nterview with Belly dancer Princess Farhanaby Salome
Based in Hollywood, California, Princess Farhana has performed for A list players like; Geena Davis, Sharon Stone, Johnny Depp, Uma Thurman, Ethan Hawk and Ellen Barkin. She was also chosen by Amr Diab, Hakim and Alabina to grace the stage at their respective concerts. She has appeared in music videos for Madonna and Ricky Martin and her articles on dance have been published by Habibi, Jareeda, The Cymbal, and the DiscoverBellyDance ezine.
She has performed in France, Switzerland, Mexico and Canada, and has been featured in numerous films and documentaries on Oriental dance. On television she has appeared as a dancer on National Geographic, E! Entertainment, the Learning Channel and Soul Train.
Princess Farhana recently released two instructional videos "Farhana: Belly Dance Basics" and "Farhana: Belly Dance and Balance - The art of Sword and Shamadan". She also teaches weekly classes in Hollywood and regularly appears at top Middle Eastern nightclubs in Southern California and is the feature at the "Moun of Tunis" restaurant.
Salome: Before we get to anything, do tell about your royal title! How did you come to be Princess Farhana?
Princess Farhana: Like most princesses, my royal title was bestowed upon me! Originally, I wasn't going to use a stage name, because my given name is so unusual, I figured I didn't need one. My parents named me Pleasant, because the doctor told them I was going to be a boy. So, that's what they expected - I was going to be called Andrew. When I was born, I had no name for a week, until they finally decided to call me Pleasant, because the first thing my father said when they discovered I was a girl: was, what a pleasant surprise!
For dancing, I used my real name, but many of the audiences I was performing for were Arabic, Persian or Armenian, and they consistently mis-pronounced it. After the third time in a row where I'd danced at a private party and was announced as 'the beautiful birthday Present', I figured it was time to take action and get a stage name!
"Farhana" means "happy" or "pleasant" in Arabic, so I started going by that. I soon discovered there was another dancer in my area using the same name, and people were confusing us. Meanwhile, outside of the belly dance world, I had a busy writing career going on, and my second book of short stories, titled "Princess Of Hollywood" had just been published. I had oriental dancers performing at my book release party, and many dancers came to that party as guests, too, it was 'an event'. Atlantis, the dancer who runs the annual Belly Dancer of The Universe Contest, was there, and after that she kept calling me Princess Farhana. Then she booked me on a show, and to distinguish me from the 'other Farhana' she billed me as "Farhana, Princess Of Hollywood", and the name stuck. I was still just thinking I was plain old Farhana, but when I appeared on the IAMED "Hollywood Babylon" video, they billed me that way, too. After that, total strangers started saying, "Hiya Princess!" to me. People were giving me rhinestone tiaras as gifts, and that kind of became my signature. I even wore one in my driver's license photo - I thought they'd make me take it off, but they didn't! Last year I got all crazy with the royalty' thing- I did a big show called "As "Rome Burns" where I entered through the crowd in full-on Cleopatra-style, carried aloft on a golden litter by six buff gladiators, with slave girls walking in front of me tossing flower petals and behind me with big feather fans, it was out of control.
Recently, at a gig, a little girl was looking at my business card, and she asked me shyly, "Are you a REAL princess?" I said "Maybe" and showed her my license, and when she saw I was wearing a crown her eyes got wide. "Wow!" she yelled, all excited, "Can I see your castle?"
Salome: Being beautiful, talented and living in LA you've had more than a few opportunities to perform for and with celebrities. Which event has been most memorable?
Princess Farhana: Living and working as a belly dancer in Los Angeles can definitely be a wild experience! There are opportunities galore, from the entertainment industry and also because we have such diverse ethnic communities here. There's also a lot of money in this town - and people who want any excuse to throw lavish corporate and private parties, so I've had a lot of gigs that were just pretty much beyond belief.
I've danced on yachts, for former First Lady Hilary Clinton (had to get a secret service clearance for that!) in the Tournament Of Roses Parade, which was broadcast in thirty-two countries, and once I was even offered a gig on a private 747, flying from LA to New York!
I don't really get impressed by celebrities because, having grown up in Hollywood, they're literally everywhere. Also, working as a writer, over the years I've interviewed many film stars and rock icons. You get into a conversation, and you realize that even if they're famous, most people are pretty down to earth, they're just a fellow human being, but with a different life path. Then again, it's a whole different thing dancing for them! In some cases, some of the people I've danced for are living legends, so I'd grown up with them being a household word; and some of them made music or films that touched me deeply, I'd be getting ready to go on with butterflies in my stomach thinking, "What could I possibly do that would bring this person as much joy as they've brought me?" Getting stressed out about it! By now, I have danced for- and worked with- so many celebrities it would sound like I was a name dropper if I listed more than a few.
Probably my most intense 'star' incident occurred when I danced for Mick Jagger. I'd loved the Rolling Stones since I was a little girl, and strangely enough, the night they came to "Moun of Tunis", the restaurant where I've worked for thirteen years, I'd been talking about them with the owner, a Tunisian. It was almost like a moment of clairvoyance- it was slow that night, there was only one reservation. The one party who had a reservation (under the name of Johnson) called and said they were going to be late. The owner and I were sitting in the dressing room, discussing music, and I'd asked him if he'd ever heard the Stones in their 'Marrakech' period, using North African Joujouka musicians. Finally, the owner looked at his watch, said he didn't think the party was showing up, and that I could go.
I went off to my second job at an Arabic club called "Al Andalus". Just as the band was striking up my intro, a waiter came backstage and said, "Farhana, call Moun of Tunis as soon as your show is done, it's very important!" The whole time onstage, I wondered what could possibly be such an emergency, and concluded it must really be important, because my boss never called me at other gigs, and rarely at home. When I got him on the phone, he said, "You know I cannot believe this. This sounds crazy, but Michael Jagger, he is here!" I was like, WHAT?!?!? I asked him if he was kidding and he said, "I swear to God! Can you please come back and dance?" I drove back to the restaurant, my hands were shaking, it really was unbelievable, because we had just been talking about the Rolling Stones- and NO WAY was I about to dance for 'Michael' Jagger!
As I pulled into the parking lot I saw two limousines and security men in suits, with walkie-talkies standing around. It was nuts, I was practically hyperventilating at that point! So I took a deep breath and tried to act nonchalant as I went out to dance. And there was like, this classic scene: the Stones surrounded by beautiful blonde fashion model-types girls, tanned and dripping with gold and dressed in all white. Mick Jagger was in the middle, smiling broadly- I was losing it cause he looked like... Himself! The whole thing passed in a blur. He was really amiable and polite, (with great dimples, I might add!) and he tipped me a hundred dollar bill. Somehow, it was all over town the next day- dancers were calling me non-stop asking if it was really true. I felt like a little teeny-bopper- I was like, I am going to save this bill forever!" And then six months later, I was like "Screw it! His DNA is not on this anymore and I need the money!" A few months later, they came back, and again, everyone was really nice- and that time, I wasn't hyperventilating!
Also, at "Moun of Tunis", I danced for Jude Law. Usually, the waiters clue me in if there's a famous person in the place, but this time I think they didn't want to tell me he was there, because they probably thought I'd lose it- I am a big Jude Law fan (whose not, huh?). For months, we were all joking about my crush on him. I was being all crazy about it- like, "This is the most beautiful costume I own, and this is the Jude Law of belly dance costumes!" - Stuff like that. So the night he came into the restaurant, he was sitting in a private room, and I burst in, saw him, did what I'm sure was a cartoon-like double take, then composed myself and carried on! In real life, he is even more gorgeous than on film! And he was very nice and polite. Same with Uma Thurman- she was so radiant, her skin appeared to be lit from within with this beautiful glow, AND she was courteous, a generous tipper, and fun; she even got up to dance.
Salome: You have appeared in music videos, on TV, and film. Can you talk a bit about your experiences portraying Oriental dance in popular media?
Princess Farhana: The mainstream media - movies, television and film is a bit savvier about belly dance than you would imagine. They don't always portray belly dancing as 'racy' or vulgar, a lot of times, they want to show the dance authentically, or they go for a fantasy version, but done in a tasteful way. Funny thing though: one thing that every show I've done has in common is that they always ask you to bring 'all your costumes' and then they always, without fail- pick a standard, old-school coin costume!
I've done everything from documentaries for National Geographic where they wanted it extremely authentic to videos, which were like wild parties! In the same month, I played Mata Hari for a Learning Channel Documentary called "The Top Ten Ultimate Spies" and did the video for R&B artist Truth Hurts' hit "Addictive". I went from doing the Mata Hari re-enactment to dancing to seduce French Officers and then getting executed by firing squad (over and over, take after take in the burning sun!)
The "Addictive" set was like one of those "house party!" movies! There was a bunch of famous hip hop people doing cameo appearances- Snoop Dog, Ice Cube, Rakim. The entire guest stars knew each other- and could do no wrong cause they were famous and adding juice and prestige to the production- they were all partying hard, really hard. Like, for real! So much that the make-up artists had to come around every five minutes and put Visine drops in everyone's eyes! Dr. Drew was fascinated with my finger cymbals, he was like, "Yo, Shortie, lemme see them bells on your fingers!" And then when I let him try them on, he dropped them! That was a crazy shoot.
But the most fun; well-organized set I've ever been on was a few years ago when I did the popular sit-com "The Nanny". It was a Middle Eastern fantasy episode, called "Not Without My Nanny" and an open call went out; every working belly dancer in town- and then some- showed up for the audition! They finally selected me, along with Sonia (who is now in Belly Dance Superstars) Neena Bidasha (of the Belly Twins) and Ansuya.
We were on set at MGM for a day of rehearsal and two days of shooting, and it was a dream job. It was clearly apparent that the whole cast and crew adored each other- there was a really nice vibe. Some shoots are really stressful, with assistant directors running around yelling- but everyone was really friendly and made us feel welcome. We had a large, comfortable dressing room with a big screen TV, comfy couches and snacks; we had an on-set dance-coordinator who made sure the floors were impeccably clean any time that we went on-set, and that we were warm in between takes, cause sound stages tend to be drafty.
The other girls and I lost our minds over the costume department- all of Fran Drescher's clothes for the show were so fun- heavy on the animal prints and sparkles. Ansuya and I were drooling, we were like, "Are you guys ever planning on having a garage sale?" The clothes they used for her on this episode were real belly dance costumes and hand- embroidered North African robes- not cheap-o Halloween Headquaarters type crap. The entire production was really high-end. The set itself was a work of art covered in North African antique tapestries, hand-painted ceramic tiles, inlaid wooden tables, and stained glass hanging lamps. Sonia and I kept handing disposable cameras to each other and posing for photo op's in between takes. I even used one photo of myself from the "Nanny" set for a business card- I have no idea who took it, but it was terrific, it looked like I was standing in a Moroccan palace. We were sad when the shoot was over. The show still re-runs on channels here and in other countries- I always get calls and emails from pals saying they were channel surfing at 3:00 am or something and saw it.
Salome: Can you tell us about your stage production "Common Threads: Women And Oriental Dance"?
Princess Farhana: "Common Threads" was a theatrical oriental dance production that was way ahead of its time. It was 1994, and "Common Threads" was the first belly dance production in Los Angeles aimed at a 'civilian' crowd, not only dancers. We staged it at many venues in Southern California, all of which sold out. In addition to beautiful oriental dance and folkloric numbers from a variety of countries, it featured original as well as classic music, voice-overs, and acting as well as dancing. There was a lot of what has now become known as 'fusion', but back then that was cutting edge and some people didn't know what to think!
I conceived it with my friend Brandi Centeno, also a writer/ dancer. We were both new dancers, but totally obsessed with belly dancing. I grew up in a theatrical family, and was no stranger to putting on all sorts of shows, so that wasn't even an issue, and was well versed in publicity, having written for a number of magazines and papers for years. We started putting it together, with the bravado only beginners can have. We researched it together, got quotes and life experiences involving oriental dance from women all over the country. Brandi and I cast it together, co-wrote and co-directed it, and both appeared in it!
We wanted to give a broad overview of the beauty and diversity of the dance, and the way it's affected women's lives- from Egyptian Cabaret dancers to Turkish Roma; from Moroccan Guedra practitioners to hobbyists trying to dance their way through a divorce. We addressed body image and self-esteem as well as cultural differences and Western misconceptions.
While casting it, Brandi and I made a 'wish list' of our favorite dancers, and asked them to be in it- some of the best professional dancers in the entire country- Sahra Saeeda, Zahra Zuhair, Anaheed, reknowned Uzbek and classical Persian dancer Carolyn Kruger- were utterly flabbergasted that they all said yes! We also featured hot up and coming dancers- women who were, I guess, a few notches above us, well known locally, but not nationally at that time period- like Jillina. We had her doing a crazy fusion/fantasy dance to a custom re-mix of the "I Dream Of Jeannie" theme mixed with hip-hop that just brought the house down! We had a huge zeffah at the end- the audience gasped when they saw all the shemadans because most Americans have never experienced anything like that before.
Our first run was at Highways, a theater in Santa Monica, Ca., known for it's liberal, artistic and intellectual-type shows. There were some women on the staff who seemed disgusted that such an 'exploitative', 'sleazy' production was 'cheapening' their theater. The usual misconception- that belly dance is vulgar and artless and low-class. Then they saw our tech rehearsal and their jaws dropped- lots of the theater's crew were standing there in amazement, openly staring. Later, I heard one of them in the office, before the doors opened making repeated phone calls, saying, "oh my God, you have to come to this show, it's incredible!"
We went on to mount the production a few more times, and it was also featured one year as the evening show at MECDA's Cairo Carnivale. Funny you should ask about it, I've been thinking lately that it might be time to revive it, do it again, and maybe release it on video!
Salome: What are your thoughts on creating a universal movement vocabulary for Oriental dance, and/or certification system? And what body of people do you think should guide that process?
Princess Farhana: As far as making a universal movement vocabulary, I am all for it- but not sure if it is possible! Everyone calls movement's different things- figure eight's, infinity loops, whatever! I learned a 'choo-choo'; someone else learned a 'shark' and they were the same movement!
Not sure if a standardized naming system could happen, because unlike ballet, which at first was pretty much developed in one country, (and is quite a few hundred years newer or 'younger' than oriental dance, therefore documented in a much more orderly fashion) belly dance came from all over the place- different countries, and for the most part, men had nothing to do with it. Consequently it wasn't deemed important enough to be studied seriously.
As for certification, I think a world-wide committee would have to be nominated and voted upon- but that would be hard, too- cause there are so many varieties of the dance- fusion, folkloric, pop styling, tribal- I mean, where do you begin? I am totally against the all-too-common practice of an individual taking lessons for a couple of months, then debuting as a 'pro', performing and teaching. It's not a good thing at all. However, on the flip side, I do relish the diversity in our dance, and sometimes, training alone does not a great dancer make! I guess you could say I am on the fence about both of these points.
But I will conclude with some things I do feel passionate about: The fact that this dance is one of the oldest on the planet is as amazing as the wonderful way it makes it's practitioners feel. Named or not, certified or not- practiced seriously and thoroughly researched, or done for laughs at a wedding, there is a reason oriental dance has stuck around for a few millennia. We may not know how and why, but we can be thankful for being so very fortunate to have this beautiful art form in our lives.