Literary Leopards

Belletristic Belly Dancer – Marci Darling

About the Author

Marci Darling is a sassy bon vivant whose previous careers include: belly dancer, showgirl, circus acrobat, burlesque dancer, and preschool teacher. She has performed around the world and danced on tour with the Go-Go’s, the B-52’s, and Paul McCartney. She has performed and lived in Paris, Florence, Hollywood, New Orleans and Boston. She has written for multiple publications and holds degrees from UCLA and Harvard. She lives in a cottage by the sea with her magical family: two kids, two cats, two dogs, and one husband.


Belletristic Belly Dancer

By Marci Darling

I was sitting on my balcony in New Orleans one evening, surrounded by lush palms and honeysuckle and writing an article for a magazine, when I stumbled across a deathbed confession by an old woman. I was instantly captivated by her tales of ancient secret societies, presidential assassinations, murders, poison—all the ingredients for an excellent mystery. And because my story is told from the point-of-view of Ellington Martini, and each chapter beings with a vintage cocktail recipe, I called it Martini Mystery. Martini Mystery is Bridget Jones Diary stumbles into the DaVinci Code, has an affair with Confessions of a Shopaholic, all while drinking with Nick and Nora Charles on the streets of New Orleans.

Here’s the plot: One winter night in New Orleans, ex-showgirl and romance novelist Ellington Martini heads to the French Quarter where she is swept into a mysterious New Orleans parade. A man grabs her and whispers, “Stop the killing of the king,” in her ear before collapsing on her, dead. Now Ellington’s Chanel-and-cream-puff world collides with the dark and violent underbelly of her beloved city. Uncovering the truth thrusts her into a game of cat and mouse with one of the most dangerous secret societies in the world. Now she and her band of Irregulars must stop the “killing of the king,” all while keeping their Louboutins clean amidst the detritus of the streets of the French Quarter.

I wrote my first version of this novel in 2002 when I was teaching preschool and belly dance on Martha’s Vineyard. When I returned to it many years later, I moved the setting to New Orleans, changed the point-of-view from third person to first, inserted the deathbed confession as my plotline, and voila!


Actually there is no voila in writing. There is only one way to get a novel done: Pen to paper, fingers to keys, no excuses. Most of the time, writing felt like being lost in the woods. I had no idea where my story was going or what characters would appear. All I knew was that I wanted each chapter to begin with a vintage cocktail recipe and that I wanted to end my book with my main character swinging on a chandelier in a ball gown at a Mardi Gras ball. Why cocktail recipes? Because I love cocktail culture—think Auntie Mame, The Thin Man, James Bond—cocktails make everything more glamorous and fun. Why the chandelier? Because I’ve always dreamed of swinging on a big gorgeous glittering chandelier.

So I started writing, but then my husband’s job took us up to Boston and I thought I might die of a broken heart. Leaving New Orleans was like leaving the greatest lover I ever had, and my grief felt boundless. Writing Martini Mystery was my way of still living in my beloved NOLA. Every day I visited my favorite places through my writing, evoking the sounds, the smells, the oak trees, restaurants, and the endless parades of colorful characters. It was my way of surviving.

And I took one room in the house and turned it into my office, decorating it like Mae West’s dressing room and adding a purple desk and antique typewriter. I filled the walls with inspiring quotes and my most beautiful belly dancing costume—my Isis belt shaped like bejeweled wings to remind me of my creative power. As the novel got larger and larger and I was waking up in the middle of the night like I’d swallowed a burning thread and the only way to get rid of it was to write it out, my walls became covered in post-its of characters, settings, plot points, and my research on poisons, weapons, duels, New Orleans history, the Civil War… I also signed up for the Stanford two year Novel Writing Certificate—an online program that gave me the deadlines and structure I needed to make it all the way to the end, because believe me, there were many times I wanted to throw my laptop out the window and say forget it. It got too big, too convoluted, too overwhelming, too hard… but then I’d write straight through those feelings and come out the other side.

In the end I had a 500-page novel. I was able to cut it down to 280 pages and even though I could have kept working on it, it was time to let it go and move onto the next book. I thought about not publishing it. I had nothing to prove except to myself. I had written it, I had finished it. That was enough. What if readers hated it? What if they thought it was poorly written or boring? But then I thought, so what if they do? It’s my story, the story I wanted to tell, and absolutely a story I would want to read if I hadn’t written it. And I had a talk with myself—it didn’t really matter what others thought. I had finished my novel! That was good enough. I had no control over people’s responses. It was time to put it out in the world.


My journey from showgirl to novelist was as head-spinning as a tassel on the pasty of Dirty Martini. I made my living as a belly dancer, burlesque dancer and contortionist-illusionist for more than ten years throughout my 20’s. (What the heck is a contortionist illusionist you ask? It’s when your best friend/roommate is a contortionist and you’re not, but you you need money, so your best friend includes you on all her gigs, so you lie on your back and balance her on your feet while she does all the work, or stand next to her with your arms framing her and shout “Ta-Da!” after she’s done something amazing and you get paid for it and afterwards everyone congratulates you on your astounding tricks.)

As a belly dancer, I danced for Arabian princes in marble rooms bigger than football fields, and for mothers about to give birth. I danced for Persian grandfathers on their death-beds in the hospital surrounded by their families, for newborns about to be circumcised, and for countless birthdays, and Bar Mitzvahs. I was flown around the world to dance at weddings: Egypt, Paris, London, Mexico. I called myself the High Priestess of Sacred Moments because I got to be the celebratory catalyst for so many amazing moments. I danced on tour with the Go-Go’s, the B-52’s, Paul McCartney.

And of course, the curve from belly dance to burlesque was smaller than the upturned toe of a genie’s golden slipper. My first burlesque dance was at the Viper Room to Little Egypt by The Coasters with my best friend. We called ourselves Honey and Vermilion and Lady Jane, the Oyster Girl from New Orleans, loved our act and booked us regularly every Thursday at the Viper for more than two years. For research, she brought us vintage photos of a sister act from 1930’s New Orleans, Nita and Zita, and in an homage to them, we based our costumes, hair, and choreographies on those photos. We spent many a laughing-so hard-our stomachs-hurt-afternoons making up choreographies in our living room where we had dragged a huge broken mirror to lean against the wall to practice. Catherine D’Lish was our finale act with her big champagne bath.

And all the time I wrote. I received a BA in Creative Writing from UCLA (and almost quit on my first day when I was hung over and couldn’t find parking) and a Masters from Harvard.

And now I’ve managed to infuse my book signings with my showgirl sparkle. I play New Orleans music and I always dress like my main character in a big pink marabou robe like an old movie star (the exquisite Cassandra robe designed by Catherine D’Lish!) and I have an old fashioned phone in front of me covered in pink feathers. I fill each book with pink glitter and pink plumes and I hire vintage dancers to be my living art. And I realize, with my book, I’m spreading the glamour and pink glitter of the showgirl world to every reader who ventures into my world.