First of all, belly dancing is not striptease. One is an ancient Middle Eastern art form celebrating the female form; the other is a sweaty hoochie dance for money. They’re both noble pursuits, of course, just distinct from each other. To many that distinction is fuzzy, and it’s a misconception that bedevils belly dance to this day. Not that belly dancing is completely chaste, however.
“Belly dance is probably the oldest form of dance in the world, and I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that it was used to teach girls a little something about sex,” speculates local belly dancer Amber Proctor. “I think it was also used to tone feminine muscles around the pelvic region to prepare for childbirth. It’s completely unrelated to stripping and burlesque, which were imitative offshoots of belly dance.”
“Belly dance is misunderstood, I think, because of where it comes from” says Kansas filmmaker Steve Balderson. “If our culture was more embracing of Middle Eastern culture, then I don’t think it would be such a mystery. And our culture is uptight. Any time we see any kind of flesh in a performance, we’re told to look away. It’s just not part of what we see every day.”
The mystique and exotic allure of this misunderstood midriff movement inspired Balderson to make the feature-length documentary “Underbelly,” about belly dancing’s most prominent American practitioner, Princess Farhana, aka Pleasant Gehman.
“Pleasant was in Lincoln, Nebraska, teaching some classes and performing at a weekend seminar, and I went up to videotape the classes for her so she could make a ‘how-to’ video,” says Balderson. “When I went up there I saw all of these women, who are absolutely crazy and fun and full of life. I didn’t realize there was such a huge belly dance world out there. I’m all for making products that market to a niche audience, and I started to find out we had an underbelly in our world devoted to this dance. Every community has a large following of belly dance, and no one realizes it.”
And Lawrence is indeed one of those communities with an undulating underbelly. Along with Proctor’s newly formed Chainsaw Shimmy Productions, performing more provocative tribal-fusion dance at nightspots like Wilde’s Chateau 24 and The Jazzhaus, dance troupe Raghsidad has been practicing more traditional Middle Eastern dance around Lawrence for nearly 15 years. “I think it’s absolutely making in roads,” says Raghsidad founder and belly dance instructor JoAnne Zingo. “On any weekend in this country, someone is teaching a seminar somewhere. If it’s a fringe, it’s a long fringe. Maybe a better analogy is that it’s frayed way up into the fabric. I think there’s more to it than people think, but if you’ve never done it, you don’t know.”
The allure of the art
Zingo has been teaching classes through the Lawrence Parks and Recreation Center since 1988 and has seen enrollment increase in recent years.
“I used to ask my classes, ‘What made you take this class?’ I would get everything from the same reason my sister and I took the class back in the ’70s — ‘Oh, we just thought it would be fun’ — to ‘It’s something we always wanted to do’ to ‘My husband made me do it.’ You name it, I heard it, but people are mostly just curious. I also hear things like, ‘My chiropractor told me it would be good for my back.’ One of the dancers in the company right now has some scoliosis. Middle Eastern dance really helps because there’s a lot of personal awareness involved. It’s also prescribed sometimes as a more gentle exercise. It’s not that physically grueling,” says Zingo, adding with a laugh, “If it was, I’d be a size 10.”
Depending on what style and the frequency, however, belly dance can be a folkloric Zumba with finger cymbals.
“After I had my baby, I was a little overweight,” Proctor says. “I was unhappy with traditional exercise. I used to run, but my chiropractor said I was destroying my knees. So I was looking for something low impact and my friend had passed along some VHS tapes on belly dance. I dusted off the tapes and started dancing at home. I was hooked by it immediately. I lost about 50 pounds within a year. It’s quite a workout.”
All body types are welcome, though. “Not all women who belly dance are small by any means,” Proctor says. “The moves are different on a voluptuous dancer, which adds a lot to the diversity of the dance. Anybody can belly dance. Young or old, heavy or thin, men and women — everyone can belly dance.”
It’s that inclusive attitude toward the body that ironically may keep belly dance an excluded subculture. “One of the first things Pleasant teaches in her class is that you shouldn’t be ashamed of your belly — push it out and be happy with it,” Balderson says. “The breaking down of those societal barriers was very exciting to me to see. Our culture doesn’t celebrate women. Our culture tells them they need to lose weight, they have to look a certain way, they can’t be round, they can’t have a belly, they can’t have shapes. So when you see belly dance, it goes against everything that we’re taught. That’s why I think it still remains underground, but in that context, this community is huge.”