When I was a girl, I remember watching women undulating their bellies on the TV show Ripley’s Believe It Or Not. It wasn’t until many years later that I realized belly dance is so much more than that.
I was in my early twenties when I first began to really learn about the Middle Eastern dance form also known as “Raks Sharqi.” I found Sheva’s School of Belly Dance in the Yellow Pages phone book and called for information. Right away I felt warmly welcomed. Sheva was a kind, beautiful woman in her retirement years, who taught alongside her assistants. Though, she had no reason to retire, for it was clear from the spring in her step and the smile on her face that belly dancing was something she loved. And she taught that it was to be enjoyed by absolutely anyone who wanted to learn, regardless of body type, age, race, gender or even hearing ability. The more diverse her classes, the better.
In these classes I was privileged to an inside look at the belly dance community. I found that it is a wonderfully expressive, quirky and exotic world where hips shimmy, tied with coins on scarves, like pretty rattlesnakes seducing prey. Bodies roll with the rhythm of a camel’s gait, padding across the dessert sand.
While also referred to less flatteringly as the “Hoochie Coochie,” belly dance isn’t just about mere sexuality. It’s a primal celebration of life, especially enjoyed in the supporting company of fellow dancers, ululating in enthusiastic support of one another.
Aside from the camaraderie, what resonates with me about the dance is its connection with the natural world. Mimicking the movements of various animals and the motions of nature. Especially when performed barefoot, it has a strong connection with the earth. When danced with an open heart—open to the self—it is an expression from the creative well-spring in which we all share.
Isolating movement more than western forms typically do, in belly dance, the muscles are the individual participants of the body’s overall choreography. The symphony of movement ripples and exposes the miraculous possibilities of the anatomy in a seductive response to the music.
As it has been explained to me since first saw those undulating torsos on the TV, the dance actually consists of three main components: The hips are the drums and earth. The belly, the strings and water. The arms, the wind instruments and air. Together, these archetypal elements speak in a sort of yogic union of the spirit with the flesh.
In every dance, the dancer tells their story. It is performance art. An abstraction of language. “Poetry in motion,” as Thomas Dolby sang. It is the dance of gypsies and women casting forbidden spells.
and faux sin.
Bless the rest
who see it this way. ~
Now, I’ll turn
and undulate away.
Over the years, my love of the dance has persisted. In a way, it is like a drug. Once your muscle memory is trained, you crave the intoxication of the music and movement. Fortunately, it’s easy to get your fix—wherever you take your body with you.
Despite being ill, the last time I saw Sheva, she was still getting around with her usual cheery and confident demeanor, coiffed in the style of a performer, with her signature black-dyed hair and lined eyes. I hadn’t been to class for quite some time, but she still remembered me and spoke kindly encouraging words to continue dancing. Her words went straight to my heart. And that’s where I keep my love alive for the dance now, with gratitude to Sheva.