salt lake city — Odd that the Utah Federation of Republican Women would hire Kismet, a belly dance troupe, as entertainment for their luncheon. Yet, hire us they did. Sequinned, tassled, and howling a loud, wavering zaghareet, we take the floor before a room full of helmet-haired Mormon matrons in pantsuits. We’ve caught them, the most conservative women in the reddest state of the union, over their first forkfuls of poached salmon.
Some watch with open hostility as we dance the dance of the enemy. Others look away. Yasamina, our director, smiles menacingly at them, shimmying in a hot pink bra and matching harem pants. She has performed at everything from Masonic initiations to Mormon bachelor parties to Podunk festivals in the desert. But in thirty years of dancing here, this is the frostiest crowd she’s faced.
Using a thick, fake Arabic accent, Yasamina (née Barbara Ann Hoagland) bids them to join her for an impromptu lesson. I cringe. But if three decades of teaching shy local women how to emulate cobras has taught the Utah-born woman anything, it’s how to proselytize. The women rise in fear and trembling.
Barking exotic-sounding nonsense at her drummer, Yasamina demonstrates an undulation, a difficult move even for a practised dancer. A few women follow stiffly along; most remain frozen.
“All right,” she sighs, nearly losing her accent, “Who ees ay sexy Rrepooblicahn?” The women exchange sideways glances, then mumble in unison: “Mitt Romney.”
“Okay,” says Yasamina, triumphant. “Vee do eet forr Meat. Meat Rrromney.”
What is belly dancing doing in Utah, where the Mormon church bars “moves that are suggestive of sexual behaviour,” where many people don “armour of God,” an undergarment they are not allowed to take off, where I am one of the few Arabs anyone has ever seen? Though its origins in the state are unclear, its appeal is strong. For a Latter-day Saint, belly dancing can be a form of rebellion. For non-lds women, it’s a way to make friends in a place where community outside of the church can be difficult to find. Just as prophet Joseph Smith wove together scraps of folklore, history, and doctrine to make a uniquely American religion, so locals have redefined the Middle Eastern art form to express the cultural, religious, and sexual tensions that pervade life here. And given that Utah’s Mormon culture has invited parallels with the Muslim world, it isn’t so strange that its equally thriving counterculture might look to the Middle East for inspiration.
Nevertheless, the Mormon community distrusts outsiders, particularly those with Middle Eastern last names, so when I moved to Salt Lake City from Toronto six years ago, I didn’t know how long I’d last. In dire straits, I surprised myself by looking to a dead ringer for Jeannie to put me in touch with roots I’d never imagined I’d miss. What shocked me further: she was by no means the only option. There are now fifty-odd belly dance troupes in and around slc — even the church-owned Brigham Young University has one, called Modest Moves — and the city hosts one of the largest belly dance festivals in North America. It wasn’t exactly Babylon, but it was strange enough to keep me interested.
My fellow dancers and I stand poised between the tables, ready to assist with a move most of us learned not so long ago in an incense-choked studio plastered with homemade model pharaohs. All that separates us from our students are makeshift costumes stitched together from Victoria’s Secret bras and Wal-Mart beads and stage names like Shamsa and Mischa, just chosen. Beneath that shoddy cloak of Orientalism, we are all phonies, some of us lds, some even Republican.
Despite these bonds, I can’t believe that the lunching Utah Federation of Republican Women are going to shake it. But whether impelled by curiosity, rebellion, Yasamina’s powers, or merely love for their potential Mormon president, a roomful of Saints begin to undulate before my kohl-lined eyes. Mitt would be proud.
Mona Awad (@monaawadauthor) released her debut novel-in-stories, 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, earlier this year.