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Sunday, October 3, 2010

Belly Dance, Ballet, and Folklore

A YouTube commenter asks,
“where did u learn to dance like the old folkloric styles (<--did i say that right?) did you go to another country and learn?  also u took ballet right (it looks like it)? If so, do you think its possible to learn belly dance with no dance background at 19 years old? I find it requires a lot of strenght and grace that ballet dancers have that I dont. Im still taking classes anyway”
Don't let dance class get to you.  It's enough that you get yourself to class.  :-)

Belly dance does not require study abroad, a childhood dance background, or ballet cross-training. Not everyone has the innate talent or motivation to rise to the level of a star dancer, but none of the characteristics of virtuoso belly dance—musicality, expressiveness, and coordination—must necessarily be developed in childhood, in the Middle East, or in a ballet class.

If you are a new belly dance student, I do not recommend cross-training in ballet, or any other dance form.  Try several belly dance classes until you find a teacher and style that you really like, and then study exclusively with that teacher for six months to one year.  Once you’ve mastered the basics your teacher offers, it’s extremely important to branch out, but a student who starts out by dabbling among curricula often ends up with a shallow and muddy pool of skills.  It’s understandable to feel eager (or impatient) about your progress, but learning to dance simply takes patience and time.  Expect to spend several years before you really feel like “a dancer,” and know that your training must continue throughout your career.

If you’re looking to develop a “balletic” style of belly dance, spending some time in a ballet class may give you some new insights into the way your body moves, but you will probably do better in a belly dance class that emphasizes intentionality, balance, posture, alignment, and somatic self-awareness.  Belly dance requires the ability to sink into a low center of gravity and spiral energy back and forth through the body.  Ballet classes will ask you to develop diametrically opposed habits—pulling up and extending into lines that carry energy beyond your body out infinitely in to space. If you can not find a belly dance class that addresses anatomical placement, look for information and coaching in the “mind-body” family of health and wellness disciplines.  Take a teacher training course in functional anatomy, or book private lessons with a movement coach.  (If you have not yet done so, you might also want to check out my instructional video, which includes an extremely detailed discussion of alignment.) 

Cultural context should certainly be part of a beginner’s curriculum, but, if you would like to become an elite performer, you must learn to access and express your own physicality.  Observe and imitate native dancers to learn style and nuance, but remember that developing an “authentic” style will probably not make you a better dancer if you have not yet built a strong foundation of physical fitness, technical skills, and musicality.  Simply being “authentic” does not necessarily make one a particularly compelling artist.  If you’re very devoted to a particular style, you may certainly build technique and style simultaneously, but you will have more creative options if you build technique and style as independent skills.

If you would like to travel to the Middle East to study “authentic” dance, by all means go, but it’s probably easier and less expensive to start closer to home.  If you live in (or can travel to) a major American city, you’ll find large international communities that support nightclubs, restaurants, cultural centers, festivals, and parties, all of which provide ample opportunities to watch and dance alongside native dancers.  Ask your classmates to go out dancing with you, or join (or start) an internet meet-up group.  Reach out to teachers or classmates who are dancing professionally at weddings and parties in the Middle-Eastern community—if you let them know about your interest in folklore and volunteer your services as a driver or bag-carrier, you may find additional opportunities to observe and participate in social dancing.  Musicians and DJs may also help you gain access to private events (although it’s a good idea to be clear from the outset that the kind of “private event” you’re looking for isn’t a date.)

For a deep and rich understanding of cultural dances, explore how and why to use the movement vocabulary you are learning. If you have an outgoing personality and some Arabic (or Persian or Turkish) language skills, you may be able to independently research the origins and significance of the dances you encounter.  If not, go back to the classroom, and look for a teacher who is a gifted interpreter – someone who is familiar not only with the culture you are studying, but with your own culture as well.  You may find teachers by travelling to the Middle East, but keep in mind that not all talented dancers are talented teachers, and that not all teachers of cultural styles are good at teaching non-native students.   Many of the very best teachers of Middle Eastern dance are not natives of the Middle East.  Among the American experts who live and teach in the United States are Sahra Saeeda, Zahra Zuhair, and Robyn Friend (CA); Aradia (NV); Nourhan Sharif and Ranya Renee (NY); and Laurel Victoria Gray (WDC).  (This is just a short list of a few teachers whom I’ve seen in action and can vouch for, but there are many others to add to this roster…)

(Notice also that the teachers I’ve mentioned are all women.  Belly dance absolutely may be expertly performed or taught by men, but the preponderance of male Egyptian teachers on the workshop circuit reflects an unfortunate bias among American and European dance students.  If a female student enjoys the attention of her male teacher, or if she enjoys watching him change his sweaty shirt after class, these are perfectly good reasons for her to study with him; they are not, however, credentials of a teacher’s expertise.)

Finally, don’t overlook the easiest resource of all:  the internet.  YouTube provides endless clips of cultural dances, and lists and message boards are tremendous sources of information.

To answer the rest of your question:   I took my first belly dance class at age 26.  My childhood background is gymnastics—I had some rudimentary dance training in my gymnastics program, and I studied ballet and flamenco in college, but I learned most of what I know about dance in my early 30s.  Books, DVDs, and training courses for dance and fitness teachers have been my most valuable source of information on placement and alignment.  I have taken class with many native Middle Eastern teachers and danced alongside many native dancers, but none of my dance education has taken place in the Middle East. My dance education thus far has happened in classes and workshops in Washington, DC and New York City; at weddings, parties, and nightclubs in Brooklyn, Queens, northern New Jersey, Arlington and Fairfax counties in Virginia, and Montgomery County, Maryland; and in my kitchen and living room, in front of the TV and computer monitor.


  1. thanks a lot for your feedback. I was actually thinking of taking a beginner ballet class becuase I thought it would help but Im thinking now maybe I shouldn't. Videos are helpful but only if I'm also taking a class. Do you recommended anyone in the DC area (thats where im from). Im taking classes with Mia Naja al Sephira. Do you know her? I like her class and she has had a lot of experience in bellydancing. And i do agree it takes a lot of patience.

  2. If you think a beginner ballet class would be helpful, try it and see. If you feel like it's helping, stick with it, or if you feel like it's not relevant to what you're trying to do in belly dance, stop. If you are looking for someone in the DC area with a performance or teaching style similar to mine, look at the Sahara Dance studio. Some of the teachers there (including Rachel Brookmire, the founder) are my former students, or my students' students. For Egyptian style specifically, check out Faten Salama. I only know Mia Naja on a nodding-hello basis, but if you like her class, then that's a great reason to study with her. I don't know all the teachers in DC anymore, but there were a ton of talented people when I left in 2002, and I know there are even more now. Try out as many teachers as you can, and stick with what feels comfortable, supportive, challenging, or fun.

  3. Very Interesting... I started when I was 15 with a friend of mine from Saudi. I stopped after 1 year 'cause I was afraid to get more belly ( do you understand?)rsrsrsr
    But after years passing by I was missing so much this dancing!!! So, I returned my classes in 2007 when I was 32. I never had ballet classes.... Today I'm the only bellydancing teacher in my City.
    But I think is important you study diferent classes of styles and put all of it together. Postures and turns from ballet can be helpful or practice modern dance or tribal bellydance to control your moves and muscles. That's what I do! I like to be free when I'm dancing, without worry about the style... It's style (POP)!Just have fun!!!

  4. Dear Autumn,

    I am a great fan of yours and it is very inspiring to hear that you began bellydancing at age 26! I started when I was 25, but only now, quite a few years later, do I really have the time to devote to deepening my knowledge.

    I didn't have any dance, gymnastic or sports background before I started my first bellydance class, so it took a while for me to learn how to control my body. But I am completely in love with bellydance, research it endlessly and devour all information I can find about it!

    So I really appreciate the detail you go into in this blog and in your instructional video! Thank you so much for sharing. I am a loyal reader of your blog. :)