Dancing stereotype goes belly up in Israel

For the uninitiated, belly dancing is an Eastern form of entertainment with patently sordid associations. Many think of scantily dressed women seductively gyrating in front of overweight, sex-starved males in dingy clubs. Despite that long-held negative view, belly dancing — or Oriental dance — is taking off in Israel.

Over the past seven or eight years, Oriental dance has emerged from being perceived as an obscure and disregarded dance form, to a mainstream activity that attracts large numbers of women from all walks of life and of all ages.

The Sahara City belly dancing school in Tel Aviv, for example, caters to Jewish, Christian and Muslim, secular and observant women, ranging from lawyers, computer programmers and police officers to fortunetellers, soul singers and hairdressers.

“Oriental dance is a form of spiritual nutrition and a supplication, as well as providing a quality means of physical exercise — though it can’t be compared to going to an aerobic class,” says Sahara City director Tina. (For professional reasons, she prefers to maintain a first-name-only approach.)

“My students learn to look at themselves and to love themselves for what they are,” she says

The youngest student at Sahara City is 6, and there are a couple of septuagenarians on the books. But is 6 a bit early to start developing pelvic gyrations?

“Belly dancing is not just about sensuality and seductiveness,” Tina says. “It is an art form that incorporates joy, sadness, longing and melancholy. To limit it to seductiveness is akin to watching an artistic dancer and focusing exclusively on her bosom. That would be missing the point entirely.”

California-born Jerusalemite Malka Emanuel has been involved in belly dancing for over six years, both as a dancer and a teacher. Like Tina, she sees Oriental dance as a means of empowerment for women. Besides dance, Emanuel also is a Lamaze coach and says there is a strong connection between belly dancing and giving birth. “Gyrating the hips is a way of isolating the pain and helping get through it.”

Opinions are divided over the origins of belly dancing but one thing is certain — contrary to popular Western belief, Oriental dance did not originate as a means of seduction performed by concubines to titillate men in high places.

Some believe the art form comes from Morocco and, as Emanuel suggests, was initially devised as a means of helping to ease the pain of childbirth. But mostly it was a dance that people did for fun, not as a form of professional entertainment.

In the traditional Arabic home, the women would serve their men meals and then retire to the women’s quarters. Once free of their domestic chores they would groove and shimmy with each other. There is also evidence of belly dancing being performed by men for men. “There was a lot of homosexual activity associated with the men’s belly dancing sessions,” explains Yael Moav, director of the Jerusalem-based Arabesque belly dancing school. “As they were prohibited from having premarital sexual relationships with women, they often had them with men.”

There is a strong ritual side to belly dancing throughout the Arab world that marks various stages in a woman’s life, from menstruation through to her wedding, giving birth and dying. The menstruation dance, for example — called the rahil, meaning awakening or departure — is an initiation ceremony in which a young girl is welcomed to womanhood on having her first period. Belly dancing is also a central part of Muslim weddings and serves not only as a form of celebration but also as a means for the bride to rejoice in her femininity and to offer the groom his first glimpse of her womanly charms.

U.S.-raised Jerusalemite Rahel Kima liked African ethnic dancing before finding her way to the Oriental dance form. She says both forms are strongly grounded, in contrast with ballet, which emphasizes the upper part of the body. Kima, who also teaches yoga to pregnant women, feels belly dancing can offer a means of expressing a wide range of feelings. “I think it is very much a matter of what you project and what you have inside to bring out. It is very powerful. Don’t forget it comes from your stomach, which is really the birth energy source of the body.”

In a country where there is often a deep gulf between secular and Orthodox Jews, increasing numbers of Jewish Israeli women from the religious side of the track are also learning to belly dance. One religious woman in her 20s (who asked not to be named) has been attending Sahara City for two years. Although she feels there is absolutely nothing wrong from a purely religious standpoint with learning to belly dance, she prefers to remain anonymous about it because of the response she believes there would be within her community once word got out.

“When people hear about something like this their immediate reaction is negative. I don’t want to be exclusively associated with belly dancing. It’s only one element of my life,” she said.

Hilla Hodaya, on the other hand, feels there is far more leniency within the fervently religious community than secular Jews think. Hodaya lives in the Jerusalem district of Geula and attends the Arabesque school.

“Taking part in Oriental dance isn’t exactly considered a badge of honor in Geula,” says Hodaya, who is a physiotherapist by day. “But, there are all sorts of people here, with all sorts of interests. I got into it because I gave fitness classes for women and wanted to do something different for myself during my leisure time. Belly dancing is a much more pleasant way to keep the body healthy.”