Belly dance is natural to a woman’s bone and muscle structure. The movements center on the torso rather than the legs and feet, as is common in Western dance. The belly dancer isolates parts of her body, to move each independently in a completely feminine interpretation of the music. The music seems to emanate from her body, as sometimes she emphasizes the rhythm, sometimes the melody of the song. – Suzy Evans of the International Academy of Middle Eastern Dance
Today bellydancing in the United States is performed as a form of expression, celebration, and as a form of exercise, connecting the modern woman to her ancient roots.
The term “belly dance” is a translation of the French term “danse du ventre”, which was applied to the dance in the Victorian era, and probably originally referred to the Arabic tribe Ouled Nail dancers of Algeria, whose dance used more abdominal movements than the dances described today as “belly dance”. It is something of a misnomer, as every part of the body is involved in the dance; the most featured body part is usually the hips.
In Arabic, the dance is known as “Raqs Sharqi” (“Eastern Dance”) or “Raqs Beledi” (“Country Dance” or “Folk Dance”).
Belly dance is primarily a torso-driven dance, with an emphasis on articulations of the hips. Unlike many Western dance forms, the focus of the dance is on relaxed, natural isolations of the torso muscles, rather than on movements of the limbs through space. Although some of these isolations appear superficially similar to the isolations used in jazz ballet, they are sometimes driven differently and have a different feeling or emphasis.
In common with most folk dances, there is no universally codified naming scheme for belly dance movements. Some dancers and dance schools have developed their own naming schemes, but none of these is universally recognized.
Janim, one of the founders of Art in Motion PGH has this to say about Bellydance:
WHY BELLYDANCE? That is a question I am asked all the time. It can mean “why of all dance forms, did you choose bellydance?” Sometimes, the question is asked as a means of convincing the questioner that it is worth his or her time to try out a few new lessons.
While I can point to scientific data or health related articles that tout the benefits of the dance, I would rather share with you my own story and happening upon this art form.
In 2002, I and a dear friend of mine decided to try bellydance at the Dance Alloy, partly out of curiosity, partly as a way to have some fun in the cold winter, and perhaps a small part of us wanted a new exercise to augment our running. Our first class with Roxelanna was all that we had hoped it would be: full of danceable music, drills and conditioning exercises, excellent movement breakdown, and just a warm and welcoming atmosphere. Being the self-conscious woman that I was (and perhaps still am), I scanned the room at the beginning of class, and was happy to note that all shapes, sizes, and ages were well represented there.
I must admit that at that time, I wore a full t-shirt, almost baggy with yoga pants when taking class. The fear of exposure, the lack of confidence in myself and my form, and my rather dismal body image did prevent me from fully concentrating and enjoying our class. I even think at that point seeing my bare feet was slightly shocking, but I stuck it out. I enjoyed the dance tremendously and it brought me such joy. It was always a chance to step outside of myself and to be expressive in a feminine way…something that I rarely could do in my day to day work.
The years passed and my confidence in myself and my body image grew. I finally realized, while not model perfect or reminiscent of what I saw in magazines, my shape was beautiful in its own way. I thought it became more and more beautiful as I trained my body in the dance. Evey time I conquered a new move or mastered a combination, I felt more feminine, more joyful, and stronger.
After 6 years or so, I began to teach and to perform professionally. I continued my own study with Mirjana (my second teacher and long term role model), and augmented with travel outside of town to find master teachers. To this day, I travel to workshops, intensives, retreats, and private lessons to continue honing my skills and simultaneously my confidence. I also use it to stay in shape.
But why did I want to perform bellydance? I know now and perhaps always knew that I perform for one main reason: to bring joy to people’s lives. Bellydance is a joyful dance. Bellydance is a welcoming dance, accepting to all ages, sizes, and shapes. Bellydance is beautiful and often brings out a beauty in the dancer that she did not know existed.
And now after a decade of bellydance, as I augment my studies with other dance forms, I still look at bellydance and see joy, strength, and beauty. I work now to bring those to you, the audience, the student, and the sister so that in dancing you too can discover your inner strength and confidence.