Belly dancer Valerie Levine balances a tray of candles for the Saturday night crowd at Casa La Femme bar September 19, 2015. ©Sasha Pezenik 2015.
On the banks of the Hudson River, on the ground floor of a high-rise condo, candlelight glints against thick velvet drapes. The smog perfume of rose petal hookah pervades the air. Gossamer veils make private bowers of every table; attractive young professionals with an open tab lounge on cushioned davenports.
Casa La Femme conveys earthy orientalism infused with a tincture of New York glamour: for a $16 cocktail, you too can harness the spirit of Salome. At 9 p.m. on Saturday evening, the cavernous bar is still calm. Dainty lamb and grape leaf hors d’oeuvres rest at the elbow of early bird guests.
Valerie Levine, 33, wears a blue satin cover up and carries a platter of candles: later, she will bend backwards to balance them on her stomach: she performs traditional eastern belly dance, and has done so since the age of 20. Levine lights each candle with care as an eager queue collects by the door.
Valerie lights a tray of candles in preparation for her performance at Casa La Femme bar. ©Sasha Pezenik 2015.
One young investment banker, clean cut, well fed, pasty-skinned, wears a kaftan. Several women sport bejeweled headdresses and snap selfies at the bar.
“Let’s go,” says the manager. “It’s time.”
Levine fastens her wings behind the swinging kitchen door, and bolts into the room. A loud rhythmic melody blares as she jerks her hips to and fro, and undulates her abdomen. Her fluid shivering seems to firmly plant her feet further into the floor. It is choreography not for the faint of heart – or those with a heart condition: it boldly asserts itself, and feigns no shrinking violet’s simper. If ballet’s waiflike pirouettes coyly wink, the belly dance is sirloin sensuality.
Valerie dances amongst the crowds at Casa La Femme bar on Saturday September 19, 2015. She wears what she’s dubbed her ‘Butterfly Isis wings’. ©Sasha Pezenik 2015.
Levine swiftly gyrates about the floor. Her wings glow and whip, her finger cymbals chime. Patrons alternately cheer, sip, video, tweet, and text.
They balance their drink in one hand; in the other, their iPhone – but when Levine arrives at their table, she makes them put down both.
She weaves through the tables and beckons guests to take her hand and dance. She has patience with their shyness – but not their social pretense.
“Everyone always will go next,” she says, “just not first. But the alcohol helps.”
In fact, belly dance shouldn’t involve alcohol: the Qur’an generally forbids intoxicant consumption. Here at Casa La Femme, however, all bets are off (some even consider the term ‘belly dance’ pejorative). Styles blend for art and profit; Levine dances with the veils of a thousand and one national borders.
Indeed, belly dance’s rich heritage boasts widespread influence, from Asia Minor to the Ottoman Empire. It’s one of the world’s oldest known dance forms, and though mistakenly stereotyped as a striptease a la Aladdin, it was in fact mostly performed for women, by women, as a means of explaining the throes of both love and child labor, expressing the freedom and force of kinetic sensuality.
Birthday celebrations at Casa La Femme, Bellydancer Valerie chants for the party in the midst of her performance. ©Sasha Pezenik, 2015
As such, it has often been considered a subversive performance art, and fiercely opposed by conservative societies. Since 2013, Egyptian ‘morality police’ have cracked down, and several high-profile dancers have been imprisoned for “inciting debauchery” in their dress, movement, and song. Nevertheless, the culture was the very wellspring that birthed the dazzling art. Belly dance speaks with the body, of the body. It articulates what repression fears: candid exhibition – no inhibition. The Hadith, an anthology of stories about Islam’s Prophet Muhammad, and a source of guidance for Muslims, outlines that dance is sanctioned self expression if there is no alcohol, no gender mingling, no erotic movements, and only if the dance is not excessive.
We’ll leave judgment to the beholder’s eye; but Levine’s quivering body titillates sofa-loads of cheering, tipsy, mixed gender patrons. It’s not cultural purity they’re after: it’s entertainment.
They just didn’t realize they were it.
Valerie dances with a partygoer. She bears the lipstick mark of the young woman on her cheek. ©Sasha Pezenik 2015.
Levine’s performance won’t stay solo for long. She coaxes a girl from her seat, and despite loud protestations, has her up and dancing before the song’s end. The girl is stiff and self-conscious, as though attempting to pose in motion. But her reserve melts quickly away – to no surprise, but much enthusiasm from the crowd. A friend joins in; then, a man across the room rises to dance. Then another.
Soon, there is no audience left.
In her performance, Levine breaks down barriers and fosters unaffected, organic connection – an ironic thing to find at a swanky downtown lounge.
Valerie incites her audience to dance. One crowd member chases after her. ©Sasha Pezenik 2015.
The most vulnerable part of her body bare, the belly dance inspires vulnerability. Levine sways with abandon, and incites her onlookers to actively participate; belly dancing challenges audiences to leave their reserve on the drapes’ street side. Her dance gives to her public one ephemeral gift: for the space of a few songs, she takes them out of themselves.
“Everyone’s guard comes down eventually,” Levine says. “You’ve got to be in the moment. That’s the challenge, but it’s delicious.”