Monday, April 2, 2012

B is for Bellydance

Khairiyya Mazin, one of the last teachers & performers of Ghawazi dance,
in 2003 - from an awesome article about her on the Gilded Serpent
The word "bellydance," if you were unaware, refers to a group of dances originating in the Middle East & North Africa that share a common movement vocabulary making use of the natural mobility of the pelvic girdle. In recent years, dialogue with Western forms and influences has added a number of stylistic elements to the mix, so that bellydance can now mean anything from a dance practiced by members of a small nomadic Egyptian tribe in traditional costuming to a live music ensemble to one performed by an American woman interpreting a piece of electronic music while wearing a costume that looks like it came out of the mating of an Orientalist painting and a 1920s film spectacular. Does that sound a bit dry? (Geez, I hope not.) It encompasses a lot. But bellydance is one of the most inherently joyful and expressive dance forms I have ever encountered, and my experience of it is one of the formative elements in my desire to build a museum dedicated to joy.

Over the last few years, with the blessing of a dance elder/mentor in the form of the extraordinary Donna Mejia, I have become a teacher as well as a student and a practitioner of this amazing art form. It's really only in struggling to convey to my own students the genesis of the movements of the dance that I've really connected to what makes it so astonishing for me. The two areas of the body most engaged in bellydance, no matter which style you practice, are the hips/pelvis and the belly/abdomen. If you take a moment to think about it, it makes perfect sense to build an expressive dance form around a part of the body that happens to be one of the most naturally mobile and fluid parts of our anatomy. But in the West, especially, we put a whole lot of shame on the hips and the belly. If you're reading this right now, have you ever felt embarrassed or ashamed about the way your belly looked? I'm going to be shocked if you say no, no matter what gender you identify with. (Most of the men I know experience some form of shame about their bodies, but unlike women, many of them have no vocabulary to even begin to name or speak about the feeling. Men aren't 'supposed' to think about being sexy the way women are. I believe this can make it hard to start a conversation about shame on both sides.) The pelvis and the stomach are locations of serious trauma in our culture - and many others as well. What bellydance does that is so extraordinary, in my mind, is get us dancing from particularly and precisely the parts of the body where we most often tend to shut down, lock up, suck in, desensitize, brutalize. It turns shame into celebration.

To honor my own most influential teacher, a woman who truly embodies the power and possibility of this form, I would like to give you two videos from the aforementioned Donna Mejia. I think the dance she does speaks for itself. As you watch, I would love for you to consider two things, and if you feel safe, consider also sharing them in the comments: when have you felt shame over your body? and when have you felt a moment of overcoming, or breaking through, or putting down that shame in a moment of true joy in your own physical being? After all, as Donna once said to me, your body is your life partner - the only one you know for sure will be with you til the end.How much more wonderful would life be for us if our relationship with our life partner was one of celebration, communication and compassion instead of shame, frustration, and anger? Although every style (and there are many and more!) has a different history and a different expressive vocabulary, it seems to me that almost every dancer who identifies as a "bellydancer" will say, when asked, that one of the greatest reasons to join the dance is the delight it brings to the body. And what could be more wonderful than that?


  1. I love belly dancing! I had classes for 3 years and took part in many shows. Great exercise and fun! Wish I had time to continue it

    1. People say that to me a lot, and it always makes me sad. No one should be too busy to dance! Have you considered buying a DVD from one of your favorite dancers/teachers and just practicing in your living room every now and then?

  2. I have never attempted belly dancing, but I've got some mad hula hooping skills!

    Thanks for visiting my blog!

    1. You're welcome, and thanks for visiting mine!

      Oddly enough, I cannot hula hoop to save my life. You would think that the skills would cross over, and people never believe me until I demonstrate my utter failure to keep a hoop up, but for whatever reason I just can't do it. I was shamed by a five-year-old the other day.

      I'll teach you if you teach me. Fair?

  3. Very interesting. Thank you!

    Konstanz Silverbow
    A to Z c-host

  4. Bellydancing is beautiful to watch. There's something very primal about it.

    1. "Primal" is an interesting word. There's definitely a long-standing idea that bellydance is an "ancient" art form or a "natural" art form, and while in some ways both of those things are true, I do have an uncomfortable feeling that it oversimplifies some very complex aspects of the dance. Calling it "ancient," for example, makes it seem like it's survived unchanged for thousands of years, while in reality the dance was enormously altered and affected by the relationship between the West & the Middle East starting in the early 1800s with Napoleon's invasion of Egypt. It is a dance form with a specific movement vocabulary and a musicality that varies by style and region and requires time and effort to learn. Calling it "natural" not only invisibilizes the efforts of the dancers who put time and effort into learning it, it can also make people who struggle to learn the complex movements feel like they're "bad" at it because it isn't "coming naturally" when in reality there is a learning curve as in any dance form.

      I do believe that it gets us in touch with some primal aspects of ourselves in the sense of connecting us with deep, important, and vital parts of our body. The reason I might be uncomfortable with the term 'primal' is simply that many people connect that to 'primitive' or think of primal in a sense of being 'basic' or uncomplicated, where in reality belly dance (no matter what the style) is neither primitive nor simple. It has a history that is long and complex and occasionally ugly, and the movements take practice, awareness, and understanding to master. It DOES appeal to us on a very basic level, though: the beauty of moving the body expressively and articulately, without feeling shame or repression, is both a simple and a basic joy to experience!

      Thank you for your perspective & your visit!


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