The first lesson I learned in belly dance class was to resist the urge to overthink. I had to let my body and my reservations go. Belly dance isn’t all improvisation, but the fundamentals call for a freedom of movement that requires a little rewiring for newcomers—even trained dancers! By the end of my first class, my nervousness had vanished. I overheard the woman next to me tell our instructor that belly dance made her appreciate, rather than envy, other dancers. Even though our bodies were all different shapes and sizes, and we were working at varying levels of experience, everyone brought something special to class. I knew I would be back!
In ancient cultures, belly dance provided a physical expression for the joy and beauty of womanhood. Today, this dance form continues to grow in popularity among recreational dancers and aspiring professionals alike. It’s a form of exercise, expression and empowerment, and each new practitioner puts a bit of herself into the dance to pass on to the next generation.
History and Meaning Belly dance was created by women for women, to embrace and celebrate femininity. Traditionally, it was a rite-of-passage dance, learned by watching older relatives and family friends at community celebrations and in informal settings. Most scholars agree that the dance sprouted in India and spread throughout the Middle East, North Africa and Eastern Europe via gypsies. The first belly dance performance in the U.S. is believed to have been by a dancer known as Little Egypt, at the 1893 World’s Fair.
Language of the Dance “Belly dance incorporates a unique vocabulary using body isolations and intricate hip work,” says Amar Gamal, co-founder of the NYC-based company Bellyqueen Dance Theater. You’ll recognize the basic hip circle—“Imagine you’re stirring a pot with your hips,” Gamal says—but belly dance also uses chest circles, body rolls, hand movements, locking, spins, turns, shimmies and more. “Some of my favorite moves are the figure eights, which represent eternity,” says Gamal. There are many variations on the figure eight; a basic one, moving your chest and hips in a vertical figure eight, is called “undulating.” Another common step, the “grapevine,” features a rhythmic side step, side step, step-across pattern in the feet, often performed with corresponding hand movements. Like lyrical dance, belly dance usually involves moving with two opposing tempos in the body. “Your top is soft while your bottom is percussive and aggressive,” says Sahar Javedani, a world dance teaching artist, choreographer, dancer and founder of NYC-based Compani Javedani.
Getting Started Belly dance can be found across the U.S., so search online for classes in your area. You’ll find a variety of styles: Turkish, Greek, Lebanese, Egyptian, Tribal Fusion, Cabaret and American Tribal, to name a few. “Every country has its own style, and every single person has her own style,” says Veena, half of the twin sister duo known as the Bellytwins, who have performed with celebrities including Seal, Sting and Michael Jackson, and have a series of belly dance DVDs. Many dancers have backgrounds outside of belly dance, as well, from ballet to modern to salsa, and fusion is common. A tip for beginners: Look for classes that incorporate genres you’re already familiar with, like hip hop.
Mass Appeal Javedani notes that lots of young dancers are attracted to belly dance for the same reasons as hip hop—it’s expressive, passionate and less restrictive than other forms. “It’s also one of the safest and most empowering ways for young women to learn to embrace themselves and their bodies,” she says. Belly dance doesn’t favor one specific body type or technique style. In our culture, where young women are bombarded with images encouraging sexiness and skinniness, belly dance is a positive way to learn to love yourself just as you are.
Belly dance connects with our natural need to feel good both inside and out. “If there was a way to learn to cultivate confidence, self-esteem and ownership of your body, if there was a dance that could help you feel that you are part of a community, that you are healthy and moving healthfully,” says Javedani, “it would be this dance form.”