Bellydance: Beyond the Veils

In April I had the privilege of interviewing five women, Alia Thabit, Carrie Konyha, Katie Holland, Keti Sharif and Maria Sangiorgi, all well known as teachers and performers in the world of bellydance. The interviews were for the 4th Sacred Dance Summit.

SDS SpeakersEach summit has a different focus. In this one I was exploring Bellydance: Beyond the Veils. I was curious about how these women had taken bellydance to another level, adding a spiritual or healing component, making it into a sacred dance. Join me on my journey through the creative art form of bellydance.

When I first began producing the summits I did it as a way connect with others of like mind, but I also did it to educate myself. I wanted to learn what else was out there. And although the dance that I teach looks very much like bellydance, I have never studied bellydance; my source is ancient but still similar to what we see today.

The dance form that I created here in Egypt, The Alchemy of Dance, was completely downloaded. I feel that I am more a scribe than the creator of this dance form. I didn’t have any human teachers on this path so producing the Summit fills that void. It allows me to connect to others on a similar path. And although we may have all started from different places the destination is the same.

So how did these other women, from very different backgrounds, find this magical dance? In this summit I took the journey from the ancient art of dance that I know to modern day bellydance. And it has been an illuminating journey.

My personal experiences with bellydance started when I came to Egypt in 1986. Before that the only experience I had with Egyptian dance or music was when an Egyptian friend gave me a cassette tape of Om Kalthoum’s Alf el Leila. I was swept in. I would play the cassette and dance around my apartment freestyle as I had no idea what the movements “should” look like—I had never seen a bellydancer dance. But there is something very primordial about the music and the dance that we can all tap into.

Leslie,AliandHindayaDancerWeddingAfter only having been in Egypt about 3 weeks I was thrown into the deep end with my first public dance “appearance” when the bellydancer at my own wedding decided I should dance with her—and the rest is a blur! After that I was exposed to a lot of Egyptian bellydance through celebrations such as wedding and through Egyptian women. After all this is a women’s dance and Egyptian women LOVE to dance!

It was a shock for me to return to the USA years later and find people talking about Egyptian bellydance or oriental dance. I wondered how they knew about it if they had never been to Egypt or the Middle East. It was then that I realized how popular it had become outside of Egypt. And that it was actually a dance form that was being taught in dance schools.

Alia gave me a bit of the history of oriental dance in the USA in my interview with her. She explained that oriental dance was popular in the in 1970’s in ethnic clubs and Middle Eastern restaurants. Then in the 1980’s it went underground for a bit but reemerged as a dance form in the 1990’s. Then with the onset of the Internet there was an explosion of interest. It was accessible to anyone and it spread everywhere.

After our interview I thought back on a conversation I had had with a woman in the USA sometime in the 2000’s. She taught bellydance and was insistent that there needed to be certification, some kind of regulation to insure that people were doing it right and not hurt themselves. This was not something I could comprehend. It is a folk dance, a cultural dance—who would have the “authority” impose these regulations? Especially considering that most of the teachers were not Egyptian or Middle Eastern in any way. It is a women’s dance, for the masses, no one can claim it! Where is the joy and celebration in regulation? It needs to be experienced freely.

It was that conversation that inspired me to dig deeper to see how others felt about this idea of regulation and one of the reasons I wanted to introduce bellydance into the sacred dance summit. Because I do feel that underneath it all, beyond the sequins and veils, it is a very sacred dance full of mystery and magic.

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Photo by Shlag on Unsplash

Three of the women I interviewed for this summit Keti, Maria and Carrie were people that I had met in person sometime over the past 10 years. Each of them had started with bellydance and each had their own story about how they accessed the deeper levels of the dance. Knowing them inspired me to look more closely at the dance and to want to share their personal experiences in the Summit. Each of them had an interesting story of their own personal journey.

All of the speakers I interviewed connected deeply to the soul of the dance, which to me is what makes it a sacred dance. I have not traveled to any other countries in the Middle East but I have spent almost 35 years in Egypt. One thing you can say about Egypt, and why people feel the NEED to return here, is that it has soul. And I think it is that same “soul” that makes Egyptian bellydance what it is.

Three of the women, Alia, Carrie and Keti, have a deep cultural connection to bellydance, one is of Levantine descent, another is married to an Egyptian and the third lived in Egypt for more than 20 years. And what I loved from their stories was their intention to maintain the cultural integrity of the dance, which I think is very important.

There is a lot to be learned through dance, in general. It teaches us about ourselves, our bodies and our connection to life. But what makes bellydance different, what is really beneath the veil—is JOY! It is a dance of celebration and without that very important piece I don’t think it should be called “belly” dance.

The name says it all. The belly, the womb, is the sacral chakra. It is our center of joy and creation—and that is what bellydance is all about. It was first a dance for birthing babies and now it can be a dance for re-birthing ourselves.

Another main point that all of the speakers stressed on was the importance of improvisation in this dance. Keti put it well when she explained that Egyptian dance was heavy on improve because the Egyptians themselves are masters of improvisation, which is so true. Anything is possible here in Egypt. People are very good at getting by and making it work without much warning.

Many dancers also made the point that very often they were dancing to live music. In this case the musician also plays a role in the dance. Rather than being a dance performance it becomes more of a collaboration—a creative coming together of music and movement.

In the Summit we talked a lot about “eastern” vs. “western” bellydance. And one of the things that really seems to separate one from the other were the aspects of joy, connection and creativity. Most westerners have had to “learn” the dance, as a choreographed “dance”. They are missing the deeper aspects, the feelings and the emotions that are inherent within the dance.

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Photo by ᒷ⟁⨃.ᖇ.ᕮ.∥.ᕮ from Pexels

If one is not a native dancer then it might be necessary to learn a few steps, build a foundation, but in the end bellydance is about feeling the music, which is very difficult to teach. Sometimes it is difficult to just let go and be creative if you don’t think you know what you are doing.

I think all of these women; with all of their experience and knowledge, have done an excellent job of bringing all of the pieces together—and adding many of their own. Some have brought in other types of bodywork or energy healing as well as wisdom from other dance forms or philosophies.

Somatics was something that many of these ladies have added their practice in recent years. It lays a foundation to get their students back into sensing their bodies—a skill we have unfortunately lost.

Using other modalities whether somatics, spiritual practices or bodywork all fit perfectly with bellydance. In the end most of these women created their own modalities or styles of teaching all in order to reach the essence of the dance—joy and creativity.

I really want to thank these ladies for sharing their wisdom and experiences with me. I have learned a lot and clarified a lot in my own mind. Sometimes it is important to step outside of yourself to get a better perspective. And I think with the help of these ladies I have done that.

Bellydance or what I would call “the dance of the womb” is really a woman’s birthright, no matter where she is from. My wish is that you can also learn from these women’s stories and that they will inspire you through sharing their own personal experiences to reclaim your birthright.

The summit ran from May 4th-8th with a replay weekend May 9th & 10th. Join us to celebrate this lovely dance form!

If you missed the summit but would to see the interviews you can purchase the Unlimited Access Package.

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