Internationally known dancer Princess Farhana will make her first trip to Juneau to perform and teach workshops in belly dance and burlesque this weekend. Some of her moves have never been taught here before, such as her abdominal and fan dance techniques.
Princess Farhana, born Pleasant Gehman, has many talents, but it was her published writing, not her dancing, that first captured the attention of Juneau resident and dance workshop coordinator Shawn Damerval. Damerval picked up a copy of Gehman’s first book of short stories, “Escape from Houdini Mountain,” in a bookstore. Damerval was intrigued.
“The stories were so amazingly outrageous I figured that, despite the ‘fiction’ listing, no one could possibly have made this stuff up,” Damerval said. A few years later, Damerval searched for instructional sword dancing videos and pulled up two of Gehman’s nine instructional videos, “Raks al Sayf” and “Twin Blades,” and introduced herself to Gehman online.
Damerval contacted Gehman again after watching director Steve Balderson’s documentary film starring Gehman called “Underbelly.” They became friends and hatched a plan to bring Gehman to Juneau.
“She tells me about life as a glamorous globetrotting Hollywood babe, and I tell her about what it’s like to live at the foot of a glacier and hike and fly airplanes around the most beautiful place in the world,” Damerval said.
Gehman’s roots were far from Hollywood, but she says they were her early influences.
“I loved ballet dancers, The Rockettes, the Miss America Pageants, and all the 1940s-era Sinbad and Ali Baba movies I saw on television,” Gehman said. She was raised on a Revolutionary War era farm in New York with seven other siblings born to her entertainment writer father, and her ex-Broadway singer and dancer mother. She was supposed to be a boy.
“My name was supposed to be Andrew, but I was a girl and the first thing my father said was, ‘Oh what a pleasant surprise!’ So after about a week, with no decision on a name, and because of my Pennsylvania Dutch heritage they named me Pleasant,” Gehman said. All but one of her siblings are working in the entertainment industry.
After years in the 1980’s-era L.A. punk scene as lead singer of the “Screamin’ Sirens,” and creator of the underground paper “Lobotomy,” from 1977-1981, Gehman became a professional belly dancer in 1991. A chance encounter with a woman who asked her if she was a belly dancer after watching her on a rock club dance floor led to lessons and a passion for the dance. She was recognized as “Oriental Dancer Of The Year 2006” by Zaghareet Magazine, and in 2007 was nominated for “Best Instructor” and “Best Interpretive Artist.”
She added burlesque to her repertoire in 1995, joining the troupe “The Velvet Hammer,” which Gehman described as a traveling circus.
“The Velvet Hammer was not only my sister burlesque dancers, but also a full band, comedians, magicians, puppeteers, aerialists plus all of our costumes and large props — it was nuts. We did some shows where we rented a huge bus and it was just insane — champagne popping, people dancing on top of the seats, practical jokes, yelling and screaming and constant laughing.”
She is currently working on a collection of short stories about her experiences on the road.
“Since my all-girl punk band the 'Screamin’ Sirens,' I have been on the road constantly for thirty years. Believe me, I have some wild stories,” said Gehman, who also judges burlesque competitions such as The Miss Exotic World Pageant.
Pleasant soon layered belly dance with sword balancing.
“All my life, just for fun, I balanced things on my head — stacks of books while running up the stairs — for no reason. The first time I saw a belly dancer performing with a sword, I said, ‘I can do that!’ My husband at the time gave me an antique sword for my birthday, and in the middle of my party, tipsy on margaritas, I put it on my head and danced around for 45 minutes straight, to the amazement of everyone, including myself. After that, there was no turning back,” Gehman said.
She recently coached jazz dancer Tracey Phillips in sword work and belly dance technique and choreographed her sword-dancing scene in “Charlie Wilson's War.”
Living in the ‘underbelly’ of Hollywood wasn’t always glamorous and Gehman struggled with self-esteem issues, but she directed that energy into being an activist for positive body images.
“I think in our society, women are held to a very unrealistic and almost impossible-to-attain commercialized body standard, and the result is that many women do not appreciate their own natural and individual beauty,” Gehman said. “Images that are manipulated through photo-shopping, air-brushing, great lighting and professional hair and make-up teams are an unrealistic standard of perfection, but when we see them, we think we don't “live-up” to that impossible standard, and feel low self-esteem.”
Gehman thinks belly dancing can help.
“Belly dancing looks beautiful on women of all ages, weights, shapes and sizes. One of the things I adore about going to Egypt is that all the women seem so comfortable in their own skin. Actually, in most countries outside of the USA and Western Europe, having curves and little jiggly bits is considered beautiful,” Gehman said.
Gehman recently went to Egypt for the Ahlan Wa Sahlan Festival and had her most memorable dance moment to date.
“I danced in Cairo to a full Arabic band playing Om Kalthoum ... I got chills the moment my music started.”
With the success of “Underbelly”, director Steve Balderson asked Gehman to star in his new upcoming movie “Stuck!,” a tribute to 1950s noir black and white women-in-prison films. “Stuck” will be released in 2010.
Damerval is looking forward to Gehman’s visit, made possible by sponsors.
“After the success of the Dolphina workshops and shows last year, we thought it might be fun to have Plez come up this year. I approached VivaVoom Brrrrlesque in Anchorage about co-sponsoring her trip, and they were very excited at the prospect. Then Noodle of Doum agreed to host her workshops as a sponsored group of JAHC, so everything really started falling into place to make it happen. Everyone I’ve talked to who has taken a workshop with her says she's just fabulous, and I’m really excited to have her come here,” Damerval said.
Her performance will be at 9:30 p.m. Friday at the Rendezvous with Noodle of Doum and Patshiva. Tickets are available at the Rendezvous or Hearthside Books. Her workshops start at 11 a.m. Saturday, running until 7 p.m. Private or small group lessons will be available Sunday at the University of Alaska Recreation Center Dance Studio. These are sponsored by UAS and, while the lessons are open to anyone, UAS students and faculty (with ID) will receive a discounted rate. Registration information (including online registration) and detailed class descriptions at http://www.pierglass.com/noodle/events.html.
Damerval said the classes will be meaty enough for experienced dancers but good for beginners as well.
“We’re also gearing these workshops towards people who are not necessarily experienced dancers but who think it would be fun to try — in fact, one of the reasons behind having a discount for groups of four is we wanted to encourage people to get together and bring their friends to try something new and exciting.”