A woman struts into Niko’s restaurant in Lakewood, and the electric blue light of the room casts an indigo glow on her long, black hair. She wears a silky lavender shell beneath a gray pantsuit and amethyst heels, and she wears them well. As she breezes through the dining area and lounge, her presence pulls people’s eyes away from their spanakopita and silences table conversation.
“Hi, Niko. Hi, Mom,” she waves to the owner and his mother in the kitchen and disappears down the dim steps into the basement.
Amid boxes and a worn-out couch, she kneels beneath a single light bulb and pulls shimmering black mounds of chiffon, satin and beads out of her bag. She’s iridescent, an indigo fairy.
She sheds her pantsuit and slides into the tight three-tiered skirt. Its golden coils of beading flicker. Balancing on one foot at a time, she wraps strappy golden heels around her feet. She stands for a moment, straightens the garments, smooths her hair.
Reappearing in the lounge, she slips Niko her CD and secures her zills — finger cymbals — on her middle fingers and thumbs. They chime quietly to the music: right-left-right, right-left-right. Her hips slide into a vertical figure eight pattern.
She’s a stalking panther. And she strikes, in a flurry of zill peals and an explosion of gold, shimmying through the doorway into the dining room.
Once only found in the Middle East, belly dancers have smiled down on U.S. diners since their North American debut at the Columbian Exhibition, Chicago’s 1893 World’s Fair. More than a hundred years later, two Cleveland women transform into Egyptian cabaret dancers Cassandra al Warda and Leyla Soleil by night. When most people enjoy their Saturday nights away from work, these ladies have only just punched in their time cards.
It’s strange to hear a belly dancer speak. Even more so to hear her giggle. The dancers seem such quiet, mysterious beings.
As Leyla Soleil leaves her Akron home for Cleveland’s nightlife, she carries two ornate costumes to her black BMW, kisses her husband and plants another smooch on the forehead of her 8-year-old daughter, Babette. Tonight, she’s heading to Niko’s and Ohio City’s Kan Zaman.
“You’re in such a hurry, aren’t you? Well, go then,” Leyla says as she laughs and waves to another driver as he speeds by her on I-77. A few miles later, she points out where an officer pulled her over to give her a ticket. Somehow, it’s comforting to know that a belly dancer can’t get out of a ticket with a flick of her hips.
“Most Americans don’t know what to expect, maybe something erotic or exotic,” Leyla says. “Then they [watch me and] see I’m actually doing something hard. The women seem suspicious at first, until they see I’m not going to steal their men or take off my shirt.”
If a crowd seems suspicious, it’s more likely to be at Niko’s. The trendy, elegant Greek restaurant and lounge on Detroit Avenue feels more like Cleveland than Greece. Many patrons aren’t sure how to act around a belly dancer. The exotic, physical dance prompts averted eyes and stage fright among tippers.
At Niko’s, Leyla starts her second choreography to a Greek song with smooth strings. A few customers avoid eye contact; some sneak admiring glances. A man at one table tucks a dollar bill in her beaded belt before she twirls away. She dances with a veil draped over her shoulders and her subtle movements flutter the veil. Green bills line her torso and armbands — none on the floor. She dances near a guy sitting alone at the bar, and he hands her a tip just before the music ends.
Elsewhere, a step into Kan Zaman is a step into Lebanon, a hip hookah bar and all-night party of teens, college kids and adults, many Middle Eastern. Where there are no people, there’s fruity hookah smoke, and when there are no voices, music. A belly dancer is no stranger here; she symbolizes good luck and serves as the party catalyst.
Leyla squeezes and cheek-kisses customers on her way to sit with the band at a corner table. Cassandra al Warda, dressed in flared jeans with embroidered pockets and pink lace tank top, sidles through the doorway, and Leyla motions for her to sit with them. Cassandra and Leyla rotate Saturday evenings at Kan Zaman, and Cassandra came to watch Leyla on her night off. They bend their heads toward one another and whisper, like little girls, while the rest of the table, several men of Middle Eastern heritage suck long draws on hookah pipes.
Belly dancing is dress-up for women, Cassandra says, her voice soft and childlike. “Belly dance is a sensual dance; it is alluring, but it is not sexual,” she says. “It’s one of the most feminine forms of dance.”
Leyla retreats to the restroom and squeezes into the dark metallic costume she wore at Niko’s. It costs more than a week’s paycheck — high-end costumes are handmade, and Cassandra and Leyla each have several. They go through a few pairs of ballroom shoes a year, at a cost of $30 to $100 a pair. Their diets are spartan, especially on performance days. To keep her movements quick and limber, Cassandra has cereal or eggs for breakfast, has a light soup or salad lunch, drinks water all day and eats nothing after 3 p.m.
An alto vocalist takes the stage and Leyla sweeps onto the floor with the opening notes. Unlike at Niko’s, Kan Zaman’s dance floor is spacious. Leyla canopies most of it with her skirt as she pirouettes and side-steps hookah-bearing waitresses.
Cassandra says she’s collided with waitresses before. She’s had to dance through many embarrassments: Her underpants have peeked out over her costume, her zills have slipped off, her veil has gotten caught on the musician’s stand, and wine glasses have broken beneath her.
A young Middle Eastern man stands up with a pile of bills in his palm. As Leyla approaches, he flings them singly at her and they land in a pile at her feet. She smiles and leaves only a capricious air as she spins away. One of the bills is a twenty, and a waitress stoops over to pick it up and stuffs it into her pocket. “You have to worry about someone reliable to take tips,” Cassandra explains before leaving the table to tell the manager about the theft. “I prefer to have the manager do it, but even then sometimes ... they take their cut.”
After Leyla’s 20-minute dance set, the band keeps playing, and several college girls meander onto the dance floor. Leyla collects her tips, including the lifted $20, and a $50 payment from a manager.
The pay scale for belly dancers in Cleveland is lower than in Columbus or Detroit, where dancers earn $75 to $100 for a 20-minute set. “I hired a clown for my son’s birthday for $200 for an hour and a half. We’re out all night making peanuts. We make less than clowns!” Cassandra giggles. She blames belly dance supply and demand — right now, with the nationwide popularity of belly dance classes, there are more dancers than venues.
Cassandra grew up as Sandra DeRose in Chardon. At 16, she’d never seen a rock concert, but she gazed at her first belly dancer while baby-sitting for Lebanese friends. “It just clicked, like I’d known it all along,” she says.
The mother she sat for taught her Lebanese customs, recipes and basic belly dance movements — figure eights, hip rolls, shimmies. When she studied computer science at Kent State University, she sought out formal lessons with an American teacher, then with Atesh, the premier Turkish belly dancer at Cleveland’s Grecian Gardens in the 1970s. While Kent’s classes were structured, with names for movements, Atesh just danced, silent, forcing Cassandra to follow and feel out the movements.
Five years into her lessons, Cassandra danced her first restaurant solo at Taste of Morocco in Lakewood. “I was nervous at first,” she recalls, but “I just went from table to table, dancing, and thought, Well, this is OK.” Twenty years later, she’s traveled to study with master teachers, and her work has paid off — now venues from the Palace Theatre to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum call her for work.
Leyla was still known as Melissa Hatchett six years ago when Danielle Muad’dib, then one of Cleveland’s top belly dancers, noticed her moves at an Akron dance club and invited her to learn belly dancing. The movements felt natural and came easily, and Leyla became addicted. She attended visiting dancers’ workshops and practiced at home, even sliding socks over her zills while practicing beledi rhythm in her apartment, so she wouldn’t disturb her neighbors. “The more I practiced, the more I liked it,” she says. “It snowballed.”
Cassandra and Leyla have a lot of company in Cleveland today. There are about 10 belly dance companies in the area. It’s easy to see why Middle Eastern dance has surged in popularity: The costumes, the music and the movements are all beautiful. It’s a low-impact exercise; it’s accessible to women of all ages, shapes and cultures; and it’s a sisterhood.
Cassandra and Leyla became friends through dance, and discovered they had a lot in common. Not only did they both attend Kent, they both lived in Miami Beach for several years (but met after they moved back to Cleveland).
During the day, both play wife, mother and employee. Cassandra has two sons and works as executive secretary to the CFO of Heritage Development. Leyla raises her daughter, Babette, and has worked as a Clinique, Elizabeth Arden and Glemby Salon makeup artist.
Yet Cassandra sometimes feels as though she lives in a different time zone than her family and co-workers. “I feel a little awkward at times having two identities” — daytime Sandy and nighttime Cassandra. Leyla must schedule around her daughter’s Cuyahoga Valley Youth Ballet lessons, while Babette and her father, Joe, occasionally trail Leyla to nightclubs to support her.
To share their passion, on weeknights, Leyla and Cassandra each teach classes and direct dance companies, Midnight Soleil and Wind and Sand, respectively. At her Thursday night Beachwood class, Cassandra wears a red midriff top, a black and gold shawl, black velvet pants, and rings that dangle from her belly button and ears. With a serious look on her slender face, she calls out moves as her ballerina body moves to the Egyptian pop music. Her careful eye watches the mirror at the front of the room for students’ undesirable habits; she corrects their form.
While she and Leyla pass on most of their secrets, they cannot share them all. Some parts of belly dance cannot be learned. “A lot of it is just natural talent,” Leyla says. Much is love for the culture — Cassandra is learning to speak Arabic — the music, but mostly, the people. An American dancer must understand that she’s representing another culture. “Belly dancing is an art form,” Cassandra says. “It’s not something to be flaunted.”