Bellydance Variations: Embodied Research

On Sunday, September 23, the Santa Cruz Dance Salon presented “Cairo to California: an Introduction to Bellydance.” As the hostess of this workshop, my goal was to illuminate the varieties of bellydance that have evolved from their original forms in Egypt. While I was anxious to share some of what I’ve learned in my research of bellydance history, I was more interested in providing a kinesthetic experience of how its variations resemble one another in basic techniques and how they differ in emotive style. I knew immediately who I wanted to teach: local instructors, Sahar and Didi who represent each end of the bellydance spectrum. Sahar teaches Egyptian beledi and American Oriental; Didi teaches contemporary American and Dark Tribal bellydance. With little direct discussion with them, I trusted that they could create these experiences for me…I was more than pleased with the results. They exceeded my vision and illuminated my own understanding of the subject.

Sahar is in the blue on the right…with a panel of other local bellydancers

Dancing with Sahar is a balm to my spirit. As a performer, Sahar is a delight: refined, elegant, joyous. As a teacher, Sahar helps students develop a sensitivity to the complex musical forms we dance to and encourages us to express our own celebratory feelings in improvisational bellydance. She began her studies of bellydance in the 1970s in the Bay Area when she was 14. Her early studies with Bert Balladine focused on solo improvisations and the development of expressive qualities. Later, she traveled to Egypt to study with some of its most famous dancers. She is also a scholar of bellydance and an accomplished drummer.

Didi at Crepe Place

Didi is my imaginary alter-ego, a dancing doppleganger living out what I only dabble in (don’t tell her, she doesn’t know). Didi started bellydance at a late age but she quickly became a woman with a mission: to discover herself through the idiom of bellydance. She has survived countless intensive courses with the stars of Tribal Fusion. Today she teaches and choreographs for her own company, Raks Hakohaveem, and her student company. Didi is also a co-producer of Lumen Obscura, a festival of workshops and performances by some of the leaders of dark fusion. (see my reviews of LOII)

The difference that make a difference

The basic posture for both styles of bellydance is the same, from placement of feet to the dropped pelvis and elongated spine. But the placement of the upper torso—shoulders and ribcage—is slightly different. For Egyptian, the upper torso floats over the hips, secure but flexible. For Tribal style, the shoulders are lifted up and dropped down the back to create a high, upward thrusting chest, a display of pride and confidence.

We learned three distinct approaches to producing that most quintessential of all bellydance moves: the Hip Shimmy. Sahar taught Egyptian and American styles and Didi taught Tribal style, each of them generated by a different action of hips, knees, or gluttes. I’ve never understood these distinctions so clearly, but that’s the benefit of having back-to-back kinesthetic experiences across the complex of bellydance styles. The Egyptian style feels free and easy whether it’s done with calm grace or vigorous enthusiasm. It says, Look at these hips! Aren’t they magnificent! Tribal style, which is animated by muscular contractions and releases, expresses determination and drive. It says, Look at these hips! Aren’t they powerful!

Sahar maintains the relaxed and inclusive spirit of the original beladi dance. She explains that Egyptian beledi is the root of bellydance. It is a social dance performed at local and private celebratory events by both women and men. When Sahar teaches a technique, she also teaches the emotional, or spiritual, content it is meant to convey. For example, she tells us that the shoulder shimmy is celebratory and should be high and joyous. It should say, “I’m so happy to be here with you!” As we perform hip shimmies, she shows us how to place the arms to frame the hips so that the entire torso is smiling. That’s the only way I can explain it. The body is thrown open in such a manner that you have to smile with it. I think I’ll practice just that posture every day. I’ll call it “Sahar’s Asana.”

Sahar finishes her portion of the workshop in a format meant to mimic an Egyptian party of women. We stand in a circle with one dancer in the center showing her stuff while the rest clap out the beladi rhythm and encourage the soloist with zagareets. Each of us has a chance to show off, to celebrate our ability to express our pleasure in being together.

Didi’s Dark Fusion offers opportunities to express deeper, darker emotions (of which I have plenty). She taught us a few combinations from a new choreography her students are performing at an upcoming festival. Its theme regards poisonous flowers and vines that creep and tangle. In one sequence, Didi has taken a basic tribal-style Arabic step but altered the arm gesture to convey menace. Conventionally, the arms travel a smooth path that arcs side to side away from the hips to a high fifth over head. Didi replaces that with one that catches halfway up and lifts the elbows to imitate raven’s wings in flight. “Raven arms” represent a subtle but affective difference suited to her dark choreography.

I would love to refine the event adding an ATS® teacher to demonstrate the transition between American Oriental and Dark Fusion (and maybe give me more time to yammer on about my research). Still, it was an illuminating afternoon and I thank Didi, Sahar and everyone who came out to share the day with us.

Me and Didi at Desert Dance Festival in 2006

Biker and bellydancer

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