Until a few years back, belts were for holding things up or holding things in, not putting things on. But these days trousers barely cling on to the hipbones, tops are cropped and bellies are in. The trophy-tummies on display come in all shapes and sizes, pierced and tattooed or vulnerable as infants’. Perhaps it’s hardly surprising that belly dancing is one of the country’s fastest growing forms of exercise.
“It’s like a fantasy really,” says Claire, 34-year-old housewife from Enfield, “I saw an ad in the local paper, and I thought ooh, that sounds exotic. Why not?” She and others like her make their way to the local high school gym every Wednesday night for Nuala Douglas’s beginner’s class. I went along to find out what had them hooked.
There is nothing quite as unexotic as a school gym afterhours, with its aura of sweaty plimsols and abandoned aertex. But as I wriggled into my rouched skirt and tied on a clunky belt, I decided to enter into the spirit of the thing: throw caution to the wind and go with the fantasy.
After a swift warm-up and stretch, Nuala let loose the djinni of funk from her ghetto-blaster, and we launched into our first routine. She held her arms aloft, relaxed and soft, while her lower body vibrated up-down, side-to-side, describing sinuous figures of eight. Imagine a hybrid creature: half tulip, half anaconda. Her modus operandi was less listen-and-learn than watch-and-copy, and we watched, mesmerized by her shimmying hips and set our own coin and sequin-encrusted hip scarves jangling. Within seconds, the hall reverberated like a swamp full of randy cicadas.
Most of the class knew their double hip-drops from their camel walks, but being a complete novice, I was sadly lacking in the basics. However, as I strove to mirror her movements, I realized that rather than trying to break down the moves, to isolate those isolations, I just had to imagine myself to be someone else: specifically, the marvelously toned, gracefully curved Amazon who was our leader.
I soon realized that this copycat technique had much to recommend it. “It’s weird,” confessed the friend who I’d gone along with, who’s been attending these classes for several years, “but while the class is on, we all just imagine we are Nuala!” This role-playing aspect of belly dancing is half the fun – aided and abetted by all the girly dressing up of course: the swirly skirts, the harem pants, the sequins and bangles and bling.
But if I (and the rest of the class) were fantasizing about being Nuala, who was her role model? As Shakira’s hit song, ‘Hips Don’t Lie’ reverberated around the gym, it soon became clear. Many of Nuala’s instructions were prefaced with “You know that bit in The Video when she…” and “If you watch The Video, you’ll see her…” I felt a bit in the dark, not having seen said Video, but not so utterly benighted as another dancer who piped up (bravely):
“Er… sorry… but who’s Shakira?”
Gracefully recovering from this heresy, Nuala started off on a potted biography of the Colombian-Lebanese pop sensation, who had been belly dancing since the age of three, when she was interrupted again:
“What, you mean while she’s belly dancing?”
There was general murmured agreement. Then we readjusted our hip-scarves and launched into a rather terrifying ‘freestyle’ session, when you get to do your own thing.
Throwing caution and whatever little dance training I’d ever had to the wind, I soon got into it. I became Odalisque. I played at Salomé. Under my pretend veil, I nibbled Fry’s Turkish Delight and oozed Eastern promise. It was all a far cry from my childhood ballet lessons, frozen mid-plié by a stern teacher barking “Tummy! Tummy!” and prodding the offending object in front of the whole class. Or struggling along to contemporary dance classes in my twenties, and desperately trying to follow of the instructions of our Martha Graham-trained teacher to contract the vile thing out of existence: “Imagine you’re sucking up your stomach through a straw.”
“We’re conditioned to think ‘my body is wrong’,” explains Joanna Dowey, who has been teaching belly dancing in Manchester for the past eight years and is the founder and director of the Northern Belly Dance troupe. “Belly dancing is about enhancing and celebrating all those bits of a woman’s body that we are taught to hide or be ashamed of.” She describes one woman who joined the class swearing that the only time she could ever perform in front of an audience would be as the back end of a pantomime camel. “This negative body image doesn’t vanish the moment you start belly dancing – but there is this kind of acceptance of your body that gradually comes. Dancing in this lovely, lovely way and jiggling your bits, and giggling too – it’s wonderful.”
But there’s something a bit nudge-nudge-wink-wink about belly dancing. A bit ‘Carry On up the Nile’, if you know what I mean. Some, like Nuala, strive to dissociate this form of dance from its seedy connotations by emphasizing its undeniable health benefits: “You wouldn’t believe the number of people that have been sent to me by osteopaths and chiropractors,” she tells me. “It’s absolutely fantastic for the lower back.” Then there are others who hearken back to its classical or folkloric roots. In the Oxford Dictionary of Dance, for example, belly dancing comes under ‘r’ for ‘Raqs Sharqi (or Eastern dance)’, the dominant solo dance form of Egypt “which has its roots in pre-Islamic times but was developed into a more refined classical style in the 18th century Ottoman courts… Characterized by sinuous, rhythmic hip movements and undulating arms, its debased form, belly dancing, as been popular in cabarets from the 19th century onwards.”
In fact, the term was coined (no pun intended) as a crowd-puller during the Chicago World Fair of 1893, where dancers of Ouled Nail tribe of Algeria performed their ‘danse du ventre’. According to an Arab proverb, a man who sleeps with an Ouled Nail will “first lose his soul, afterwards his wealth, and finally his life.” These women depended for their livelihood on money earned for their dancing and sexual prowess. Their pay became part of their costume – sewn into skirts, scarves and headdresses, so that each movement was punctuated by a percussive jingle. The wandering gypsy dancers of Egypt, the ghawazee, are equally important in the history of belly dance, and were also professional prostitutes.
Today’s belly dancers and dance teachers are understandably keen to play up the art and play down the prostitution. But whether you call it Raqs Sharqi or belly, whether you do American tribal style, cabaret or folkloric, there’s no denying that it is just about the most feminine, the most sexy, the most flirtatious and come-hitherish form of dance you can possibly imagine. And for women – particularly middle-aged women – it’s incredibly liberating.
“It is about being alluring and sexually provocative,” says Joanna Dowey, “but because it’s mostly in the company of women, it’s like being sexually provocative for yourself. It’s also a space for female fun. It’s this lovely erotic dancing, using your torso, your hips, your boobs, your belly – and it stirs up all these things that are not to with being responsible, sensible, clever, ambitious – all those things that women these days are supposed to be.”
The dictionary definition of belly dance as a ‘debased form’ seems entirely counterproductive, working against the twin delights – sexiness and silliness – that are its primary draw. Janice, a large, black 45-year old manager of fostering services in London, was bored with aerobics so decided to check out belly dancing: “It’s great fun. The music’s got this reggae beat. You can really get into it.” Isobel and Sue are both 57 and have been belly dancing for two years. “I got handed a leaflet when I was out shopping,” Sue reminisces. “We had a couple of wines, and thought: why not?” “She dragged me into it,” Isobel grins ruefully. “It does give you a bit of discipline, a bit of poise, but what’s great about belly is that you don’t have to have the perfect body to do it.” They look down at their own, and collapse with laughter: “Just as well really!”
As I looked around the class, shaking their booties and shimmying their socks off, I can honestly say that belly dancing is for every body. There’s a tall teenager who’s flat as a plank next to an eighty-year-old woman in a flowy black and gold skirt who’s having a whale of a time. There’s a young mum who’s six months pregnant with her next kid. There are pear-shaped and cuboid women, women with hourglass figures and those with no figures at all. These are not houris or Ouled Nail temptresses, neither are they models or fitness freaks. They are normal, average, extraordinary, fun-filled, sweaty, gorgeous girls happy in their bodies, having a laugh, playing at being sexy and – briefly and breathtakingly – succeeding.
Dance Gazette, December 2006