I am woman, hear me jingle
The enhanced sensation of femininity keeps belly dance alive and thriving in Reno
Deep rhythmic drum beats lead the glittering, jingling, swiveling hips. They build a smoking pressure and enthrall the audience with their graceful, feminine movements.
The ancient art of belly dance has emerged in Reno and the West as a popular dance form, drawing women to the traditional costuming, props and music. On a deeper level, many practitioners find healing and confidence through this feminine dance and its camaraderie.
Belly dance dates back 6,000 years but survives thanks to women handing the art form down from generation to generation. The belly dance culture is rich with women celebrating and dancing at weddings, childbirths and for one another in the Middle and Far East, including Egypt, Turkey, India, Morocco and North Africa. Prominent belly dancing Gypsy tribes include the nomadic Bedouins, the Ghawazee of Egypt and the Ouled Nail of Algeria. The Gypsies, with their nomadic lifestyle, took dances from different regions and countries and blended them together.
Many women in the Eastern world are taught regional dances, which are often just a few steps, but they learn them well. In America, women generally want to know all of the steps to many dances.
Costumes and styles of dance vary according to culture. American Tribal and Cabaret, or Raks Sharki, which means Dance of the East, are the main belly dance techniques performed and taught in the Reno area. Asha Belly Dancers, Yalla Habibi and a handful of teachers and soloists perform these methods.
“Many of us are still trying to define belly dance. There is a lot of fusion, for there is so much culture to draw from,” says Ireena (her last name, which she doesn’t use in a belly-dancing context, is Volovik), a teacher and performer in Reno.
American Tribal is a fusion of dance from many cultures. It is known for its earthy rhythm and group-centered dancing, in which women dance in unison or take turns showcasing their talents. Body movements often include wide sweeps of the hips and deeper rhythmic moving. Costuming usually includes decorative turbans and long, layered gypsy skirts with a lot of plumage and tassels. Decorative coins are used on belts, necklaces and anywhere else on the body. Swords, baskets and jugs are often included as props.
“People like to see a dangerous element to performance, and swords and balancing objects give that to them,” says Rabia (Kandy Valentine), teacher and head of the Yalla Habibi troupe.
Cabaret is a flashier style of belly dance, with sequined costumes that are often more revealing. Costuming includes bras and high-slit skirts, but the style can also be performed in more conservative gowns. Cabaret is the foremost style in present-day Egypt and parts of the Middle East. It is a fiery, flirtatious dance, combining faster and energetic movements with tighter shimmies of the hips; this style is a lot more explosive than other forms. Canes are a traditional prop in Cabaret dancing.
Traditional drumming, which can be rapid or deep and hypnotic, adds to the exotic flavor of belly dance. The music leads the dancing, and there is an integral relationship between the organic drumbeat and the dancer’s movements. Often dancers will use a pair of zils, small cymbals that make a clinky-clank bell sound when struck between the fingers. They are made out of brass and worn on the middle finger and thumb.
Not only are women drawn to the hypnotic drumbeat, costuming and methods of belly dance, but they also like the acceptance of different body types, a trait rarely present in other dance styles. The combination of performing—often with belly exposed, which is challenging for some women—and connecting with the dance has led many women to increased confidence.
“I have been to all kinds of belly dance events, and you see size 3 to 25, and neither one is better nor gets treated that way,” says performer and instructor Kami Liddle; she teaches at UNR and Fitness Evolution.
“Performing in exotic costuming, belly dance offered me a chance to be somebody else,” says Rabia. “You can also accentuate the most positive aspects of your body while covering up others.”
Sazi, instructor at All Things Mystical in Carson City and belly dance soloist, says there are no wrong or right ways to dance and no wrong or right bodies—and that’s the most powerful thing for her in teaching and watching dance. She’s also a strong believer that we all have our own sacred dance inside of us just waiting to come out.
Liddle began to appreciate the way her body moved through belly dance. Before, she says, she didn’t think much about her body; now, she takes better care of herself because she’s so highly aware of it. “I think it definitely has increased my confidence in all areas of my life.”
Rabia also admits that she really came into herself through belly dance.
“The confidence increase for me comes from being around other women and being supported by one another,” says Monique Baron, a member of Asha. Baron believes belly dance is composed of three equally balanced parts: costuming, dance and a connection to other women.
The confidence and healing many women achieve through belly dance comes from getting in touch with their femininity via movements focused on the stomach, hips and womb areas of the body. Historically, belly dance movements have been used in childbirth to release the baby from the womb.
“It’s worked really well to feel that primal fire I, and all women, have inside,” says Baron.
Sazi says belly dance is a way of communing and connecting to the goddess within, and that it is emotionally, physically and spiritually healing for anyone who dances. “It is feminine energy coming out in movement,” she says.
Liddle has had similar experiences of feeling more feminine and connected to herself as a woman through belly dance.
“Belly dance is a way of healing the self and releasing energy at the same time,” says Ireena. “With regular dance, it becomes an ongoing thing. Bodily, it fulfills a certain kind of hunger for a certain movement, and often until you do it, you don’t know exactly what’s missing.”
Camaraderie is perhaps one of the strongest components of this ancient art. This solidarity in friendship ties into a lineage thousands of years old, where women would get together and dance for each other as wives in harems or at parties—either for entertainment or to pass on the techniques to girls.
“The camaraderie with the women is the reason that I dance,” says Sazi.
Rabia believes being a mentor to young women is what belly dance is really all about in the East as well as in places like Reno—passing a woman’s knowledge down to a younger girl. She has experienced this personally by guiding four girls—who almost feel like daughters to her now—in Yalla Habibi for the past four years.
“It has been amazing to watch them grow from little punk teenagers into young women,” says Rabia.
Often in the Middle East, women will have parties without men. This is not exclusion but a part of life, an extension of the companionship women experience when belly dancing together.
“A common vocabulary is formed,” says Liddle. “Once a woman learns belly dance, she can communicate through dance with other women.”
“In general," Baron says, "the dance is all about connecting with people."