After the Thailand trip was canceled last June, I fell into a sort of mild depression as I helplessly watched a year’s worth of my work and dreams dissipate before me. Additionally, some family struggles and other life changes caused me to lose my motivation. My typically healthy diet suffered as I became very close friends with my daily gelato. I lost interest in writing, and I was dreaming of moving somewhere warm and far away to practice my massage therapy and yoga…perhaps Costa Rica or a tropical island somewhere. In that moment, my life in Rochester felt stale and old.
When a few weeks had passed, however, I snapped out of these thoughts as I recalled how my health was still robust, and I then remembered all of the wonderful people that surrounded me in my life. I realized how fortunate I actually was. I promptly broke off my summer affair with gelato, stepped up my yoga practice, and shed the eight pounds I had gained over the summer. Autumn was coming, a new semester was about to begin and I needed to get busy. Still, there was this little nagging feeling inside of me that I had become a bit stagnant and bored. I needed something new…something new like belly dancing.
I had long been curious about belly dance. There have been several occurrences over the years when women I’ve known have told me how much they enjoyed belly dancing, and that I seemed like someone who would really resonate with it and love it. At the time, though, all I wanted to do was yoga. I’ve attempted many other forms of fitness activities over the years…zumba, aerobic pole dancing, cardio hip-hop, spinning classes, and the aerial arts. Each time I would enter the new class with enthusiasm, thinking I’d be hooked. However, Each time I left one of the classes, I felt they just weren’t the right activities for me. None of them came close to my love for yoga. The spinning classes felt too repetitive, and zumba, which I thought for sure I’d adore, felt a bit like Latin dance on steroids to me. After I took an arial arts silks class, my arms ached so much that I could barely reach forward to brush my teeth for days, not to mention that the average age in the class was about fourteen. My peers in that class were the moms who sat watching their daughters (and me) attempt to climb and swing from the silks that hung from the high vaulted ceiling. Seeing an aerial arts performance is a great love of mine, but I learned that I am better suited for the audience than the stage in that genre.
My expectations were fairly low when I signed up for my first belly dance class. After all of those failed attempts at finding a new activity that would capture me, I was once again testing the waters. In my search for a teacher, I had read several rave reviews about a belly dance business in Rochester named ‘Goddess Hour.’ So, on a whim one night in early September, I called the teacher, Michelle Charles, to sign up for a class that was beginning later that week. My plan was to just take one ‘drop-in’ class to try it out.
Two days later, I shyly entered the building on University Avenue in Rochester for my first class. The reception area was lively as I saw women of various ages, sizes, and ethnicities gathering and chatting as they waited for class to begin. I peeked in the opened door of the classroom and saw some other students dancing. The women looked quite impressive as they shimmied and spun across the dance floor. They were in the intermediate level class. Having never shimmied before, I wasn’t sure I’d have any idea how to do it. My ballet and yoga background taught me how to keep my hips very still and controlled. I was now about to learn how to unleash them and move them. As I waited in the seating area with the other women in the beginner’s level class, I quietly observed. Many of the women wore colorful scarves with dangling coins around their hips and appeared to already know each other. When the intermediate classes ended, we were promptly greeted with a warm smile and enthusiastic “Welcome!” by our teacher, Michelle. I had a good feeling about the class already.
Class began with a few basic belly dance drills along to some upbeat rhythms of Egyptian pop belly dance music. We proceeded with a belly dance ‘warm up’ that included big hip circles, hip bumps, shoulder rolls, chest movements, and forward folds. I noticed how the teacher and some of her long-time students were hamming up their movements with big smiles and flirty hand and hip movements. As I followed along, I suddenly realized that I couldn’t stop smiling throughout the entire class. I noticed that there were women at all different skill levels in the class, too. Some appeared to have been dancing for years, while others, like me, were clueless and just followed along. With all of the diversity of ages, body shapes, and levels of experience, though, there was one thing that all of us had in common. Every woman was smiling.
Michelle coached us along the way about several basic principles of belly dance. The atmosphere of the class was non-judgmental and lively, but also very well organized and informative. I could easily tell that the teacher was highly proficient in belly dance and knew the art well. As we learned various movements, Michelle would often share the origins of where the different steps derived from. For example, we learned the difference between Turkish and Egyptian shimmies, and how the styles of dance vary in the different countries. Given my love for Asian culture and history, learning about the roots of belly dance was right up my alley…the geography is just moving a little further westward than Thailand and China. As class progressed, we were informed that we would also learn choreography in each class, which would eventually lead to a full dance to a particular piece of music. Although I’m used to stringing together sequences when I teach yoga, I hadn’t actually learned a choreographed dance since I was a teenager in my ballet classes. I was elated that I would be learning to dance to choreography once again, but this time I was allowed, and indeed encourage, to shake my hips, chest and shoulders. Class concluded with an upbeat ‘follow along’ belly dance to an Egyptian Shaabi song, which sounded a bit like Egyptian hip-hop to me. This was a very energetic, playful, coquettish dance that heated up the room. When the final dance concluded, I was exhilarated and covered in a delightfully detoxing sweat.
After that first one-hour class, I already knew I had discovered a new passion of mine that would remain with me for life just as yoga will. The class gave me the most liberating feeling I had experienced in my body since I began practicing vinyasa style yoga over fifteen years ago. They fulfill different parts of me, too, in many ways. Yoga has always felt primarily like an internal journey for me, delving deeply into my body while finding peace within my mind. Even in the most crowded of classes, yoga brings me to my quiet place. Belly dance, in contrast, feels like more of an external journey for me. The movements of belly dance are exquisitely feminine, playful, and even slightly mischievous, yet there are concise techniques involved in learning these freeing movements. When I belly dance with a group of other women, it feels as if we are dancing at a party together. I feel completely unbounded and free. Also, have I mentioned yet how exotic and alluring the belly dance outfits are? Being a lover of both fashion and dressing up in costumes, this is another perfect match for me. Although it has mostly been web browsing at this point, I’ll refrain from mentioning how many belly dance costumes I’ve bookmarked on my computer in the past four months.
Since early September, I’ve continued to study the art of belly dance with Michelle and I take classes weekly at Goddess Hour. My collection of belly dance DVDs is growing steadily. Michelle also periodically organizes recitals and events, and she invites her students to participate if they desire. In my four months, I’ve already had the pleasure to perform one of the dances we learned in a recital with some of my classmates. I also recently performed a veil dance (my favorite type of belly dance so far) at a ‘Hafla,’ which is a social gathering centered around belly dancing and food. My journey into the world of belly dance is just beginning, and I excitedly await all of the new adventures I will discover along the way. Of course, traveling to some of the countries where belly dance derives from is one of my many aspirations on this adventure!
The term ‘belly dance’ is a Western-coined name that stems from a French term ‘danse du ventre,’ which means ‘dance of the belly.’ Although the term itself became popular after entertainer Sol Bloom first used it in 1893 to describe the dancers at the Chicago World Fair, the origins of the dance itself are believed to be thousands of years old. Belly dance can take on many forms depending on the country and region the dance derives from. The earliest roots can be traced back to the Middle East. European travelers have extensive documentation of the dancers they saw in this part of the world, especially in Egypt. Classical Egyptian style dance is often called ‘Raqs Sharqi,’ which means ‘Oriental Dance.’ Historically, belly dance, or Oriental dance, has primarily been performed either as a social dance or as a performance art. In the social dance context, it is usually part of a celebration in a social gathering of people in every day society in various parts of the Middle East and surrounding countries. Women, in particular, would belly dance together, often as single-sexed gatherings as a way to celebrate and have fun. This ritual is still prevalent in many communities in the Middle East today.
As a performance art, belly dance gathers its foundations from the social dances, but is danced with more refinement and emphasis on the use of space and stage-crafting performances. Focus is also on facial expressions and more dramatic movements. Costuming is also an important aspect to belly dance in the performance art realm. Belly dance has been performed extensively throughout the Middle East, but also in the West in both the U.S. and in Europe. It has becoming popular in many East Asian countries such as China and Japan. The dances can be performed either as solo acts or as group performances.
Most modern day belly dance movements stem from Egypt and Turkey, but many varieties of styles exist today. Some of these include classical Egyptian style, Turkish style, American Cabaret style, Gypsy (Romani) style, American Tribal style, and Tribal Fusion style. Certain types of belly dance include the use of props, such as finger symbols (zills), veils, fans, canes, candles, and swords. Musicians also play a very important role in many belly dance traditions, particularly in classical Egyptian and Turkish style belly dance.
In conclusion, never discount the power of newness in your life. When boredom or stagnation begins to set in your mind and body, listen to your little voi
ce. An unfamiliar hobby can develop at any stage of your life, whether you are sixteen years old or ninety. The timing to start is always the right time. If a thought or idea pops in your mind to try something, don’t think about it too much. Just try it. The worst that can happen is discovering that you don’t like it or aren’t interested (or get sore arms). At best, you may find a life-changing avocation that stays with you for life. Never fear curiosity, and don’t ever be afraid to dance!“Dance is the Hidden Language of the Soul.” – Martha Graham
*Next Post: An interview with Michelle Charles, Belly Dance teacher, performer, and owner of Goddess Hour. Come back to visit soon!