When you hear the words "belly dancing," the Hollywood image of a skinny woman scantily clad in a brightly-colored costume dancing before her master probably comes to mind. I Dream of Jeannie, anyone?
But as with many things you see on TV or in the movies, such an image is not consistent with reality. Belly dancing was originally a cultural dance used for celebrations, and most of the time danced by women for women. More often than not, it didn’t require any special costumes, either. Through the years, this traditional dance, which originated in northern Africa and the Middle East, has found its way to Europe and North America, where its popularity has significantly increased.
Belly dancing is known by several names-some call it Middle Eastern dance, others know it as danse orientale, and still others call it danse du ventre. While the most common term in the United States is belly dance, danse orientale is more common elsewhere in the world. Pava Maroon of Pava Productions explained that it has a French connotation because that is the second primary language in many Middle Eastern countries. Also, within the overarching category of belly dancing are several different styles, each with their own names.
Raqs Sharqi, which means "oriental dance" in Arabic, is a classical form of belly dancing, and one of the most common styles in the United States. It is a social dance, and one of the more theatrical styles. Raqs baladi, which means "folk dance" or "country dance" in Egyptian Arabic, refers not only to an improvisational style of dance, but to a particular rhythm as well as a costume. Sha’abi, which means "of the people," is a modern, upbeat style of belly dancing performed to the synthesized music known by the same name. American tribal dancing offers more of a folkloric style, the most marked characteristic of which is group improvisation. Lastly, the fusion style combines several different forms of belly dancing together into one dance.
When asked where belly dancing originated, Maroon exclaimed, "Every Middle Eastern country wants to claim it!" Thais Banu, another local teacher of the art, said that scholars believe it may be the oldest dance recorded. She noted that dancers appear in tomb paintings as early as 5000 B.C. "For centuries, the role of dance in Middle Eastern society has been that of the people," said Banu. "It was the dance of men, women and children. It was the dance of life-the dance of joy at weddings, births and festivals-and it was the dance of sorrow at the passing of loved ones." While belly dancing still means all these things to many cultures, it has also become a mainstream style of dance taught by instructors to whoever wants to learn it in formal classes.
- Although belly dancing is taught in classes across the United States, in many areas of the world, children learn simply by watching members of the community perform.
- When Napoleon invaded Egypt, his army came in contact with a tribe of entertainers known as the Ghawazee. Although the soldiers were originally repulsed by the heavily decorated women who often worked as prostitutes, they were soon bewitched by their dance. They were the first Westerners to witness the art form.
- Belly dancing began gaining notoriety in the U.S. after the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, where Middle Eastern and North African women caused a stir with their uncorseted and shocking dance.
- Thomas Edison was also struck by the new form of dance. He filmed performers Ella Lola in 1898 and Crissie Sheridan in 1897. Both of these controversial dances can be viewed at libraryofcongress.gov.
- In the 1930s and 40s, belly dancing began appearing in American nightclubs and restaurants in New York. The style would earn the name of "American Cabaret" belly dancing.
Learn to Belly Dance
If belly dancing sounds like fun, there are several places right here in Peoria where you can learn this ancient art. Whether you’re looking for a girls’ night out or an ongoing class, all you need to do is contact one of the following local experts.
GEORGETTE WILLIAMS, BODY FITNESS
THAIS BANU, PEORIA PARK DISTRICT
PAVA MAROON, PAVA PRODUCTIONS
The Draw of the Dance
Georgette Williams, a belly dance instructor at Body Fitness in Peoria, noted that over the years her students have ranged from four to 80 years old, and all have felt comfortable in the group setting. Williams explains to each class that she’s teaching a cultural dance, and maintains a family-friendly atmosphere by asking students to dress modestly. "I always stress to my students [that] this is a cultural dance," she said. "This is not something that’s going to become vulgar…Make it a dance that you can perform for your mother and father and your sisters and brothers-with your husband or boyfriend sitting there-and not have anyone be offended or insulted." In the 35 years Williams has taught belly dancing, she has developed her own style-a happy medium between an exclusively seductive dance and a pure folk dance.
During a visit to see family in Lebanon when she was 13 years old, Williams witnessed belly dancing for the first time. "It was already ingrained in me, and at that time I thought, ‘Wow, this is really what I want to do.’" Although she had taken jazz, tap and ballet lessons as a young girl, it was belly dancing that she felt a calling to pursue. Just a few years later, she became an instructor at the YWCA, teaching 11 belly dance classes a week, each with 22 to 26 women. "It was very popular," she said.
Much like Williams, Banu grew up dancing and was formally trained in different styles as a child-jazz, tap, and classical and modern ballet. When she later found Middle Eastern dance, as she prefers to call it, she fell in love. "Then all my training was focused on learning the different styles and techniques of this art," she said. "Middle Eastern dance brings a deeper understanding of myself. It allows me to be free to explore and express myself. It speaks to my soul."
Maroon was also formally trained in several genres of dance as a young girl. Her career in belly dancing began in Chicago in 1973, and she founded Pava Productions here in Peoria in the late ‘70s. Since then, her focus has been on teaching and performing this great art.
Learning the Moves
"Students learn at different paces," Banu explained. "First, before any choreography is taught, they must learn the basics. Proper technique in Middle Eastern dance begins with the weight placement and the alignment of the body." Maroon asks all of her students to wear hip wraps during class for just this reason. "You need to know your core, your center…and that enables you to feel that," she explained. She also believes that being barefoot helps her students "feel the difference in their feet…feel where the balance is, whether on the balls of the feet, back on the heels, or flat, etc." According to Maroon, belly dancing uses the earth as a foundation, and being barefoot also helps connect the dancers to the ground.
Williams, Banu and Maroon all said that their novice belly dancing classes focus on the basics of movement, and each class level progresses, teaching additional variations and techniques until students are ready to tackle fairly complicated choreography, whether solo or in groups. Some instructors teach choreography according to students’ abilities in all class levels, while others prefer only to choreograph routines for advanced students.
"That you must be ‘born’ to this dance to be good at it" is a common misconception, said Banu. "Like so many other dance forms, it is learned. Technique is acquired through hours of practice. Your family heritage does not come into it any more than a good ballerina needs to be Russian or French!"
Just as a woman of any ethnicity can master belly dancing, so can a woman of any size. Belly dancing is not just for women who wear a size two; according to Williams, anyone can be a belly dancer. The three instructors reported that their students come from all walks of life-some are students, others professional women who sit behind desks or are on their feet all day, and still others are housewives or full-time moms.
One need not have previous dance experience to excel at belly dancing either. Because the rhythms and movements used in this type of dance are so different from the moves most Americans are used to, Maroon said her classes are very individualized. "I look at [students’] ability and will teach as much as they want or can handle," she said. Maroon strives to expose her students to as many different types of belly dancing as possible-everything from folk dancing to fusion.
According to our experts, belly dancing is a great way to get in shape. Maroon said it’s one of the least abusive types of exercise a woman can do, and it gives an all-around workout. Belly dancing features the stretching you find in yoga, the strength training you’d get at a gym, and the aerobic exercise you’d get from walking or jogging. And not only is it physically beneficial, but mentally and spiritually as well.
It’s Maroon’s belief that dance can heal the mind, body and spirit. Maroon reported, "One of my students [recently] said to me, ‘This is my weekly therapy. I don’t have to go to a psychologist or psychiatrist. This is my relief.’ And that’s exactly how I have felt for 35 years."
Williams, Banu and Maroon all noted that their students have told them how they see their weekly dance classes as therapy or time to get away from the stressors of life. Banu said her students revel in the opportunity to get all dressed up in costumes like they did when they were younger, and get back in touch with their feminine sides. Certainly moving around in colorful dresses and veils does that for women of any age!
Whether it’s getting into shape, getting away from the kids, or just the desire to learn something new, interest in belly dancing has certainly grown in recent years. With this growth, the preconceived notion of that skinny woman dancing for a powerful man is more likely to disappear. As more people learn about the rich cultural history of this dance, the more it will be appreciated throughout the world. a&s