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Morgana's Interview with Piper
Published in Jareeda, December 2002

1) What are your earliest memories of belly dancing?

One of my earliest memories of belly dancing was when I was 7 or so.  I was sitting in the living room one afternoon where my step-father, Phil, was rehearsing with his band.  We heard people next door clapping and chanting, “Go, Piper, Go!  Go, Piper, Go!”  Piper isn’t a common name, so we went over to investigate.  A dancer was performing for a party there.  We recognized her from mom’s classes with Jamila (Salimpour).  I thought she was beautiful and had drawn a picture of her during class and given it to her.  She had liked the drawing and had insisted that I sign it.  After her dance she came over to talk to us, and we asked her how she came to call herself “Piper”.  She told us how she had framed the drawing I had made for her and put it up on her mantelpiece; her friends had just assumed that her dance name was Piper.  She thought that I would be delighted to hear how she had taken my name.  However, my seven year old self felt differently.  I had always been the only Piper in my class, and I liked it that way!   “She took my name, and I want it back!” 

Maybe I wouldn’t have felt that way if I had known that one day I would move to Greece.  There is no long “i” in Greek, so my name was regularly mispronounced as “Peepehrr” or “Pampehrrs” (yes, they sell the same diaper brands there!).


2) Melinda has expressed that while it was hard traveling between two
parents, it also provided a very rich and varied childhood. What memories of
traveling so much as a child made the most profound impression on you?

            I was almost 15 when my mom moved to Greece, while Melinda was only 7, so our experiences and impressions are quiet different.  One of my most profound memories of belly dancing occurred while I was in the Fayoum, an oasis about 100 miles from Cairo, but I was an adult by then.  We were lucky to be there on the saint’s day of the local mosque, and Bedouin Muslims were coming in from the desert on camels for the festival.  People were busy all day setting up stalls to sell food and trinkets and useful items (canteens, camel saddles anyone?).  That evening, everyone crowded into the mosque for the celebration.  Women giant silver bracelets on their ankles and tattoos on their faces and arms and legs sat on piles of rugs in the corners, talking and breastfeeding infants.  The men took over the center of the room and set up a stage with rugs and chairs for the musicians.  I had heard about trance dancing before, but had never seen it.  Only the men danced.  They would sway their upper bodies, their feet far apart and their hips low in a grounded stance, flinging themselves from side to side to the rhythm until they literally passed out, at which point they would be carried to the side and laid on more piles of rugs and others would take their place on the dance floor.  It was very repetitive, yet fascinating.  As we left, I looked up at the stars (it must be something about the desert – I’ve never seen so many stars anywhere else), and had an epiphany.  In Europe, the focus of much of the dancing is on the feet – think of flamenco, the minuette, clog dancing, Balkan line dances.  In Asia, dance tends to focus more on the upper body, with the hands and eyes telling a story.  And here I was in Africa, with the dance movements visceral and grounded, soulful expressions of the self.  Yet the movements of belly dancing, both fluid and staccato, utilize all of these elements from the east and west, north and south.  A vision came to me at that moment of belly dance as the progenitor of all dance, or as the fusion of dance styles brought here to the cradle of civilization on trade routes by travelers from the rest of the world.  As a living, continuously evolving art form, perhaps our dance is both of these things at the same time.


3) How do you think living and dancing in Greece and traveling to other
eastern cultures affected you not only as a dancer, but in day to day life?
(By this I mean, it is often said that experiencing another culture broadens
one's perspective on day to day things, including work, relationships, and
view of world events.)

            The day we landed in Athens for the first time, we went to a taverna that specialized in roast meat, roast as in the entire animal skewered and cooked on a spit.  I remember watching in horror as the table next to us received their order – a special treat from their apparent anticipation – a roasted lamb’s head.  The exclaimed happily and proceeded to devourer it, eyes, gums and all!  At the time, it seemed to me that these people must be barbarians.  But if you think about it, why is eating a tricep more civilized than eating an eyeball?  At the same time, behaviors of my own were deemed rude by some Greeks.  For example, my ex-mother-in-law perceived the fact that I did not want to spend entire days shopping with her, walking around Athens arm-in-arm, huddled together, in contact from the shoulder to the hip, as a rejection of her personally. 

            Why should we think that our way is the better way, just because it is ours?  Traveling extensively has made me much more accepting of other cultures, of other people’s choices, and at the same time made me very suspicious of nationalism and even seemingly innocent sentiments such as team spirit.  If “we” win, then it is axiomatic that “they” loose.  As travel gets easier, the world gets smaller and smaller, making it more important that individuals as well as nations act in the interest of the general good as opposed to immediate self interest.


4) Was there ever a time where you had mixed feelings or were unsure about
life in a family of dancers and performers?

            There was only one time in my life that I didn’t feel proud of being a belly dancer.  In Athens, after several years of performing 7 nights a week, often 5 shows a night, I had gone from working in quaint little local tavernas to working at “Zeus”, a 300 seat night-club with a 10 piece band and a full-time light and sound technician, where famous Greek singers sang, and at Marilinas, the best Lebanese club in the city, with a few early gigs at large tourist tavernas thrown in for good measure.  When I moved to Montreal, I found that, while the clubs were not on the same scale as in Athens, there were several really nice places to work, with good stages and talented musicians.  In the early ‘90s however, Quebec was hit hard with a recession at the same time that the war was cooling down in Lebanon.  The combination of almost 20% unemployment in Montreal, along with people returning to Lebanon in droves, put most of the Lebanese clubs under.  The places that continued to have live music did their best to pit the dancers against each other to get the prices down, and even on Saturdays you had to call in to find out if there would be a show or not.  In order to make ends meet, I started dancing to tapes for the first time, in glorified pizza parlors (table cloths and candles do not a classy restaurant make!).  You could make a bit more money per show in these places than in the clubs, but the work wasn’t steady, plus I hated it.  This is when I decided to quit dancing and go to school full time to finish my bachelor’s degree. 

            But my family?  How could I be anything but proud of my family?  I have the coolest family around!


5) As a doctoral candidate in molecular biology, how do you strike a balance
in the discipline to pursue your area of study, and your passion for dance?

            I can’t!  There aren’t enough hours in a day and I need to sleep for at least 8 of them!  I had to quit dancing altogether for the first 2 years of grad school, when we were taking graduate level courses, half of the med school curriculum AND working in the lab.  Once I finished all my other requirements and was just working on my dissertation, I was able to start teaching and performing again.  Now that I have just completed my doctorate, I’m taking a break from science to concentrate on dance for awhile.  I have 4 complete teaching videos in my head.  I am currently learning how to use Adobe Premiere so I can film and edit these videos myself. 

I am envious of people who only need to sleep 5 hours a day.  I don’t know any scientists who work forty hours a week.  60 to 70 is the norm.  The ones who have time to pursue other interests either don’t have families or they have wives that don’t work, or rather, their wives do all the work to maintain the home and the family.  Given that my husband has no intention of giving up his career, I see a hard choice ahead of me.  I find human physiology and cell biology endlessly fascinating, but I love to dance!  Plus, I find teaching others to dance so that they too can experience that special joy is one of the more fulfilling experiences in life.  I don’t want to have to choose!  If anyone out there knows of a part time job for a dancing scientist, let me know!


6) Do you think, ultimately, that there is a relationship between your
passion for medicine and research into disease, and your passion for dance?

            Every individual has lots of different interests and talents.  Pathophysiology and dancing happen to be two of mine.


7) A great many dancers in fact have an advanced science or academic background
of some kind. I've met elementary school teachers, ethnic scholars and
anthropologists, organic chemistry students, Internet specialists, and a
former NASA scientist, among others.  Do you think there is a relationship -- a curiosity and willingness to explore, but also to learn?

            Having grown up around dancers and musicians, I am surprised when I meet someone physically talented who is NOT also highly intelligent.  There are lots of places to get an education outside the haloed halls of academia.  I think belly dancing attracts people who have the drive to explore and try new things, people who are willing to work hard to achieve their goals, and these same traits are also required for any successful career, inside or outside academia.  Nothing surprising about it.  It’s funny though.  Back when I was still working in nightclubs, I used to relish the look of shock on people’s faces when I told them that I was getting a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry.  It’s as though people believe that there are a finite number of synapses possible in the brain and that all of them will be taken up by physical activity, with none left over for intelligent thought.  But don’t imagine that this perception is limited to belly dancers!  I once met a football  player who told me that people are always surprised to learn that he is also a published poet.  People are only limited by their own perceptions (oh yea, and the number of hours in a day!).


8) Do you and your sister and mom reflect on changes in the dance scene
between early memories and now? If so, what changes do you see, for better
and/or worse?

            Back when our mom started dancing, there were lots of very talented dancers around – you had to be good to get a job!  Baby dancers with promise got to dance during the week, and experienced dancers performed on the weekends.  There was a lot of cross-pollination back then, with dancers sneaking in the backdoors of neighboring clubs on their break to catch each other’s shows.  Back then, when a good dancer could make a decent living performing, the focus of belly dancing was on virtuosity, individual style, and entertainment.  This is how “American Cabaret” (a combination of North African and Middle Eastern dance styles with a dash of American sensibility thrown in) came to life.  But society as a whole changed in the 70s – it wasn’t just the belly dancing club scene that died, many people stopped going out to the theater, opera and symphony as well.  Once it was no longer possible to make a living as a performer (i.e. proof that you’ve earned your stripes, know your stuff), then dance teachers needed something else to provide them credentials.  I think that’s why specific ethnic dance styles became so popular in the 80s and 90s, why American Cabaret fell out of favor.  Being a mere entertainer, a performer, became déclassé, and instead it became fashionable and respectable to be a dance ethnographer, a conduit for the art of another culture. 

Don’t get me wrong.  I think that dance scholarship is VERY important.  But it is equally important to remember that what we consider to be ethnic or folkloric dances were made up by people (“folk”) to contemporary music with the intention of pleasing an audience, or just to have fun.  And, just like everyone else, whoever made up those dances wanted to wear the latest, “coolest” fashions available to them.  Whether it is done as a prayer, as a meditation, or as an expression of inner joy to be shared with others like a gift, dance isn’t supposed to be locked up in a museum, static, immutable.

            Now, dancers are becoming interested in the American Cabaret style again, and the ‘60s are being called the golden age of belly dancing in the US.  I don’t think that it is an accident that, just as attitudes in the dance community are coming full circle, suddenly belly dancing is having another upsurge in popularity among the general public.  American Cabaret, the original “fusion” belly dance, is accessible and fun for everyone, regardless of their dance education.  Additionally, with the much more solid foundation of knowledge in the U.S. about individual “pure” ethnic dances, “fusion” becomes that much more rich and varied, allowing dancers to be that much more informed, powerful, and creative!


9) In a family of performers, and members of Daughters of Rhea, how do you
reconcile being part of a family tradition with having a distinct identity?

            Melinda and I were encouraged by our multiple parents, step-parents and extended family to do our best and fulfill our individual potential, but not to be any one thing or another.  There is no need for reconciliation when there is no conflict.  We give freely of our opinions (don’t try to stop us, you might be bowled over!), but in the end we support each other’s choices.


10) In addition to good technique, what values do you try to impart to
students about the nature of Oriental Dance, and about performance?

            Make sure the people in the last row can see that hip lift!  Remember who your audience is and tailor your dance for them.  John Q. Public doesn’t understand the guedra for example, and will get bored watching you stand in one place and shimmy for 5 minutes.  On the other hand, Egyptians might just LOVE your fantasy “gypsy” number done to Greek music, as long as you don’t bill it as Raqs Sharqi.  People want to be entertained – if you want to educate them as well, give them lessons in small doses and make sure that they are having fun at the same time! 

            Give credit where credit is due.  If you are teaching someone else’s step, give her credit - you will be respected for being well connected and well informed.  If you are performing someone else’s choreography, bill it as such.  IMPORTANT: if that choreography calls for a step that you can’t do well, substitute a step that you are good at!  You honor the choreographer by putting her work in the best light possible.  Practice everything, but only perform your best stuff!

            Last but not least, we are ambassadors of dance.  People have been confused with a combination of 19th century European romantic orientalism and Hollywood fantasies of harem scenes.  You may be the only belly dancer your audience ever sees.  Make it count!