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The Truth About the Fact: An International Journal of Literary Nonfiction

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Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Belly Dance – An Art Form, Unveiled

To the Western eye, belly dance is an exotic and sexual art form. Belly dancers bare parts of their bodies that are revealed less in other dance forms, giving it an element of eroticism. However, the exposure is not to seduce the audience, but to show the muscles they use in their performance. The costumes and movements highlight the curves of the dancers. Rather than a sexual presentation, belly dance is a celebration of the female form.

A friend of mine has been practicing belly dance for years. She has an hourglass body, perfect for the dance. At every performance she gave during high school, you could sense her maturity and confidence in her own body. She was unique among her peers in this regard.

I toyed with the idea of learning the dance, but was generally broke and lazy. Last semester I discovered a world dance class at Santa Monica College, including both traditional Indian dance and Middle East belly dance. For only $96 I could dance for four hours per week for a semester! I signed up.

The first day, I showed up in jeans and a t-shirt, as did the rest of the class, thinking we would just discuss class requirements. We reviewed the syllabus, and started to dance. The teacher suggested we pull our shirts up, exposing our stomachs, to better analyze our moves. Every few minutes, a new student would tire of our modesty of trying to see our bodies through our clothes and raise her shirt.

The teacher demonstrated the basic belly dance stance. “I know this goes against everything you have ever been told, but stick your belly out.” Sucking in our stomachs was something we were all so used to, that it felt strange to release the muscles. The torso is a part of our bodies many of us are self-conscious about, and in the first class, half the students were showing them to dozens of strangers. We all soon realized that was the way we were supposed to look.

Everything we practiced was challenging but simultaneously instinctive. Belly dance teaches us how to move our bodies in ways we are completely unfamiliar with. We learned hip drops, shimmies, and mayas, among many other basics of belly dance. I had always assumed that it would be an easier form of dance because the choreography never seemed fast-paced. I soon learned that choreography would be the least of my worries. We were asked to clench, roll, shift, and vibrate muscles we didn’t even know existed, without moving anything else. The shimmy is one of the most common and essential moves of the dance and entails alternating dropping each hip so fast that it makes your stomach, but nothing above it, vibrate. Now imagine doing this while walking.

Most dance forms involve a balance of memorization and technique. This balance is way off in belly dance, for it is almost all technique. The saying “practice makes perfect” strongly applies here, but perfect is an ongoing struggle. However, after a lot of repetition, the moves begin to feel innate. This is why most belly dance performances are actually improvised. I didn’t understand this at first. How can I know what to do next when I’m not even sure what I’m doing now? But with enough practice, your intuition can guide your body to gracefully transition between every motion.

From my experience, I have developed a much greater admiration for belly dance and the natural female shape. We are so quick to conceal our stomachs if we don’t look like what we see on a magazine cover. But what we see in magazines isn’t real. Not only in that the models rarely portray a woman’s natural figure, but magazine pictures are airbrushed before printed. Belly dance performers have an unusual aura because they let everything out. There is no sucking in and no shame and that is the sexiest thing about belly dancing.

-Colleen Bouey


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