I tie my turquoise hip belt around my waist, feeling the weight of the gold coins against my skin. I press my bare soles into the wooden floor and twist my arms like snakes, one to the left, one to the right. I bend my knees and move my hips to the front, to the side, to the back, to the side. I gently shake my knees; my torso begins to undulate. I can’t stop smiling. It feels so good to belly dance again.
I first began belly dancing—or, as it is known in Arabic, raqs sharqi—my first year of college. I had never taken a dance class before, but I had always enjoyed dancing at weddings and parties. My academic adviser, who believed I needed a way to express myself that wouldn’t involve writing, signed me up for a class. I went to the first one self-conscious, aware of the ballerina in front of me who could lift her leg over her head. When I first heard the drums, the zills and the distinct beat of dom-ka-tec-tec-a-boom-boom-tek, I started to move. The steps came naturally to me. I was good, even better than the ballerina.
Since that first class, belly dancing has become an important part of my life. In addition to technique and choreography, our teacher also shared the long and complex history of the dance—it’s one of the oldest forms of dance practiced—which has made it an even more meaningful pursuit.
What belly dancing means
The name belly dance originates in part from the French phrase danse du ventre, or dance of the stomach. Belly dancing, however, began up to 6,000 years ago—long before the French ever saw the danse du ventre. One theory is that the dance was created by women to honor their fertility, since the movements can help prepare muscles for childbirth.
Belly dancing as we know it came from the regions of present-day Turkey and Egypt. Other countries such as India as well as traditional African dances have also influenced it, which is why it’s difficult to determine an exact name for the dance. While the term belly dancing has colonial ties, there are so many different influences and types of belly dancing that calling it raqs sharqi doesn’t incorporate all of its many forms.
Belly dancing first appeared in the U.S. at the 1893 world’s fair in Chicago, where a dancer named Little Egypt wowed the crowd. At the time, Westerners had a rather colonialist view of the Middle East, which is why belly dancers were considered salacious. However, thanks to the women’s rights movement in the 1970s and 1980s, belly dancing was embraced by women as an empowering art form.
There are still many misconceptions and controversies surrounding belly dancing. But belly dancing is about joy, and I believe that we should all be able to share in that joy, as long as we are respectful of the dance and its origins.
What belly dancing means to me
Belly dancing makes me happy. I work in two other demanding fields, education and writing, both of which take up a great deal of my energy. I love both, but juggling them is a constant hustle, which is why I have no interest in turning belly dancing into another hustle. I know many dancers who teach and perform professionally. But when I think about constantly looking for clients and preparing lessons, I become overwhelmed. Belly dancing is my break from all of that. I love performing, being a part of a troupe and spending time with my shimmy sisters. If I make a little money from a performance, that’s an added bonus. But that’s not what dance is for me. It’s my release from my hectic day-to-day life. It’s where I go to get lost in the music, to shut my brain off for a while and simply move.
I recently moved from Los Angeles to Wilmington, North Carolina, and I was ecstatic to find a vibrant belly dancing community here. Moving across the country has been difficult, but belly dancing has allowed me to connect with new shimmy sisters and feel more at home. I have begun to think of my two teachers as the mothers I never had, as both of them are from the same neighborhood in Queens and insist on dressing me in their elaborate costumes, ensuring that I understand their choreography, and welcoming me into the troupe.
A new challenge that my teachers have thrown at me is to develop my own choreography. For the most part, I have always been taught choreography and performed it. Choreographing a piece is a whole other skill that I am now nurturing. When I begin to choreograph a new dance, I have to consider how one’s movements will match specific notes in the music, how the sequence of steps is telling a story, and how to modify certain moves for our older dancers. All of these are new skills for me, but they are helping me to build on the skills I already have. For instance, I’m familiar with modifications as a teacher, but I am learning how modifications look beyond a daily lesson plan. As a writer, I essentially create a piece from scratch, which is what I am doing as a choreographer. I have even found that dancing and working on choreography before I write puts me into the right creative mindset I need to be able to work with language.
Even though belly dancing is not a professional outlet, I do benefit from it. It’s an amazing form of exercise and it boosts my confidence. I feel like a goddess when I put on a glittering costume and revel in the sound of applause and cheers. Taking an hour to dance helps clear my mind, so that when I do return to grading or writing, I feel refreshed and ready to go.
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