Ami Hudson, 28, used to be a banker. Now she's a belly dancer. In 1999, Hudson was flat on her back for bed rest during her first pregnancy. Stuck watching TV, she saw a program on belly dancing. The performance, followed by a dance lesson, tapped Hudson's lifelong fascination with all things Egyptian, especially the belly dancing she'd seen in movies and at ethnic festivals while growing up in Milwaukee. "I decided I really wanted to pursue this and to get good at it," says Hudson, who had only dabbled in belly-dance classes and practiced with videos on her own.
Belly dance is an ancient celebration and communication between women. It has little to do with Hollywood's fantasy of a shimmering chiffon striptease. It has everything to do with the experience of unity and spiritual grounding; with the celebration of rites of passage such as birth, marriage, and war; and with a woman's physical health.
In Arabic, belly dance is called raqs sharqi. That translates as Oriental dance, another common name for the practice. The origins of the dance are unclear, but its roots are known to span and blend many cultures, from the ancient worship of goddesses to the more recent Middle Eastern dance performance at the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago that brought belly dance to the United States.
Dance As Old As Time
The belly dance tradition here has expanded to include American Tribal Style belly dance, a form that borrows movements from Egyptian belly dance as well as cabaret, Turkish, and Ghawazee dance styles. Originated by veteran dancer Carolena Nericcio of San Francisco, American Tribal Style brings women together in improvisational performance troupes.
"What really got me with American Tribal Style is that it's about sisterhood," says Hudson, the director of the Milwaukee-based troupe Barika. "There's so much energy that you're sharing with everyone when you perform. The dance helps us connect with our beliefs. We all feel a deep connection with the self and the people around us and with the music. It's like meditating through motion."
Such feelings aren't new. "In ancient times, dancing was a form of communication between the human corporeal realm and the ethereal spirit realm," according to Belly Dancing: The Sensual Art of Energy and Spirit (Park Street Press, 2005) by Pina Coluccia, Anette Paffrath, and Jean Pütz. "By dancing, women opened their vital energy centers to receive divine wisdom and to give wisdom."
Good for the Body
While the history of belly dancing tends toward the spiritual, modern-day dancers can't overlook the physical benefits of the dance: it seems to be as good for the body as it is for the soul.
"Belly dance increases the sensitivity of the dancer to the subtleties of her body's messages," according to Belly Dancing. "In the same way that psychological therapy has effects on physical symptoms through its influence on the mind, belly dance influences the mental state of being via the body." Physically, a belly dancing session will engage muscles in the neck, shoulders, abdominals, back, and legs.
Belly dancing, especially in the tribal improv style, is like a dance version of Simon Says and Follow the Leader, explains Barika's Hudson: once you know the rules of dancing, anything goes. Belly Dancing advocates a weekly routine of three 45-minute practice sessions and at least one class to build a strong, toned musculature.
Here's a short, easy sample belly-dance practice, with instruction from Belly Dancing. Hudson advises starting and ending your dancing with a 10-minute yogalike warm-up of shoulder rolls, gentle neck stretches, and spinal movements.
- At the start of your practice and throughout, check for correct posture: head loose and light on your spine, neck relaxed, knees slightly bent, pubic bone tilted slightly forward and up, pelvis relaxed, chest lifted and shoulders relaxed, feet bare and hip-distance apart with your weight resting on the edges of the feet.
- Hip circles for about five minutes: Picture yourself standing inside a square; concentrate on touching the corners of the square as you move your hips while holding your upper body steady. Start with small circles and gradually increase the size. Move from the hip circles inside the square to small pelvis circles. Visualize your pelvis at the center of a spiral; the spiral is tight at the center and gets larger as it circles outward. Beginning at the center, circle the pelvis in a small movement around the spiral, gradually circling outward until the movements are big. Then reverse direction and return to the inside of the spiral until the movements of the pelvis are very small again. Circle right, then left, 10 times in each direction.
- Chest circles for about five minutes: Again, imagine a square. Outline it with your chest by reaching for all four corners of the square. This increases the range of motion for the chest. Once you can outline the square, move toward making fluid circles with the rib cage. Circle five times to the right, five times to the left. If you have trouble isolating the chest from the pelvis, stand with your back against a wall, pelvis pressed firmly against the wall.
- Shoulder shimmies for about five minutes: Keep the chest steady, with your arms at your sides. First thrust one shoulder forward, then the other. Once you feel comfortable doing these movements slowly, you can increase the pace and lift your arms out to your sides, being careful to keep the movement originating from your chest. If you lose the rhythm, lower your arms and begin the shimmie again.
As you gain confidence with the moves, Hudson says, put on your favorite music and feel what happens when you spontaneously mix and match these belly-dancing moves. At first, one favorite song — about five minutes of dancing — will be plenty. Play with transitions between the different moves, from hip to ribs to shoulders. Eventually, you might try hips and shimmies at the same time. Unless you're in very good shape, the dance takes a lot out of you. Hudson cautions to maintain your posture, minding the transitions and isolating the muscle groups involved with each movement. Remember that there is no certain way to string these moves together, she says. "It's all in the music you're listening to and how you interpret it." Sounds a lot like life. Boogie on, people.
Jennifer Derryberry Mann teaches yoga in Minneapolis. She is the former editor of Science & Spirit magazine.
Partaking of belly dance is simple these days. The International Academy of Middle Eastern Dance, bellydance.org, offers class listings and related links. Books, videos, and music are available at Amazon.com. And groups of women — and men — interested in belly dance congregate online at places such as Meetup.com to find like-minded dancers in their neighborhoods.