I've been blogging so much about the martial arts of late that it's easy to forget that I have other hobbies. Of course I've also not been actively participating in many of those other activities lately, so it's not really something that I bring up in conversation too much either. Fortunately my brother, Scott hasn't forgotten.
He's going to school for Communications and one of his class projects involved each student taking turns producing and directing a little ten minute interview-style spot that would stream live on the college's website.
After many ideas fell through, he finally made it down the list to me. It wasn't because he didn't think I'd be a good subject or because he didn't think I'd do it (I'm pretty sure he knew I would); it was because it was on a Tuesday (I'd have to take time off from work) and I live about three hours away.
I was more than happy to participate and was even more excited when he said the topic would be about belly dance.
The whole experience was a lot of fun and something I really enjoyed was the interview questions he had come up with. He got them to me a day or two ahead of time so I could maul them over a little before the show. I have to admit I was rather impressed with the questions!
Since they're not simple "yes" or "no's" though we were only able to get through three or four of the questions during the broadcast. As I really liked the questions and I wasn't able to answer them a thoroughly as I would have liked, I asked his permission to let me answer them in a blog post.
He happily agreed!
Q: First, the easy ones: What is belly dancing? Where does it come from?
A: It's actually not as easy as one would think.
Of course the common consensus is that belly dance originated in the Middle East - especially Egypt; but I've found that any culture old enough to have a tribal or nomadic stage to its history develops some form of belly dance.
So, what is belly dance? You see my costume (a coin bra, baggy harem pants, a long garment called a "ghawazee coat", and a coin belt) and can easily surmise, "Oh, she's a belly dancer." But I can belly dance in sweatpants and a hoodie if I wanted to.
You hear Middle Eastern music and can easily think, "That's belly dance music." But belly dancers love dancing to contemporary music as well because the audience can relate to it more easily.
The movements are very serpentine; either circular or figure-eight in nature; but other styles use similar movements.
To me belly dance is a celebratory art form. It's not about selling sex, though it's very sensual since women are sensual. In fact many people believe its origin was as a dance by women for women to celebrate births, weddings, coming of age, whatever. This holds true today in that many belly dancers actually prefer to perform for other belly dancers. These types of gatherings are called "hafla's".
Q: Of all the styles of dancing out there, what inspired you to become a belly dancer?
A: Three things really drew me to belly dance.
1) It's a solitary style of dance.
Ballroom dancing requires a partner, but belly dance can be done (and practiced) alone. Even when belly dancers perform in a group they rarely touch each other. Each dancer is responsible to know the choreography or to pick up the cues from the leader. It's all on you.
2) It's a highly feminine form of dance.
This was really important to me in the beginning as I was still exploring my personal femininity (I started belly dance a little over ten years ago). I grew up in a very masculine environment and went to school for Computer Animation, which doesn't draw a lot of females. I was also working at a Navy training facility at the time which (understandably so) doesn't have a lot of women present.
Belly dance was one of the girliest activities I could think to do.
3) Who doesn't want to wear pretty, shiny, jingly outfits?
Q: Well and speaking of outfits: where would someone buy something like what you're wearing?
A: The chunky, colorful jewelry that belly dancers love to wear is actually in style at the moment, so I pick up a lot of pieces at department stores.
The garments themselves can be found at local and state fairs as well as Renaissance festivals; but they can also be purchased easily online from places like MissBellyDance.com, TurkishEmporium, and IsisExchange (not a very PC name these days, I know; but remember that Isis is an Egyptian goddess)
For more modern/urban tastes, there's places like TheScarletLounge.
Many dancers make their own garb however. Apart from the coin belt, I made everything I'm wearing. Simplicity makes some superb belly dance costume patterns (as well as many other lovely patterns!)
Q: How do you train to be a belly dancer? Is your training common among other dancers?
A: Usually finding an instructor in your area is just a Google search away these days. You can also check with your local YMCA or yoga studio (for some odd reason yogi's and belly dancers tend to all know each other).
I've studied under three different instructors and have also gone to a handful of workshops, so I can tell you the training is fairly consistent across the board. Classes are obviously not done in full costume, though most of the time students wear a coin belt (it's just more fun if you're making noise). Other than that, sweats or whatever you'd wear to do yoga will work for belly dance class. Typically the teacher stands in front of the class and shows the moves they're teaching that day and everyone follows along.
Some teachers like to teach with mirrors, some don't.
Many teachers with have beginner classes, intermediate/advanced classes as well as troupe/performance classes. You never have to commit to performing in public when signing up for a belly dance class. Some instructors don't even have performance troupes and just teach because it's really great exercise!
Q: How big is the belly dancing community? In this state? This country?
A: In my area (the Capital Region of Upstate NY) there's quite the thriving belly dance community. In a thirty mile radius you have access to no less than three or four teachers of varying styles.
Things may be more sparse or active as one goes through the country though; it's something I don't particularly follow too closely.
I do know that belly dance is a big deal out in California (and the west coast in general) as that's where American Tribal Style originated.
Q: Are there any belly dancing tournaments? Do you participate in any?
A: That's actually one I had to look up.
Belly dance isn't really a competitive sport.
There apparently are belly dance competitions, but they're few and far between. I think they're more of a thing outside of the US.
Certainly you'll find belly dancers performing in local talent shows. America's Got Talent usually has a couple acts come through during the audition phase; but typically local dancers host performances in their area for entertainment only.
Q: Shakira is probably the most famous belly dancer here in America; what are the general thoughts of the dancing community about her style?
A: Oy, is she really the most well known belly dancer in the States? Not Rachel Brice or Zoe Jakes? (Some of the biggest names within the American belly dance scene)
Okay, Shakira's got some great moves, I won't lie (see what I did there? tee-hee); but she mixes hip-hop with her belly dance which easily confuses people into thinking that belly dance is far more sexual than it really is.
I assure you than spreading your legs while straddling a chair is not in the belly dance repertoire. We actually do our best to dance with our legs together thank you very much.
Q: Do you have advice for anyone interested in becoming a belly dancer themselves?
A: Do it.
If you're in an area with several teachers, go find a teacher you like. (Note that there's many styles too and while one style may not resonate with you, another might. No teacher should ever get defensive if you ask what style she teaches.)
If your choices are slim or non-existent, you can actually learn a fair bit on youTube or from a DVD; but it's really not a true substitute for learning from a real person. The posture is very important and a video won't be able to tell you that your hips aren't tucked, your knees are locked, or that your shoulders are slouching.
Belly dance is such an empowering form of feminine expression. It's also a pretty fun and kick-ass workout. If you're even remotely interested, I highly recommend giving it a try!