Belly dance has become a popular style practiced by women all over the world. Many women are drawn to the style because of the expressive movements that are intimately connected to the body’s form, and the supportive dance community that surrounds it. We sat down with belly dance expert Salit Cohen-Cheng and talked about the history of belly dance. Salit is one of the many amazing instructors you can catch at the BUST Holiday Craftacular December 9th and 10th for an introduction to belly dance.
So how long have you been dancing and what in particular drew you to belly dancing?
I’ve been belly dancing for over a decade. I’ve always loved to dance and took ballet as a kid, but it wasn’t until my mother started taking belly dance classes that I decided to study this particular style. I immediately felt at home when I started dancing this style, and after my first performance as a belly dancer (with a students’ group) I knew I had found my place. Belly dance is the freedom to be yourself. I am also in love with the music and feel very connected to it.
How does the style of belly dancing differ from other styles of dance, and what particular style of belly dancing do you practice?
I practice mostly Egyptian style dance with influences from flamenco, samba, modern and more. Belly dance is unique in its wavy, slinky movements, that go naturally with and not against the body. It is also the ability to express so much with little or no movement at all that makes this dance unique.
Can you explain a bit more about the cultural roots of the magnificent dance?
Belly dance, or as it called in Arabic Raqs sharqui which literally translates to Eastern dance, takes its origins from different folkloric dances around the Middle East, North Africa, Turkey, Greece, and several countries along the Silk Road. These folk dances trace back thousands of years and they evolved into the modern belly dance style that is performed today. In the 1940s, an Egyptian choreographer named Mahmoud Reda took different folk dances from various tribes and people and adapted them to the stage. Hollywood movies and Broadway show have their influences on this dance as well. The movements, staging, and costumes became more theatrical. Folk dances had no choreography, was not performed on stages and the costumes were just regular clothes. People danced to celebrate occasions, in the homes or in the streets, or to perform rituals for exorcism or fertility.
Often times people assume there is a certain body type best for belly dancing, what do you have to say regarding this?
I’m so glad you asked that! First of all, I believe that all people should dance any style, regardless of body type, age or gender. Dance feeds your body and your soul. Specifically for this style, some people think that in order to belly dance you need a large belly to move, while others think that a belly dancer should have a slender body type for the movements to show better. A good dancer can come in ANY size, shape, color, gender, and age! Belly dance is about embracing your body and showing your personality.
Tell us a bit about all the amazing costumes and how they are part of the tradition.
The costumes that we see today (i.e. the bra, belt and skirt sets or the sparkly dresses) are not traditional. They first appeared in Egyptian movies inspired by Hollywood in an attempt to resemble Western culture and play into the “Arabian fantasy” created by the West. Traditionally, people danced these styles in their everyday outfits, which were generally long, baggy dresses. Today, there are thousands of designers around the world who create belly dance costumes influenced by their own culture and fashion. We see a lot of samba and ballroom style costumes due to the many belly dance competitions around the world in the format of ballroom dance competitions. In recent years the skirts became bigger as the stages grew bigger. Bellydancers originally danced in small spaces such as restaurants, lounges, living rooms, and since the dance became more theatrical and moved to large stages for competitions and theater shows, the moves, as well as the skirts, became bigger to take up more space and have more presence.
What advice do you have for young girls and women who are trying to pursue their dreams in a world with so many obstacles and oppression against women?
There are so many obstacles but the only thing standing between you and your dreams is YOU. For years I listened to everyone around me who said: “Learn a REAL profession. Dance is just a hobby,” or “You can’t make a living from performing arts.” That held me back most of my life, but if I had still listened to those oppressing words I would not be living my dream right now and would always feel frustrated and depressed. It is by no means easy to go against the consensus and make your dreams come true, but can you be satisfied with yourself if you don’t?
Where can people find you?
Check out my website, Salit Dance, and follow me on Facebook and Instagram to find out about shows and classes. I teach in Manhattan and Queens locations but am also available to teach private lessons and perform anywhere.
And at the BUST Holiday Craftacular, of course!
First photo by Mihailo Smiljanic,
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