Belly Jelly

The heck with lap dancing. Tara Eivers, owner of Sinbad's restaurant in Tempe, has the jump on the next hot trend in entertainment. Several nights a week, Sinbad's features a bevy of belly dancers who shake their coin-heavy hips and bejeweled fannies at the dinner trade. For the price of a baklava and a cup of boiled coffee, Eivers offers a hip trip to the Middle East, and folks are lining up to catch a glimpse. While a trio of hot numbers writhed and wiggled on Sinbad's stage, I cornered Eivers about the pleasures of fanny-shaking and why guys are bringing their wives to witness it.

New Times: Why do people belly dance?

Tara Eivers: It's the whole fascination with the mysterious Middle East. In the old country, what makes people happy is dance and baklava and coffee. It's a form of expression, and it's good exercise.

NT: Better than the Ab-Roller?

Eivers: Yes. You know, I used to always be tempted to order one of those off of TV, because I have this stomach. I try to remind myself that wishing for a flat stomach is an American thing. So far I've failed.

NT: You could belly dance.

Eivers: I used to dance all the time, but never in a costume. Men find it more attractive when you're not in a costume.

NT: I've heard that. I thought it was better for a belly dancer to be flabby, rather than ab-y.

Eivers: Yes, because that's the more traditional body type. In true Middle Eastern belly dance, all the women are very voluptuous, and that's their appeal. Large breasts, and big, rounded hips moving, moving, moving. In the U.S., women are so self-conscious that showing their belly is frowned upon.

NT: (Pointing to belly dancers on stage.) Maybe if women ran around doing that all the time, attitudes about stomachs would change. You know, belly dancing was sort of big with housewives in the '60s for a while. Why's it coming back now?

Eivers: Because it's fun. You can do it while you're doing housework or talking on the phone. And, you know, it's all about women being together. Women have a fear of going to the gym and all the guys are looking at us. Whereas, with belly dance . . .

NT: You're wearing a bikini and a veil and all the guys are looking at you.

Eivers: You're funny. You know, a girl couldn't wear that costume to the gym. Her breasts would be covered in coins, and those costumes weigh a ton. They're very expensive; they're like $2,500 apiece. The girls usually travel to Egypt to get them.

NT: Couldn't you just buy a bikini at Target and sew some quarters on it?

Eivers: You probably could do that. Hmm. I never thought of that. A lot of the girls use props, though: Swords on their heads, and blazing candelabras.

NT: Your insurance here must be pretty high. (Pointing to stage.) Hey, how come none of those girls are wearing big paste jewels in their navels?

Eivers: Oh, that isn't something that's done. You know, that's just from television or something. But we have some dancers who are tattooed around their navels.

NT: Is that traditional?

Eivers: No. Middle Eastern tradition says the woman is not to be marked. Tattooing is not part of our culture, but most of the women belly dancers in Arizona seem to be tattooed.

NT: Go-go dancers, too. Is belly dance sometimes mistaken for erotic dance?

Eivers: (Rolling eyes.) Yes! Oh, it's awful. People call and say, "Can I bring my kids?" It's an art form, belly dance. It's cabaret, not risqué. Some people don't get that. And let me tell you, the men are shy about coming here with their wives, but the wives are always really into it. They're the first ones to shove dollar bills into the girls' costumes.

NT: So some guys show up expecting a lap dance from a girl in a sarong, and they get The Dance of the Seven Veils. That must be disappointing.

Eivers: Not at all. People are mesmerized. Not every woman can move her hips that way. It takes a lot of practice. You really have to work to get your stomach to move around that way.

NT: My stomach moves around that way when I just walk across a room. I notice that all the girls have goofy Arabic stage names. What's that about?

Eivers: Because no one would come out to see a belly dancer named Kelly. Or Suzanne. People believe that a true belly dancer will have an Egyptian name. These women are all professionals during the day, so when they perform on weekend nights, they have a stage name that provides a certain mystique. Amy's dance name is Amen-rot, which means, uh, I don't remember what. But you get the picture.

NT: I want a mysterious dance name. Give me a mysterious dance name!

Eivers: Your dance name is Jameen. It means "beautiful."

NT: I sort of prefer Dances With Sarcasm. Or Fred. Couldn't I be Fred?

Eivers: No, no, no! No one would come to see a belly dancer named Fred.

NT: Do guys do belly dance?

Eivers: I have one guy in the troupe, but it's different. A woman's dance is more concentrated on her bust area or her hips. Her navel. The men's dance is more jovial, and there's usually a big sword involved.

NT: How subtle. What do these people do during the day?

Eivers: Kristen is a biochemist. Karen is a legal assistant. Amy is a public school teacher. Another of our dancers is a research librarian for Intel, another is a 911 operator.

NT: Amazing. I bet their co-workers wonder why they're walking around digging glue out of their navels all day. Speaking of belly buttons, what if you have an outie rather than an innie?

Eivers: These days, the girls with outies usually get them pierced.

NT: Ow! Hey, I'm guessing you're going to tell me that belly dancing encourages a healthy body image among women.

Eivers: It takes a lot of courage for some women, who other people would write off as fat, to get up on my stage and dance in a tiny costume. We have one troupe that comes here to perform and they have women who aren't very attractive at all. One of them has braces, but she's a hell of a dancer, man. She dances with candles on her head! They have another woman in their troupe who's large, and I mean large! She wears big eyeglasses and a little belly dance costume and you know what? I look at her and say, "Okay, what do I have to be shy about?"

NT: Could a flat girl perform?

Eivers: Yeah. But she'd probably stuff. Because look at how their bras are shaped. Those sort of torpedoes covered in shiny stuff. Can you imagine how heavy they are? Do you want to feel one?

NT: Oh, thanks. I couldn't. You know, it looks like the rule of thumb with some of the girls is "When in doubt, spin."

Eivers: I know. Yeah. I think you're right. Here. Finish your coffee and I'll read your coffee grounds. It's good, huh? It's Arabic coffee; it's boiled.

NT: Mmm! Boiled coffee!

Eivers: (Dumps out coffee, then peers into cup.) Okay, you see how the face of the coffee is open? That's a good sign. It means good fortune. Now, this clear area here means there's no bullshit about you. You always speak your mind, even if we don't want to hear it. And, okay, see these two birds over here, by the handle of the cup?

NT: It looks like coffee grounds.

Eivers: Well, they're birds. They're telling me you may be going on an expedition of some sort. Some place with a lot of mountains.

NT: Phoenix has a lot of mountains. Maybe it means I should go home now.

Eivers: Now look over here. See the little man?

NT: Yes. He's wearing a stocking cap.

Eivers: Right. He's climbing a tall mountain, and he's almost to the top. That's a good sign. It means you're about to reach your peak, you're about to have everything you want out of life.

NT: I don't have a stocking cap.

Eivers: You're reaching your peak! You're reaching your peak! You have to trust me on this. And look here, there's a halo on the side of the cup. It means you've got someone looking out for you.

NT: Is it my editor?

Eivers: No. I see a tree, but it doesn't have any branches on it.

NT: A log? I don't think I want to know more.

Eivers: No, a tree with no branches means you're all done growing, and you've achieved almost everything you're going to!

NT: So I may as well die. Well, I think I'll go home now.

Eivers: Wait. Lick your right thumb.

NT: Excuse me?

Eivers: Lick your right thumb, make a thumb print in the bottom of the coffee cup, and then lick the coffee off. It's part of the reading.

NT: (Licking thumb.) I'll bet it isn't. I'll bet you're making this up as you go along and secretly laughing at me.

Eivers: (Peering into cup.) Hmm. Interesting.

NT: What? What do you see?

Eivers: I'm not real sure. But when you turn it upside down, it looks sort of like a woman in a veil with money all over her chest.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela