I was introduced to dance at a very young age, specifically ballet, jazz, and tap, but it is bellydance that has spoken to my spirit and influences many aspects of my art and of my identity.
I was 17 years old when I began bellydance class, stumbling across it at the dance studio where I trained ballet. My teacher was a product of the 70s style of Egyptian and Turkish cabaret. Egyptian and Turkish cabaret bellydancers gleam under stage lights with the glitz of sequins, sparkling beads, and shining metallic fabrics. It is my understanding the cabaret style evolved in Cairo to appeal to the western tourists, portraying what I have coined as a “Vegas-style” bellydance.
With various modalities and tastes of dance and movement arts influencing me, my personal bellydance style morphed into what I call tribal fusion. I prefer the look of traditional Middle Eastern coins, fringe, sandals laced up the calves, henna tattoos, feathered earrings, and bold metal jewelry such as heavy cuff bracelets encrusted with colored glass, as well as armbands in the design of snakes coiled around my upper arms. While traditional Middle Eastern dance does not expose the midriff, I feel restricted otherwise, and have always chosen the look of the coin or fringe bra and layers of flowing gypsy skirts and melodious coin belts secured as low on the hip as possible.
It is my theory that the westernized term “bellydance” derives from two main factors: exposing the midriff as well as a play on the word beledi or baladi, used in the Egyptian and Arabic languages referencing music and dance.
In my experience I have found it to be a common Western misconception that bellydance was a product of the Middle Eastern harems designed to seduce the men of the culture. While bellydance undoubtedly has sensual and provocative elements, in truth, the style evolved from a folk dance that was very much danced by women and for women (in contrast, men had their own form of folk dance). The Middle Eastern cultures historically have clearly defined gender roles. Women bonded with one another and used dance in this bonding to celebrate various stages of a girl’s life: when a girl reached puberty, married, and had her first child, as examples. This form of dance was also helpful physically as far as aiding a woman’s body in pregnancy and child birth as the movements develop flexibility and strength.
In my years of performance and teaching, I have found that bellydance is a style that adapts itself beautifully to any woman’s shape, size and physical capabilities. In fact, contrary to my ballet studies at 17, 18 years old I was told by native Egyptian men that I was too thin as well as too young to qualify as a “good” bellydancer. Surprised by the reference to my age, it was explained to me that bellydance is a dance of a woman’s knowledge and expertise and at 18 years old, what did I know about life?
Bellydance is an incredible form of exercise that increases strength and suppleness through the body, particularly in the spine and hips. It takes an enormous amount of muscle control to isolate the hip and torso movements to perform fast, staccato beats as well as slow, snake-like actions. Any woman is capable of bellydance, as the style modifies to suit the particular woman.
In addition to the physical benefits, bellydance allows me to connect with my inner goddess. One cannot help but feel sexy and beautiful while performing these movements. This dance is designed to encourage release; to flirt; to appreciate your body. A woman bellydancing can dance for herself to feel happy and free, with her female comrades in bonding and friendship, as well as for her lover in an enticing and sensual tease.
There are historical and cultural contexts within bellydance; as a professional performer it is important to be aware of elements specific to each culture that can demonstrate respect or result in being offensive. However, for any woman wishing to dance as a hobby, I feel bellydance is one of the most flexible and forgiving styles, making it accessible to every woman who wishes to explore this art and find the goddess within.