Family-friendly dance

Asha Belly Dancers want to dispel the stereotype of the seductress

Most Americans’ image of a belly dancer probably resembles a scantily clad woman performing in a sultan’s court—or a modern-day nightclub—seducing an audience with her erotic charms.

That’s one image that the Asha Belly Dancers are trying to dispel.

“We want to point out that [we perform] a family show,” says Kay Conley, a member of Asha. “It’s not a hoochie-koochie.”

Conley said the five-member troupe performs a kind of belly dancing based on the dance genre’s folkloric and tribal styles, which they’ve coined “world tribal.” Folkloric and tribal styles are based on the traditions of several cultures spanning the Middle East, Arabia, India and North Africa.

“Folkloric tells a story more than the others, I think,” says dancer Monique Baron. “There are certain movements that mean certain things.”

Some movements, such as arms slightly raised to the sky, mean “worship.” Other movements can symbolize kneading bread or pulling grain.

Cabaret style is the one that most Americans equate with the seductive belly dancer. But that style, which originated in Egypt, is a relatively recent one. Belly dance, also known as oriental dance, was originally a dance for women by women that usually marked a momentous occasion, such as a wedding or the birth of a child.

Asha has been performing in the area for four years. Co-founder LeeAnn Malone says she met most of the members of Asha through a belly dancing class at Truckee Meadows Community College. As the semester came to a close, she asked the women if they would like to form a group in order to participate in the annual Wiggles of the West belly dancing contest. And Asha was born.

“Our little saying is, ‘Asha means life, and to us, dancing is life,'” says Conley.

The group includes Malone, Conley, Baron, choreographer Chris Carver and the newest member, Holly Johnson, a member of the Pangaea Percussion and Winds group and a dancer with 20 years of experience.

Asha Belly Dancers often perform at festivals in Reno and in California, as well as weddings and private parties. This year, the group will make its second appearance at the Artown summer arts festival. They will present Come to the Casbah, an event that will re-create the ambiance of a Middle Eastern bazaar. There will be belly dancers from Reno, Lake Tahoe and Northern California, live music, food vendors and more. Asha will dance during the event and may have an open stage for the public to join in, Malone says.

The group hopes the event will help change people’s perception of belly dancing as a strictly seductive form of dance.

“That’s a big part of our Artown [event] and why we’re doing it. It’s just to expose the community to belly dancing and get it out there more, because it’s really taking off,” Baron says.

She say she thinks people are initially drawn to take belly dancing classes because of the dance’s mysterious aura or its fitness benefits. But she also thinks there’s something more to it.

"I think [people] take it because it’s interesting and different," she says. "Then, they stick with it because they meet other women, and they become friends. They form a camaraderie. That’s why we’re in it."