Last week Shemsu trudged out into the cold and rain just to bring a local interest story to Em Hotep!’s Kentuckiana readers. Stuffed grape leaves, butter-scotch baklava, and bellydancing. These are just a few of the hazards I braved to bring you this exclusive.
Pictured to the left, Shemsu’s better half—Sekhmet.
T’was the night before Halloween and despite the rain and the cold, Louisville’s Frankfort Avenue was bumper to bumper traffic, and the sidewalks were busy with costumed merry-makers bouncing from boutiques to bistros, and from clubs to cafés. It was the last Friday of the month, so the Frankfort Avenue Trolley Hop was in full swing.
There is no shortage of eateries on Frankfort Avenue. Along with Bardstown Road and Fourth Street downtown, it is one of the places locals take their out-of-town friends when they visit. But on a chilly and rainy fall evening there is no better place to be than Maria Bell’s It’s All Greek to Me kitchen, with a hot bowl of fakyes soup and a steamy stack of pitas for dipping.
Maria first started feeding Louisvillians with her Greek Paradise Café on Story Avenue, and when she was forced to close her doors due a disagreement with her landlord, for her many fans it was like moving away from home. Good, authentic Greek comfort food doesn’t just grow on vines. So when Maria moved into the property vacated by the Wine Rack, it was an occasion for Ouzo.
But it wasn’t just the food and people watching that brought me to Maria’s kitchen on Halloween Eve. Shimmering Hips, the students of bellydancing instructor Anna Murray—also known by her dancing name Azayani—were performing from 7:00 to 10:00 that evening. And if good food and beautiful dancing were not reason enough, then add the fact that my own lovely wife Anne Payne, also known as Sekhmet, is one of Azayani’s students.
Azayani began belly dancing as a law student in Salem, Oregon, and has trained, taught, and performed this ancient art all across the country. In 2007 she was part of a troupe called Sisters of the Desert Moon that won Third Place in the Bellydancer USA competition. Her Shimmering Hips troupe regularly performs at Bardstown Road and Frankfort Avenue establishments and is available for events. Planning a Mediterranean-themed wedding? Marie Bell caters and Shimmering Hips entertains.
Azayani’s classes present bellydance as an art form and a path to both physical and mental fitness. As a display of both grace and strength, bellydancing moves focus on specific parts of the body, such as shoulder rolls and hip shimmies. More than just a workout for the abs, belly-dancing involves the entire body and is an excellent way of building upper body strength while promoting deep, regular breathing.
Azayani even has bellydancing training specifically for expecting mothers. In fact, Azayani explains that many teachers believe that bellydancing originated as a way to prepare women for childbirth.
In addition to Sekhmet, Azayani had another of her students entertaining visitors to Maria’s kitchen—Sarah Combs, who as of yet has not chosen a bellydancing name. Individually and in duets (they were limited in terms of space), the Shimmering Hips wove their magic to the sound of Eastern music, as well as one of U2’s more etheric tunes.
Their dancing styles ranged from traditional to tribal, with Azayani performing a sword dance as well. But most surprising was when Maria Bell herself, with a shout of “Opa!,” smashed a plate on the floor and began dancing around it!
For three hours Azayani, Sekhmet, and Sarah (and Maria!) took turns dancing for those who were drawn in from the cold and rain by the sound of zills and the smell of roasting lamb. At one point Maria pulled me outside, where in nicer weather there are tables for dining al fresco, and as we stood under the eave to avoid the rain explained her plans to open a larger place downtown in the very near future.
Maria’s desire is to bring to Louisville the sort of Greek restaurant where the patrons eat and dance with abandon, without landlords who get snippy over the occasional broken plate on the floor. “Eat, dance, and eat some more” she explained as we scooted past Sarah and Sekhmet and back into the warmth of the eatery.
The Egyptian Angle
Lest anyone think I have written this just to brag about my wife and her lovely friends, there is an Em Hotep! angle to this article. To begin with, Its All Greek to Me is one of the more authentic places in Louisville where you can eat like an Egyptian. The Middle Eastern and Mediterranean palates have much in common. Chicken and lamb grilled with fresh vegetables, chickpeas and lentils, cucumber, eggplant, lots of garlic and the ever-present pita bread are standard fare from Kozani to Aswan.
An Egyptian evening at It’s All Greek to Me might begin with some hummus—which the Egyptians might call ta’amiyah—and maybe some tzatsiki with some grilled pita bread to go with them. If it is a Tuesday or Thursday, a nice cup of the previously mentioned fakyes soup with a little vinegar or olive oil will help finish off any remaining pita bread. For an entrée have the mousaka, or for those with a Pharaonic appetite, the Zeus platter—a sampling of lamb, chicken, tzatziki, feta, olives, tomatoes and grape leaves for two.
Oh, and as my wife would point out, they have salads too. Lots of wonderful salads. For the It’s All Greek to Me menu, click here. And like Azayani, Maria Bell offers regular classes so you can eat like an Egyptian, or Greek, at home.
With regard to belly dancing, Egypt has a long and romantic history. Egyptian style bellydancing as it has been practiced in modern times is believed to be closely related to Moroccan belly-dancing, although that is not to say that one style necessarily led to the other. Egyptian bellydancers make use of veils in their dancing, but for most of the performance will typically have their faces uncovered, whereas with more Arabic styles the face will usually remain covered throughout the performance.
In addition to veils, there are several props traditionally associated with Egyptian bellydancing. Candles, swords, and canes are often used, with canes being commonly used by male bellydancers. In recent centuries Egyptian bellydancers, called Ghawazee, worked in troupes that included both men (called Ghazee) and women (called Ghazeeye), and would typically perform in streets and market-places. The Ghawazee were actually a nomadic tribe whose members moved from city to city making a living at dancing, and who were tolerated because they tended to make very good money and were a reliable source of tax revenue wherever they showed up.
Religious intolerance eventually exerted sufficient pressure to put an end to public bellydancing, and Ghawazee performances were banned in Cairo in 1834. The sanctions were relaxed somewhat beginning in 1849, but public bellydancing remained illegal. This led to performances being held behind closed doors, which resulted in the birth of the Egyptian cabaret (source).
So for the purposes of Em Hotep!, there is obviously a recent connection (200-300 years is actually quite recent by Egyptological standards..)
What about a link to antiquity? Tradition has it that bellydancing has been around as an art form for 6,000 years. Is there evidence of bellydancing in ancient Egypt?
The Art of Dance in Ancient Egypt
There is a tradition that bellydancing in Egypt dates back to Pharaonic times, and examples of dancing are represented in art all throughout Egypt’s long history. Some of the most commonly reproduced pieces of Egyptian painting represent female musicians and dancers in gauzy dresses of the finest linen, if not practically nude. Some of these paintings have led to an unfair and inaccurate association between bellydancing and more vulgar forms of entertainment, but such modern connotations ignore the fact that nudity in ancient Egyptian art, culture, and even religion had none of the puritanical baggage of the modern era.
But while Egyptian art is replete with dancing figures, is there any evidence that the bellydancing of modern times has a precursor in Pharaonic Egypt? One example of Egyptian art offered as a depiction of an ancient form of bellydancing comes from the tomb of Nebamun. An accountant who worked at the Temple of Amun at the Karnak complex at Luxor, Nebamun is believed to have died around 1350 BC, during the reign of Amenhotep III of the Eighteenth Dynasty, and just prior to the Amarna Revolution of Akhenaten. That certainly qualifies for Pharaonic.
The fresco from Nebamun’s tomb certainly depicts music, clapping, and dancing, but does it portray an early form of bellydancing? At first glance there seems to be a lot going on with the dancers. As stated above, bellydancing usually focuses on one part of the body at a time—the entire body might be relatively still while the head weaves side to side, for example. But the stylized nature of Egyptian art can be misleading. A single figure may be representing different movements simultaneously in a kind of single figure animation. So the dancers may be depicting a variety of moves that are not normally executed simul-taneously, but are shown in such a way that allows one or two figures to demonstrate what would otherwise require a number of dancers to illustrate.
So when evaluating whether or not the figures from the Nebamun tomb painting represent a form of bellydancing you should consider the possibility that the actual dance may not have looked exactly how it is depicted. The figures tell a narrative and the actions shown would have played out sequentially rather than simultaneously. Fortunately, we don’t have to rely strictly on Egyptian art for representations of Egyptian people. Dr. Andrea Deagon, the coordinator of the Classical Studies and Women’s Studies Programs at UNC-Wilmington, and an accomplished bellydancer herself, has provided evidence that bellydancing existed in a recognizable form at least as far back as Egypt’s Roman Period.
Unlike Egyptian art, which changed remarkably little in terms of convention and style for millennia, Roman art could be much more dynamic and expressive. Dr. Deagon points to the example of a Roman relief sculpture from the Second Century depicting the Egyptian festival of the Apis Bull. Describing the frieze, she notes:
“the artists have taken great care to illustrate the women’s hips as protruding, and their hands in unusual positions. In other words, they are clearly indicating a form of dance in which the hips, hands and arms are used in ways that were foreign to Rome. The dancers are all in different positions, suggesting solo-improvisation” (source, with photo).
Dr. Deagon concludes that if a form of bellydancing was being practiced in Egypt during the Roman Period, then it is feasible some variety was being practiced as early as 1350 BC. Bear in mind the leisurely pace at which Egyptian arts and styles evolve. While not 100% conclusive, it would seem not too far a stretch to presume some form of bellydancing was practiced during Pharaonic times in Egypt.
But you don’t need to have an interest in ancient Egypt to want to take bellydancing lessons or to enjoy hearty Greek food, or for that matter, to take lessons in Greek cooking from Maria Bell. All you have to do is live in or near Louisville and check out their websites, which I have repeated below for your convenience.
And by the way, this is an unpaid endorsement for both Azayani’s Shimmering Hips troupe and Maria Bell’s It’s All Greek to Me. No undue pressure was applied by Sekhmet, and I have her permission to say so.
It’s All Greek to Me Azayani Bellydance
2715 Frankfort Ave Email to Azayani
Louisville, KY 40206
Email to Maria Bell
Copyright by Keith Payne, 2009. All rights reserved.
Photographs “Almeh fesquet.jpg” by Frederic Goupil Fesquet, “Maler der Grabkammer des Nacht 004.jpg” by Eloquence, and “Nebamun tomb fresco dancers and musicians.png” by Fordmadoxfraud are provided courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 License. In short: you are free to share and make derivative works of those files under the conditions that you appropriately attribute them, and that you distribute them only under a license identical to this one. Official license
Tags: Akhenaten, Amarna, Amenhotep III, Andrea Deagon, Apis Bull, Bellydancing, Egyptian Art, Eighteenth Dynasty, Ghawazee, Karnak Temple, Louisville, Luxor, Nebamun, Roman Period, Temple of Amun at Karnak, Tomb Art