Authored by Zaina Brown
I had been working as a bellydancer in the Arab world for years, when an opportunity in India popped up in 2014. For three months, I would be based in Delhi, performing in shows at different venues every night.
Sometimes our shows were as far as eight hours’ drive away – unless we were taking a plane. Hungry for a challenge, I took the leap. And I made sure I traveled with a camcorder to document the experience.
Stories of a Traveling Bellydancer in India
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On arriving in Delhi, I found myself in the midst of a fascinating world of entertainment, unlike anything I’d seen in the Middle East or the US. Indian weddings are lavish productions with non-stop performances. The acts could be anything from human fountains and fire shows to dance groups and Mujra numbers. Even better if you slap some LED lights on it!
I danced inside an inflatable ball, played bridesmaid, and joined a Bollywood dance group as a soloist. I was flown into Kathmandu for a samba performance. I was an extra in a Punjabi movie, playing the part of a foreign girl at the club.
While I had the time of my life, I was disturbed to witness the blatant racism – which worked to my benefit – in the industry. Clients pay top dollar to have white women on the stage, and while that rendered me a commodity, it meant I received far more respect than local dancers. Regardless, I had the good fortune to meet one young woman who is single-handedly changing India’s mind about women, dance, and color.
An Exercise in Trust
Dancing in India was also an exercise in trust. Delhi has a reputation of gang rape. I was putting my safety in the hands of the local agent I worked for. Often I was accompanied to shows by his associates. Time and again I got in a car with men I did not know, and we drove to faraway towns, returning to Delhi at the crack of dawn.
Working for a trustworthy person is paramount when accepting a contract like this one, not only for safety’s sake, but to avoid unpleasant situations. One such agent was slapped with human trafficking charges for smuggling in prostitutes across the Nepalese border.
Having the protection of an agent, as opposed to freelancing, can make a world of difference. Going that route, a dancer has to be smart and not make enemies. There have been incidents of violence between foreign dancers and disgruntled agents. Last year, an Uzbek bellydancer in Delhi was murdered over a money dispute.
Taking My Chances With India Paid Off
For me, taking my chances with India paid off. Not because everything went smoothly, or I was never frustrated with the way things did and did not work. Indians in the entertainment business are no yogis – there’s always some drama, and fights break out easily.
Though I had the opportunity to travel around the country, and see and experience so many things I wouldn’t have as a tourist.
India has a way of getting under your skin and tugging on your heart strings all at once. Delhi showed up as a surprisingly welcoming, livable city. I forgot all about the scary headlines, and happily lost myself in its nooks and crannies.
Screened at Ridgewood Guild Film Festival in New Jersey, the Festival of Colors in Brooklyn, New York, and winner of the Canadian ACCOLADE AWARD, “Traveling Bellydancer in India” offers a glimpse into the dance and entertainment world of India, both the glamour and the grime.
Bellydance, a Middle Eastern art form, is highly popular on wedding stages and in upscale clubs alike. Additionally, the documentary shows India from an angle rarely seen in international media. Behind the harsh headlines, and off the beaten tourist path, lies a fascinating world of performing arts that is surprisingly cutting-edge and competitive.
Full documentary runs for 1:16:51.
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