Move with the times
Move With The Times by Jodie Duffy
Illawarra Mercury, Saturday July 19, 2008
Myth and mystery surround the art of belly dancing so JODIE DUFFY decided to get the facts from a Wollongong instructor who has a PhD on the subject.
There's something sensual and mesmerising about the ancient art of belly dancing. The large volume of colourful fabric swishing against the legs, the wreaths of jangly coins and bells and the exposed belly rolling to an ancient, tribal drum beat. Like the bulging, stretched belly of a pregnant woman, a female's swaying tummy is an affirmation of feminine strength and beauty. Dr Virginia Keft-Kennedy thought so when at the age of 19 she first wrapped a jewelled, studded scarf around her hips at a Fairy Meadow belly dance class.
She was soon hooked on what's now considered an art form. And not just on the way the movements made her body and soul feel, or the loyal and devoted female friends she made, but on the history of the dance and its cultural and feministic significance. Now, 11 years later, she owns the largest belly dancing school in the Illawarra with 120 students and has a PhD from Wollongong university on the subject.
"Belly dance really took me over," she says, sitting in her hot pink Wollongong dance studio, Cinnamon Twist. "I found it an empowering and feminist activity which is now enjoyed by women everywhere, from all walks of life, all over the globe. "When I took over the school five years ago I wanted belly dancing to be available to everyone, young and old, of all levels and capabilities."
The Kenny St school offers classes for children as young as four and has many elderly students.
The Figtree mother-of-one is searching for a publisher for her thesis titled: Representing the Belly-Dancing Body: Feminism, Orientalism, and the Grotesque. The book, while an academic work, examines how belly dancing has been represented in literature. Once thought of in the West to be risque, erotic and entertainment for leering men, it was banished to carnival sideshows and Burlesque halls. Hollywood later perpetuated the myth with belly dancers being portrayed as slaves, background dancers or as deceitful characters.
"There's quite a lot of misunderstanding about belly dancing," says Virginia. "But for me it's a dance about women for women and not a dance for men."
Belly dance is regarded as one of the oldest social dance forms. Some say it was first performed by women in honour of the Great Mother - giver of life. The swaying and gyration of the hips were also believed to celebrate the birth process and it was used as a preparation for childbirth with the the movements strengthening the abdominal muscles. But perhaps the most well-known theory about belly dance in its early stages was that it was a religious dance of worship. Later it was used solely as a form of entertainment in countries like Egypt during family celebrations, with the movements being passed on down the generations. At such gatherings the sexes would be separated. Belly dancing shocked the West at the World Expositions at the turn of the century. But American Isadora Duncan, known as the mother of modern dance, was greatly inspired by dancers from the East, including belly dancers. [Duncan] once said that: "The dancer of the future will dance the freedom of women ... the highest intelligence in the freest body."
In the 1970s belly dancing was embraced by women as a liberating dance and was incorporated in the women's movement. "It's a grounding dance, it's not about pretending to be light and airy, it's about being firmly planted on the ground," says Virginia. "It's about the strength of a woman's body and about learning to move it in beautiful ways.
"Women come to the school and fall in love with the music and the movements and the costumes and I can often tell just by looking at them that they will still be belly dancing in 10 years time. They take to it with such vigour."
There are now belly dance communities all over the world, including Japan, Germany, Canada and Australia.
Virginia has studied belly dancing both nationally and internationally, learning the varied styles offered by each country in Egypt, Turkey and San Francisco.
"My focus is on Egyptian belly dancing, but I also do Turkish and North African. It's amazing just how varied the styles can be."
After completing a double degree in English Literature and Creative Arts followed by Honours, Virginia was awarded the University Medal and won a prestigious national scholarship to study the history of belly dance.
"Men have always had a different view to belly dancing than women do." she says. "But it's all about a woman's strength, about the way a woman can move her body."
Women choose to learn belly dancing not only for social reasons, but also because it's a dance they can do on their own, without their partner. For many it's about empowerment and a way of addressing body-image issues and self-esteem.
"As women we're always told to keep contained," says Virginia. "When women liberate themselves they find they can move in ways that are really beautiful, graceful, soft and feminine."
Kim Elchaar, 32, took up belly dancing when she decided to marry an Arabic man.
"We were having a belly dancer at our wedding and I wanted to dance a bit too," she says. "So I took up lessons and fell in love with it. I've never really been passionate about anything in my whole life, but now I feel like belly dancing is in my heart. It's changed me, it's built up my confidence."
There is much debate about whether men were ever involved historically in belly dancing.
But while still relatively small in numbers compared to female belly dancers, there has been an increase in males taking up the dance in America, Europe and the Middle East.
In a report from Istanbul in The Age last August, male belly dancer Alex (his stage name) said the tradition dated back to Ottoman times. Men in the Sultan's palaces were entertained by young male dancers as the women lived separately in harems.
Alex said the dance and costume was different from the female cabaret-style of belly dancing. For performances he wears loose black trousers, a chain-mail headdress, tasselled belt and stole, and a sheer cloak.
Belly dance story
- Belly dance is an ancient form of dance originating from the Middle East and North Africa.
- There is no single type of belly dance but rather a range of dance traditions that can vary from country to country.
- The term belly dance is a misnomer; the dancer actually uses her whole body although it does focus on the torso and hips.
- Belly dance was first introduced to the West during the series of World Expositions staged throughout the 19th Century.
- It was at the 1893 Chicago Worlds Fair that American entrepreneur Sol Bloom brought dancers to America and first coined the French phrase 'danse du ventre', or belly dance, to describe Middle Eastern dance.
- The modern glitzy and glamorous two-piece belly dance costume was a Western invention developed during the early 20th century as part of the Hollywood film industry's obsession with the East.
- It's a myth that belly dancers traditionally wore a jewel in their navel. The notorious Hays Code of the 1930's prohibited women from showing their belly buttons in film. Hollywood film-makers found a way around the code by instructing dancers to place a jewel in their navel.
Source: Dr Virginia Keft-Kennedy