A Habibi Dancers History
by Karen (Smith) Fielek
Prior to 1983, dancers who would later form the Habibi Dancers were part of a dance troupe affiliated with Lansing Community College, and led by Wilma Papsidero. Classes in beginning belly dancing were taught there by Wilma and her advanced students, meeting two evenings per week. After one or two terms at the beginning level, promising students were elevated to the dance troupe class, which also met two times per week. The troupe performed at various local events and venues, like nursing homes and festivals (notably the Lansing Octoberfest). The troupe was not an entity by itself: Wilma ran the troupe. The troupe was once called Wilma Papsidero’s Lansing Middle Eastern Dancer Company, and later Benat el Balad (country girls).
Shortly after I started classes in about 1978, Wilma and the troupe put on a workshop and concert featuring Aida of San Francisco. Aida was at the time the favored protégé of Jamila Salimpour of San Francisco, and at the height of her career. The event was held in the ballroom of the fading downtown Lansing Hotel, which now houses State Senators and Representatives. I remember showing up early Saturday to help Wilma and the room was a mess – dust and trash on the floor and no chairs or tables set up. We pushed brooms and set things up just in time for the workshop attendees. That evening was a fantastic concert with the troupe and Aida, which cemented my enchantment with Middle Eastern dance.
Wilma started a Belly Gram business, and some dancers made some money, but this led to a whole slew of problems, which I won’t itemize here. By 1982, all but one of the troupe members wanted to make the troupe structure more formal and wanted oversight of money earned by the troupe. LCC stuck by Wilma, so we made the decision to make a new troupe on our own turf and terms.
A couple of secretive meetings at my cozy house on Monroe Street confirmed our joint resolve, and the original twelve dancers planned to form a nonprofit performing arts organization. Our Godsend, if you will, was Mary Lynn Buss, who is a lawyer and very smart cookie with lots of interesting and talented friends. Mary Lynn met with Dorothy Jones, director of the African dance troupe, the Pashami Dancers and used their bylaws as a model to write bylaws for the Habibi Dancers. Mary Lynn knew that we had to acquire tax-deductible 501c3 status if we wanted a future as a public dance troupe. Her expert handling of our articles of incorporation and bylaws, plus her great friends who formed our first board of directors ensured our tax-deductible status. For the existence of Habibi Dancers, we thank Mary Lynn!
Before setting up a separate troupe, six of us had already created a flyer under the name “Habibi’s Dancers” in an effort to market ourselves for paying dance jobs. For the new troupe, we ditched the possessive and settled on Habibi Dancers, “habibi” being a happy upbeat term of endearment in Arabic.
We needed a cheap place to rehearse and located a room on the second floor of the Foster Center in Lansing. The price was right (free) but there were no mirrors. So we used some of our precious starting funds to purchase mirrors and donated them to Lansing Parks and Recreation, who agreed to mount them in the room for our use. Hurray! A dance room was created, and we used that room well into the 1990’s. Habibis have been based at Foster Center to this day.
In those days, just finding materials suitable for making a costume was a challenge. I remember Connie joking about the days when we would buy a bra and sew rick-rack on it. (And if you don’t know what rick-rack is, thank your lucky stars that we’ve come a looong way, baby!) I remember the year we discovered that saris made wonderful material for an array of costume styles. We made trips to Detroit and Chicago to visit the sari shops. An important part of my two-week trip to San Francisco was to buy a coin bra and belt at Cost Less, and other goodies at Cost Plus.
The popularity of Middle Eastern dance has ebbed and flowed over the years – once we were down to about ten dancers; now the troupe is over 20 and we limit opportunities to audition. It has become so “main stream” that costumes can be bought almost off the rack at everyday clothing stores. And fantastic custom costumes from Egypt are the norm rather than a fantastically expensive rarity. Yep, I’m officially talking like an oldster now!
Anyway, it’s good to put this to paper, since I never know how long my memory will last. I’m sure that others will have a memory of this time that is different than mine – this is my little slice of perspective. Thanks for listening!