Nina Cristante is an artist, autodidactic nutritionist, Aquarius and my best friend. Had it not been for a mutual friend linking us during her temporary stay in NYC seven months back, I may’ve never been introduced to the full spectrum of her work. Just a subtle trail of digital breadcrumbs. Slow-mo-promo. A whisper, a wink, a bikini body meme. A deliberately ambiguous website hosting austere at-home workout videos and fragments of clients’ food diaries.
Belly dancing in the West reminds me of Western choreographers, shmaltzy ’50s records and “Orient” enthusiasts. Occasionally some random Arab Diaspora nightclub-cum-cafe will have an event with a belly dancer in an attempt to generate a quick buck, appeasing said enthusiasts. Lately, it’s something that’s most visible in gyms, a belly dance workout to combat the boredom of everyday cardio. But in the Ukraine and Russia, there are trophy competitions in which pros compete, dancing to Raqs Sharqi “Eastern dance” music – the long accepted soundtrack of belly dancing. However, we now have a new, more random category: Southern Iraqi music, known as Hacha. Not something I’d readily associate with the former Soviet Union. It’s something you may encounter at Southern Iraqi weddings, but mostly in Iraqi music videos. Lo and behold, these dance pros compete to the tune of Hacha in the port city and of Berdyansk on the Sea of Azov, south-east Ukraine.
Berdyansk, known for it’s health and wellness resorts and gentle climate, is host to the Primorye Cup, an annual gala, master classes and competition arranged by the Russian League of Bellydance Masters. To my knowledge, and limited translation via Google, this is a competition open to judges and masters of the dance form exclusively and involves improvisation. The particular selection of videos chosen are from the 2011 competition, themed “Expression of the East,” held in August of that year. One of the videos so wowed an Arab viewer, who re-uploaded it with the title, “Terrific Iraqi dance by the Ukrainian Superstar dancer Alena [Papucha].” These videos are stunning, from the clothes to the dancing, to the gorgeous curtain, every detail is mesmerizingly alien. The screaming by the audience is especially endearing. I was screaming watching them.