A taste of the exotic on Elm
A restaurant employee lights Patika’s fire on the second-floor dining room of Much, Greensboro’s highest-concept restaurant and bar. The lights go dark and the music begins to play ‘— a slinky hybrid of industrial techno and Eastern dirge with spooky harmonies and a looped drumbeat. The dinner patrons can’t see the thin black smoke for the darkness, but the faint scent of burning fuel momentarily overwhelms the culinary aromas emanating from the kitchen and the dinner tables up here.
Patika slowly swings the fireballs ‘— poi, as they’re called, with origins harkening to the Maori tribe of New Zealand. Here in the States they’ve been bastardized for nightclub culture. The chains clink and the fire gives off a soft roar as the devices build up momentum. She crosses them in front of her body, winds them under her arms, describes circles, ellipses, wide arcs in the blackness. The flickering light creates shadows on the fabric-covered walls and winks off the eyeglasses of the dinner patrons. She sashays along the catwalk connecting the two ends of the dining room and the fire is in step with her. She controls it, works it, spins it out to the edge and back. It lights her body and her features and extends her aura well beyond her fingertips.
As the music crescendos, so does the dance and she swings the balls at dizzying speeds until one of the flames huffs out, separated from its source by sheer velocity. Then the dance is over, the lights go up and the applause lands at the feet of the performer.
Patika (a stage name; she won’t give her real one) swings fire every weekend for the dinner crowd at Much, the restaurant and bar conceived by downtown visionary Joey Medaloni a couple of years ago to raise the stakes on the Elm Street scene. The motif here is vaguely Arabic, with walls designed to look like raw rock and a two-story waterfall descending into a ground-level pool. Sanskrit writings and Middle Eastern iconography cover the walls downstairs and upstairs in the dining room lush red materials drape from the ceiling and gather along the walls, giving the dining room’— ‘Temptation,’ as Joey calls it’— the look and feel of a sultan’s harem hall. Up another flight of stairs, at the rooftop club that Medaloni’s dubbed ‘Heaven,’ a tent covers the dance floor and in lieu of overstuffed couches and traditional club tables he’s placed poster beds at the fringes with wispy gauze curtains.
Concept clubs like this are common in places like Las Vegas and Miami, but here in Greensboro ‘— indeed, throughout most of the South ‘— these types of nightclubs are as rare as oases in the desert.
‘“There’s maybe five clubs in the country that have this kind of entertainment,’” Medaloni says, ‘“and one of them is right here in downtown Greensboro.’”
‘“Joey’s an awesome person to work for,’” Patika says down at the first-floor bar, a serpentine length of rock and stone. She wears a jangly chainmail headdress, a suede miniskirt and do-me boots. Vaguely tribal markings dot the spaces underneath her eyes; her nose is pierced and she wears double-zero gauge water buffalo horns through her stretched-out earlobes. It’s an appropriate look for her medium: the tradition of poi dancing can be traced back to the Maori tribe, a Polynesian culture which migrated to New Zealand in 950 AD. The poi, which is how they described the heavy balls at the end of flaxen twine, was both a weapon and a dance implement, said to improve strength and coordination in the warriors and increase dexterity and flexibility in the women.
Not all fire dancing is poi, just as not all poi dancing involves fire, but flame is a big part of what Patika does. She’s a Leo, a true fire sign, and has been working with the hot stuff for about seven years, coaxing it from sticks and other props, dancing with it, even eating it (‘“It tastes like chemicals,’” she says). She picked up the poi a couple of years ago, and it wasn’t too long before she lit them up.
‘“Fire has a mind of its own,’” she says. ‘“You can’t control it, though you may feel like you can. It’s dangerous but it’s beautiful’… primal, tribal. It reminds us of our fragility.’”
Shake and Bake
Not long after the flames have gone out, with the smell of spent fuel now thinned throughout the room, the house lights dim down and more eerie music crawls from unseen speakers. This time it’s, ‘“I Put A Spell On You,’” a version far removed from Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ boogaloo howl, transformed by Bollywood beats and instrumentation based on sitars and pipes, with ghostly vocals that seem to come from another dimension.
Amal dances through the sounds, finger-cymbals clanging desperately, matching the syncopation between body and mind, cocking first one hip and then the other, her bare midriff trembling from the force.
The belly part, she says, is a Western appellation ‘— the first European visitors to the Middle East were witness to what the natives called beldi, the traditional dance heavy on the hip work. We’ve been mispronouncing it every since.
Amal, aka Ella McCoy, knows of what she speaks: she’s been in the business for 18 years, since she was a toddler, really, and learned the art at her mother’s feet. Nancy McCoy, now aged out of the bellydance business, was a professional instructor not so many years ago and she’s taught her only daughter, shall we say, the ins and outs of the trade.
Nobody knows for sure how far back the dance goes, but its history runs through ancient times in places as far-flung as Turkey, Egypt, Greece, Saudi Arabia and Japan. Different cultures used the dance for different rites: in India it was a religious practice; in Saudi Arabia it was performed for and by women exclusively. The discipline gained popularity here in the States when famed dancer Little Egypt performed at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. Here in the good ol’ US of A, we recognize some of the traditions of bellydancing, but we’ve amped up the more titillating aspects of the art; skimpy costumes, removable hip veils and more suggestive movements play big parts in the Americanized version.
Amal’s style leans more towards the traditional. She uses the finger cymbals, or zills, and her jangling belt, made of thin chains with faux coins dangling like charms, is customary as well: in the old days the belts would be made of real coins and would generally comprise the family’s entire wealth, made portable in case they had to move quick.
In the Much dining room, every eye sticks to Amal ‘— her hips, her hands, her stomach, her eyes. She threads through the dinner tables trailing her scarf behind her like a wing, then draping it across the face of a diner before spinning away, her skirts rising around her and the coins jingling at her waist. She sweeps across the room, exiting across the catwalk as the music fades away.
The lights rise again to their dinner-hour wattage and the waiters stream back onto the floor with trays of hot food and armloads of bussed plates. The standard dinner music creeps back out, and there is a long pause before the diners go back to their meals, their conversations and their everyday lives.
To comment on this story, e-mail Brian Clarey at firstname.lastname@example.org.