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Susan Eyde brings a fresh spin to the ancient art of belly dancing

Outside, a full moon is shining on the Oracle desert, and inside Susan Eyde is dancing with fire.

Dressed in a glittery midnight-blue top and low-riding skirt, Tucson's best-known belly dancer has a lighted candle in each hand. She shimmies her hips wildly to the frenetic music of drums, and periodically shouts out to the appreciative art crowd gathered in a barn for GLOW, a multimedia art event at Triangle L Ranch.

"Habibi" (sweetheart), she calls. And "Yalla," which loosely translates as "You go, girl." Soon Eyde gets the crowd whooping back.

"This is a healing dance, part of an ancient tradition," she tells them as she sways her arms overhead. "Now I'm going to teach it to you."

Eyde soon has men and women alike waving their arms in the air, wiggling their shoulders and shimmying their own hips. But the fire is Eyde's alone. She puts the lighted candles on the floor, touches either end of a sword to the fire and raises the flaming weapon above her head. Then she dances out into the moonlit night.

"I thought of lighting the sword on fire myself," she says two days later at a Tucson café. It was inspired partly by the Disney Aladdin movie she saw as a kid, she confesses, when "Kalí dances, with lots of arms, and then dances with swords."

That dramatic gesture, lifted from popular culture and grafted onto ancient movements, helps define what Eyde is trying to do with belly dance. Like other contemporary dancers--from African Americans, to Chinese, to Hawaiians-- she's drawing on tradition to make something new. She calls her style "ethno-modern."

"I'm American. I've incorporated that into my dancing. I'm not a traditional dancer."

For Tucson's Day of the Dead arts extravaganzas, Eyde has shown just how far she can push the traditional boundaries. Two years ago, she and the other two dancers in her troupe, Hadia Sahara ("gift of the desert"), dressed in gold, painted their bodies gold and twined themselves in sheets like mummies. Onstage, they unwrapped themselves and emerged as golden Nefertitis.

Last year, the Hadia dancers first enveloped themselves in gray cocoons, then danced in silhouette behind a screen and finally wowed the audience as full-color butterflies complete with wings.

Neither the Egyptian resurrection act nor the butterfly metamorphosis is traditional, but their movements draw on the ancient repertory. And in fact, Eyde takes the belly dancing tradition seriously. In the Middle East, belly dancing was a celebratory folk dance that women would do together, to celebrate weddings and births, and to encourage fertility. It was not--and is not--a sexy strip tease aimed at men, Eyde emphasizes.

"That idea bothers me," she says. "It's not what the profession is, and it's not what we're about."

Eyde believes that the dance can be a great force for good. At a local health resort where she teaches regularly, women often come up to her after class, thrilled to tears to have moved their bodies so joyfully. One woman revealed that she was a five-year cancer survivor, and said that the belly dance had made her feel whole and feminine for the first time in five years.

"It's very powerful," Eyde says.

Belly dance has played a healing role in Eyde's own life. She grew up in Lansing, Michigan, the daughter of a Syrian-American father and a Polish-American mother. Her Syrian grandmother, Eva Nouhan Eyde, had come to America at age 4 with her family. (On her marriage, Eva insisted on changing the name Eid, the Arabic word for holiday, to what she thought was the suaver Eyde). And though the family kept up Arabic cooking traditions and her grandmother would occasionally use Arabic terms of endearment, the family was determinedly all-American.

"I didn't relate to Arab-American culture," Eyde says. "We didn't hang around with other Arab families."

It was not until a first trip to Morocco as a college student that she began to get more than a glimmer of her roots. She had come in at night from Spain, and on that first bright sunny morning in Africa, she ran out outside.

"I saw the people and said, 'That's me!'"

She went back a second time to do an independent study, in French, geography and anthropology, living with families who "admitted me to naming ceremonies, women's parties, weddings."

Still, she did not turn to belly dancing until her father died suddenly, at 52, of a heart attack in 1992, and her beloved grandmother died the following year

"I had two huge losses right in a row," she says. "I needed somehow to connect. I started belly dancing. I had never had formal dance lessons but as a kid I always danced and did dress-ups."

She signed up for a Parks and Rec belly dance class in Lansing, and started training under westernized belly dancers whose delicate style was "more like ballet." But then she went to an intensive belly dance camp and saw a video of the famous dancer Nadia Gamal.

"It went BOOM! That's me. She was so earthy, so powerful. She had no rules. I realized I can make up whatever steps I want. I thought, 'I AM a belly dancer.'"

Eyde began training and performing intensively, paying a third visit to Morocco in 1999 for a dance residency. She had lived in Tucson briefly in the early '90s, and she returned around 2000, following the footsteps both of her maternal great-aunts and of her sister, the painter Catherine Eyde. (Catherine has since relocated to New York.)

"I love Tucson," she says. "It's cold, gray and cloudy in Michigan. I knew I didn't belong. This is like Morocco."

Nowadays, Eyde makes her living almost entirely through dance, teaching and performing at weddings, showers, corporate events and public school workshops, and dancing at such venues as Tucson Meet Yourself, Plush and Aladdin's. She's also part of a magic/dance duo with magician Roland Sarlot, called Sarlot and Eyde.

But Eyde's favorite settings may be in women's groups, remnants of an older female world that survive even in the secular West, in showers and weddings and women's dance classes. Eyde doesn't dance alone there; she gets all the women to dance with her. Sometimes the whole room moves as one.

In those settings, "It's not about me. It's not a performance I'm doing. It's an ancient ritual, a healing ritual. These rhythms are really old. But people can really relate to those movements. They never forget it."

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