Walking into the club that first night to see the blue-haired, pierced, tatted up dancers was more than unnerving. I was going to be a part of this clan, undulating and shimmying, gradually taking my clothes off as the dance moved along. But what would my mother think when I told her that I’d decided to try something new, risqué, sensual? Well, turns out that my mom was pretty cool with it (I mean, she’s a pretty modern woman and was oddly amused by my beginner’s routine that I showcased over Christmas break, noting my beautiful snake arms and requesting that I show her again.. and again… and again). But when Mona unveiled her belly dancing aspirations to her mother 30-some years ago, her mother “had hysterics,” as she was sure that her daughter was going to be taught to be (in her mother’s words) “a streetwalker, a hooker and a whore.” In typical rebellious teenage fashion, Mona N’wal, now one of Madison’s most prominent and beloved belly dance performers and instructors, said she decided on the spot that she simply must try it out. “Even if I don’t prove her wrong,” she said, “at least it’s twisting her knickers in a knot.” Mona has been dancing ever since she took that first lesson at the age of 20.
I had my first belly dance lesson nearly nine months ago at the age of 21 when I decided on a whim that, hey, it’s my last year of college, so I’m going to try something crazy and join the student org called Bellydancing UW. Frankly, I was sick of joining the “useful” orgs – you know, the ones that you sign up for, go to one meeting and then add to your resume to help you get your first big girl job. The first time I had seen or heard any mention of this club was a couple years ago when I happened to be studying at the beautiful Wisconsin Institute of Discovery (WID) on a Saturday afternoon and the club was performing a few numbers in the lobby. Saturday study sessions at the WID are usually rather unproductive when I have typical distractions of squirrels, people and cars passing outside or the lustrous jungle trees and waterfalls in the lobby, but my accomplishments that day reached an ultimate low. This time, though, I wasn’t just wasting time daydreaming – I was intrigued by these unusual dancers.
Like many people unfamiliar with the history and practices of this Middle Eastern dance called belly dancing, I had some ideas about belly dancing that I’ve now found to be inaccurate. Maybe my misconceptions weren’t obvious to me at the time, but in the back of my mind I associated belly dancing with beautiful, thin, young women and the act of stripping. Many people assume “that you’re cheap, that you’re easy, that more than your veil comes off, and that you’re probably really hot in bed,” says N’wal. “Are any of those true? Well, that depends on the person, doesn’t it? But it’s not the dance.” What I saw that day in the WID was enough to trigger something in my mind, to spark an interest, to entice me to seek more.
I joined the club, took lessons, learned new routines, met an assortment of unique people, asked too many questions, and eventually (maybe) got a pretty good grasp on the essence of belly dancing. And in the meantime, I have to admit that I may also have fallen in love with the dance. I find it interesting - really truly remarkable - that I have gained such a respect for this art form in one short year. I want to share with you the truth behind Middle Eastern dance, or at least the truth that I have discovered in my one single academic year of study. I want to tell everything – every great discovery, each learning moment and every laughed off mistake. But I can’t possibly share it all, partly because I have learned and experienced far too much in this one year, but mostly because there remains even more that I have yet to learn about the dance in my years to come. So, I will share what I know in hopes that you, the reader, may get a sense of what it's like to be a belly dancer in the Madison, Wis. belly dancing community. A new belly dancer’s five discovered truths – here goes.
The Middle East - origin of belly dancing. Map from jewishvirtuallibrary.org
The Middle East. Map from jewishvirtuallibrary.org
I’ll admit that my idea of belly dancing before I began my personal journey of discovery was more along the lines of Hollywood’s “I Dream of Jeannie” than ethnic Middle Eastern dance. I had no idea that belly dancing had such deep roots in the Middle East or that there were actually multiple types of belly dance. That’s probably where a lot of minds are at this point, so I think it would be beneficial to talk about the roots of the dance for a moment. Belly dancing is an art form that dates back thousands of years and originates from many different Middle Eastern countries, most notably Egypt, Turkey and Lebanon. Similar to most dances that have been around for a long time, belly dancing has some primal tendencies. It is said to be a fertility dance at its roots, meaning that it was performed to help with all issues relating to pregnancy. Women generally danced for one another, rather than for men. The dance was performed for the fertility gods, presumably to request pregnancy. It was danced before pregnancy to strengthen the muscles used in child birth; during childbirth the mother’s female friends and sisters would gently undulate around the woman to aid in a tranquil, smooth birthing process; after pregnancy the dance was used to regain the female figure.
In early April BUW put on its spring show. The morning of the big show our guest headliner, Isidora Hart (aka Izzy), taught an incredible workshop, open to the public. During the workshop, Izzy made us all laugh hysterically with her wildly animated description of the dance’s primal roots. What this dance really says at its core, said Hart, is that “I can make a baby, I can give birth to a baby, and I can feed a baby.” Izzy explained this as she dramatically and rapidly circled her hips, then belly, then chest, matching each motion to the appropriate section of the body. The fertility roots can still be seen in the dance today, especially in the more traditional forms.
The dance made its debut in the United States in the late 1800s when a dancer known as “Little Egypt” brought it to the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. For many observers at the Fair, this was the first time they had witnessed anything of that nature. The French had called the dance “dance du ventre” or “dance of the stomach,” so upon accepting the dance into the American culture the U.S. named it “belly dancing.”
Belly dancing is the name given to the dance as a whole, but within the art of belly dancing there are many sub-styles, including Egyptian, tribal, folkloric, cabaret, and fusion. Yes, each style has unique qualities, but they all point back to one shared art form. “Tribal, Egyptian, Turkish,” N’wal comments on the trends in various styles of dance she’s encountered throughout her years as a belly dancer, “I’ve been around long enough to see everything come up and we’re back to the beginning again. The movements are all the same – it’s just that the emphAsis might be on a different syllAble. The movements are all basically the same. It’s just learning how to tweak them to fit the style.”
So, you might be wondering which elements hold all of these styles together under the category of belly dancing. What is belly dancing in the general sense of the dance? “[It’s] a torso-driven movement vocabulary that is rhythmic,” says N’Wal. “It’s not just about the belly but the abdominal muscles are important.” The dance is performed bare foot, a way to further connect with the ground in an already earthy dance. It is a dance of isolation – without isolation there is no belly dance. Isolation is moving the head, chest, hips, arms, or wrists independent of the rest of the body. More experienced belly dancers oftentimes layer different isolations in unexpected patterns to create an image that is truly mesmerizing.
That’s not what you expected to read. Belly dancing is a folk dance? When I think folk dance my mind automatically wanders to square dancing and polka and big hoop skirts and little old German ladies… but not belly dancing. Nevertheless, belly dancing is a folk dance. “I like to tell people that at the base of the movements,” says N’wal, “Middle Eastern dance is a folk dance, meaning that it is a dance of and by the people within a culture. Generally that means that any folk can do it… old, young, heavy, skinny, male, female.” That is exactly what I found when I went to my first BUW club practice, and that is still what I see every time I’m gathered with a group of belly dancers.
As mentioned above, BUW held its big spring show on a Saturday evening in early April at the Monona Terrace. It was quite the successful event, with professional lighting and sound, full costuming, a cash bar and a sold-out venue. The show, featuring 21 unique performances from dancers of all shapes and sizes (including one quite noticeably pregnant woman and even a few males), cast light on the inclusiveness of the art form. But even more illustrative of the welcoming nature of the dance was Izzy’s workshop.
Never had I seen a wider range of ages and body types at a dance class. It wasn’t as if this class composition represented all corners of the earth – after all, Madison, Wis. has some diversity but is not exactly a picture of multiculturalism. However, I can say that the women (and couple of men) who showed up for this workshop were exactly as Mona had described belly dancers: old, young, heavy, skinny, male, female. There was one particular woman who impressed me so thoroughly that I couldn’t stop watching. We were given ample opportunity to improvise and try out the new skills that we had just learned. During these times of improvisation, this lady – a woman of about 40, heavy set, dressed in athletic stretchy capris and tank top, and a headband pulling back her frizzy short brown hair – was absolutely fearless in letting out her inner dance monsters. Izzy would put on a classic rock song, then a classical piece, then an Egyptian ballad. With each new tune, this confident dancer was the first to embody the sound – the first to truly express herself with wild hair flips, graceful ballerina spins or exotic wavering arm undulations. She was a spirited dancer in a body atypical of a dancer, and truly helped me to understand the meaning of belly dancing as a folk dance.
It’s true that the belly dancing scene in the United States is primarily comprised of female participants. But in many Middle Eastern countries from which the dance originates, it is traditional for males also to partake in belly dance. One particular male, a University of Wisconsin international student from Taiwan named Allen Wang, absolutely amazes me with his talent and passion. I have never seen a man move the way he moves, and even more astounding is that he has only been belly dancing for two years. I met Allen in the fall. He choreographed and taught the first routine I ever learned and performed.
Getting to know the quiet but smiley 20-year-old over the months, I got a true sense of his devotion to the dance form. Allen began dancing in 2012 in Seattle and then studied Egyptian style dance with a famous teacher named Yousry Sharif in New York. Over the past two years he has participated in a dance convention in Miami, won the Belly Dancer of the Universe Competition drum solo category in Long Beach, California, and performed several times in night clubs in Chicago and New York. He has tentative plans to study with a dance teacher in Egypt after he graduates from university.
His passion truly shown through one day when he was showing me video after video of his favorite dancers, rattling off names of his favorite celebrities in the belly dance community around the world as if they were his close friends. Some of these dancers actually are his new friends, as he’s traveled around the country to attend their workshops. Allen began to tell me about his style of choice - Egyptian - saying “it’s about half choreography and half feeling, but mostly you need to feel something to dance Egyptian.” He went on to describe one particular tradition in many night clubs where Egyptian style is performed and how members of the audience actually throw fake money at the performers as a sign of admiration and gratitude for the performance. “It shows that they’re rich and that you’re dancing well,” says Allen.
According to many of the people that I talked to after the spring show, including my family, roommates and some fellow belly dancers, Allen was the star. I had to agree. He has a way of demanding the attention of every eye in the venue with his beautifully intricate choreography, bright smiling face and effortless combination of flowing undulations and explosive shimmies. Just when the performance begins to settle into a predictable pattern, he throws in a poignant hip jab, pulling the audience back in. He is a star on the rise and proof that belly dancing is for males as well as females.
Question – Who likes glitter, sparkles, jewels, bangles, tassels and big gaudy rings more than a three year old girl? Answer – A belly dancer, of course. Never will you see a belly dancer stripping her clothes off during a performance. It’s just not a part of the dance. Furthermore, belly dancers are proud of their costumes. They want to look beautiful, elegant and dazzling, so they can portray an authentic sense of class throughout the performance and be construed as professionals. With each body undulation, hip shimmy and chest circle, they want the light to catch the jewels and a gentle fluttering noise to resonate through the clinking coins of a hip scarf. So, many belly dancers put almost as much effort into creating the costume as they do the routine for any given performance. Many tops, skirts, hip scarves and headdresses are sewn by hand with intricate added details of jewels and beads. It’s really quite a useful skill set to have in the belly dancing community if you can muster the willpower to learn how to sew in this day and age.
Sewing was definitely a skill that I had not expected to use when I joined the club. I’m not saying that I had any real “skill” to start, but I also didn’t know that was going to be a part of the deal. I auditioned for the spring show’s intermediate level dance routine, for which I was required to sign a waiver saying that I agreed to pay for any required costuming. I don’t recall anything saying there would be sewing involved… maybe I missed it. Anyway, the night we began sewing our costumes my mom happened to be in town. The other girls and I were gathered around a few round tables on the second floor of the Wisconsin Union, cutting fabric, threading needles, and cursing softly (well, that was mostly me). I summoned my mother to “come meet my belly dancing friends” and ultimately coerced her into helping me start the top. Honestly it didn’t take much persuasion - she's really good at this stuff. To my delight, she ended up sewing the first half of the performance top that night.
If ever there were a way to show people just how time-consuming, frustrating and difficult it is to create a costume piece, this was it. I’d never really appreciated the labor and skill involved in hand-made clothing until then. For me, the rest of the costume making process was insufferable (My mom jokingly told me that my lack of patience along with my disinterest in cooking made me a terribly undomesticated woman and that I would make a crummy housewife someday). I kept saying to the other girls “ugh, we could have just paid someone who actually enjoys doing this to do it for us,” at which they replied “yeah, but we’ll be so proud when we’re done!” Some 20+ hours and $40+ of materials later, our fairly simple costumes were complete (can I get an amen?). Well, I’ll admit that I was a little proud of my work at the end, but more so I was thrilled to be done. I might just be one of those “pay someone to do it for you” belly dancers from now on… and I will graciously pay.
Belly dancing is not what I thought it would be – of course, nothing ever is as you had imagined. I did not think that I would fall in love with the music, the movements and the dance culture, but I did. I think belly dancing is beautiful through and through. It is an artistic, authentic, personal expression. It is a dance of integrity and courage. It is challenging to the body and mind. And as I’ve learned throughout the year, it is absolutely addictive. The moment you master one move, you’re eager to tackle the next.
With the vast number of dancers that keep coming back after their first lesson, you’d think it were a cult, and that the leaders of the cult were secretly drugging new dancers to condition them to yearn for more, and more, and more belly dancing. No, that’s not the case (at least not to my knowledge… if it is, kudos to you, it’s working). Rather, it’s a mental high that is achieved while dancing. It is a combination of pride in accomplishment, confidence in the beauty of the movements, and the physical exhilaration of achieved self-expression.
I feel lucky to have found the belly dancing community in Madison, sad that I hadn’t discovered it sooner. I’m hooked. After my first BUW lesson, I went home and practiced in the mirror, and began to get a feel for the new movements. I kept coming back to practice week after week, each time learning something new, meeting someone new. I started belly dancing on a whim, not really expecting anything from it, but the misconceptions that I started with have now grown into an appreciation and understanding of the belly dance culture and practice. I never want to stop.