A Semi-Insider’s Guide to the Bellydance Community

My wife has been involved with the local Middle Eastern Dance community for a number of years. I’ve been involved too; mostly, I’ve been her sidekick and general dogsbody, but it’s been a fun time.

Belly dance, more accurately known as Middle Eastern dance, is a dance form common to areas of the Balkans, Greece, Turkey, and the Arab-speaking nations of North Africa the Middle East and central Asia. Mostly, the dancers seen performing are women, though there are a few men who perform. Generally male Middle Eastern dancers use similar, albeit more masculine versions of the dance.

It’s important to dispel one major myth about Belly dance/Middle Eastern dance: Belly dance is NOT the same as stripping. NOT AT ALL. I imagine some strippers saw belly dance performances and thought ‘ Wow, those are great moves; I’m going to incorporate them in my routine.’ That association has often stuck in the minds of many people, and their reaction when you say “Belly Dance” is immediate and clearly disapproving because of it.

One of the many things I’ve learned from being involved is the difference between the two major styles of Middle Eastern Dance: Raqs Sharqi and American Tribal. Most of the differencs between the two are superficial, but there are nearly as many schools of thought within the two groups as there are dancers.

Raqs Sharqi is often considered the more traditional version of the dance. Seen performed in restaurants and at shows, it often encompasses what people think of when they hear the term “belly dancer”: flashy costumes and dances done in a caberet-style setting are kind of the norm here. Dancers sometimes perform using zills (finger cymbals), or props like canes or swords.

It’s generally agreed that American Tribal Fusion started (where else!) in California, and often involves group improv where one or more people lead at various times. Tribal dancers often dance to music other than traditional Middle Eastern songs: particularly popular right now is music from Eastern Europe.

Shoes are optional; most dancers I’ve seen prefer not to wear shoes while dancing. In a restaurant setting where the dancer isn’t wearing shoes, all I can think about is the possibility of encountering a stray shard of glass, and that gives me the willies.

Once, at a performance in a restaurant, I observed a group of women were goofing around just before the dancer was ready to begin her second set. They were swinging around their hookah — a tall water pipe for smoking flavored tobacco. Hookahs are common in the Middle East, and are often available at Middle Eastern restaurants in the United States if local ordinances allow it.

So one of these women was swinging the hookah around, parodying the dancer we’d just seen, when a smoldering coal fell out of the hookah and landed in the middle of the floor. Since a dancer was about to dance in that specific area, I grabbed a napkin, dipped it in water and retrieved the hot coal with the water-logged napkin, extinguishing it. Of the many dangers to dancers during public performances, most involve drunk people.

My wife has been involved with the Middle Eastern Dance community for over a decade at this point. She’s learned a great deal, but her fybromyalgia prevents her from participating as actively as she would like. Previously, she organized regular haflas for the community as a whole, which were well attended and well received. They were a lot of work, not the least of which involved finding an affordable venue.

We organized about a dozen such haflas over the course of 6 years. Food and beverages were provided on a pot-luck basis, and dancers could sign up to perform in a venue where there was less snark and judgment and much more support and encouragement than at a more structured performance setting. It allowed many dancers to experiment with new ideas they may not have been ready to try out more formally, and that was a very positive aspect of these events.

The fact that students from any teacher were welcome, even those from out of town, is one of the things that sets the haflas we ran apart from most haflas. That was a specific goal of the events my wife organized: to allow dancers a space to hang out and dance for/with each other where rivalries could (hopefully) be set aside for the evening.

Middle Eastern dance is a rich and complex art form, but it’s also fun to watch and easy to enjoy as a spectator. I’ve enjoyed my time as a supporter and facilitator of the community, and look forward to many more years of serving as porter, MC, and loudly appreciative audience member.

For more information on our local Middle Eastern Dance community, check out the website my wife constructed. Be sure to check out the photo galleries!

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