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This article by Diana Wolf was prepared for the November 6, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Oriental Mystery in Dance

Belly dance" is a mystery to most Americans. Many

picture nubile nymphs swirling amidst veils for some sultan’s pleasure.

But because Islamic law dictates segregated living spaces for men

and women, the women who dance do so for other women and not for men.

Even the term "harem" comes from the word "haram,"

which means "forbidden," referring to the women’s section

of the home where only immediate family males were permitted. In some

Muslim countries, this is still true today.

Nor do real dancers wear jewels in their bellybuttons. That was a

Hollywood gimmick invented to circumvent the 1930 Hays Code which

restricted showing the bare navel in American movies.

Finally, "belly dance" is properly called "Oriental Dance."

The Arabic term for this dance,"Raks Sharqi," translates to "Dance

of the East" or "of the Orient," from "Al Sharq"

meaning "the East." But all these stubborn misconceptions

have been perpetuated by Hollywood since Sol Bloom introduced "belly

dancing" to the U.S. during the 1893 Chicago World’s Exposition.

The mystique of Oriental Dance extends into many fitness centers and

studios today. The popularity of these classes stems from its accessibility.

Women of any age or size can, and do, master these moves. Oriental

Dance technique doesn’t use the belly; it isolates muscles by controlling

contractions and releases, relaxing all other muscles. The image of

dancers lounging on plush pillows in silk pants and glittery bikinis

is a far cry from the sight of today’s women in gyms shaking and twisting

with scarves tied round their hips.

Kim Leary, an Oriental Dance teacher in central New Jersey since 1997,

attests to the current popularity of the form. Even as she teaching

almost continuously at the Princeton Center for Yoga and Health, Princeton

University, and Middlesex Community College, she till has to turn

away potential students. "People are willing to explore and be

a little adventurous," says Leary. "This is a thing a lot

of people take up on a whim, and then they realize they’ve fallen

in love with it. It’s an addiction we can’t stop."

True to this being a dance for any age, Leary was introduced to Oriental

Dance by her mother, Nancy, who was taking classes. Leary attended

a performance of the teacher, Tasha, and the obsession began. Having

taken lessons in ballet, tap, and jazz, Leary recalls, "I could

see that there was discipline. I could see that there was technique.

I could see that there was being creative in the moment and some planning,

too. All these elements appealed to me."

Leary enrolled in weekly classes, community education classes, and

any workshops she could find. She studied privately in the company

of teachers from New York, Washington, D.C., Colorado, and California.

She researched all aspects of the dance from its songs to its history.

This artistic exploration complements her day job as Teen Arts Coordinator

for Union County Cultural and Heritage Commission. There she organizes

the annual Teen Arts Festival, an event providing teenagers with an

open forum for their creative work while receiving feedback and critiques

from professionals.

After years of performing in restaurants and for private parties,

this Kean College graduate, who goes by the performance name Alexia

("because Kim the Bellydancer wasn’t really exciting"), yearned

for a new challenge: teaching. Conducting Middle Eastern Percussion

lessons at the now-closed Paradise America store in Ewing honed her

skills to teach dance. There are no certifications required for teaching,

so Leary draws on her strong dance background. Every class from advanced

to beginner involves aerobic warm-ups of sit-ups and squats, as well

as the basic movements of squeezing butts, bending knees, and tucking

in tummies. This approach increases flexibility and strengthens the

thighs, glutes, and obliques, laying the foundation for the more exotic

undulations and hip moves.

Such signature movements date back to the dance’s purest

roots in childbirth rituals when women danced babies into this world.

Women gathered around the mother and moved their muscles, encouraging

her to do imitate them. The mother relaxed into, and moved with, her

contractions, rather than perching in fear of anticipated birth pangs.

Childbirth pain is not inevitable. The "pelvic rocking" and

"deep breathing" techniques taught in natural childbirth Lamaze

classes are known in the Oriental Dance community as "stomach

undulations" and "belly flutter." Through various cultures

and political influences, the dance developed into something people

just did, same as Americans waltzing or line dancing at weddings.

While this implies that the dance is natural to only a woman’s body,

especially considering pop star performances by Britney Spears and

Shakira on MTV, anyone can do this. Women’s hips are perfect for side-to-side

sways, while men’s hips are better built for forward-and-back movements.

Just ask Ken Peyser, a senior at Bridgewater-Raritan High School and

the first male dancing in an ongoing class of Leary’s. As someone

with no prior dance experience, he’s enjoying the class because "she

doesn’t just give a whole choreography; she gives you bits of things

to recreate on your own." He says he’s learning a broad sense

of creative expression, as well as specific dance technique, discipline,

and rhythm of the music. He has already signed up for her next five-week

course. If that’s not enough of a testament, Kim’s mother also takes

her classes.

For an open and welcoming performance environment beyond

the classroom and the perfect place to outfit yourself in jingly spangles,

there is also the annual Rakkasah Middle Eastern Dance and Music Festival

held every October at the Ukrainian Cultural Center in Somerset. A

network of students, teachers and musicians nest among a maze of vendors

selling outfits, veils, and hip scarves. A week of workshops taught

by internationally-known teachers precedes the three-day dancer showcase.

Rakkasah’s wholesome family environment encourages play from all ages,

requiring no auditions or competitions. Don’t be concerned about the

swords and snakes; they’re only dance props

"Rakkasah was purely put together to get dancers to come together

and hang out, to talk, share ideas, and make friendships within the

dance. Sometimes it’s very difficult to find other dancers until you

have a place to go and meet them," says Michelle DeVine, dance

teacher and Rakkasah organizer. Shirley DeVine (stage name Shukriya),

Michelle’s mother, established the original Rakkasah in California

26 years ago. DeVine brought the festival to this coast when she moved

to Milford four years ago with her husband and daughter.

This is an accepting venue for all dance styles. Any individual or

troupe of dancers can register for one of the over 100 performance

spots regardless of experience level. The growth and popularity is

exemplified by the dancer registration. What took months to fill the

first year had all spots filled within two months the second year,

and booked solid in six hours this past August.

"It’s an educational process to get people to understand that

it truly is an art form and it is legitimate," says DeVine, whose

most recent event featured styles such as Ghawazzi, Lebanese, Romany,

Moroccan, and Velase (jug dancing). "A lot of our teachers come

prepared with history and proper dress, especially if it’s folkloric

from a particular place. They bring costumes in and show you what

it’s supposed to look like. These workshops are important because

you want to continue to grow as an artist, and to do that, you need

input. It allows you to be who you are uninhibited," says DeVine.

The ever-increasing number of Oriental Dancers agree.

— Diana Wolf

Belly Dancing Basics, Princeton Center for Yoga & Health,

50 Vreeland Drive, Suite 506, Skillman, 609-924-7294. Workshop with

Alexia. Preregister, $30. Sunday, November 10, 4 to 6 p.m.

Alexia also teaches at Powerhouse Gym in Bridgewater, 908-203-0883.

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