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All in the hips

CASSIE TOMLIN/Arizona Daily Wildcat
By Djamila Noelle Grossman
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Tuesday, February 1, 2005
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At first the students giggle and feel awkward about rolling their hips and shimmying their bellies in front of the whole class. After 45 minutes, every woman has found her way into the dance and feels more confident.

No, this is not all taking place on some sleazy burlesque stage. These women are simply learning some of the essential moves of belly dancing.

Through this beautiful and oftentimes mystifying dance form, many women and girls retrieve confidence about their bodies, which many have lost due to conceptions of beauty created by society.

Belly dancing has found its way from Indian and Egyptian culture into gyms, drum circles, renaissance fairs and bedrooms all around the world. And now, it is being taught at the Student Recreation Center.

"You have to feel like a diva! There is no hiding. This dance is fun and it's extremely beautiful," said Kathryn Ferguson, instructor of the belly dancing class. "The mystery is in one little section at a time. You have to be totally relaxed, but also focused."

Belly dancing is not exclusive to the movement of the belly. It's also about moving the hips, arms and shoulders. It's about moving body parts independently, yet still expresses unity.

A veteran belly dancer

Ferguson has danced for 30 years in 15 countries all over the world. She had her first encounter with belly dancing in Morocco, where it has always been part of the culture.

At first, Ferguson fell in love with the music. "It's exquisite, powerful and upbeat," she said.

Upon returning to the United States she started to take lessons. For her, the dance is expression, soulfulness and fun.

"It takes you away from yourself and puts you right into the music," Ferguson said.

The French writer Gustave Flaubert, who went to Egypt and saw a woman belly dancing, conceived the name in 1849. He was so fascinated by the woman's belly that it was all he could write about. That's where belly dancing got its name: "danse du ventre," Ferguson explained.

The love of the dance

Students in the class said they belly dance to exercise, have fun, to control their body parts and because it is a beautiful dance.

Julia Cheng, a freshman majoring in business and French, started belly dancing last summer in Chicago, and now she dances at a drum circle in Tucson.

"Dancing is a way to express myself," she said. "I dance to have a good time. A lot of women don't feel sexual about it in the first place. Mostly it's men who find it very sexy. A lot of people associate belly dancing with stripping, but it's not. A lot of the costumes don't even show the belly."

Cheng, who attended the Rec Center's belly dancing class last fall semester, wants to start a belly dancing and drum group at the UA, but she doesn't really know yet how to set it up.

Goldy Bagheri, a history senior, lived in Baghdad for a while and said belly dancing is part of her culture.

"A lot of people here do it for the sex aspect, but I see more the background of it. It's also a way of having a good time, and you can go to parties and know how to dance. But it's funny when people get actually serious about it," Bagheri said.

A brief history

The first time Americans experienced belly dancing was during the Chicago World Columbian Exposition in 1893. Soon Hollywood picked it up and glamorized the costumes with things like jewelry in the belly button - a fashion that was unknown before that time.

Though the official origin of belly dancing is unknown, the dance's roots lie in Egypt, India and the Middle East. Because it emerged a few thousand years ago, some people refer to it as the oldest dance in the world.

However, it is certain that the dance was not intended for men, but for rituals among women, like fertility dances, wedding ceremonies or entertainment in the harem.

There are more than a dozen different styles of belly dancing today, which vary in body movements, costumes and music.

Belly image

For a lot of women, belly dancing has a big impact on how they look at their body. In a society known for being obsessed with being thin and having a narrow body ideal, belly dancing opens a door for every woman to express herself and to be confident - which doesn't mean belly dancers have to be exclusively big. Size is simply not the main criteria.

"Can you feel the fat shaking around?" Ferguson said during the class at the Rec Center. "It's pleasurable, it's cute!" which was a magic sentence for the girls who could finally let go of the concern about their bodies.

"It makes women appreciate their bodies more," she said. "When I went to Cairo they thought I danced very good, but they said I needed to gain weight, because I looked much too skinny."

Cheng agrees that body size should not be an integral part to who can or should participate in belly dancing.

"It's not about being skinny and little," Cheng said. "A lot of bigger dancers even look prettier. It's about the technique and the skills."

Dayna Rasor, editor of the newsletter for the Arizona Middle Eastern Dance Association, also thinks the dance is good for self-esteem.

"I really feel it improves how a woman feels about herself," Rasor said. "You have to be at peace with yourself in order to start dancing. You just let go, dance and enjoy."

Worldwide popularity

Belly dancing has become popular in recent years - not only in the United States but in other parts of the world like Europe, New Zealand and Australia, Ferguson said.

"Until a while ago, most of the times you said, 'belly dancing,' everyone thought of restaurant dance," Rasor said. "Now you can find people dancing at weddings and events."

More workshops and international dancers come into town. AMEDA currently has 200 members since the company was started 12 years ago.

It's hard to say what exactly drives the interest, but "people are curious about the Middle East. Not just belly dancing but the whole culture," Rasor said. "Mostly it's women who dance, although I've seen men doing it, and I can tell you it's hot, hot, hot!"

Speaking of hot, Shakira, who is of Colombian and Lebanese heritage, fuses Middle Eastern customs into her performances, including belly dancing.

"It has come and gone. Because of Shakira, it got really popular in the Latino world. It's an international dance and it's very popular," Ferguson said. "I have all ages from 8 to 70. It's mostly women who are trying to treat themselves or who find working out in the gym too boring."

Local participants

The Tucson belly dancing community has many events for dancers to meet or for beginners to find instructors.

Lucy Lipschitz, dance instructor and author of a monthly unofficial newsletter, started teaching two years ago because she got a lot of requests from friends eager to learn how to belly dance.

There are lots of dancers in Arizona, and the state has a high quality of dancing. However, big organizations are unlikely to form, Lipschitz said. "Dancers are kind of rebels. All of us approach this dance differently. I believe this is a women's dance for all ages, shapes and sizes."

- Ferguson's first belly dancing class began Thursday. Classes will be held Thursdays from 5:15 p.m. to 6:15 p.m. through April 7.

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