The lights go down in Cafe Amira- and the
conversation stops. From the shadows emerge
three strikingly beautiful women dressed in
exotic tribal costumes, their exposed, tattooed
midriffs gyrating gracefully to the pulsing
beat of Moroccan music. The decor is Middle
Eastern, as is the food. But this isn't Cairo
or Casablanca. This is San Francisco, and the
women are Fat Chance, California's most famous
Fat Chance's celebrity in the American dance
world has been justly earned on the basis of
their considerable talent, but they are also
famous for something equally remarkable: Most
of the members are heavily tattooed. The sight
of so much exquisitely decorated flesh undulating
to Middle Eastern rhythms is enough to send
audiences into a frenzy. The fusion of a dance
form that for many is inherently erotic, combined
with the primal energy of tattoos, is an explosive
one. It is also unique. Fat Chance is the only
belly-dance troupe in the world with a majority
of its members heavily tattooed. They have single-handedly
pioneered a powerful new image for women dancers,
and the fashion for getting tattoos appears
to be slowly spreading.
As the dancers come gracefully to the end of
their performance, the audience erupts with
applause. Carolena Nericcio, the troupe's founder,
pauses to wipe perspiration from her brow before
explaining to me how she dreamt up their curious
name. "I have been dancing for 26 years.
When I was younger, people would ask me what
I did for a living, and when I said, 'Belly
dance,' out would come the usual sexual innuendoes
like, 'Well, how about a private show then?'
My reply was always the same, 'Fat chance!'
I wanted a name that made it clear that just
because we are belly dancers doesn't mean we
Associations of belly dance and sex are often
linked together in the mind of the general public.
This is partly because of the nature of the
dance and its emphasis on the provocative movements
of the lower body, but also because of a number
of complex historical reasons. The most important
involved the dance becoming detached from its
original folkloric roots and placed in the context
of the Western cabaret tradition and the even
sleazier burlesque shows. Here, sexual titillation
completely usurped the original artistry of
the dance form.
In Egypt, a country where belly dance is revered
both for its folkloric roots and as a nationally
acclaimed art form, the associations between
belly dance and prostitution are even more firmly
connected. This is again due to the way the
dance developed historically. For centuries,
a particular tribe of "public dancing girls"
called the ghawazee used to entertain people
at events like weddings and other family celebrations.
In the 1850s, the British Orientalist E.W. Lane
was amazed to discover these beautiful women
dancing in the streets of Cairo dressed in clothes
usually reserved for the harem. Lane's prim
Victorian sensibilities were rocked when he
discovered these women supplemented their incomes
by being prostitutes. To an Arab, today, the
word ghawazee means both dancer and prostitute.
Ironically Carolena has the word ghawazee tattooed
in Arabic script across her back. "I was
fully aware of its duel meaning when I had it
done," she insists. "I don't care
if it's misinterpreted. To me, it perfectly
signifies what I was doing in terms of dance
and dance alone!"
Carolena has chosen to express other aspects
of Middle Eastern symbolism in her tattoos.
"The five blue diamonds on my lower back
were tattooed by Bill Salmon. The pattern is
borrowed from designs found on amulets used
by the Tuareg, a North African tribe. This,
along with the hand of Fatima which surrounds
them, is universally considered in Arab culture
to protect against the evil eye. The image of
the phoenix is not Arabic but comes from a book
of Chinese fairy tales for children and was
tattooed by Vyvyn Lazonga."
Like tattooing, belly dance has gone through
a period of transformation which might be called
a renaissance. In Europe and especially America,
it has attracted a new generation of women who
are keen to invert the lewd associations of
the past and overlay the art form with a modern
feminist perspective, using the dance as a vehicle
that both empowers and creates a world independent
of male influence and control.
The fact that belly dance is an individual
art form only practiced by women explains much
of its appeal. "When I was a teenager,"
explains Carolena, "I was frustrated that
dance always required a partner. I was a wallflower.
No one ever asked me to dance. So the solo aspect
of belly dance really appealed to me."
Another attraction was the opportunity to work
in a tightly knit group of women. "Fat
Chance is like an extended family. It's a tribe
and an amazing support system. Most people look
for a group to join. I looked for one to join
me. It goes back to childhood and all those
feelings of being hurt by people who were always
so competitive. In Fat Chance we try not to
do that. It is the opposite of what goes on
in the majority of society." In this sense,
the group operates in a similar way to many
of the social dynamics found in the hardcore
tattoo community. They both share an intrinsic
tribal quality. In Fat Chance the intimate bonds
of friendship that are forged between its members
are its lifeblood. "For me, the spirituality
comes from this tribal or group bonding. It's
all about the empowerment we get from each other.
If we don't work together, the tribe dies."
Fat Chance originally grew out of the San Francisco
underground, and its development paralleled
the development of the tattoo renaissance and
the emergence of the Modern Primitive movement
in the late 1980s. When the group officially
formed in 1989, all of its original members
were already tattooed. When they met as a troupe
for the first time, they were shocked to discover
that most of their tattoos had come from the
same artist, Vyvyn Lazonga. "It's strange
but I think the tattoos helped to bring us all
together," states Carolena. "We found
this coincidence really extraordinary and exciting."
During this period, Fat Chance provided an alternative
refuge for women who experimented with a more
radical appearance and who didn't fit in anywhere
else. "Tattooed people are always a little
ostracized, just like belly dancers. So I think
the classes I originally set up attracted people
who were already weird. With us, it was a safe
place to be a freak."
In the late-'80s, Fat Chance was a familiar
sight at various underground venues, parties,
art galleries and street fairs. They were also
intimately connected to well-known San Francisco
clubs like DNA which hosted the first Modern
Primitive shows. These would feature people
like Fakir Musavar, the godfather of the Modern
Primitive movement, and the heavily tattooed
sword swallower and fire eater, Captain Don
Leslie. At that point, the sight of Musavar
suspended from hooks that went through piercings
in his chest had rarely been experienced in
public and, quite naturally, created a major
shock. When Fat Chance first hit the belly-dance
scene, they too provoked shock and amazement.
"People freaked out when they saw our tattoos,"
states Carolena. "No one had seen the combination
of belly dance and tattooing, and it blew them
away." Today, Fat Chance, having capitalized
on this visually explosive combination, are
much in demand as the only fully tattooed belly-dance
troupe in America.
Given the success of Fat Chance, it seems strange
that the idea of combining tattooing with belly
dance or other dance forms has not spread more
rapidly. So far, only one other belly-dance
troupe has a heavily tattooed member. Jill Parker
was originally with Fat Chance and left several
years ago to form her own company, Ultra Gypsy.
So far, Jill is the only member to get heavily
tattooed. Jill, no doubt, adopts the same attitude
to other members of the troupe as Carolena,
who jokes about one of the myths that surround
Fat Chance. "People think I'm this tyrant
who forces my members into the tattoo chair.
That is complete nonsense. The women spontaneously
decide to get tattooed. It just happens because
they see how beautiful the combination is, not
because of pressure from me."
April Nino is another woman who studies Middle
Eastern dance and is tattooed. She was briefly
involved with Fat Chance. Today, she focuses
her attention more on creating and teaching
art. "I love tattooing," she explains.
"I see belly dance and tattooing as physical
expressions of my spiritual life. As an artist
I am interested in the study of beauty, and
there is no greater commitment to art and beauty
than to express it with your body."
Despite my search for deeper meaning, the main
connection between belly dance and tattooing
appears to be purely aesthetic. There is nothing
new in the desire for women to ornament themselves
and look more beautiful. This connection is
neatly illustrated when you consider that the
earliest known evidence for tattooing comes
from ancient Egyptian figurines of dancing girls
who were also tattooed. In addition, dance historians
estimate that Egyptian belly dancing or raqus
sharqui probably originated with dance forms
developed 3,000 years ago in pharaonic times
and is probably far older than this.
"Historical connections are interesting"
states Carolena, "but they play little
part in the motivation behind members of Fat
Chance getting tattooed. Some of the women who
come to the dance classes are not comfortable
showing their bodies. They may have issues about
being overweight or have scars and don't want
to show that area of the body publicly. What
happens is, they start accepting their bodies
and become more comfortable with them. The more
comfortable they get, the more likely they are
to display them. Once you can accept your body,
you can begin to celebrate it."
This is certainly a process that Grace Murphy
underwent. She is the only member to have tattoos
on her stomach; all others have work on their
backs. "The flowers tattooed on my belly
were a great cover-up for a nasty appendicitis
scar. Both the tattoos and the dance form work
together in the process of accepting your body
that we all have to go through."
Back in Cafe Amira, the music surges, and once
again the members of Fat Chance begin to glide
elegantly across the stage. Watching the women
dance, the audience is seduced by the hypnotic
combination of music, movement and costume.
As sweat begins to add an erotic sheen to their
tattooed flesh, the designs begin to take on
a life of their own, coiling around their undulating
waists like some rare and exotic serpent. Suddenly
the music stops, and the women's twisting, turning
bodies elegantly come to a halt. The show may
be over, but the primal energy these women create
when they dance remains; hanging thick and heavy
in the San Francisco night.