The ancient, exotic and mysterious dance that is most commonly known and referred to as Belly Dance is an amazing art form which has become increasingly popular with no intention of slowing down. The correct terminology is actually Raqs Sharqi which is translated to Oriental Dance or Dance of the East. It is not only a stunning dance, but also an expression of a woman’s power. While there are quite a few male belly dancers, it is, in fact, a woman’s dance and the only dance form that encourages women to celebrate their femininity regardless of shape, age or size. Unlike ballet, modern or jazz, where most dancers are required to lose weight – some to the point of becoming even dangerously thin – belly dancing empowers women to not only appreciate their bodies as is, but also to convey strength, beauty and endurance through the interpretation of this dance. When studied and performed correctly, belly dancing is a lovely and graceful expression of the human body and spirit, mesmerizing an audience with its unique movements.
A belly dancer’s moves are comparable to those of a snake because it utilizes practically every muscle in the body. Those who are unfamiliar with the dance usually do not think it requires much effort to move the body in such a way based on what they see. In fact, I’ve heard comments from other dancers who have stated that we [belly dancers] are not REAL dancers! However, it involves much more effort and skill than most can even imagine. The dancer is trained to learn specific postures and isolations over time that eventually produce muscle memory, making for an incredible display of combined moves at various speeds. I’ve had people ask me if we actually do get a workout from belly dancing. My answer is simply to invite them to join a class and experience it for themselves! As with any genre of dance or sport, an intense workout can always be achieved by practicing correct body form as well as technique while increasing your heart rate. Most importantly, this dance is very much about the passion and soul of the art and music itself. Once a dancer learns to feel the music stir within her, the technique comes with more ease!
When I first became interested in learning belly dance, I did it strictly to incorporate it into my workout routine because I thought it would be beneficial for my abdominal muscles. Well, I was half right – it works out the abdominals and then some! Belly dancing strengthens and defines not only your core, but also every muscle from your neck right down to your calves. It allows you to work and even discover muscles in your body you didn’t even know you had! It is also beneficial in correcting and/or improving posture.
Besides the obvious health benefits associated with this art form, it also boosts your self-esteem. Those of us who belly dance have the distinct ability of getting in touch with our inner goddess simply because no matter what our body type, we feel beautiful doing it! It is a woman’s dance that has no expiration date regardless of age or weight. I’ve been to many workshops and have met belly dancers who have been performing for 20-30 years. One would never know their age because of how fit and healthy belly dancing has kept them over the years. It is not necessarily about getting down to a size 4, but rather being healthy, feeling good about yourself and doing something wonderful for your body. Nevertheless, consistent belly dance activity does carry with it an array of physical benefits that will improve and maintain good overall health. For example, I have heard from many women who have reported faster weight loss, greater stamina, endurance, body strength, increased well-being and easier childbirth. In addition to a stronger body, the peace of mind, confidence and spiritual connection associated with this art form is unlike any other. Most women who begin a disciplined belly dance program get hooked on it instantly, to the point of training to become professional dancers! For many women, belly dance is a great alternative to working out at the gym because it is so much fun! They are reaping health and fitness benefits from it by enjoying what they are doing as opposed to merely working with machines that they may consider a bit monotonous.
Why belly dance? Where did the term come from and why do we refer to it as such if the dance incorporates other parts of the body as well as the belly? Obviously, the dance is visually appealing because the abdomen is the area primarily used during performance, hence the name “belly dancing”. But true belly dancing goes beyond the movement of the belly. It literally uses every part and muscle of the body, boasting isolations that are unique to the dance and must be seen to be believed!
Many professional dancers prefer not to use the term belly dance because of its social stigma: The idea that because some skin may be exposed, it is a stripper-like dance. Contrary to popular opinion, it was never meant to be a dance women did specifically for seducing men (privately or otherwise). It has always been a social dance where women typically performed it in the company of other women. Unfortunately, the term carries with it a scandalous reputation when it was first introduced in the United States as a dance that was performed by prostitutes or women of inappropriate social status. Because many professional dancers and instructors embrace this dance as family entertainment, some have chosen to refer to themselves as “Oriental dance artists” rather than belly dancers to distance themselves from the undignified connotations the term may raise. For some, advocating the use of more appropriate terminology such as this also helps in gaining respect from the dance community as a whole.
The most important and appealing trait about belly dancing is that any woman can do it: young, old, thin, heavy, tall, short, etc. It is a dance that has no age, weight, height or ethnic requirement or restriction. A belly dancer does with her body the natural movements associated with everything that entails being a woman: Femininity, sensuality and preparing the body for child birth. Belly dancing transforms women to live comfortably in their bodies in a culture that too often would have them feel inadequate or ashamed. We all know that many women – particularly in our culture – are told they are not adequate enough for a specific dance because they are too big, skinny, tall, short, or old–it would be considered aesthetically unpleasant for them to make a statement with their bodies. By contrast, Oriental Dance training teaches that your body, just as it is, is perfect for expressing a full range of human emotions. Women who are curvy as well, as those who are not as voluptuous, are all perfect for belly dance! This is a huge self-empowerment boost for all women, especially in today’s western society.
Though it can be a very sensual dance, it is not sexual or dirty, nor was it historically performed showing skin. The glamour and glitz of the midriff-baring costumes came later with the Hollywood legends. In fact, many dancers in Egypt today are required to wear a mesh covering on their costumes to perform at certain venues. Though it still tends to be associated with stripping by many, it is in NO way a striptease or a dance used to seduce men at all. It is a graceful, stimulating, professional, sophisticated dance suitable for the entire family. Those who associate it with inappropriate entertainment have been misled by how the media has, at times, portrayed it and even bastardized it into something overtly erotic. Unfortunately, there are a few dancers who perform it inappropriately and, as such, have given a bad name to so many of us who strive NOT to fall into that category. Nowadays, many artists and instructors alike are on a mission to teach not only proper technique, but also to give insight into its history and culture as well as many other unknown facts. Perhaps this will help remove the negative connotations that have long been associated with belly dance and will draw respect from the rest of the dance community in recognizing how challenging and artistic it truly is. Over the past 7-8 years that I have been teaching and performing, I have worked endlessly to educate both students and those interested in belly dance and have them experience what a delightful, entertaining and artistic form of interpretation this is. It is my hope and desire that all of us in the belly dance communities across the nation will continue to bring more educational programs and high quality performances that will resonate with everyone. It is an art that has been underestimated at times and long overdue to be respected for what it is!