World Dance Heritage Research Centre

Performer

Types of Dance

The Reasons Why I Love Belly Dance

Belly dancer

Belly dancer in Cairo.

There are countless dance forms in the world and they are all beautiful and interesting. However, each dancer has his/her favourite genre depending on taste, training or personal experience. My favourite genre is belly dance, Egyptian oriental style (also called raqs sharqi in Arabic) in particular. This does not mean that I do not enjoy watching shows of all dance genres and I also practise other types of dance such as jazz dance, contemporary, ballet and burlesque. However, the one type of dance I enjoy practising the most is Egyptian oriental belly dance. There are many reasons for my preference and they include a lot of different factors, such as:

The Music

I have always loved Arabic music because of its rhythms and melodies, ever since I was growing up in Sicily (Italy). When I was growing up there were no belly dancing classes in Sicily (there are some now), so I had to wait until I was in my thirties to learn belly dance  in Seoul, South Korea, from an Iraqi friend! I love the music used for raqs sharqi because of its different layers and its feeling.

Egyptian live band

I find Egyptian music in general very soulful and lyrical but upbeat and happy at the same time, and it is these feelings that I try to portray when I dance. In particular I like Egyptian music played by an orchestra, with drums as well other instruments such as kanoun (a string instrument ), saxophone, nay (instrument similar to a flute), accordion. The drums give the rhythms, while the other instruments give melody and usually melody and rhythms are layered because the drums always play throughout the composition, either on their own or together with the other instruments. Hence, a dancer can choose whether to interpret the rhythms or the melody with the body. Fluid movements for the melody and sharp, percussive movements (often of the hips) to express rhythms and drum accents. I also like the trembling (tremolando) typical of Arabic music, that is done with drums, accordion or string instruments, which usually calls for hip shimmies.

Improvisation

Improvisation is very important in belly dance and the ultimate goal would be to improvise. Many dancers, especially outside of Egypt, create choreographies now for a lot of different reasons (choreography can be a useful didactic tool, especially for teaching groups of people and also if you have a group of students and want them to perform, it is easier to create for them a  choreography that they can perform together). I have always loved the opportunity to improvise though.

I remember that ever since I was a child attending ballet classes, I found it a bit frustrating to have to follow a structured routine all the time and not being given the freedom to express myself. Improvising does indeed give a sense of creative freedom; of course one usually improvises within the movement vocabulary and rules of a dance genre. Hence, if I improvise raqs sharqi I use raqs sharqi movements. Another dance genre which welcomes improvisation is contemporary dance and this is one of the reasons I like practising contemporary dance too.

Costume of male performer

Health and body issues

I find that the hip movements and the torso undulations, typical of belly dance, are good for my spine. I suffered from scoliosis as a child and I when I was ten I was told I would suffer from backache once in my thirties. My lower back started feeling a bit stiff when I was thirty but, as soon as I started practicing belly dance, I have never suffered from lower back stiffness again, nor did I ever feel pain in the back. Perhaps the movements of belly dance help keep the back supple and to strengthen the supporting muscles.

Another thing I like about belly dance is that it is low impact, as there are no jumps involved, and the alignment of the body is pretty natural. This means that it is a type of dance that can be practiced until  late in life, as the body of the dancer does not get worn out, and it does not usually lead to injures. I am quite wary of getting injured so I like a type of dance which is grounded and does not require jumps or somersaults.

I find belly dance also to be very inclusive in terms of body types that are accepted. Belly dancers come in every shape and size and they all are accepted. Indeed, a typical womanly curvaceous body type is particularly suited for belly dance. After puberty, when my body changed, I felt that my hips were too big and I did not like my body shape. The thing is that I was never overweight, but I was just developing the type of hips that are normal for many women. For some types of dance, such as ballet nowadays, female dancers are encouraged to be as thin as possible. In belly dance instead, large feminine hips are not only accepted but  they are appreciated because hip movements are one of the main features of this dance genre.

Local foods

Visiting Egypt for belly dance also has other benefits.

Expression and joy

Egyptian raqs sharqi is very lyrical and expressive. If songs are sad the dancer will reflect the mood of the song, but most of the time raqs sharqi is a joyous genre. Maybe because its origins are in a type of dance (baladi) that was (and still is) danced socially by all and by professionals as a performance,  at celebrations such as festivals and weddings. Hence, a type of celebratory dance. Raqs sharqi dancers, and belly dancers in general, all look like they are having a great time dancing and exude joy.

Variety of styles and use of props

I think it is the same for many dance genres, but you never finish learning. In belly dance there are so many different styles and nuances that you can study it all your life and still find new skills and movements to learn. In addition to having many styles, belly dancing can involve the use of many props, which take time to master and add variety to the dance. A dancer can use finger cymbals, veils, canes or swords, just to name a few.

A sense of community that has no borders

Belly dance comes from Egypt and Turkey but it is now practised all over the world, by people from many diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds. As such, it does not know geographical boundaries. However, belly dancers around the world travel a lot and end up meeting at various events around the world, such as workshops, festivals, organised dance training trips to countries such as Egypt or Turkey. They also connect over the internet. This means that if you are a belly dancer you can go to any of these events and always meet people you know who come from different places. You end up feeling part of a big international community.

Meeting friends at events.

Belly dancing is a very cosmopolitan dance nowadays. I, for one, am Italian from Sicily but I first learnt belly dance in Seoul, South Korea, from and Iraqi American friend. My first performance was in Seoul, in an Egyptian restaurant with my Iraqi American teacher and an Irish friend and an audience that included Korean, Lebanese, Australian, Canadian and British people. I then carried on studying belly dance when I lived in Barcelona and in the UK and I have travelled a couple of times to Egypt for dance training and to discover the roots of this dance form.

Dance is such a multifaceted art and activity, that there are many reasons why somebody can like a dance genre. These are the reasons why I love belly dance. I would like to hear from other people to know what they think and what their favourite dance genres are. So, please feel free to post your comments below if you would like to give your point of view!

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