Yet the folk art which led to Oriental dance (often called belly dance) has been part of local culture throughout North Africa, the Middle East, and as far east as Iran for centuries. Oral tradition links it back to ancient times, when it was used to support childbirth. It is possibly one of the oldest dances in the world, with some version done by many tribes and peoples throughout the Middle East, and originally men were never present to witness the dance.
There are many misunderstandings surrounding Middle Eastern dance, and two local dance instructors are working to change that by offering classes and insight into the joy behind this traditional dance.
This dance is about unity, says Asianne Imani, who offers a Middle Eastern dance class at the Betsie Valley Fitness Center in Frankfort. We all want to feel better, look better and be more confident. Because it is festive and powerful, women find this dance is spiritually, mentally and physically rewarding. It can be sensuous, but that is not the same as leud or sexual.
Imani has been dancing for 15 years and has studied with some of the best dancers in the world. She travels in the winter months to workshops all over the U.S. to learn hands-on. She relocated to the Frankfort area two years ago with her husband and young son and feels she has something new and different to offer women in the community. She began offering weekly classes in March and hopes to expand to Traverse City this summer.
This is my place to reach women and give them something for themselves, she says. This dance is great for loosening up, releasing stress and frustrations; it really helps women feel more alive.
She is quick to point out that many women dont know what to expect at first, but find themselves enjoying the exotic music, flowing movements and sense of freedom that comes from loosening up and letting yourself move freely.
Imani suffers from fibromyalgia and asthma and attributes her dancing to saving her life. I was walking with a cane at 28, and the doctors had given up hope for me, this dance literally cured me. It took a lot of work and discipline, but it transformed my life.
Penny Morris took over Beledi Global Dance Center in Traverse City in February of this year. One of their specialty classes is belly dancing.
Its a great workout, says Penny, who bought the studio partly in memory of her 17-year old daughter, Adriane, who was killed in a car accident.
We loved to dance together, and this is helping to keep her spirit alive, she says of her daughter. The dance helped her gain poise and increased her self-confidence. It works like that for everyone, no matter what the age; its definitely designed for a womans body.
Belly dancing provides one of the best low-impact aerobic workouts - burning approximately 300-500 calories, strengthening the lower back and pelvic floor muscles, as well as increasing range of motion and natural lubrication for joints and connective tissue. No prior experience is necessary, and it is suitable for all ages, sizes, and fitness levels.
Besides the Middle Eastern dance classes, which are among the most popular, Beledi Global Dance Center also offers salsa dancing, swing, hip-hop and special kids classes. Classes are scheduled on a monthly basis and are $45 per session (month) unless noted otherwise. Class sizes are limited and drop-ins are welcome at $15 per class, space permitting. The studio is located at the corner of Boon and Woodmere in TC. Check out their website at beledigloabaldancecenter.com.
DANCE THROUGH LABOR
The movements of this dance were designed for womens bodies, and it was originally done to facilitate childbirth. A woman in labor would literally dance her way throughout her labor. At the time of birth, her sisters of the tribe would surround her, moving together in a clockwise motion. They would slowly undulate their bellies and every few minutes the expectant mother would get up and do the same until the baby was born. It evolved into a dance performed by women to entertain for celebrations, such as birthdays and weddings.
The term belly dance was coined by the American event promoter Sol Bloom, when he was trying to stir up public interest in seeing the Streets of Cairo exhibit at the Chicago Worlds Fair in 1893.
The Middle Eastern dance performances became incredibly popular because they seemed deliciously scandalous to a society which squeezed its women into corsets. Even though the dancers were fully clothed from head to toe, wearing long-sleeved outfits, the fact that they moved their midriffs so easily was very disturbing to turn-of-the-century Americans.
Soon, a U.S. senator was trying to shut down the act, and newspaper headlines were screaming about the scandal. This, of course, led the public to become very curious, and they went to the fair to see what all the fuss was about. Fair promoters were delighted, and encouraged the scandal.
After the fair was over, many vaudeville performers eagerly added the hoochy koochy (the name that arose for belly dancing) to their repertoires. Building on the scandal that originally made the dance famous, these all-American performers emphasized its sleaziness in a ploy to draw crowds. They succeeded.
Many of the early costumes also were created for entertainment purposes in the U.S. The innovation of the coin bra was created by Bob Mackie, a costume designer for Hollywood movies; they were traditionally worn by women in India, under their saris.
The tassels used in theater acts were also a Western idea. In the Middle East, tassels are used to decorate the halters of donkeys, camels, and other animals. There is no documentation to support the idea that Arabic or Turkish humans wore belts composed of fluffy yarn tassels when dancing.
Today, many of those costume traditions live on, and hopefully, a trace of hoochy koochy too in a dance that manages to stimulate while being healthful at the same time.