs and restaurants, parties at people’s houses and corporate events in hotels… But the most impressive venues are the Indian weddings.

A wedding is the highlight of an Indian life, so no expense is spared. I’ve read of cases in the newspapers where people have taken out a loan on their house to be able to give their children worthy weddings. With the accompanying events a wedding can last for a week, so wedding planning is a significant market.

Indian wedding

Photo by Suhas Goel

There are special venues dedicated for the wedding events – wedding halls and farms. The latter have very little to do with farms in our sense, there are no lambs or ducks running around 😉 The term just stands for an open air venue. Both, the halls and the farms are lavishly decorated – dancing there I often feel as if I am on a set of a Bollywood movie. A wedding venue has a grandiose entrance where the guests are photographed as if they were on a red carpet, a stage for the happy couple, a stage for performers, and different seating options scattered around the place. The venue is usually edged with a buffet serving food from all over India and often from abroad. And all that is decorated in an extravagant manner, with yards of fabric, colourful lights, floral decorations, fountains etc. In many cases all this beauty is created for one night only, and the for the next event a new dream setting is built.

For a Westerner an Indian wedding is a bit unusual. We are used to having the whole celebration revolving around the couple, but here they arrive only towards the end of the night. And even that they usually do separately: the groom shows up first, and the bride follows later. But the guests are not bothered by their absence – they spend their evening conversing, eating, dancing and watching the show.

Photo by Suhas Goel

Photo by Suhas Goel

The entertainment program is usually very tight, there is always something going on on the stage. In addition to an oriental dancer (or dancers) there are performances by musicians, singers, tannouras, bollywood and bhangra troupes etc. The Indian audiences love extravagant performances, so we use a lot of props here – wings, fan veils, sword, dancing on a tabla etc. Sometimes the props are provided – for example, I have danced inside a 12-foot balloon!

It is a common misconception in India that oriental dance originates from Russia, and that all bellydancers are Russians. So I spend a lot of my backstage time explaining what will really be presented on stage, and how they should announce me 😉

And when in front of the audience, I think the interest is mutual. I enjoy observing the women in beautiful sarees, the older gentlemen dancing their hearts out, the colourful turbans and polished mustaches of Punjabis, the kids dressed up in traditional Indian clothing… these people sure know how to celebrate a wedding!

The original of this post was published in Estonian in the Estonian bellydance newsletter RaksEstonia.