Continuing with my education and research into the nomenclature of our bellydance lingo, I have spent the last few weeks playing detective with a move called ‘fifi.’ I only learned the move a few years ago myself, having been involved in bellydance for 12 years now, but I chalked that up to the fact that it seemed like more of a cabaret or oriental style bellydance move rather than tribal style, which is where my focus of study has been. But as it turns out, it’s not a common vocabulary move, and it has a fun origin story that I’m happy to share!
What’s the fifi?
A few years ago, I attended 3rd Coast Tribal convention in Texas, where I enjoyed a sort of self-imposed intensive with Mardi Love, taking nothing but her workshops all weekend. Having never studied with her before, I was treated to a whole weekend of her fabulous, stylized moves, including one she called “fifi.” It described a move where you complete a series of heavy hip drops on one side while creating a horizontal hip circle. She suggested executing the movement by contracting the glutes of the standing leg, which will in turn pull the opposite hip down in a sharper action. (Rather than pushing the moving hip down using the obliques.) I was never a glute-driven dancer, so I’m still trying to master the glute-driven movements, but here is Ms. Mardi and friends executing the move…
(In the video are from left to right: Lauren Jeanette, Lauren Robbiani, Rachel Brice, Mardi Love, Jules Downum, Mattie Waters)
So, where did fifi come from?
I mentioned this cute ‘new’ move I learned to some dancemates, who also hadn’t heard of it, so I decided to check it out. A quick search of ‘fifi bellydance’ revealed, as many of you reading this probably guessed, a famous dancer by the name of Fifi Abdou. Don’t know her? Don’t be ashamed – I hadn’t had the pleasure myself until this point either. I made a quick study of Ms. Abdou, watching dozens of her videos and reading her biographies, but nowhere did I see her perform this particular move or see anyone mentioning it either.
So I started emailing, texting, Instagram-messaging, and calling folks. Here’s the deal:
A few students of Fifi over the years have no idea what I’m talking about.
Fifi herself has no idea what I’m talking about.
It’s not mentioned in the Jamila Salimpour handbook of bellydance nomenclature, from where so many others come. (Don’t worry – I’ll be sharing lots from her in future blogs!)
Ok, fine. Mardi – where did YOU learn it?
Mardi Love: “Picked it up from Rachel Brice; Bricey called it Fifi. We were trying to emulate some of Abdou’s feel in the drops.” AHA! Now we’re cooking with oil.
Rachel Brice: “I nicknamed this awesome move I’d never seen before (or since) done by anyone but Fifi. The move is: drop your hip 4 or 6 times along a horizontal circle with one hip.” Boom. Gotcha.
I nicknamed this awesome move I’d never seen before (or since) done by anyone but Fifi.
So, moral of the story? Rachel and Mardi were collaborating on some work together and were using the heavy-weighted hip movements that are signature to Fifi Abdou to create this little combo and named it after her. Case closed.
But wait, who is Fifi Abdou?
Fifi Abdou is a legend in the raqs sharqi world who rose to fame in the ‘golden era’ of bellydance, the 1960s-70s. Equally controversial for being provocative and adored for her moxy and stage charm, she was synonymous with Egyptian bellydance and even became a mega-celebrity as a movie actress and director. She danced and modeled as a kid in Egypt, but gained notoriety as a bellydancer in the 70s, when she began headlining at huge clubs and 5-star hotels. She is considered one of the wealthiest women in Egypt and travels with bodyguards at all times. I’m telling you, when I say “controversy” I mean it – she’s got a pretty rad rap sheet and is unapologetic for the most part. She still works mostly in film and TV, while dancing only on occasion.
Her dancing is characterized by lots of heavy, folksy, beledi-style hip drop movements – her tempo is kept on the downward motion rather than an upward bump to the downbeat. She loves to sustain a shimmy for ages, a fabulous deep loose shimmy that few have been able to replicate since. Her performances are generally improvised, and her repertoire of dance movements isn’t that dramatic, but her stage personality and charisma is what has always drawn people to her. (We get so caught up in being overly clever and original with our movements nowadays, don’t we?)
“Here is what one excited student has to say about what draws her to Fifi: Watching her, it’s freeing to realize you can just get up there on stage and enjoy yourself; that it’s not about technique, but having the confidence and personality to do very little!’ That ‘very little’ may turn out to be harder than people think though. Deep muscle work, layering in the hips and learning mastery over weight changes in the feet are key to Fifi’s style. Then there are those shimmies: ‘from five feet away it’s a sight to behold’, was one comment by an awe-struck student after her last US workshop.”
And one of the most famous videos of Fifi in performance, in which she is lowered by a crane onto stage. This is the video Rachel Brice referenced when she was developing the idea for the ‘fifi’ move.
Links to the homepages of mentioned dancers:
Mardi Love: www.mardilove.com
Rachel Brice: www.rachelbrice.com
Fifi Abdou: https://www.facebook.com/FefeAbdoOfficialpage/
Other useful resources on the topic:
Video link of Fifi Abdou in performance at Al Ismailia: https://vimeo.com/124687993
Yasmina’s article “At Home With Fifi”