BWW Reviews: BLOOD ON THE VEIL Celebrates the Often-Maligned Art of Belly Dance

BWW Reviews: BLOOD ON THE VEIL Celebrates the Often-Maligned Art of Belly Dance

"Blood on the Veil" is a mesmerizing theater piece with the commendable mission of dispelling the misconception that the ancient oriental art of belly dancing is nothing but a dance of seduction. Written, choreographed, and performed by the multi-talented Carol Henning, the performance involves not only dancing but also her passionately delivered monologues laced with humor about her journey from illness to health. Fittingly, Henning's stage name is "Tandava", which is Sanskrit for the Hindu deity Shiva's dance of destruction and rebirth.

Henning tells the audience that she reluctantly hung up her beloved ballet slippers during her teen years when her curvy body dashed her hopes of becoming a ballerina. Years later, she underwent emergency abdominal surgery because of life-threatening internal bleeding that resulted from a ruptured ovary. She maintains that belly dance lessons helped her heal both physically and emotionally as she came to love rather than loathe her ample female abdomen, scars and all. Recent research done at Flinders University in Australia corroborates her assertion. A September 2014 release from the university reports that "belly dancing is an embodying activity that gives women a sense of ownership of their bodies " and that "women participate in this somewhat erotic and sexually alluring activity purely for themselves, rather than to feel sexier and more attractive to others".

Tandava wordlessly conveyed that powerful message as she unzipped and tossed off the robe she had been wearing during a monologue. When she suddenly revealed the gorgeous Middle Eastern costume that bared her belly, there was a collective gasp among the theatergoers. She is a beautiful woman with porcelain skin and hip-length dark hair, but hers is not a currently fashionable bikini-ready body. Think instead of the paintings of Renaissance and Baroque masters such as Botticelli, Titian, Rubens, and Rembrandt. The unabashed joy and confidence with which she stood before us was moving indeed. Then she began to dance to the pulsating rhythms of Middle Eastern music, proving that she is a bona fide professional with a style that is true to the sacred origins of belly dance yet imbued with movements borrowed from her early ballet training. The effect is nothing short of electrifying.

"Blood on the Veil" got its title from Henning/Tandava's harrowing medical condition and she originally created the piece as a one-woman show. Now, though, she invites guest artists to participate in each performance. On February 18th 2015 when I was there, we were treated to Spanish fusion complete with castanets performed and played by Kris Ames, Gypsy fusion by Julia Kulakova, and an undulating personal style by Master Teacher Jehan.

The evening also featured fascinating accounts of belly dance history around the world and demonstrations of a variety of props including finger cymbals, fans, swords, canes, fiery candelabra headpieces, trays with lighted tea candles, wings, and of course veils. The latter are not the sort of veil a bride wears to hide her face. They are long, diaphanous pieces of fabric that are integral elements of the choreography.

Another aspect of this and other belly dance shows is audience participation. I was startled when Tandava beckoned me from my front row seat to join her and the other dancers on stage. Gamely, I put down my reporter's notebook and followed her. She connected the two of us by placing one end of a cane in the center of her belly and the other end in mine while she looked deeply into my eyes. Then, as she began rippling her arms in movements not unlike those of Odile in "Swan Lake", I copied her as I whispered "Is this how you get good reviews?" At that point, she was the one who was startled! She truly hadn't realized she picked the BroadwayWorld.com critic to dance with her. Yet as I'm sure you can ascertain from what I've told you up to this point, I was already planning to give her a very good review indeed. If you think of belly dancing as mere gentlemen's club and restaurant entertainment, please go see "Blood on the Veil" for a glorious lesson in the full scope of what this art form really is all about.

The show runs through March 1st at Theater for the New City, 155 First Avenue, NYC 10009 between 8th and 9th Streets. Visit http://bloodontheveil.com/ for tickets.

Photo by Sarah Skinner

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