Shimmying to the beat of beauty

Belly dance has a reputation of being over-sexualized, but can be a social and inclusive form of art

Karen Phillips of Nobody’s Watching Dance has been belly dancing since she was 14 years old.
Karen Phillips of Nobody’s Watching Dance has been belly dancing since she was 14 years old.
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I was surprised to feel so confident while being so uncoordinated.

A Middle Eastern folk tradition, belly dance has gotten a bad rap for being a sexualized form of dance — a misconception that Karen Phillips, a belly dance instructor at Nobody’s Watching Dance Studio, encounters often.

“It’s alluring and it’s sensual, but so is a lot of dance,” she said.

With a background in dance, I didn’t expect to feel so estranged taking my first belly dancing class. Phillips explained that the movements take adjusting to, as I often had to shift my posture or stance.

As I was instructed on how to properly shimmy my hips, Phillips encouraged the class to allow their thighs and butt to jiggle.

Though this is a feeling most women, myself included, might normally cringe at, I was made to feel comfortable with my body.

“It’s a much more inclusive dance for everybody and a much healthier-minded focus. You work with the body you’ve got, and the more you work with it, the better it gets,” Phillips said.

Phillips said the positive attitude of the dance form allows people to blossom and feel good about themselves.

“That’s what I love about this dance, because in this day and age with all the problems we have with anorexia and bulimia and bullying and that kind of stuff, it’s beautiful to see,” she said.

Phillips said that she has seen self-conscious teenagers and women who felt rejected from other dance forms transform in her classroom.

“This is what this world really needs — to feel beautiful no matter what you’re doing and no matter what you’re looking like, maybe while you attempt to get your life in a better, healthier state,” she said.

While Phillips said she doesn’t encourage public performance unless a dancer’s comfortable, anybody can try, including very pregnant women.

“Women dancing in their third trimester [are] beautiful to watch. Normally women think of themselves as so ugly and ungainly and big and fat when they’re pregnant, and yes you feel that way ... [but] to pick up a veil and [dance], it doesn’t matter what the outside shape is like, it’s beautiful and it feels good,” she said.

When she began regularly belly dancing in 1995, Phillips discovered she was pregnant, but continued dancing until she was eight months along.

She said that many of the moves in belly dance come from traditional folk roots, which were originally used to assist women through labour.

“Some of these moves were taught in dancing growing up so when you hit the point of being a woman and in labour, you knew how to do it without thinking about it,” Phillips said.

In Egyptian, she said, the term for belly dance literally translates to “dancing the baby into the light.”

Phillips explained that many of the folk origins of belly dance, a dance form intended to be family-oriented and performed in the home, have been skewed by Western and Hollywood portrayals.

While learning basic chest movements, I’m told to pretend I have two markers on my bra and to attempt to draw a rainbow.

With references to Katy Perry and Madonna being thrown around the class, it’s not hard to believe how belly dance has been sexually misconstrued.

This misconception is said to originate from when Europeans travelled to the Middle East in the 19th century. Because they were foreigners, the only women they were exposed to were prostitutes who displayed themselves using dance.

“You’ve got Hollywood presenting it so that any time you see the women dancing they’re always trying to impress some guy, and that would not be the family way of how it was happening,” she said.

In the 1930s and 40s, Hollywood displayed belly dancers in cabaret costumes to portray their sex appeal.

“If you look up any old films that show belly dancing ... you will notice that the jewel in the navel is a Hollywood invention, because to film the exposed belly button was too suggestive of the vagina,” Phillips said.

Traditionally, however, people would wear full robes with their money attached or as jewelry. “That’s where some of the costuming idea comes from with the money, you showed off your wealth, especially for a woman because the jewelry she wore was also usually part of her dowry,” Phillips said.

And if a woman had extra weight, it was a sign of wealth and the ability to eat well.

While moving my hips in a figure eight, Phillips likens the motion to a Hot Wheels’ track. Many of the moves in belly dance do not have names, as Phillips said that subtle variations exist between cultures and regions.

“It’s just the cultural thing you grow up doing, so it’s not formalized,” she said.

The idea of belly dance is to visually represent music by using the body.

However, Phillips said that sometimes variations in the musical performance or the dancer’s mood can influence the representation.

Phillips recalled that the day after 9/11, she used dance to help work through her sorrow, and helped her students do the same.

“It’s been a long time coming to get it to this idea that this is an art form, this is beautiful, or this is more accessible to more people because it’s still much closer to its folkloric roots, than say ballet is,” she said.

Phillips said that belly dance has become such a big part of her life, embracing the folk, family life roots, that she’ll often even catch herself shimmying in the grocery store.

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