I am in a room full of mirrors and there is a sparkly, jangly scarf belt tied around my hips, which are moving back and forth in what probably appears to be some sort of spasm. I feel kind of ridiculous and I can’t tell if my face is flushed from the activity or from my growing sense of humiliation.
The good news is there are seven other people around me doing exactly the same thing, with varying degrees of amusement and embarrassment on their faces as well. Later on, this combination becomes even more powerful as I spend ten minutes attempting to draw a smiley face in the air with my bra.
I’m at a bellydancing lesson for the first time and it’s going as well as I expected, which is to say not at all. A naturally clumsy person, I can still recall the horrified faces of choreographers during my brief stint as a theatre geek while I destroyed their choreography in front of them and was promptly relegated to the back row.
Karen Phillips, my instructor and the owner of Nobody’s Watching dance studio, said feeling self-conscious during a first attempt at any kind of dance is normal.
“Often one side of the body will work and be able to do the moves and one won’t,” she said. “I don’t want people to get self-conscious. We just laugh about it and anytime you do something totally unco-ordinated we just keep trying or practice next week. We just don’t worry about it.”
Phillips, 45, took her first bellydance class when she was 14, and began teaching classes when she moved to Kingston in 1997 and had difficulties finding a teacher for herself.
“My friends kept saying ‘If you can’t find a teacher, start a class,’ and I laughed it off, but after a year of not dancing I thought, ‘What the heck?’” she said.
Initially teaching three classes per week, the popularity of the bellydancing classes at Nobody’s Watching has increased dramatically, and Phillips is now teaching five classes a week, including a special session in Gananoque.
Phillips’ classes, with the exception of her “invitation only” Sunday advanced classes, are mixed-level, featuring first-timers as well as her regular students. She said this mixture gives the newer students something to aspire to, as they generally perform simplified versions of the dance moves the advanced students practice.
“The most important thing is that everyone is working within their comfort zone and feeling comfortable with their level of activity. And of course, enjoying themselves.” Phillips said.
She added that she attributes the growth of her business to the enjoyable nature of the dance as well as an increased public curiosity towards Middle Eastern language, customs and culture.
“People just discovered that it was a great way to get some exercise and have fun dancing,” she said.
Originating in the Middle East, there are various forms of the traditional folk dance referred to by westerners as bellydance. Phillips’ class is a modern fusion of traditional Moroccan and Middle Eastern styles.
Phillips’ website, nobodys-watching.com, summarizes her personal philosophy with the phrase “bellydance should be fun,” and it is. Although I felt pretty ridiculous at times, I was smiling—and sweating—the whole way through my two-hour class.
“It’s great exercise,” Phillips said. “And it’s nice because anyone can do it. You don’t have to work at high speed, which some of the other dance forms or aerobic exercises force you to do from the get-go. With bellydancing you can work at the speed that you’re comfortable at. Then, when you’ve got the moves you can speed it up, and things can get quite aerobic.”
Phillips emphasized the accessibility of bellydancing, and added that she herself danced until she was eight months pregnant.
“In my class I can have women in their sixties and seventies, big women, skinny women, women with back problems; they can all come and dance. I’ve even had a number of pregnant ladies come to class, and they can dance with their big bellies.”
There have even been a few men at classes.
“The actual dance is still done quite regularly in countries in the Middle East,” she said. “In the Middle East, dancing is still a very involved part of family life; it’s not just done at the bars to meet people or find a partner.
“It’s done at home, so some aspects are more done by women and some are specifically for men. The men who do work up the courage to come to my class usually end up having a blast.” Though I was expecting a night of gyrating hips and Shakira-esque moves, my bellydance experience ended up defying my expectations, something Phillips said is quite common.
“There are a lot of misconceptions about belly
dancing; people hear bellydance and they think ‘sex dance.’ A lot of times men and women say ‘oh, your husband must love that.’ The only time my husband sees me dance is at public performances,” she said.
“My daughters often dance with me, and they are quite young, and a lot of people are surprised by that because they think it is this striptease, Hollywood version of bellydance, when really it’s a folk dance that people do in the Middle East at celebrations, at home, et cetera. It’s a really neat perspective because a lot of people don’t understand that part of the dance until they start looking into it.”
Phillips said I did pretty well for a newbie.
“It looked like you were starting to get the hang of most of the moves” she told me. “I think everyone was doing reasonably well. Most people get some of the moves, so you can tell when there are moves that click for people.
“The hardest thing for most people is getting accustomed to the body posture. The fun thing is I try to keep the classes casual so that people don’t feel like ‘I’m not getting it.’ I want people to just have fun with it and don’t feel concerned if they don’t get it.”
Although, as a university student, I was a minority in the class—it was mostly filled with giggling groups of middle-aged women taking a break from their work or children—I never felt out of place. Bellydancing, Phillips said, is incredibly inclusive.
“It covers all ages, all sizes and shapes, men and women, even children. So anybody can do it,” she said.
“Some people may need more time and more repetition to get it, because everybody’s different on what they can easily pick up and understand and physically do, but ultimately, it’s open to just about everybody.”
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