SO YOU WANT TO LEARN TO BELLYDANCE?
When you mention Belly Dancing to most people, their first thoughts are of something rather sleazy, however the real thing is not in anyway sleazy. It is a really beautiful, cultural art form that has had a great deal of bad press for far too many years.
What first attracted you to this wonderful art form? Was it the beautiful costumes you occasionally see in films?
Was it the music? Or did you want to learn how to move your body in such wonderful ways?
For myself, I have been fascinated by Arabic culture and Oriental art, for as long as I can remember. It just took me rather a long time to get round to learn the dance. I was 45 when I started learning Raqs Sharqi. I had seen the classes advertised and didn’t have a clue what it was. Fortunately a friend explained to me that it was in fact Egyptian bellydancing. There was no stopping me after that. However learning the moves isn’t enough for me, I need to know about the culture and the history.
Many of you will be attracted to the dance as a way of keeping fit. It will certainly do that for you. Or you can become involved much deeper, the choice is your’s. We all have our roots in different soils, mine were as a professional artist, painting in oils. I also write poetry and have been fortunate to have had a few pieces published. I am still writing and do paint from time to time, however I have found a different beauty in this wonderful dance and all it’s associated culture and history.
This book is intended to help all of you who are interested, get started. Some of you will pick up the moves very easily, others will take much longer, some of you will never master all of it completely. As you are just beginning I am not going to name drop, what is the point as you won’t have a clue, remember I didn’t even know what Raqs Sharqi was!
The dance has it’s origins in pre dynastic times, figurines have been found of dancers in poses that we recognise today. These figures date back as far as 5000 B.C. There are also paintings and carvings that show dance movements we are still doing. The music is very different, they would have danced to the music of the day as do we.
The dance has been influenced by the Ghawazee (gypsies). They came from Rajistan and travelled throughout Egypt and Spain (note some similarities with Flamenco dancing) They became the street singers and dancers, with their own particular style of folk influenced performances. They were said to have a secret language, which they were able to use between the various tribes. It was probably Rajistan. The dance has also been influenced by Turkey and the Ottoman Empire, and the sword and stick dances came from Saudi Arabia. Although there is not much evidence of women doing it until more recent history.
I expect you have all heard the expression “It comes from the heart” well this dance comes from the belly, the source of life. In ancient times the movements were developed to help women during pregnancy and in preparation for childbirth. During the actual birth the other women would stand around the bed or birthing place, and move in ways to encourage the mother to be. A drum may have been beaten by the ‘odilesque’ (favoured woman in the harem) in keeping with the rhythm of life. Many Arabic women learn to do this ‘dance’ from childhood, to condition their bodies. There is much evidence to show that they do not suffer as much as western women throughout pregnancy and childbirth. I do know of women who have danced throughout their term and had very easy births. However if you are pregnant, do check with your doctor before you start doing any of this. A quote from one of my GP’s, Doctor Charles Parker at Topcliffe surgery near Thirsk, North Yorkshire is “Women wonder why they have a dreadful labour when they have done no exercise throughout pregnancy”. He thought I was joking when I asked him if it was safe to bellydance during pregnancy. He thinks it is a wonderful exercise. However there are differing opinions. My new GP has a large newspaper cutting with a colour picture of me in his office and tells me he thinks it is absolutely wonderful what I am doing. So people who don’t dance at all do really appreciate and love this dance and what it can do for health and happiness.
Bellydancing has had a very checkered past. In Napoleonic times it was known as Danse de Ventre, or stomach dance. In 1893 a wealthy entrepreneur, Sol Bloom, a millionaire in his early twenties became part of the great exponent that built the Chicago Worlds Fair. It had whole streets and Palaces built of a type of plaster. This really was fantastic. Mr Bloom brought native people from Arabic lands and built streets and houses to show how they lived in their own countries. This was to show other cultures to the rest of the world. Part of which was the Arabic dancing, a huge hit drawing massive crowds. Some of these dancers never returned to their origins, they stayed in America and got paid very well for dancing. Little Egypt was a very famous lady from that period. Many have claimed to have known her, all over America too widely spread to be true.
The down side of all this was that night club and burlesque performers took this wonderful art form and turned it into something we now think of as the seedy side of bellydancing, the Hoochie Coochie and Strip Tease. The true dance had been corrupted and plagiarised.
Nowadays the scantily clad dancer is a thing of the past in Egypt, with the increase of fundamentalism, the Moslem leaders expect their women to practice extreme modesty. A Cairo night club dancer nowadays would have to wear a visible body stocking to cover her navel, considered a body orifice and her thighs would also have to be covered. Many are wearing lycra dresses so the undulating moves can still be seen.
There are some traditions passed down, in history the dancers would be paid in coin, as there were no banks, they would have had the coins woven into their hair, sewn into and onto costumes. They would have been made into jewellery. A good dancer fully costumed could weigh considerably more than she would weigh naked. As her fortune accumulated she would look for a suitable husband, the money could then be used as a dowry, and after marriage, she would never dance in public. In complete contrast western women who take up bellydancing don’t start until after they have been married for some years and had a family. The coins are still worn today, we trim our costumes, hip belts and wear them as jewellery. They are no longer gold or silver, just imitation.
Originally and today the dance is done mainly in bare feet, however in the early nineteenth century the ghawazee, (gypsy dancers) managed to acquire shoes and wore them. They considered it was a step up from the gutter. It is difficult to find any street dancers nowadays as the licence has become far too expensive.
There are a great many styles of bellydance, as you progress you will find a favourite. Raqs Sharqi (dance of the East) is considered the classical form. Baladi, or Beladi means country or folk. There are many others you will come across on your travels through the world of bellydance. Some dances have almost disappeared, as there may be only one woman in the whole village that knows how to do it. Researchers are trying to collect these before they are gone forever. We are also inventing new forms, ie: Tribal and Raqs Gothica.
Before you start it would help to find yourself a suitable practice costume. Firstly whatever you wear must be comfortable, with plenty of allowance for leg movement. You can either wear a long dress or skirt with a leotard or body. It will help if you tie a scarf around your hips. You could also wear wide legged trousers, again with a leotard or body and hip belt. The idea is to enhance the hips. If you are conscious of something extra in that area it will help you concentrate. Also if you can see what your body is doing in a mirror that will help. If your abdomen is hidden under swaithes of large baggy “T’ shirt, you will not have much idea what is going on. You do not have to worry at all about your footwear. Most of what I have suggested can be found in a charity shop, for a few pounds, if you are like many women today and live in trousers of some kind. So unless they are the right kind to dance in do sort out a costume. If you are female then be proud of it, many women are forced to cover up from head to foot in the suffocating burqa. I find it very hard to teach women who don’t even look feminine and make no effort whatsoever. I think they just come along for a laugh. They make it hard for the ones who are seriously trying to learn.
A ‘real’ costume is something you can get later. You will be astounded just what is available. A circular skirt is a must. You can team that up with either a bra and belt set, or just wear it with a nice crop top or body. This outfit is suitable for the classical style of dance. A suitable outfit for Baladi would be a very simple styled ‘T’ shaped dress, this should be long with slits up either side and if transparent, worn over something suitable. You can wear a shorter baladi dress over voluminous harem pants. In either case you will still need a hip belt of some description. There are plenty of heavy multi row coin belts available for you to choose from. I find if I am wearing a baladi dress, I like to tie my belt to one side, however when wearing a classical style costume, I tie my belt in the front.
When you do this dance, you will begin to feel happy. I have known many women extremely tired from a hard days work, or stressed by their personal situations, make the effort to come to classes and all the tiredness or stresses disappear. They go home feeling very glad they came. It doesn’t matter if you aren’t very good at doing some of the moves, the dance comes from within you as a person, it is the best form of exercise I know for women. Your body is designed for these moves and will respond and make you feel good.
After a time you will probably find yourself involved in some sort of a performance. It may just be within your class, maybe an end of term party. I always find it much harder to dance for other dancers, that’s because they know what I’m doing. However your teacher should prepare you for this by giving you little confidence boosting exercises. These can take the form of everyone in the class forming a circle, and each student takes a turn at dancing in the middle. The more you dance, the more confident you will become. At first you wonder what move will follow the one you are presently doing. Later you won’t even think about it, you will lose yourself in the music and just dance. Dancing is a primal instinct, even the cave men did it. Someone would have beaten on a primitive drum, maybe even a branch of a tree and the people would move to the beat, after all the earliest rhythm we hear is our mother’s heart beat.
As you move through the performance scene, you will no doubt encounter all manner of strange goings on, I know I have. One partner I had for a while had her initiation by both of us with three costume changes, having to get changed in one toilet. This opened on to a corridor, and so we wouldn’t be too hot a door was opened onto the street. Needless to say it was a bit un-nerving. I was more worried about my things being stolen during the performance than the struggle in the loo. The worst was yet to come, the dances we had arranged were for a front facing audience, however when we went into the hall, the audience were sitting at either ends of the room on fixed seating. We did a diagonal performance. As the audience didn’t know that there had been numerous rehearsals, and we were quite nervous to begin with, they loved it. We were given a lovely supper afterwards.
I have many such stories, most of the performances that I do are for women’s groups, often in the middle of now-where. I feel we are not only promoting the dance, but also bringing a lot of pleasure to the ladies who live in some of these out of the way places.