Belly Dance: It’s for Every Body
by Jennifer Bush, Dancing Mountain
I teach and perform Belly Dance. After a recent performance a friend said to me: “Wow! That was fantastic! I could never do that!” To which I replied: “Of course you can! Every body can dance.” Her comment got me thinking. Why do some people think they can’t or shouldn’t dance? It is my philosophy that every movement is a dance and every moment is a chance to dance. But why is it that we so often forget that joyful movement is our birthright? My approach to teaching is to use Belly Dance as a means for women to reclaim and celebrate our whole selves through a joyous dance.
Belly Dance is a term primarily used in the Western world to describe a plethora of dancing styles coming out of the Middle East. Though belly is in the term, students coming into classes are not required to show their bellies and there is not a focus on making the belly move by itself. That’s just one aspect.
I feel compelled to yell out to everyone in the region that Belly Dance is truly for every body. Not just for the thin belly or the voluptuous belly. Not just for after you’ve lost 10 pounds. Why allow self-judgment and perfectionism about our bodies to stand in the way of a chance to move joyfully?
The belly is an all too often chagrined area of our form, oft misunderstood, and certainly under-utilized. While it’s true that Belly Dancing has the potential of waking up movements and muscles throughout that section, and there are the inevitable belly laughs shared by the students that gather, there are no requirements for belly size, shape, or aptitude. All women are welcome and encouraged to give Belly Dance a try.
We each have a belly and we each are ripe with creative potential. My class teaches Belly Dance from the ground up. We start by simply getting the rhythm in our feet and moving it up and out of us, improvising movements as we go, expressing ourselves organically. Isolations are also introduced (the movements of the dance) as well as traveling steps.
There is an art to Belly Dance. The art for me includes isolating movement in one part of the body, such as the hips or rib cage, while the rest of the body remains still. Eventually we get to layer movements on top of others like coordinating Snake Arms while stepping the Grapevine or adding a shimmy to a pelvic circle.
The layers and the isolations are integrated into choreographed or improvised pieces, another aspect of the art. Whether dancing to live musicians (a wonderful dynamic) or to a favorite recorded song, we get to put the moves into a variety of sequences that the teacher may offer or that you interpret from your own experience. The mastery of the art comes with practice, persistence and patience, over time.
But while mastery may come over time, it is not the point. As adults, we are often quick to judge ourselves in a learning environment. We approach dance, or other new skills, with an expectation that we should “get it” right away, or that we need to do the movement perfectly after a couple classes, otherwise we might as well give up. Self-compassion is important in learning anything new. If you get a chance, observe a small child learning to walk and marvel at her persistence. The young child isn’t counting the number of times she’s fallen; she gains more information with each fall, refining her movements constantly.
I invite students to get curious about their own process of learning. How do these new movements feel? What is it like to dance to new rhythms and songs? In class, I provide an environment to explore: to get a feeling of the rhythm of the music being played, to get a general rhythmic sense into the body, and to try out new ways of moving—up-down, side-side, in circles, diagonally, forward-back, in various traveling steps, etc. Let the joy come first and the moves will follow almost magically.
We embark on a journey of getting more comfortable being in our whole selves—body, mind, all our parts into one whole. We get clear about setting an intention for movement, trusting that with time, the movements will come and will come from an authentic place. We begin to get comfortable moving and groovin’ within a group of people. Whenever possible, I relate the Belly Dance moves to movements many people are already familiar with in daily activities.
Every movement is a dance and every moment is a chance to dance.
Women might hold back from Belly Dance because of a misconception about what Belly Dance is. They might think it is an erotic dance performed for men. While any dance or movement can be expressed or perceived as erotic, as I teach Belly Dance, it is by women for women. People also think of it as a solo performer’s dance when it can really be a group experience within a community of women. And it has a deep history in this vein.
In the history of Belly Dance, there is evidence that at women-centered gatherings, women would perform movements that expectant mothers could learn to facilitate childbirth, or at the very least, that could be seen as sympathetic movement to encourage the laboring mother (see the dancer Morocco’s account (http://www.casbahdance.org/GIVE2LIGHT.htm). Moreover, women in many Middle Eastern countries (and around the world) come together around various life events, celebrating in laughter, music, and dance. It’s a natural part of being together.
Not only are there many events where women have the opportunity to share dance, there are many different types of Belly Dance. The style of dance I teach and perform is called Tribal Fusion. It’s a generalized term that encompasses a broad base of styles of dancing, music, and costuming. The dancing comes from the Middle East, North Africa, India, Spanish Flamenco, Gypsy Rom, and North, Central and South American dance forms. The costuming has a “tribal” look, though there is no specific tribe to which to attribute the look. Coins, pendants, fabrics, and more originate from India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and other countries. There are crafters and musicians from the U.S. who are also creating costume pieces and music inspired by these cultures and these styles of dance.
The term “tribal” not only describes the style of costuming, but also speaks to a way of life. Women who dance together encourage each other to grow within an accepting community. My students are becoming increasingly more comfortable in their own skin, more connected with each other, more courageous with their movements, and they are taking opportunities to costume up and perform in front of others together. It’s wonderful! The women who come to class are beautiful and varied in size, age, and background.
Dancing to our hearts’ content is a joyful way to celebrate our lives on Earth. Moving, swaying, skipping, etc. to rhythms and to melodies is innate to us. Belly Dance, culturally based in the Middle East, offers us a wide range of expression of our whole selves. Dance is for everyone. Belly Dance is for every body.