Why I Love Belly Dancing

Dancing has always been part of me. Long before I took my first ballet class at age six, I liked to fling myself around the living room to music, preferably with filmy garments draped over me.

bellydance superstar petite jamila with veils
This is not me (it’s Petite Jamila) but I wish it were.

Since then, I’ve tried almost every kind of dance you can think of, except for tap. (Not that I have anything against tap – the opportunity has just never come up.) I’ve done ballet, jazz, contemporary, hip-hop, jive, several kinds of swing, Irish, Latin, African, interpretive, square, circle, line, bits of flamenco, fox trot, waltz… You get the idea. For me, moving to music and rhythm is instinctual, almost involuntary.

My relationship with Raqs Sharqi, or belly dancing, began in 2002. I took my very first class at the University of Toronto on a whim, because the hip-hop class was full. I have a distinct memory of my teacher – a woman who had to be at least in her fifties but was as lithe and slim as a young girl – putting on a piece of low, slow, fluttery flute music and doing a movement she called a “maya“… and me being completely entranced. I really wanted to know how to make my body do that.

Dilovely bellydance 2008
This IS me – before kids, obviously – doing a maya.

When I moved cities, I realized I was in dance withdrawal and quickly signed up for a class. I took up belly dance because I’d enjoyed the classes in Toronto, and that was when I found the teacher who truly hooked me on Middle Eastern Dance. She was young, short, voluptuous, with a plus-size body type, and even more gorgeously hypnotic than my first teacher. She did drills to music that was only drums, making the rhythms visible through the movements of her body. I couldn’t wait to learn those moves.

Under this teacher, I became part of a belly dance troupe for the first time.

By then, there was no going back. Learning the skills of Raqs Sharqi, I knew I’d found my dancer-home.

Here are some reasons Why I Love Belly Dancing.

  • It’s compelling. As I said above, once I saw what the movements looked like on experienced dancers, I HAD to learn them.
  • It’s lovely to watch. In my first year of teaching, some of my co-workers came to the student recital to see me dance, and came out saying, “That was beautiful.” I think people expect it to be raunchy or somehow explicit, but done properly, it is neither. It’s a celebration of femininity. Sensual, yes. But in a classy way.
Like this.
fringed bikini from uglycostumegoddess
NOT this.
  • Rich history. There is an amazing amount of lore surrounding belly dancing, theories about fertility rituals, harems, the dance of the seven veils, etc., and it seems no-one is sure which things are true. But they make for a fascinating back story, not to mention inspiration. Our troupe always delves into the meaning of the songs we use, learning whatever we can about origins of any style we perform, so as to respect the creators.
sepia history of belly dance
Back in the day.
  • Variety. There are different styles of belly dance originating from Egypt, Turkey, and Lebanon; there are classic styles and then folkloric ones, each with their own reasons for being; more recently, tribal style was born in the United States, and now we fuse Raqs Sharqi with all different types of dance. The movements are so organic, they lend themselves to being incorporated into basically any other style.
  • Music that gets into your blood. It took me a while to warm up to Middle Eastern music, since I’d never really been exposed to it before – but now it’s really grown on me. Especially the drums – they are spellbinding. If you ever get to see live tabla and dumbek drumming by an expert, well… it’s hot.

  • That being said, you can belly dance to anything. I remember laughing with one of the other dancers, the first Christmas season I was performing, as we realized we both had found ourselves doing bellydance moves to Christmas carols.
  • It’s good exercise. Depending on the style, it can be quite aerobic, and it can seriously work your large muscle groups. And it’s always a great core strengthener.
  • At the same time, it’s kind to the body. Most other kinds of dance are hard to do really well without a significant likelihood of injury/strain. As long as you’re paying attention to proper posture, belly dance is gentle on joints, and even sometimes helps with pain. (After participating in a workshop I taught one summer, one middle-aged woman told me her lower back, which was normally problematic, hadn’t felt this good in decades.)
  • It’s challenging. Technique can always grow and improve, and learning to layer different movements on top of each other is some serious brain gym.
  • I get to be my own physical self. Anyone who’s done ballet for a while knows that body type plays a large role. I was very good at ballet until puberty, and then I was suddenly too tall, too long-waisted and too short-legged, not to mention having too wide a ribcage and arches that really weren’t high enough – and weirdly-shaped feet that hated pointe shoes. Belly dance is the first dance form I’ve encountered that truly suits my body type.
  • It’s accepting. Everyone can be her own physical self (or his – there are male belly dancers too, and some damn good ones). I have seen incredible belly dancers of all different sizes, shapes, and ages – and it seems to keep people magically youthful.
  • All of this makes for an amazing community. I was lucky, as a kid, to be in a ballet class full of nice girls who became my friends; but whenever I forayed into the competitive dance world, I found stereotypes of cattiness and snobbery coming alive at every turn. The belly dance community, by contrast, is uncompetitive – full of real people who just want to dance for the joy of it. That means that gatherings of belly dancers, including performances, at least in this corner of the world, are full of laughter and mutual appreciation and support.

The show last night was a perfect example, performed with my current teacher and troupe, a fantastic group of women who embody all the best things about the dance. We were joined by a whole bunch of awesome guest performers. So many different groups of dancers, so many fascinating costumes, so many influences and styles, so many different bodies, all revealed as beautiful in the dance.

{And, I brought my baby girl backstage and she was passed around and lavished with affection by all sorts of lovely women, and I knew she was in good hands. (Thank God for Auntie Em, though. She was the primary caretaker, and without her help, I could not have been in the show at all.)}

Here are two bellydance clips I love (even though they don’t demonstrate the body-type diversity I told you about – sorry). The first is a traditional-style drum solo by Jillina, the second is a tribal-fusion-style duet by Rachel Brice and Illan. I have been fortunate enough to see all these dancers perform live, and they are frickin’ amazing. Enjoy.

Hey, bellydancers out there – if you have a favourite clip, please feel free to leave a link in the comments! I love adding to my collection… 🙂



11 thoughts on “Why I Love Belly Dancing

  1. Heather says:

    Belly dancing is absolutely gorgeous and I took exactly one class (ultra beginner sort of class) and adored every second. I would love to find another ultra beginner class that was patient and friendly with a broken dancer (Mmm. Arthritis, lots of arthritis). I’m so jealous in the best way of your dancing Diana! Congratulations on the show! 🙂
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    • diblog says:

      Heather, thank you! I hope you do take another class (I might be able to hook you up, you know…) – did you find it bothered your arthritis before, or was it okay?

  2. Mary Snow says:

    Diana, I am so glad that you have chosen this form of dance to be your “home dance” and that I get to be in it with you. I understand and agree completely with what bellydance means to you.

    Here’s one of my favourite clips which totally embodies how accessible it is to body types – having performed at 8 months, I can relate! The very scandalous Sadie (whatever you think of her artisitic choices, you can deny she’s amazing): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s4cqp8_Fi_U

    I will post a couple more when I get home! I have some faves I’d love to share.

    • diblog says:

      Mary, I feel the same – sharing the studio and stage with you and the girls is AMAZING.

      And wow! Awesome clip! Is she pregnant here? She just looks friggin’ luscious. Someday I’m going to have a stomach flutter like that… Gah! So great!! (She does not need Kaya – can’t stand that woman.)

  3. Heather says:

    It wasn’t horrible on my knees at the time.. there was some things I just couldnt do, but in a beginner baby class, there was plenty various of us couldnt do, so it’s not so unusual! I gave up classes when I ended up with inflammatory arthritis on top of the osteo, so I’m not sure how I’d manage these days. It’s tempting to try, however, and see!

  4. Mary Snow says:

    Yes, Sadie is pregnant in that clip and all woman!
    Loved that clip of you in Halawa!

    Here’s another one of my faves. It’s a duet between Zoe Jakes (who I personally think is one of the most original, talented, bizarre bellydancers) and Kami Liddle. The song is a musical collaboration by Beats Antiques with Natacha Atlas (two of my fave artists for bellydance). Plus, I LOVE duets and would love to recreate this piece one day:

    You know I love ATS and want to learn even more. Wildcard is one of my fave ATS groups. They are fun and exciting and Di, I think you would love the energy of ATS if you tried it. It’s a completely different dynamic of bellydance. Here’s one of their pieces – look up more Wildcard videos if you like it. It was hard to pick a fave:

    This is also one of my faves – “Ice Queen” with my beloved Tribe Aurealis was our first choreography and was truly a collaboration between the three of us. I think it’s still my favourite piece that I’ve ever performed. Veil work that’s exciting and original.

    • dilovelyadmin says:

      Zoe + Kami = WOW. I want to do that! I’ve only tried a tiny bit of ATS with Rachelle at the hafla, and I did really enjoy it – I like the principle of watching, using your body and your eyes to communicate instructions to your fellow dancers.

      And I have to say, Ice Queen was a very memorable piece for me, even just as a spectator – I remember seeing it first at the Belly Blush and just being floored by how beautiful it was!

  5. Mary Snow says:

    Maybe one day we’ll do that duet together! I’ve tried to mimac it before…LOTS of intricacies!!

    If you’re interested, I will be teaching ATS lessons at the end of rehearsals tonight and the next couple weeks for a gig we’re doing in December. You’re welcome to join!

    • dilovelyadmin says:

      Mary, we should TOTALLY try that! I was sorry to miss class tonight… baby is sick so I wanted to make sure she ate properly (bottle’s not going over well).

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