Friday, February 13, 2004

Male belly dancer shimmies his way into people’s hearts

From the Daily Star

BEIRUT: He slithers, he slides, he shakes, he teases. His heavily made-up face holds the crowd firmly in his gaze. His body, revealed by a see-through red and black tiger print top flowing around him, is in control of his every move as he takes over the stage, making it his, enrapturing an ecstatic audience. He is Mosbah Baalbaki, Lebanon’s notorious male belly dancer.
Away from the spotlights of Music Hall, the performance club in downtown Beirut where camp joins glitz and talent in a comfortable menage a trois, and Mosbah, the epitome of all three, reigns supreme, the dancer looking every bit the star off duty. Gone is the magic of the makeup, the styled hair, the flamboyant accessories. Mosbah by day sports a head scarf, a T-shirt, a jean jacket, a black track suit bottom and white trainers.

Are the man and the artist two entirely different people?

Not so. As Mosbah opens up, the two get reunited. He exudes passion, his conversation flowing endlessly, hands fluttering around like butterflies, rolling into fists to support an emotional statement, blowing kisses here and there to the myriad of friends passing through the beauty institute where he has chosen to be interviewed. He is a diva, yet one devoid of any attitude, apologizing profusely for refusing to let our photographer take a picture of him ­ “I just got out of the gym, look at me, I simply can’t … I mean, would you really want a picture of me looking like this?” ­ and offering a selection of glamorous portraits taken by a photographer in London to make up for it. Professional to the fingertips, he is fully aware of what the media wants and needs from him, anticipating interview questions in advance and clearly revelling in the attention.

His five-year career has offered him plenty of opportunity to practice, boasting interviews with CNN, BBC and The New York Times, not to mention being nominated by the French magazine L’Express as one of the 100 Lebanese personalities to follow in 2001 ­ a mention of which he is particularly proud. He has good reason to attach importance to the attention given to him by the foreign media. “After these interviews, people started to know who I was. My life completely changed. People’s reaction to me changed. I don’t shock people as much any more. They have accepted me.”

Not that this was enough to make him acceptable to the Lebanese media however. “They don’t talk about me. They won’t show what I do, even though I am well-known,” he says. “You can’t change the whole Arab mentality right away,” he adds with a shrug.
Condemnation from society is one that has long ceased to give him sleepless nights. He says he has always been different.
Growing up in Sidon, the largest town in Lebanon’s conservative south, Mosbah, 32, loved to dance. “The mirror was my teacher,” he says. “I used to think I was odd. It was a conservative society. I was afraid to dance in front of people.”
He traces his early influences to old Egyptian films starring voluptuous belly dancers that he spent hours watching, as well as Arabic music. “The music came from inside me. I could feel it. I could feel every instrument,” he says.

Relegating his passion for dancing to a hobby, Mosbah moved to Beirut at the age of 20, to pursue a degree in communication arts at the Lebanese American University, specializing in radio, film and television. Upon graduation, he moved to Dubai, where he worked briefly for Dubai Television, before moving back to Beirut. It was then he met his Pygmalion, who soon was to change his life around. Michel Elefteriades, a Lebanese artist and promoter, spotted Mosbah dancing at a nightclub and, convinced of his talent, promptly brought him over to perform at Amor Y Libertad, the club he ran at the time.

“He invited me to his club, and just told me: ‘Go up to the stage and dance.’ There were hundreds of people there. He told me: ‘You have something, so show it. You can become something.’ I told him I couldn’t do it ­ my parents, society.”
But Elefteriades installed faith in his protege, and a professional dancer was born. Mosbah went on to sign a contract with Elef Records, which repackaged him as a male belly dancer. “Male belly dancers are rare. That’s why we chose to go with that. We had to come up with something different, in order to shock people.”

At ease with stirring controversy and shocking people, Mosbah is however, at pains to stress that he has no interest in provoking. “People think I want to provoke. No. This is me,” he exclaims. “I am different. I insist on this: I am not provoking.”
His performances still stir up antagonistic sentiments, from those who feel he desecrates a traditional dance exclusively reserved for women, to those who view his performance as an exhibition of homosexuality. In a country that still criminalizes homosexual practice, this is no small charge.

The topic leaves Mosbah unflustered. He refuses to indulge in the controversy, declining to be made a champion of the gay cause. “I never announced my sexuality ­ that is something private,” he says simply. “Every human being is entitled to his own personal life, his own privacy. Some people link my dancing to my sexuality, which I can understand, but I am not doing this to make a statement, I am not doing this to promote that sort of liberty in my country. I am just a dancer, and my private life only concerns me.”
He puts his enduring career, which has him performing from Lebanon to London, Paris and Dubai, down to hard work and talent, rather than mere shock value.

“I really made a lot of sacrifices. But I don’t think of it as a job; it’s more than a job. I love what I am doing, and when you love something you fight for it.”

Talent in dance, he says, comes from within. “That is why I don’t like to teach dancing, especially Arabic dancing; it’s very hard to teach if you don’t have it from inside.”

His fluttering hands become two fists drawn to his navel. “It’s not like step dance. It’s a feeling you express.”
Without any formal dance training, choreography or design, Mosbah trains on his own and is in charge of every aspect of his show, from performance to costumes. He takes his art seriously, paying tribute to the well-known female belly dancers of Lebanon, such as Samara.
“I love them, and I appreciate their work for one good reason: They have proven that belly dancing is an art, that it has culture and that it should be seen. That is very important.”

His one-man show has hitherto been part of his trade-mark. “I perform solo, so I need to renew myself all the time. I change my music, I change my costumes … Dancing is so limited. So you have to pay attention to what you wear. It’s all part of the show.”
Yet change looms in the future for the young dancer. Upon the urging of his manager, Mosbah will start performing with his own band ­ a big step for someone who thrives on the unique contact he establishes with the audience when alone on stage. Next month will see the release of his first CD, titled Mosbah, and a show involving six female dancers to accompany him is also in the works.
With his notoriety growing, is there any chance he might relocate abroad to gain international fame?

“No, no,” he replies without hesitation. “I am a phenomenon in my country. I began here, I became famous here, I am respected here. I love Lebanon.”

And the country just might be ready to love him back.


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