As soon as she appeared, all attention was hers, immediately and for as long as she danced. The spectators were transfixed, mesmerised, unable to look away. She wore a fitted coin bra, long draped skirts and a beaded hip belt that sounded her smooth moves. Her face was hidden behind a chiffon veil, but even through it her eyes invited, seduced and held onlookers captive.
The time, the place and the audience have changed over the centuries, but the magnetism of the belly dancer has lived on, travelling to many countries and cultures. Increasingly in recent years, dancers are pale and blonde instead of dark-skinned and brunette, as one of the most ancient oriental dances is claiming an ever-growing community of practitioners in the West.
In Spain, oriental dance was slower to attract audiences and followers, although belly dance is credited by many researchers as the original base and inspiration of flamenco, because both have gypsy roots. In the last decade, Spain has seen a sharp rise in the popularity of the dance, particularly in Barcelona, a city that is affirming itself as a belly-dancing capital on this side of the Mediterranean.
“It is a time of great development,” Emilie Brisset, a teacher and performer, told Metropolitan. A French native and long-time Barcelona resident, Brisset began studying the dance eight years ago with Sandra Segui, who taught her not only technique but also love and respect for the art. Brisset’s hobby grew into a real passion.
“There used to be a time, not too long ago, when Barcelona had only two or three good teachers,” she said. “And although I think we still have much to explore, it is exciting to see that every month, even every week now, one can take workshops and check out performances. The city is offering a thousand opportunities to become familiar with belly dancing in all its forms and styles.”
Brisset co-founded exotiKa, a belly dance troupe consisting of four dancers who create their own choreography to explore and popularise the so-called tribal belly dance. Tribal fusion is a style of belly dancing that originated in California, driven by the need to accommodate many different schools, traditions and musics, fusing oriental dance with modern and urban influences like hip-hop, flamenco, contemporary jazz, R&B and house.
The dance’s tendency to mutate should come as no surprise, because it does not belong to a particular time or place. Although there are those who insist that it originated in Egypt or Greece or India, the oriental dance that influenced what is now known as belly dance has evolved from a fusion of various folk traditions from the Middle East and North Africa. Some observers point to the hypothesis that belly dancing was first practised by temple priestesses, others believe that it was performed traditionally at birthing ceremonies and still others stress that gypsies spread it around the world in their migrations from India. Whatever the origins of belly dancing, it has a centuries-long tradition of celebrating feminine sensuality and power in a dance that proved irresistible for Ottoman sultans and Napoleon’s troops alike.
The West’s popular exposure to belly dancing seems to have begun in 1893, when performers from Algiers, Syria, Turkey and Egypt made an explosive appearance at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. It was then that Sol Bloom, the entertainment director of the fair, coined the term belly dancing. By the Sixties, belly dance was imitated by Westerners in cabaret and burlesque shows, represented (or rather misinterpreted) in Hollywood productions, and largely but wrongly viewed by Westerners simply as a theatrical, erotically suggestive dance. In countries like the UK and Australia belly dancing began to gain adepts in the Sixties, and by the Seventies dance teachers began offering classes to the public.
The tribal fusion that is on offer these days is a far cry from the original dance. “Tribal fusion is quite different from classical belly dance, it’s like the modern dance of belly dance; it gives more freedom for expression through different music and ideas,” said Catalan Eva Tallada, another belly dancing pioneer.
Tallada began introducing tribal fusion a few years back through Alma Oriental, an association organising workshops and shows with international dancers and teachers. She also founded the Makosh Corporation with a fellow dancer, a duo staging quality performances in Barcelona. “In our shows we like to promote belly dancing groups and artists from Spain so they can reach larger audiences.”
Both Brisset and Tallada have worked hard over the years (with legendary teachers like Rashida Aharrat, Lesya Starr, Sharon Kihara and Rachel Brice) not only on perfecting the subtleties of the belly dance moves and twists, but to dispel the misconceptions and cultural misinterpretations that have flavoured the reputation of belly dancing since its introduction to the West.
“There is still widespread ignorance about the nature of belly dance, mostly because its mainstream icon remains the woman who shakes her hips,” Emilie Brisset pointed out. “But belly dancing is so much more than moving the hips and the belly. You have to learn to isolate the parts of your body, to control and coordinate them, to master the use of swords and cymbals while you dance and to incorporate your knowledge of different styles like cabaret, folk, Sufi, Persian and tribal.”
Thanks to belly dance artists around the world, a wrongful stereotype has been giving way to a deepened appreciation of the dance as an artistic expression of the feminine essence. “Learning to understand your body and to utilise its energies is extremely powerful,” said Brisset. “Belly dancing teaches us to rediscover the underlying feminine power that lies within all of us. Of course, let’s not forget that it is a very sensual form of expression, and when a woman realises her seductive powers she feels all the more confident and at ease.”
Eva Tallada agreed. “Belly dancing makes you feel comfortable with yourself and your body, it gives you strength and elasticity. It’s like you meet your body again, you discover parts or muscles that you have never felt and now you can move them!”
In Barcelona there is a growing number of possibilities to see or practise the ancient dance spiced by modern infusions. Brisset thinks that it is the introduction of the tribal fusion style that has attracted more Barcelona residents to try a bit of belly dancing. “People identify more with the tribal dance as it moves away from the classic Arabic culture and comes closer to our occidental character. This mixture of the ancient, the mystical and the modern makes people more interested in it.”
No excuses, the two teachers said, everyone can learn to belly dance. Their students range from teenagers to 70 year olds.
“My advice is, just try,” said Eva Tallada. “Come to class open-minded, give it time and patience. Belly dance teaches something very important, that things don’t happen at the snap of your fingers, you have to work your way to the joy of the dance.”
Contact Emilie (www.myspace.com/exotikadanzafusion) at firstname.lastname@example.org and Eva at email@example.com; (www.myspace.com/makoshcorporation) for info on their classes.
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