Who could have guessed that a 42 year old, former rugby playing feminist with a midsection scarred by multiple surgeries would become an avid belly dancing student? Certainly not I, and, yet, faithfully, I get into the car and drive 10 miles every Tuesday night in order to ‘move my belly’ as my godson calls it.
Surprisingly, I was inspired by my slightly-awkward, 11-year old daughter. Unlike me, Georgia has natural six-pack abs. One day, while goofing around, she did a little dance that included the most extraordinary muscular wave from the bottom of her ribcage to her hipbones and back up again. Her stomach undulated as deeply as a tidal wave! We all gasped in amazement and reverence at such a feat, but, being 11, Georgia shrugged it off. After that, in secret, I tried to emulate my daughter. I tried to make my stomach roll with the tiniest of waves. Despite my intense efforts, I had no success and gave it up for lost.
Around this same time, I noticed a belly dance class at the community center where I drive my godson each night for swim team. One night while waiting absentmindedly for swim practice to end, I listened in on the belly dancing class for a few minutes. Truthfully, it went in one ear and out the other; it didn’t seem to make any impact whatsoever. However, on Christmas morning, I unwrapped a present from my mother, and the contents revealed itself to be the third piece of a puzzle I didn’t know I was concocting in my mind. From inside the box, a lovely scarlet belly dancing hip-scarf with hundreds of metallic coins sewn onto it glimmered and winked at me slyly. Without hesitation, I signed up for that community center class the following week!
Most people today became familiar with belly-dancing through the movies: A young, lithe woman dressed in transparent scarves and jingling metal adornments dances alluringly to win the favor of a powerful Sultan; an exotic beauty with heavy eye-makeup makes her low-slung tassels swoop and swirl as her undulating pelvis whips them in frenzied figure-eight patterns. Think Sinbad, Scheherazade, Arabian Nights. This image of belly-dancing was born of “Orientalism”, North America’s projection of exotic fantasy onto real life practices from North Africa and the Middle East, an area that, at the turn of the century, was still considered part of the “Orient”.
Americans tend to interpret belly dance as an erotic dance performed by women to entertain and please men, but its history is much more complicated. What we call modern ‘belly dance’ came from the “danse du ventre” introduced in the US during the World Exposition in 1893. Because it was performed by visiting Middle-Eastern and North African ‘Ghawazi’ practitioners, it was called ‘Oriental dance’, giving it special mystique as a novel import. Some sources say ‘Oriental dance’ was common among both women and men in the Islamic countries where it originated, but women only danced in the company of other women, and men with other men. It was a family activity, not an attempt to tempt or entice. Other sources say the dance was a common form of muscular training and exercise for reproductive health, learned at a young age by girls imitating their mothers, and later used to achieve a more relaxing and fruitful experience during childbirth. Regardless of how or why this dance was performed in the East, the Western world’s prudishness stigmatized it as scandalous, interpreting a purposeful, family-friendly dance as something risqué and salacious. In the time following its debut at the world exposition, its ‘indecent’ reputation helped transform it into “hoochie coochie” – from the French name for a bird that “shakes a tail” -- and it became a sensation, drawing crowds of outraged, yet eager and curious carnival-goers during an age of tight corsets and strict feminine propriety. Some dancers capitalized on the publicity and notoriety of belly-dancing as a ‘danger to public morals’, and took it up a notch by stripping bare. As strange as it may sound, the modern-day strip-tease descended, in part, from Islamic “Ghawazi” belly dancing!
This sexualized aspect of the dance was something of a turn-off for me. I wasn’t interested in dance as titillating entertainment for men. Participating in something historically akin to stripping made me uncomfortable. But I soon learned that American Tribal Style belly dance, the type commonly practiced today in the US, is more of a private activity to be shared among women, and when performed, is family-friendly and encourages audience participation.
“American” belly dance may sound like a misnomer, but the name is quite fitting. Since its introduction in the US over 100 years ago, belly dance has evolved into something very Western, even in its exaggerated Eastern flourishes. Islamic women, at parties or in the throes of labor, didn’t likely wear jingling coin bras and heavy eye makeup. Religious modesty forbid them from baring limbs and midriffs in public. The tassels commonly seen bouncing on American belly-dancing hips historically adorned lowly camels, not people. The US latched onto the novel and thrilling phenomenon of “oriental” dance and altered it to fulfill a Hollywood-fueled national imagination. In fact, belly dancing has been so Americanized that every child in the US has danced a version of it. This dance, its name taken from the belly-dance-inspired “Hoochie Coochie,” instructs participants to shake each part of his or her body separately, and then “turn yourself about”: it’s the Hokey Pokey!
When I walked into my first belly dance class, I discovered that today’s belly dancing, contrary to what we see on the silver screen, doesn’t have age or weight parameters. I was greeted by four roundish, 40-something women with ample bellies, and three gawky middle school girls. American Tribal Style is taught and practiced in the non-exclusive spirit of its origins, attracting females of all shapes and sizes to celebrate their feminine forms. During class, most of my classmates danced un-self-consciously with beautiful protruding stomachs on display. Hollywood’s Eastern-inspired fashion, however, was alive and well. Teachers and students alike wore coin sashes and jingling coin halters, bindis on their foreheads, sheer harem pants straight out of ‘I Dream of Genie’ or flowing layered skirts. Some balanced swords on their heads.
This iconic wardrobe focuses attention and emphasis on the dancer’s feminine form as it performs the moves typical in belly dance. The core repertoire mimics the natural movements of the female body: sashaying hips, rolling torsos, undulating shoulders and a few shimmies thrown in. As the teacher described it to me, it all seemed so basic! I am female; I am a good dancer (believe it or not!): I thought I would be able to immediately ‘move my belly’ with the best of them. All there is to it is shaking your hips right? I was humbled to find out that belly dancing takes much more than just rhythm and grace. Coordinating multiple actions with different parts of the body, and often different concurrent actions in the same part of the body, challenged me to a point of tears on more than one occasion. Belly-dancing requires balance, core muscle control and coordination. But most of all, it requires surrender: You have to let it all hang out! The successful shimmy – a simple vibration of the torso that makes the sinews, muscles and fat of the female torso come to life – depends more on loosening the gluts than on controlling the belly. A good belly-dancer accentuates her feminine beauty by using both control and release in the body’s center.
Many tribal style dance forms show off the strength of the core, the pelvis, where all important human functions originate – standing, walking, bearing weight and bearing children. In societies where a strong body is important to the economic success of the family unit, a good dancer makes a good partner. Personally, I don’t plan on plowing fields by hand, and I am done having children, but I can still enjoy the modern benefits of belly dancing – celebrating music and movement in the company of like-minded women, expressing femininity unapologetically with every jiggle of adipose tissue, and eventually building my own six pack abs.