Intertwined in the rich tapestry of the colorful dance is the Middle Eastern dance called Raqs Sharqi, often referred to as cabaret bellydance, danse du ventre, and its many other names and and fusions, which is spreading so quickly around the globe that what was a traditional art form has become a contemporary conglomeration of dance styles and meanings.
There is a place for tradition, and someone, somewhere must be keeping the notes on what was and what is now. In our world everything evolves, grows, and changes as generations of children grow up and technology expands. With the internet access being what it is, we are able to investigate and be exposed to dance styles we never were able to see or hear about.
One dominant evolutionary and revolutionary style is Tribal Style Bellydance. Tribal Bellydance is not only uniting women around the world, but there is a healing quality inherent in this dance form. What I have witnessed in my twenty years of studying, defining, performing, and teaching Tribal Bellydance is how dance, in general, and this style, from experience, can heal. Just like that. You move your body and you feel better, whether it be an emotional, spiritual, or physical level. Simple. It could be the hot and sweaty aerobics class at the gym, funky hip-hop with the groovin’ chick down the street, or that life-time dream of being a bellydancer that does it for you. I have experienced those styles, and then some, but it was the bellydance bit in the tribal styling that stole my soul twenty years ago, and still does to this day.
I know what it has done for me—made me strong and fit, graceful, proudly feminine, meditative, and very happy, not to mention the mounds of exquisite costuming and ethnic jewelry I have accumulated and been able to wear because of this style. As a tribal bellydance teacher I get to see what it does for other women—most times it is just a joy of movement, other times it is an explosion of a new life force, and oftentimes it is a unexpected healing.
Tribal Bellydance is a fairly new style of bellydance, in the big picture of tradition, since women have been doing some sort of pelvic-centered dance since day one. This style is a dance about community, done always with at least two, but usually a group of dancers, and is based on the improvisation of a learned set of steps and combinations. There is magic created when a circle of women are doing repetitive movement together, synchronistically. One leads and the rest follow, often switching leaders and changing formations, dancing in rhythm to music that could melt your soul or shake up your hips. It is powerfully feminine and beautiful, and very in-the-moment. It can be difficult and challenging to learn the structured non-verbal body language. Overcoming the obstacles of learning it is a big accomplishment.
“Move the body. Undulate. Breath. Shimmy your shoulders. Shimmy your hips. Look into the eyes of those you are dancing with. The energy builds. Shimmy faster. Keep breathing. Smile. Listen to the clacking of your finger cymbals. The circle moves clockwise. You follow the leader. Everyone together. The energy keeps building. The skin dampens. Eyes are locking. The tension builds. What’s next? Watch. Hip bumps. Music is pulsing. Listen to the rhythm. You love it. You are laughing. Everyone is smiling. Rotating to the left. Then rotating to the right. Arabic walk. Spin and stop. Silence. Looking around the circle. Laughter”.
Can you picture this? In this excerpt from my book, Tribal Vision, A Celebration of Life Through Tribal Bellydance, this describes what a group of dancing women, all ages and sizes look like in a class. Wearing colorful, floor-length skirts, and Indian cholis for a short bust-hugging top that usually shows the belly, these dancers come to class wearing bindis, little jeweled stick-on ornanents, on their face, sometimes with their hair tied up in multi-striped and shimmery turbans—a bit of a change from their day job attire.
In my book, women share what it has been like for them to be bellydancing. It can be a moving and emotional experience, one that usually deepens your relationship with yourself as well as others.
After Myla Stauber first saw a performance of my troupe, Gypsy Caravan, she states, “Watching this dance, I could tell it was an extremely spiritual, strong, sexy, powerful dance—all the elements I knew I needed help with getting back into my life after having two children.”
Having taken classes with me for several years, she looks back and says, “I decided not to close myself up. Instead I go to class and feel beautiful, like I’ve touched something powerful and real and spiritual, in a supportive atmosphere with others who are feeling the same.”
For dancer and performer Michele Gila, her dance is “a rainbow of delight. Dancing keeps me joyous and fulfilled with my life, along with the community. This dance has become my favorite vision of community and it is women-centric. I like that it is focused around women discovering our own beauty. It’s been a path of discovery. I feel like its evolution on a human level, like we have no choice but to tribal bellydance.”
This dance changes how one feels about themselves, their bodies, their spiritual connection, and their community connection. Wanting to take it to a deeper level, years ago in classes, I began to notice how energy shifted after we had been dancing for a long time. Because our movements are repetitive, they would become very trancey, and we would become blissed out. Always interested in healing magic and esoteric notions, I took the dance further toward the realm of trance dancing.
In other cultures, in the past, yet still to this day, many forms of trance dancing is be done by a spiritual leader, shaman, medicine woman/man, or healer, to assist in the well-being of someone who is ill. These healers believe that illness is caused by evil spirits, or unhappiness, or a need for renewal. In the Middle East, the fiery spirits which cause insanity or disease are called Djinn. The leader will listen to musical rhythms and dance for the sick person until the illness is changed or released.
In Egypt, another form of trance dancing is called the Zar.
“Each woman moved to the pulse of the drum …The sick woman’s movement increased in intensity and speed, her eyes half closed, she appeared totally oblivious of her surroundings, abandoning herself completely to the dance. Her movements flowed freely from the inside out, from her torso to her limbs, gaining strength and speed as she came full circle around the imposing altar to where the helpers were… till finally, she threw her arms up and was about to fall, but the Kodia guided her to the floor…” -From a description of an Egyptian Zar ceremony
Trance dancing has been done over the ages, not only to heal, but also as a way of reaching ecstasy, to release the mind and/or the body, to create ritual, and even to find peace and contentment in everyday life. Using my Tribal Bellydance and healing background, I ventured into creating a form of ritual and moving meditation using a variety of traditions; I call it Tribal Trance. Tribal Trance opens the inner eye of the soul. It clears our mirror so the heart can clearly reflect what is within us. By dancing together, sometimes as a mirror, other times as a catalyst, we help each other find our personal inner path to the One, whomever and whatever that may mean to each of us.
Every dancer knows that her goal is to get to that point where the body no longer stands in the way but becomes the instrument of the soul’s expression, the body, and psyche working together. A chapter in Tribal Vision delves into Dance as Ritual. I interviewed women to understand what they were feeling and how the experience worked for them.
After a Tribal Trance session, Sharon commented, “Trancing like this within our safe community has allowed me to really let go, to allow the feelings of joy to come to me through dancing. This sacred dance has been like an initiation, a shaman’s journey, where my inner and outer worlds fuse. I am danced.”
In Tribal Vision, Peggy Hewitt, another student, comments about the energy of tribal bellydance. “This dance gets in your soul, though that did not happen right away for me. I was dancing, learning the moves, and having a good time. Getting into my soul came later; getting into my soul was like this energy. At some point I recognized that I was feeling this energy. I felt more grounded. It moved down into my arms, and I could feel it in my hands. Suddenly I was finding my hands, feeling it come out of my fingertips. It was like a new body awareness type of energy.”
It is hard to put a name or a label onto what the dance does, because it is so varied for each individual woman. With its base in Tribal Bellydance, this movement becomes its own entity. The structure of Tribal is released, but the support of the community-styled dance and the synchronistic movement stays. Bliss is a key word. Release, joy, wellness. Using dance to let go of inner struggles and insecurities, stuck emotions and even the fear of moving and experiencing one’s own body, is a primal way of healing on all levels. After all, we really have nothing else but our own body, and to be in our body—spiritually grounded, emotionally happy, and physically well—helps us to live and enjoy life to the fullest.