New York City Nightclubs with Male Belly Dancer Tarik Sultan – ALLAF 033

Find out what makes Egyptian dancers look authentic and what can make Western dancers look a little fake, what makes dancers sexy, and why belly dancers in the Middle East are still stigmatized.

Alicia Free:

I am so pleased to have Tarik Sultan on the show. He’s a fabulous male dancer out of Jersey City, and he’s going to talk about a lot of amazing parts of dance and history that a lot of us don’t know anything about. And I’m really excited to feature Tarik Sultan. Tarik, can you tell me a little bit about your background?

Tarik Sultan:

Well, I’ve been dancing now for, I think, about 30 years. I started in 1985 right after I finished high school. It really starts much earlier than that, because before I started taking dance classes, I was listening to the music and that was my attraction at the beginning. It was the music that attracted me. There were several radio programs at that point that played music from the Middle East and India and Greece. I used to listen to those, but I was more attracted to the Arabic music. So one year my cousin asked me what I wanted for my birthday and I told him I wanted a record of Arabic music. And he bought this album of classical Arabic music. And I used to listen to that all the time. I really loved it.

So like I was saying, for me it was the music that caught my interest first. And I was listening to the music for many years. And then I started getting curious how to dance to it because in my daily life I love to dance. And so I wanted to know how to dance it, but I don’t know how to dance to it, and where would I find a class? And I remember I went to a concert and at that point, let’s see, I had finished high school, I hadn’t really started college, but I was taking some non-degree courses and I had a history class, history of the Caribbean, and I had gone to see this concert and I told the teacher, “Oh, I went to see this concert, and they had dancers and the dancing matched the music so perfectly.” And he goes, “Oh yeah, the men dance the same way too.” And I thought he was nuts, I didn’t believe him.

He would go to Spain in the summertime to research the archives. And then afterwards he’d hop a ferry and go over to Morocco. And he’d hangout with all the barbers and he’d tell me stories about hanging out with them in the mountains and then teaching him how to belly dance. And I thought he was crazy. I kept hearing things like this. So eventually I found a teacher that allowed me to take classes. And so I started just learning basic movement vocabulary. Years later, I went on my first trip to Egypt, and that’s when I got to see the dance in person. Of course before that, at that time there were videotapes, so I had seen dancers, all the famous, Soheir Zaki, Nagwa Fouad, Fifi Abdou, I’d seen little clips of them on videotape and those were really hard to get at that time and now you can pull everything up on YouTube. But it was when I got to Egypt that I really made a really emotional connection with the dance.

And so over the course of the years I kept revisiting Egypt, and I noticed there were differences and the nuances between the way western dancers interpreted the dance, and the way people actually dance there. And I we wanted to know what is it that when I see somebody dancing, I know that they’re from there? I know that they didn’t take classes in a studio, that they were homegrown. And so I began to just really watch it and analyze and not watching for entertainment, but analytically, and saying, okay, once again, what has been good to me. That’s how little by little I began to assimilate it.

Alicia Free:

Cool. And so that was in the ’80s?

Tarik Sultan:

I started out in the ’80s, my first trip to Egypt was in 1988. And I guess we’re talking about from the ’80s into the 2000s.

Alicia Free:

And how many times have you been to Egypt now?

Tarik Sultan:

Oh geez, that’s a good question. I’d have to do some math. So I’ve been there several times, but stayed three weeks to a month.

Alicia Free:

Do you speak any Arabic?

Tarik Sultan:

I do, but I’m really rusty. I’m better when I’m there because I really have to use it, I have no choice. One of my goals is to just really immerse myself and really learn it.

Alicia Free:

There’s something about context and language where when everything smells like that and looks like that and feels like that around you, I feel like it’s much easier for it to flow. Tarik Sultan, how did you choose your name?

Tarik Sultan:

Well, I was given that name, Tarik, by a teacher. Originally the name was Tarik Abdul Malik, and the Abdul Malik part was named after a friend of hers, and I met him and he was a real jerk. So I really wanted to change my name all together, but by that time, so many people knew me as Tarik, so I kept Tarik and I added Sultan.

Alicia Free:

It’s a great name. Do you know the Arabic meaning for Tarik?

Tarik Sultan:

Tarik, they say it’s like the road or the way.

Alicia Free:

Very nice. The way of the Sultan. That’s cool. You danced professionally for years. Can you tell me a little bit about how you started dancing professionally?

Tarik Sultan:

Well, I started dancing, because I really wanted people to know what the dance was really all about, because back then a lot of people still had a distorted idea of it. They thought it was something like stripteasing. And I wanted to show people I wanted to do my part because I was crazy about this stuff. I thought it was really wonderful and I wanted as many people to know about it as possible. So I figured, well, the best way to do that is to show them. My first solo was at a talent show at my college, and I did a solo there. And I was in a dance troupe, so I wouldn’t do things there. But as far as being a solo Oriental dancer professional, after I had gotten a certain level of proficiency, I went out to restaurants and I petitioned them to let me perform.

The very first restaurant I performed in was a place on 8th Avenue called Fazil’s. It was a really old building. It was on Eighth Avenue, and forties in New York, and a lot of the Middle Eastern dance teachers taught their classes there. A lot of Flamenco dancers taught classes there too. That was kind of like the hub for a lot of people. And you walked up these really long stairs, and then the first landing there was a space where in the winter time was a Turkish nightclub called Fazil’s, Fazil was the owner of the nightclub and the studios, it was Fazil Studios. Fazil was a really great guy. Well, he still is. He would really give everyone a chance to show themselves. He was very much supportive of the arts in particular Middle Eastern dance community. That was the first nightclub I performed in professionally.

And after that, I found my own venue. So there was this place called Nefertiti Cafe. It was one block West from Tompkins Square Park on St. Mark’s place. And I was walking by and I saw that they had this dancer, oh my God, she was God awful, and she was playing up to the worst stereotype. I think what made me go in there and ask about dancing is she was dancing and she couldn’t dance at all. And she takes this guy’s head and she washes her boobs in his face. And I was like, okay, you know what? If they’re willing to hire her, they’re willing to hire anybody. I can do better than that. So I approached them and they said to me, “Well, do you have a custom?” And I was like, yeah. So they let me come and try it out. And that was my first regular gig.

And I would do the same thing with other places. There was a Moroccan restaurant that I went to and that lasted a little while. But the thing I would do with a lot of places, because of course I’m a guy and they’re not used to seeing that. So I would say, “Okay, look, I know it seems weird to you. I understand. I’ll tell him what, we’ll make a deal. I’ll come on Friday or Saturday and I’ll do a show. If you like it, if the customers like it, then I got a regular gig, we’ll talk about pay. If nobody likes it, you never have to see me ever again.” Good news is that the audience always enjoyed it. And so we’d talk about doing something on a regular basis. And after that, different nightclubs would call me every now and then. They wanted something different or if they were trying to get a new night started.

So I pretty much performed in all of the Middle Eastern nightclubs in New York city, but the one that I was with for the longest was Le Souk, which at that point was on Avenue B. And it was really a great place. They had a lot of rooms. It was really big. But they came looking for me actually because at that point I was dancing in a Moroccan restaurant in Rutherford, New Jersey. I had a weekly gig there for about a year or two and they said, “We’d like you to perform for us.” So long story short, I ended up performing at Le Souk and the Avenue B location closed, but they opened up a new location where they are now on LaGuardia place. And so I was there for about 12 years, every Friday and Saturday. So I was there for quite awhile.

And I still perform professionally, and I do private parties. I don’t really do nightclubs so much now. I went into a new direction. After I left Le Souk, I realized that I needed to have financial stability and dance was not going to be the thing to do it. So I went back to school, then I kind of put dance on the back burner. So I still do teach dance classes, not as many as I did before I started school. I had to give up most of my dance classes when I went back to school, but I still do private parties and occasionally I do workshops still. I’ve done a lot of workshops nationally, internationally. So when I’m finished with school and I’m established, then I’ll pick some of that up again. I don’t think I want to do every weekend in a nightclub anymore. There’s pluses and minuses to that.

In the beginning it’s really fun because, Oh, I got a gig and I get to dance, but then it gets to the point where it’s not enjoyable anymore, especially if you are financially dependent on dance for your income. And I was for many years, I was making my living strictly from dance. I had been a history teacher in the New York City public school system and I realized that I wasn’t happy in that environment and I was like, “Oh God, what am I going to do? Why don’t I dance in full time?” And so I did, and it was going really well, until it wasn’t. But things happen for a reason and I’m really, really glad that I’ve taken the direction that I’m in now. But I don’t have any intention of giving up dance completely. It’s just that I want to be able to do it on my own terms. So part of the problem with being completely dependent on dance for my income was it went from, I’m dancing and it’s fun to I have to dance, and it’s not always fun because there’s times when you just don’t want to dance.

DANCEABLE SONG

Alicia Free:

Is there a danceable song you’d like to share?

Tarik Sultan:

One that I use a lot when I perform is Yaho by Hakim, because it’s a very upbeat, it’s a lot of fun, it gets everyone moving. There’s another one that I use a lot at parties because the energy is so high.

Alicia Free:

Nice. And you actually sent me some other song ideas that I couldn’t find on Spotify that I’ll include in the show notes because the videos of them are so fabulous. One of them I believe, was it a woman dancing in a market for other women and she was just wearing regular clothes?

Tarik Sultan:

Yeah, that was at a wedding. That was in a local wedding party in Egypt, on all side of the city. The houses are very close to each other and you have these alleys when they’re having a wedding, they’ll just fill the whole place out with colored lights and there’ll be a platform at one end with the bride and the groom, and they’ll play music. They’ll either have a band or they’ll have a DJ, and all the ladies are on one side and all the guys are on the other side and they just have a great time.

Alicia Free:

Nice. I had never seen a video of a woman just in street clothes, and she was wearing hijab, and she just looked so cute and was doing all these great belly dance moves that looked great in her street clothes. I’ve got this thing in my head where if I’m wearing street clothes, my moves don’t look as good, but that video broke that idea for me a little bit. So that was great.

Tarik Sultan:

Well, you have to remember this is their social dance, so they don’t wear anything special to dance, they dance in whatever they’re wearing at the moment.

So that was Shafica and that song was Ragea Tani.

Alicia Free:

I wish it was on Spotify, but again, it’ll be in the show notes if anyone wants to see it, the video.

Tarik Sultan:

You can watch it on YouTube if you want.

Alicia Free:

Oh, right, yeah. Good suggestion.

Sa’d El Soghayar – El Enab

 

Tarik Dancing in Egypt

DAMN SEXY DANCE MOVE

Alicia Free:

What sexy dance move would you like to share?

Tarik Sultan:

You mean like a sexy dance move?

Speaker 1:

Well, I just call it a damn sexy dance move for fun. Most of dance moves I think are actually kind of sexy.

Tarik Sultan:

Well, the thing about it is that a lot of people come to dance classes because they want to learn how to be sexy. So they want to know sexy move that you can teach them.

And sexy isn’t something that you do. Sexy is something that you are, it’s a frame of mind, it’s a feeling, it’s an emotion.

So when you’re connected to your body, you’re in the moment, you’re feeling that music and you’re feeling the sensuality of the music. You express that with movement. The dance is really an emotional expression through movement. This is why it was easier for me in a lot of ways because I was connected to the music first. So when you’re listening to the music, you lose yourself in the music. You let the music become a part of you, and you let it express itself through you. That’s what’s really sexy. When you’re totally uninhibited and you’re really in touch with your body and you’re enjoying the movement of your body and how it feels, that’s what comes across as sexy. That’s sensuality, that’s real. And that was one of the main things that I noticed that was different between American dancers and Egyptian dancers. American dancers were always trying to be sexy.

Alicia Free:

You’ll be listening to this audio only, Tarik is putting his arms up behind his head and making faces.

Tarik Sultan:

They’re giving you the Google wise, and all of that and acting sex, and Egyptian women don’t do that when they dance, they already know that they’re sexy. They don’t have to do anything to try to entice you. Because the mentality over there is that a woman, just because she’s breathing, she’s alluring, so you don’t have to do anything. Okay, let me put it to you like this, it’s like when the bread is baking, the bread doesn’t have to do anything to get you, “Oh, that’s delicious,” it’s just being bread. But you smell that aroma in the air and that’s what makes your mouth water. So it’s the same thing with sex appeal, with sensuality. It’s not something that you have to try to do or I’m going to do this move and that’s it. No, get in touch with yourself, get in touch with the music, get in touch with your body, enjoy the way your body feels when it’s moving.

You want to savor the movement. Like if you’re eating ice cream, you don’t just gobble it down, you take a scoop and you let it melt on your tongue and you really savor for the flavor. That’s the same way you want to be when you’re in your body. You want to enjoy that move. It’s like the music is taking you someplace. It’s bringing up those feelings within you and you’re expressing it through your movement, but you’re enjoying the movement of your body and you’re letting it happen, rather than trying to make it happen.

Alicia Free:

Beautiful. You have a link to a video of Mona Said, a little later in her career wearing this black and gold situation and there are so many moves she does in it that are beautiful and one of these ones that she does, she just picks up her feet and just points her toes and kind of kicks as she walks, just a little bit to the side, I think that’s what I’m going to kind of highlight too because I just love that. I guess maybe that’s part of what I was thinking before too. I think that all moves are sexy, but it’s only if you’re feeling it. It’s only if you’re connected to the music, the context is there and your confidence is there.

Tarik Sultan:

The outfit alone that she was wearing was drop dead gorgeous, but even aside from the outfit, it was just what she was exuding. Your eyes are just glued to the screen and she’s not doing a hell of a lot from a technical point of view. She’s not doing combinations and layering and all of this craziness that we go for these days. She’s just being there in the moment and she’s having a good time, and it’s so infectious that you can’t take your eyes off of her. And then when she goes into the tux scene, that’s when it really gets sexy. But once again, it’s not sexy because she’s doing anything in particular, it’s sexy because the way she’s doing it, there is that tux scene, all those instruments, they’re taking their turn and it’s almost as if the music was a hot bubble bath and she’s just allowing herself to soak in that water and just relax.

So everything that she does, it’s just so languid and she’s just enjoying. So even when she does something simple, like a hip circle, Oh my God, it’s so incredible because she’s just enjoying every second of it, and she’s not brushing through it, she’s taking her time. And there’s that attention on the muscles as she’s moving so slow, so centrally, and so it’s that emotional expression that’s coming out through her movement. Because you could do all those movements and it would not be attractive if there’s no emotion behind it.

Alicia Free:

Beautifully said.

FEATURED LIGHTEN MY BODY FOOD

Alicia Free:

What is one vegan whole food ingredient that you love?

Tarik Sultan:

Well, I love Goya’s adobo seasoning. It’s really good. It’s just a mixture of garlic and other spices and pepper, and it wakes up the flavor of everything and it doesn’t have any MSG. I put that on everything. Also, Curry powder. I put curry powder on everything.

Alicia Free:

What kind of curry powder? Like Indian curry powder?

Tarik Sultan:

Yeah, I’m from the West Indies, so I’m always on the search. I don’t have any particular brand, but I try to smell it, if I can, and then I know, okay, I’m going to take that one. They used to be on natural food store, and they had it in these bids, you scoop it out, and that was great because they had all different types of curries and you could smell it and you could even taste a little. And I love a Curry powder. In the Caribbean to makeup particularly where I’m from, we put Curry on everything. We put a little dash of curry in my rice, I put it in everything I make.

Alicia Free:

Nice. I was living in India back in the day and studying, and one of the ladies that was cooking for us brought in her spice tally, it was this round container with all of these little containers of different spices that she was mixing together for her curry all the time, and it blew my mind. She had them all individual, each individual spice, and she would mix it depending on what she was creating, and they were so many and there’re so many colors, I was, God, that’s what people do? I also love all those spices. And I looked up adobo spice and it said oregano is one of the major ingredients in it too. That’s nice. I like oregano too. Cool.

MAKE YOU SHINE COSTUME TIP

Alicia Free:

What is one costume tip that you would like to share?

Tarik Sultan:

Okay, well for men I think the vest, because if you’re wearing a costume with a vest, the shape of it is very important. I see a lot of guys, they wear vest and they’re very linear. And the problem when you have a linear cut, just straight across at the bottom, it doesn’t flatter the shape of your body at all. However, if you cut that bottom edge on a diagonal, it gives you more of an illusion of a V-shape, and that’s much more flattering to your frame that way. For ladies, in the old days we used to make all of our stuff by ourselves, but now we have all this stuff off the wreck, and they get these costumes and they don’t fill them out. So the straps are loosened. It might be a beautiful costume, but if the cups aren’t filled out, it just looks a little tacky.

It looks like, Oh my God, is she going to fall out of that thing? So it’s just uncomfortable. But one thing you can do to remedy that situation, and it’s great if you don’t naturally have a big cup size, you don’t have to go out and get implants or any nonsense like that, all you do is you shorten the straps of your bra. And that way the cups lay flat against your chest and you don’t have to worry if you bend over, that people are going to see more than what they paid for. And it doesn’t look like you’re wearing your big sister’s costume. And if you’re small busted, nobody knows. Because all they’re looking at is the shape of the cup. And if you’re doing your job the way you’re supposed to, they’re just going to be enjoying the dance. So that’s one thing.

When it comes to the belt or the skirt, make sure you wear it low down on your hips. No matter what shape you are, I know a lot of ladies, sometimes they like to wear the belt higher up on the waist because maybe they have a little bit of a stomach and they’re trying to hide that, but if you put it down on your hip, I call it the sweet spot, that gives you more shape. It emphasizes your hips better, no matter what your body shape is. It looks a lot better, down there on that sweet spot, on your hips, than it does if you’re wearing it…. Do you remember the way guys used to wear their pants back in the day, they used to wear like all the way up to their damn nipples.

Alicia Free:

And tuck their shirts in.

Tarik Sultan:

It’s like, Oh my God, did we really do that? You see this guy with his pants all the way up over his belly button and you think, Oh my God, that just looks so ridiculous. Same thing with a woman, wear it down on your hips, whatever shape you have, it will accentuate your shape.

Alicia Free:

There was that period, was it the ’50s or something, and people were wearing all these high waisted costumes?

Tarik Sultan:

I think in the States we had the Hays Code, that you couldn’t show your belly button. And I think there was some instances when some of these films they were making in Egypt, they were being exported to European countries and they had their issues, so they had to cover the belly button with something, that was one way. I mean that’s what they did with, I Dream of Jeannie. If you look at the way her costume was made, it was like all the way up there because you couldn’t show your belly buttons. So that’s why it was cut. But I don’t know, it’s like a costume that high, to me, it distorts the movement, because the epicenter of the movement is that sweet spot on your hip. So if you have something that’s all the way up there by your belly button, you’re drawing attention away from the area that’s doing all the work. It doesn’t look as pretty. So if you’re going to tie a scarf, tie it way down on your hip. If you’re going to have a belt, down on your hip, not so far, it’s going to fall off. But once again you want to be in that sweet spot.

Alicia Free:

I always feel like I’m missing something when I see people in the old movies with the high waisted costumes, it feels like I’m missing a part of the experience and I love when you see people dancing, dress and the scarf looks like it’s going to fall down. It’s often so low and it looks so good that way, when it’s real low, as long as it doesn’t fall off.

Tarik Sultan:

Because when they do the movement it’s like you can see the epicenter of the movement. It doesn’t have to be a two piece costume, even if you’re wearing a gown, if you have the belt, have the belt low on the hip. Or if you tie the scarf low down on the hip and that way it just shows up all the movements. What I really don’t like is when I see somebody wearing a gown and there’s no kind of belt or no kind of scarf on it, because to me it’s like everything’s getting lost in the [inaudible 00:24:29].

I know that’s like a trend now with some of these new costumes. If you’ve got a nice dress, just take a simple scarf. It doesn’t have to be a coin scarf, it can be just a simple scarf. And you can find this video on YouTube, it’s Fifi Abdou, early part of her career, she’s doing a concert in the Ezbekiyya Gardens. She does an Alexandrian theme number. She’s wearing a silver belly dress, and she comes up with a Melaya, with a black Melaya, and then she throws the Melaya away and she just takes a simple white scarf and ties it around her hips to do the dance and it’s just wonderful. It’s like you see everything moving. There should be more options for that. So unless you’re working in a nightclub and that’s the uniform that they really want, if you have freedom to choose, sometimes you want to wear a one piece. Unless your body has the body type for two piece costume, and that’s whether you are a larger size or you are a small size.

There’s a lot of people who are really too slim to pull off a two piece costume. For many, many years, I wore a shirt under my costume because I just didn’t have the physique to pull off that bare chested with a vest only. There was a male dancer named Sergio, who I know when I started out and he had really great costumes, but his body type was different. He was short guy, barrel chest, he had a big chest, and so when he had those vests on, it really looked good. It complimented his frame. Me, I was built more like a beanpole, just straight up and down and I had no shoulders, and definitely no V-shaped going on at all. So when I tried to do that same look, it did not flatter me at all. So yeah, it just looked really incomplete. It looked like something was missing, so I wore shirts under my vest and then later as I put on more weight, I got a little bit more bulkier, I still wore something underneath.

Usually I’ll wear a neck T-shirt under it. And the reason I do that is because I feel it just brings everything together. It looks more, how do I say this? Okay, so I’ve got that vest on and it’s got all that decoration and all those colors and everything, against my bare chest, it just doesn’t compliment all of that. And it’s not because I don’t have a good physique or anything like that, it just seems a little empty. But with the fish net, you get to see my muscles, but that black from the fish net, it just draws all the colors together and it makes it look a little bit more complete. A little more class here.

Alicia Free:

What I love about fish net too with undulations is I feel like it really accentuates, you can see the skin move more with the fish net on top in a sense.

Tarik Sultan:

I’m in better shape than I was when I first started dancing, but I’m not exactly going to stop traffic. So it accentuates my good points and it hides my not so good points. Covers a multitude of sins and accentuates the good stuff.

Alicia Free:

Nice.

 

FEEL-GOOD-LOOK-GOOD HABIT

Alicia Free:

Do you have a feel good look good habit that you want to share?

Tarik Sultan:

Feel good look good habit. When I want to feel good, look good, the thing I always do is shave. Because I don’t look good with stubble. There’s some guys that they look really great, they can pull that rugged in the woods kind of look. No, I can’t do that. I look like I’ve been eating biscuits and I didn’t clean my mouth. So yeah, I have to shave. So I make sure that I get a good shave. I don’t use a razor blade to shave, but unless I go to the barber and then they’ll use a straight razor, but if I try to use one of those regular disposable razors, I break out in razor bumps and ingrown hairs. So what I do is I have hair trimmer, I have the ones that they use to shape up, it’s a T-Outline, so I shave with that and that way it gets rid of all the stubble, but it doesn’t go so low that the hair is going to start growing back into my skin. And then after I do that, I exfoliate and I have these mitts, these gloves, that has that kind of rough, kind of woven texture, I don’t know what the hell they call it, but I’m sure you know what I mean.

Alicia Free:

A Moroccan, like the bath house ones, the really rough ones, or the ones that we use in the US?

Tarik Sultan:

These are made out of plastic, they’re like gloves. And it’s kind of woven. I know what you’re talking. You’re talking about the Loofah. That’s too big. It’s a plastic material and it’s a woven fiber, so it kind of has that same roughness as a Loofah, and I use that to exfoliate. And then after I do that, I’ll wash my face. I’ll use Dr. Bronner’s soap, usually the mint, I like that. And then I’ll wash that off and then I’ll go over my face with a little bit of tea tree oil to tone up. And then I will go in with just a little bit of olive oil or coconut oil, usually olive oil.

Alicia Free:

Nice. And so you just put the tea tree oil right on your fingertips and just massage it in?

Tarik Sultan:

Yeah. For some people, if your skin is sensitive, you should cut it with another carrier oil. Olive oil is good too as a carrier. But me, it doesn’t bother my skin, so I just take a little bit and a little bit goes a long way. So I just put a little bit on my fingertips and I rub it under my chin, on both sides of my face. And then I’ll do the olive oil just a little bit. And that does it. And the other thing, for wrinkles in the forehead, what I do is first of all to keep my skin hydrated, I drink a lot of fluids. I’m not a fan of water, but what I’ll do is I’ll take apple cider and I’ll dilute it. So it’ll be like one part apple cider to three parts water, and I’ll drink a lot of that. I keep really hydrated. And if I see my… You get those wrinkles in your forehead. What I’ll do is I’ll smooth it out. I’ll iron out my forehead. So the trick is, you try to stretch in two directions, up and down. So you want to keep your eyebrows still or what they call resting bitch face.

Alicia Free:

Oh, I love that. Tell me about resting bitch face.

Tarik Sultan:

So resting bitch face, you’re just like no emotion. You just keep those eyebrows, forced them to stay in one place. You’re going to try to keep your eyebrows from raising up, to engaging those muscles, so those muscles are pulling down. With your fingertips, you’re massaging up and you’re really ironing out those wrinkles in your forehead. That’s what does it for me. I’ve ironed out all the wrinkles in my forehead. I don’t have a wrinkly forehead anymore.

Alicia Free:

I didn’t know I had wrinkles in here till I did this. Now I feel them.

Tarik Sultan:

You do that a little while, you could make it your routine every morning, but I do it as needed.

Alicia Free:

It feels good.

Tarik Sultan:

Yeah. So you just take the tips of your fingers and you just smooth it up, kind of like you’re smoothing out a bed sheet, and you keep those eyebrows as still as possible so that they don’t rise up, and you smooth out all those wrinkles and that’s what does it for me.

Alicia Free:

Cool. I like it. I like it when it doesn’t involve some crazy product.

Tarik Sultan:

You just put a little bit of lotion or whatever. Not too much because you want to be able to grip the skin. If you don’t have oily skin, just a tiny bit of oil, a moisturizer, just so that you can get that going. And that’s what I do.

Alicia Free:

Marilyn Monroe covered her whole face in Vaseline before she put her makeup on. That’s what her makeup artists would do.

Tarik Sultan:

Well, really?

Alicia Free:

Yeah.

Tarik Sultan:

Wouldn’t that clog your pores as well.

Alicia Free:

It was all about moisturizing and I wonder if she drank enough water, whatever, but layer of it and then the makeup on top.

Tarik Sultan:

I don’t know. I’d be afraid to do that.

MEN AND SOCIAL DANCE IN EGYPT

Alicia Free:

So in the US a lot of belly dance is seen as a performative dance, it’s something we do on stages. But really, the home of belly dance is in social dances and social situations, in terms of the history of belly dance. And in the US we rarely see men participating in belly dance activities, but abroad it seems like there’s a lot more men involved in the social dance aspect with belly dance moves. So can you tell us a little bit about that? Especially with all of your travels to Egypt, you must’ve seen a lot.

Tarik Sultan:

Well, when I went to Egypt for the first time, that’s when it all made sense. Before that, I was dancing in the context of dance classes and I’d be seeing performances where it was all women performing, or videotapes where once again it was all women performing. So I kind of felt like a renegade. It was like, well, I’m doing it because I love the music and I want to be able to enjoy the music on another level. Even though people told me, well, yes it is really unisex, but I never saw it. A lot of times people from the immigrant communities, they tend to be very westernized in their tastes. So a lot of the local traditions unfortunately weren’t connected to them back home, much less when they come over here.

So within the Middle Eastern community, the men that were there were not really into dancing. They’d get up for fun and just kind of stamp around and everything, but you’d never see a guy who really knew how to dance. And when I went to Egypt, to a large degree, it seemed like there was a class component to this. It seems like people who were not in the upper middle class or the upper class, were more connected to the local traditions, and that’s where you really saw it happening in the working class neighborhoods. So when I went to Egypt, where I was staying, I wasn’t staying in the fancy luxury resorts or anything, I was in a working class neighborhood, and so I’d see people responding to movement, like if there’s a nice song on the radio, they do a little bit of dance, or if there was a party or something.

So it was when I was in Egypt that it all makes sense because I saw men really dancing. This is a social dance, this is something that everybody does for fun. And people of all ages, all sexes, it was not restricted in that way. So yeah, I learned some of my best dance moves from watching the guys over there. And once again, I just kind of sat back and let myself be a fly on the wall and watch the way they express themselves with the music. It was really helpful because I got to see them doing the same movement vocabulary, but something about the way a man does it as versus a woman does it, it’s a different flavor. And I got to see that nuance and understand it. So I learned just be yourself and just to do it. So it didn’t look like I was trying to imitate a woman when I dance, and it certainly didn’t look that way when they were doing it.

There wasn’t any question, these were just a normal, quote unquote, “Masculine men,” but they were doing all of same movements, they were doing the Figure 8 and the slower movements as well as the faster movement, the hip drops and the shimmies and the undulations. I mean, to me, I call that the real dance, because that’s where it comes from, it comes from the people. And even professional dancers, they learn how to dance at home with their families. So in Egypt, people don’t become dancers because for the most part they have this artistic longing to express themselves in dance, it usually happens because it’s an economic incentive. These tend to be people from very poor backgrounds, and dance is an avenue of financial advancement for them. But if she’s going to become a dancer, it’s already assumed that she knows how to dance. So what she might get is a bit of coaching on stage presence, stagecraft, et cetera, but you’re not going to find anybody teaching beginners dance classes. That doesn’t happen.

So from hanging out in Egypt and watching the people, I got to see how they express themselves through the music, the body language. It all started coming together and making sense. And like I said on the social dance level, men as well as women dance, and the little kids too. That’s how they learn, from the time they’re little kids, whether they’re boys or girls. They’re watching the grownups and they’re imitating and trying to mimic what the grownups are doing and eventually it starts to catch on and they assimilate it. For professional dancers, it’s expected that they know how to dance already because you learn that at home. And to be honest with you, if you’re a woman and you decide to be a dancer, you can find a job somewhere, even if you’re not good, of course that’s not going to be your best venue.

So we kind of get exposed to the dance in a backward fashion, because we kind of put the horse before the cart, but we have to because it’s not the culture that we were born into. So to learn that movement vocabulary, we have to take classes. We don’t have the luxury of going over there and growing up and immersing ourselves in it like that, and assimilating it from the time we are kids, so we learn through dance classes. And so our perspective of what dance is, is skewed because of that, because we only get exposed to the professional aspects, but that only represents less than 1% of all the dance that does happen in real life. So like I said, we’re not around them, so we’re not privy to what’s happening in private gatherings and social situations. Unless you have friends and you get invited to weddings and stuff like that, then you’ll see it.

But like I said, when people come here, they tend to be a little bit removed from that. People in the upper classes, a lot of times they’re a little bit more removed. So even women, a lot of times, I’ll have Egyptian women come to my classes, and they don’t know how to do nothing. So they have to learn because in their class and their family, well we didn’t do that. We were very prim and proper and reserved. So now they’re here and they really want to learn how to dance. I never learned how to dance and nobody danced in my family. So we get exposed to the professional aspect. And because of that, when we come in contact with the culture of origin, there’s some clashes that happen, because the first surprise we get is the knowledge that we think Soheir Zaki and Fifi Abdou and all, they’re gods to us. And so it becomes a real shock to the system when we find out that within the culture, these people are not well esteemed.

It’s like everybody loves to watch a dancer, but oh, God forbid, I don’t want my daughter or my wife to do that. And we have a lot of times where we have dancers who they get into relationships with men from those countries and they may even marry them, and they’re really shocked when their significant other wants them to stop dancing now, because it’s an art and blah, blah blah. Why don’t you see how beautiful it is? They don’t get it. Why do you think this is improper? And the best way I can explain this idea of, or words like dancers are prostitutes, Oh my God, how could you say that? They don’t understand what it’s such a strong contradictory dynamics there. On one hand, you love dancers, they’re in all of your movies. No wedding is complete without a dancer.

But on the other hand, you consider them to be prostitutes. You don’t want to associate with them. You don’t want your daughter to grow up to be one. God forbid your son would want to marry everyone. How do you reconcile these two things? And the way you have to understand it is this, going back to the roots of the thing, it’s a social dance. Amongst your friends and your family and your social circle, dancing is fine. There’s nothing wrong with it. You dance at occasions of celebration, but you don’t do it in public. And so yet the question is, why? Well, the best analogy I can give you is this. You’re at home with your mom, she’s got her hair up in rollers, she’s got that big scarf on top of it, she’s wearing her bathrobe and she’s got those fuzzy slippers, and her nightgown in the house. There’s nothing wrong with that. She’s dressed, she’s appropriately dressed.

What if she went to the supermarket like that? Now we’ve got a problem. If your mom showed up at parent teacher night with the bathrobe and the nighty and the fuzzy slippers and the rollers in her hair with a scarf, now we got a problem. So what is considered totally acceptable and fine and proper in the home setting is really out of place and inappropriate in a public setting. And that’s where in lies the robe. For a woman in these societies, public space is male space. When you are in public, you are expected to be as modest as possible and not to draw attention to yourself. When you’re home, fine, be who you want to be. But in public you’re very much limited to being circumspect.

So to be in public, not only doing something that’s in drawing or lies on you, but it in a revealing outfit on top of it, that’s like putting hot sauce on chili peppers. It might be a very pretty chilly pepper, but still it’s like, it’s really, really out there.

And so yeah, you don’t want to see your mom out there to, “Oh my God, your mom is doing that?” So that’s where the confusion comes because we don’t realize that. Once again, for us, you become a dancer because you have an artistic yearning to express yourself. Whereas over there, dance is something that you do for economic reasons. You’re poor, you don’t have access to education or other employment opportunities, and that’s one of the last things that you can do to support yourself and your family. It really is one step above being a prostitute. It’s really considered low class.

Alicia Free:

Unless you reach that stardom level though too. There’s the few people that get celebrity status and then they have it at least as long as they have it.

Tarik Sultan:

Well, even there, it’s a mixed bag because you’re famous and you are making a lot of money but still you showed up to the parent teacher night in your fuzzy slippers. Okay, your fuzzy slippers might have diamonds on them but they’re still fuzzy slippers. There are going to be certain segments of society where you can move, but for the most part, for the larger community, no, you are not accepted. And I have friends from the US who went to Egypt to dance professionally and they had to keep it very much under wraps that they were dancers, because they got evicted from their apartments a couple of times when it got out that they were dancers.

It’s not an easy life to be a professional dancer in Egypt. It really isn’t. You have to be really tough to make it in that business, because there’s a lot of people who are constantly looking to take advantage of you and you have to be very strong in order to make sure that that doesn’t happen. And unfortunately, the majority of the population does not look at things the same way we do here in the West that it’s an artistic expression. But something to be perfectly fair, it wasn’t that long ago that we had the same idea about women performing in public. I don’t remember, was it Helen Hayes? I think it was Helen Hayes. She said when she was young and she was starting out in acting, there was a whole side of her family that wouldn’t associate with that because it was life upon the wicked stage. So it really wasn’t that long ago that even we in the West had a negative idea of women particularly performing in public.

Alicia Free:

I love that fuzzy slipper analogy, because we don’t think of our costumes that way.

Tarik Sultan:

But even without a costume, just the fact that you are in the public eye is already, Oh, that’s a no, no. And the costume is just adding fuel to the fire. They adopted the costume over there because, think about when this came about, it’s Western style nightclubs that have variety shows. This is like the teens to ’20s to ’30s, definitely from the 20s on, that was the outfit for female performance, no matter what dancing genre. It was little broad top, bare midriff and some kind of a skirt. And so each of that time was very cosmopolitan and they were very much aware of what was going on in the entertainment world internationally. And so they adopted the same templates, just that they put a little Egyptian flavor on it, they interpreted it through an Egyptian lens.

So those nightclubs, like Badia Masabni’s, they’re legendary to us. Egyptian dance was not the only thing that was on the menu. Arabic music was not the only thing that was on the menu. They also had European music and European dancing. They were very much in tune with what was happening around the world. We just see one little aspect of it, but if we were really there in person, it was nightclub culture internationally, it was the same everywhere in the world. It’s just that they had an Egyptian flavor as a segment of the entertainment.

Alicia Free:

Awesome. I did a history of belly dance show, I did a two part series. And I’m going to do the third one that’s 1970s up to now, and I was talking about Badia Masabni’s nightclub, but I didn’t think about that. It was more of a variety show.

Tarik Sultan:

It was… How do you say? Kind of vaudeville. You didn’t have television, you had radio, but if you want the entertainment, you went to a nightclub. If you were from that economic level and you had the money, you went to a nightclub, you went and you had cocktails and you were dancing. As a Western, you would not have felt out of place in that type of environment. It’s just that at a certain point in the evening, they would have the Oriental floor show, but before that, they would have a ballet or a ballroom dancing or they’d be doing the Mambo or whatever it was, jazz dancing, whatever was popular in the rest of the world at the time, you would have that most of the nights.

Alicia Free:

Oh man. It would’ve been so much fun to experience that. When I went to Egypt, I went on a tour group with my parents back in the day, I didn’t see any good dancers. I was in all the wrong places. So someday I’ll go back and know which clubs to go to and when to go, and all that wonderful stuff. Well, Tarik, this has been so wonderful. Thank you so much for sharing your experience and your wisdom and your insight on the dance world with all of us. And hopefully we’ll have a followup interview because we have a lot more topics that Tarik is very knowledgeable about.

Tarik Sultan:

Yeah, we can do that another time.

Alicia Free:

Wonderful.

Tarik Sultan:

This whole thing, it’s like an onion, you peel one layer and you realize there’s another and another and another and another. You can go on and on and on for hours with this.

Alicia Free:

Thank you so much. And Tarik, do you have a website, how can people find you online? Find out more about you.

Tarik Sultan:

Well, you can find me at my website, tariksultan.net. It’s not really very active right now, I really need to update it, but you can find me there and then you can find me on Facebook, Tarik Sultan. And the best way to get ahold of me is email, tariksultandance@gmail.com. And that’s Tarik with a K.

Alicia Free:

Great. Thank you so much. So have fun dancing in Jersey City and New York, and hopefully we’ll all get to see you dance soon.

Tarik Sultan:

God willing.

Alicia Free:

Inshallah.

Tarik Sultan:

Inshallah.