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Barbara Derecktor Donahue

The evolving art of American belly dance

Donahue, Barbara: "The evolving art of American belly dance", Tradition and Art093, σελ. 6-7, Athens, I.O.F.A., May – June 2007. From her book:The Dancing Spirit of Rhode Island.

The evolving art of American belly dance

By reading this article, you have begun an adventure to v^ the new ancient and beautiful world of Belly Dance . Never in my wildest day dreams could I have envisioned my dance life now. Never did I imagine being the exotic and magical dancing woman of the next event. "Surely not in my 40's!l". Never did I imagine sharing pictures of myself dancing everywhere on a huge website like I now have. And never did I imagine that I would be dancing, teaching and performing now more than ever Belly Dance is an ageless dance one of my favorite students, Norma, is 68. She is amazing! She has followed me from class to class, location to location and she looks and moves better than ever. I've stumbled into a dance world that I really never knew existed until 6 years ago and in this new dance world all the rules are completely different from my classical training in Ballet and Modern except for one - you have to work really hard to be good.

Until 5 years ago my intense life devotion to dance was always through the love of Ballet and Modern dance and branches developed from those two dance forms.

Ballet and Modern dance are both articulated from extended positions reaching out from the body. These dance forms execute positions, which travel and cover large performance spaces to tell their story. In general they do not have much direct contact or interaction with the audience because they are usually on a stage and most often their dance is choreographed.

Belly Dancers can perform in very small area of space. The movements for a solo dancer ( as opposed to positions are sewn together in an improvised way interpreting and reacting spontaneously to the music. A group dance can also be choreographed). The movements closely follow the curves and circles of the body. Direct audience contact is warm, dramatic at times, friendly, very direct, and can almost feel like a conversation between dancer, drummer and observer. Belly Dance is a folk dance of the people, for the people, with the people of The Middle East and with dancers and audiences all over the world who fall in love with the dance and the music.

I feel now after 5 wonderful years of studying all aspects of this dance form that all Ballet and Modern dance studios should include Belly Dance classes and college dance departments should also.The movement vocabulary and musical knowledge enhances and inspires creativity, body and world awareness. College dance departments can be so focused on classical techniques. I graduated with a BFA in Dance and wish that I had been exposed to this dance form then.Bellydance encourages new and broader world dance thinking. I would love to see a 4 yr college program for and in depth study of World Belly Dance and all of it's various root histories allenging performing experiences, met many diverse dance lovers,and have added new colors and drama to my dance life/costume style. This is a possibility for everyone who decides to commit themselves to embracing this dance form.

American Belly Dance

American Belly Dance is a dance form that has its roots in Middle Eastern Dance. It is known also by the names of Oriental Dance, Cabaret Style, Egyptian Style, Turkish Style, Raks Sharqi, Lebanese Style, Greek Style, American Tribal Belly Dance Style, Belly Dance, Experimental Middle Eastern Dance, Belly Dance Fusion and American Style Belly Dance. These styles are or can be influenced by Flamenco, Zambra, Indian, Rom or Gypsy.

American Dancers have studied these movement styles, and have, developed their own fusion dance style called American Belly Dance, which is evolving today I feel as a new Modern Dance form. One of the beautiful signature techniques of The American Belly Dancer is the use of the veil. Veil use, prior to American dancers was used only as an entrance prop and quickly discarded. American Modern Dancers, Isadora Duncan and Ruth St Denis, among others inspired the art of the veil and American dancers following their lead have made veil work part of their signature style.

Learning to Belly Dance is like learning a new a language. Classes introduce students to the music and the culture . One of the first things to learn are the different rhythms. Walking to the rhythm is one of the first exercises I teach in my classes. If you can walk to the beat, you can dance to the beat. Many of the movements of Belly Dance are circular. Students learn to move in wonderful circles. It is challenging to move in a circular, rhythmical way but once you do the real fun begins! Belly Dance has it's roots in folk and community dance. It is a dance which has been passed down through the ages from grandmother to granddaughter and all generations. One of the books recommended is "Grandmother's Secret". My favorite quote from the book is a grandmother telling her grandaughterr that the secret to her universe is her navel.All ages, body types and levels of experience are welcome to join classes. Beginners come learn in a supportive, non competitive environment. Experienced dancers come to deepen their practice. All ages, 12-70and levels dance together with mutual joy and respect.

A short history of Middle Eastern Dance

Raqs Sharqi, Middle Eastern or Oriental Dance also known as Belly Dance is a dance expression of emotions which interpret musical rhythms. It is the most well known dance of the Middle East. Danced by women, men, children and grandparents, from North Africa to Northern Turkey, from Greece to Saudi Arabia. Raqs Sharqi is versatile, elastic living art, continually evolving incorporating elements of other dance forms with ease. This dance predates both Islam and Christianity. Some of the dance movements have been connected with 5,000 yr old birth rituals. No one knows exactly where it started or what its origins are though most scholars believe it originated in Egypt. The steps are mostly unnamed, yet the dance has persisted and flourished through overwhelming odds.

When introduced to America at the World's Fair in 1893, Raqs Sharqi was marketed as "belly dance" the most salacious possible of the French "danse du ventre" or dance of the stomach. This was the Victorian Era when women wore corsets and exposed ankles were risque. Imagine the uproar exposed midriffs. The show was enclosed in a tent advertised as too shocking for women, only appropriate for men's viewing. The show was a success but the dance's reputation was slandered. Fortunately this undeserved image is finally but slowly changing thanks to dancers, scholars and audiences world wide who cherish this beautiful and challenging dance art.

The dance is composed of isolations and articulations including circles, undulations, figure 8's & snake like motions using hands, arms, shoulders, torso - back/front, abdomen, hips and feet. Also incorporated are shimmies of the shoulders and hips. Accents to the music are magnified with various body parts throughout the dance. It is a dance of the people, of expression and feeling from" the inside out" rather than of high leg extensions or of high leaps across a stage. However as the dance slowly transitioned from living room and dance hall to the theatre stage it adopted techniques from other dance forms , flashy costumes, more traveling steps and larger, grand movements than are typically found in the home version where it began.

The dance is classically an abstract visual representation of the music, which includes its emotional timbre. Improvisation and feeling for the music are highly valued. The dancer represents the musical ornaments and extended improvisations of the musicians with his or her interpretation and personal expression. As the dancer listens to the musicians, the musicians in turn watch and play to the movements of the dancer, reinterpreting and embellishing the dancers movement. The result is a high level collaboration between the auditory, the visual and the emotional..

Belly Dance Benefits

Like anything else in life - you get out of it what you put into it. Belly dancing is a good stress reducer, energy increaser, strength improver, muscle toner and helps with coordination if practiced regularly. It has been said that it heals, strengthens and balances the body, mind and spirit all at once. Belly Dancing can also burn as many calories as walking or riding a bike and like those activities you will be in better shape if you practice 2 or 3 times a week.

Belly Dance is a low impact aerobic exercise - plus it's fun, sensual and you get to work out in skirts and hip scarves which is too much fun! There are several styles of the dance which can incorporate learning and performing with much practice - zills, a cane, a sword or 2, a snake or 2, a skirt, a veil or 2,3,4 or 7 and a chamadan which is a large head candelabra.

What to wear to class

  1. something comfortable - that feels good to move in tiights, dance pants, a skirt, a leotard, a tank top or a choli
  2. I provide hip scarves, veils and long skirts to borrow

A Note about Belly Dance

Unlike formalized classroom and performance dance such as ballet, modern, jazz, tap etc this dance form is different because it's roots are in Middle Eastern family celebrations where everyone dances together. In the Middle East many musicians play a tabla or dumbek drum and most people are familiar with the rhyhms. When there is a wedding, engage­ments, births, graduations etc in the Middle East there is always music and dancing. The movements shared by everyone are the basic movements of this dance form. The dance has evolved over time into many different styles.

Today Belly Dance is being enjoyed, learned and shared all over the world thanks in part to the many American Dancers and teachers who fell in love with Middle Eastern Dance. The Belly Dance community is a very large, warm, creative passionate, committed and very diverse group of lively people who want to dance when they here one beat of a drum. I am one of them. Come join the American Belly Dance club with me!

By Barbara Derecktor Donahue, The Dancing Spirit of Rhode Island

Akinsipe, Felix Α.: Never and never (Drama). Nigeria, University of Ilorin, Dpt of the performing arts, 2006.

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