Belly Dance 101

An interview with belly dancer Deborah Newberg

Deborah lives and works in Santa Fe, NM as a belly dancer. She is the director of the Saltanah Dancers and Saltanah Studios, and teaches as well at Santa Fe Community College and Dance Space Santa Fe. As Stance on Dance has yet to feature the voice of a belly dancer, I thought it was high time to do so.

Saltanah Dancers © Paulo T. Photography

Deborah Newberg
© Paulo T. Photography


How did you get into belly dancing? What was the allure?

My family lived in Morocco for a couple years when I was a small child, so I developed a love for Middle Eastern culture. When I was 26, I walked into a belly dance class. I was interested in belly dance initially because it was Middle Eastern dance. I saw a flier and decided to check it out. I loved the music right away; it really spoke to me. And the movement… I felt like I was born to do it.

I never thought I would dance professionally, but one thing led to another. I kept dancing, started teaching, started performing, opened a dance studio, and started a dance company.

Can you talk a little bit about the preconceived notions you come across when you tell people you practice belly dance?

There are different opinions about using the words “belly dance,” because some people feel its pejorative. I use it because everyone knows what it is, and people have no idea what I’m talking about if I use other terms that are more correct. The best word for belly dance is “raks sharqi,” which in Arabic translates to Eastern or oriental dance. “Middle Eastern dance” is a great descriptive term, but it’s too general, as there are other folkloric and religious dances from the region. “Belly dance” ends up being a convenient term.

As far as attitudes toward belly dance, things have improved greatly in terms of knowledge and acceptance. People used to assume belly dancers were “exotic” dancers without realizing it’s a beautiful cultural art form comparable to folklorico, flamenco or Irish step dance. In recent years, it’s exploded in popularity thanks to many factors, including Shakira. Belly dance is all over the world now; it’s big in Asia, Europe, Australia and the Americas.

If someone had no notion of what belly dance is, how would you describe it?

The tradition of belly dance is solo improvised dance that interprets the music very closely. It’s a kinesthetic and visual interpretation of the music. The dancer carries the music to the people through her expression. It’s different than many Western forms of dance in that traditionally the choreographer isn’t separate from the dancer. The dancer interprets the music in the moment.

The movements originate in the torso rather than the limbs. It’s not about extending out through space, but about recycling energy by drawing the energy of the music and viewers into yourself and radiating it out again. Each dancer has her own individual expression, but there are also cultural styles from region to region within different countries.

In belly dance, there’s more of an emphasis on feeling than on technique for its own sake. The idea is not to display virtuosity. It’s more about expression.

What is the contemporary context of belly dance?

In places like Egypt or Tunisia, a traditional belly dance would always be performed as a solo. Now, of course, things have changed a little bit.

As belly dance came to the West, it met dancers who were used to choreography and steps. For instance, within my company, I improvise my solos, but choreograph the troupe dances, or there might be structured improvisation. You need choreography to provide a unified expression.

Traditionally speaking, live music is essential. Due to many factors, including the difficulty of hiring bands, performances to recorded music are more common in the West.

What’s the role of gender in belly dance?

Things vary from country to country, but specifically in Egypt, belly dance is a women’s dance. Men dance, but they perform folkloric and social dances. When men dance at a wedding or festival, many of the movements are similar to belly dance, but they would never wear the same costume, and they would never label themselves as belly dancers.

Of course, in contemporary society, things have changes, and there are many wonderful male belly dancers. But it’s a modern development for them to call themselves belly dancers. In Egypt, for example, if you go to see a belly dance show, the belly dancer will be a women, and the interims will feature two male dancers doing folkloric dance.

Is there a dialogue within belly dance about the dissolution of the form, or what authenticity means?

There are dancers who are more traditional, and in many different styles. Then there are those who call themselves “vintage oriental,” which is a style that was popular in the United States in the 70s and that fuses many different forms. There are other contemporary trends going on now too, like what they call American tribal style. It’s funny, because people think of tribal as meaning traditional, but in this case the dance form was born in California. It’s a fusion form that incorporates belly dance, flamenco and Indian dance. Then there’s tribal fusion, which incorporates the tribal style with hip hop. Some of the newer styles don’t even use Middle Eastern music.

People have different opinions about all this. There are some forms that a Middle Eastern person would not recognize as belly dance. But what people are doing in California doesn’t really travel to the Middle East.

Is there an ideal body type for belly dance?

Since belly dance was originally a dance form done by all women, though not professionally, there was no body type, since all women have bodies. As far as the sensuality, it’s just an expression. It’s a beautiful and sexy way of moving. You don’t need to have any particular body type to express that. However, in terms of professional belly dancers, there are certain trends from region to region that prefer different body types, which might include long hair and a curvy figure. But being a professional belly dancer is a tiny part of the larger world of belly dance.

Given the political extremism of the Middle East, how does belly dance, which is a very sensual women-based dance, sit side by side the violence?

One of the answers to that is it just is a big contradiction. Another answer is that this dance is very ancient. It’s pre-Islamic, and has managed to survive many forms of oppression. The oppression of belly dance, and of women in general, is not from religion, but from culture, and at different times different cultures have oppressed women in various ways. Fundamentalists of any religion tend to want to suppress women, expression, dance, music, etc. It’s a difficult time right now. The repression is not the expression of the majority of the people. The majority of people in the Middle East love music and dance. They don’t want to eliminate art.

Any other thoughts?

The movements of belly dance mirror nature. The shimmies are vibrations, like leaves in the trees, the undulations are like waves, and then there are the circles and spirals that appear everywhere in nature. Unlike other dance forms that often require an unusual athleticism, there’s no weeding people out of belly dance, because there’s no reason anybody can’t do it beautifully at their own level, though some bring it to a very high art form in terms of technique and expression. Also, in traditional belly dance, you don’t need a big stage; you just need a square of space. This makes belly dancers easier to hire for parties and events, unlike dancers who practice other forms. You can practice belly dance in your own living room.

belly dance 1

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2 Responses to “Belly Dance 101”

  1. stanceondance

    Ha, thanks Dan, maybe I will! And don’t worry, ballet will always be my first love!

  2. Dan

    Emmaly when I saw the pictures of the two dancers on your home page I though it was you on the left! 🙂 You should give it a go. But remember you are a ballet girl! A tutu and toe shoes that’s your uniform.

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