Belly Dance Finds Roots in Los Angeles

Women are exploring Middle Eastern culture through dance

On a strip of Glendale Boulevard, a small dance studio painted bright purple with accenting orange swirls sits tucked in between a smoke shop and a carpet store. From the outside, Dance Garden LA may seem unassuming, but on a sleepy Saturday morning, a group of women are hard at work inside, shaking their hips, and gyrating their stomachs.

They are here to belly dance.

"Ok push it to the side, bump, bump, bump," says instructor Nasila to her class.

The women practice their moves, the coins on their hip scarves jangling musically with the beat. Nasila's class is a drum solo choreography class aimed at beginner and intermediate belly dancers.

"People come to me especially for the choreography," Nasila said. "Once they take one class, they keep coming back and asking for more classes."

Heather Johnston has been hooked on belly dance for three years. She has come up from Long Beach just to take Nasila's class.

"You don't really feel like your exercising because it's dancing," said Johnston. "All of them are my favorite; I learn something different from each of them."

More women like Johnston are discovering belly dance for both exercise, but also learning belly dance for performing and exploring the Middle Eastern culture behind the dance.

Belly dance in Los Angeles has blossomed in the past few years. Jaynie Aydin, a dancer and a visiting Middle Eastern dance anthropologist at UCLA, has seen firsthand the growth of dancers in the Southland.

"The community used to be so small that you would know everybody's name," said Aydin. "Now there are more than 10,000 dancers."

Increased awareness and interest in belly dance has even caused more demand for classes, performances and general interest.

Tamra-henna, a dancer for more than 20 years, and a professor of Middle Eastern dance theory at Glendale College, has even started a belly dance company. Her company -- Henna and Dates Dance Theater, a small troop of five dancers -- will give its inaugural performance at Glendale College Friday and Saturday.

"For a lot of women, it's a way to live out a fantasy life, and there will always be a need for that," said Tamra-henna.

Belly dance's official name is Raqs Sharqi, meaning "dances of the East." Although debated, many feel that belly dance's lineage comes from the Roma, or Gypsies, after they left India and migrated westward into the Middle East. Modern belly dance is most often associated with Egypt, and to a lesser extent Turkey, Lebanon and Morocco.

Belly dance started as a social dance, both men and women belly danced at parties, celebrations and any other gathering where there was dancing. From the streets, the dance form moved into music halls and then into nightclubs and onstage.

"It's something that everyone does anytime that there's a celebration called for," Tamra-henna said. "Raqs Sharqi became the stage form of what people do at home."

In Egypt, the movement onto the stage changed the costume, and it became a show. The famous two-piece, beaded and sparkle-infused costume, jewelry, as well as glamorous makeup and hair became the hallmarks of cabaret-style Egyptian belly dance.

Migrating to the U.S., belly dance has evolved further. Although there are plenty of purists, dancers who travel to the Middle East to observe new dances, there are others whose dancing is more "inspired by" Middle Eastern dance, than being true to it.

Permutations of belly dance have also expanded. Dance forms such as American Tribal, which has a more Roma feel and incorporates more folkloric dances within a group of dancers, differ sharply from the beaded glamour of the Egyptian cabaret belly dance.

But the dance has evolved even further. Modern American tribal has given birth to Tribal Fusion, a dance that is still very much belly dance, but the origins and influences are taken from a wide array of cultures, music and dance forms. There are tribal fusion dances using samba, flamenco, hula, Tahitian dance and incorporating Goth, death metal and even religious music.

To Jaynie Aydin, this makes perfect sense.

"It's out of context," she said. "Tribal fusion and new mixes of dance is for our culture. We don't live in the same society, so some of the dancing reflects that."

The evolution of belly dance may have transformed it into a different dance form, but its roots are still in celebration and acceptance. The celebration of the body is and idea that many American women embrace with open arms.

"It's much more than just dance," said dancer and belly dance storeowner Rahana. "I am curvy, and I used to feel self conscious. Belly dance really helped me accept myself inside and out."

Rahana's store, the Velvet Gypsy, off the Venice Beach boardwalk, supplies dancers with costumes, accessories and almost everything belly dance.

"Performing and expressing yourself though dance, it's a lot to do with you passion," said Rahana. "You can't really display that in your everyday life, but I can do that though dance."

Editor's Note: Video and pictures feature the Ya Harissa Bellydance Theater dance company at The Talking Stick in Venice, dancer performances in Costa Mesa and Encino, and classes at Dance Garden LA.

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