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Catching a break at Malaekahana, on O‘ahu's windward coast.
Vol. 11, No. 3
June/July 2008

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Lithe Spirits (Page 3)

Belly dance and hula have several things in common, says Peggy Murphy-Hazzard, founder of HAMEA, Hawaii Association of Middle Eastern Artists (which has since become MEDAH, Middle Eastern Dance Association of Hawaii). Both have rich histories that make them dances of the people. Both have group and solo performers. Like hula, costuming plays an important role in the dance. And it’s not all scarves and bra tops; bellies are not necessarily bared. Some folk costumes look similar to traditional mu‘umu‘u. Some embrace the look of the Bedouin.

“Where it’s been fostered and nurtured, belly dance is a form of social dance,” Chang says. “So here, if you go to a wedding or a keiki lu‘au, maybe an auntie will bust out and do some hula. Everyone who grew up here knows a little hula.

In Egypt, belly dancing plays this role as social dance.” Belly dancing misconceptions do exist in the United States, however. “I think it’s been misunderstood quite a bit,” says Shadiya, who has been teaching Egyptian-style belly dance for fourteen years. “The most common misconception is that the art form is specifically for the entertainment of men.”

At its most basic, belly dance is a physical manifestation of sound. Dancers may choose to attend the narrative, but technically, the dancer’s body reflects only the music. The origins of the dance remain unclear, though some hand gestures can be found in cave paintings that date as far back as 6000 BC. The early history centers on the woman-fertility model, noting that the movements of the dance enhance the muscles necessary for childbirth. But men also traditionally perform belly dance. It’s an art form whose history is fused with the history of the Middle East, with its traveling gypsies, trade routes, religious ideals, cosmopolitan cities and rural peoples.

Early instructors in Hawai‘i took to the form in the 1960s, when the dance blossomed along with the counterculture. The most popular style practiced in Hawai‘i is referred to as American-style belly (ASB) dance. This style includes steps from all over the Middle East—Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Turkey—as well as jazz and modern dance. The rise in ASB is most often attributed to Jamila Salimpour, who is noted for codifying the steps to the ancient tribal form, allowing it to be taught in a universal manner. Salimpour, who lived in the Bay Area, had a devoted following, and her students included several of Hawai‘i’s early instructors.

“Jamila was pretty rigid in her teaching and the quality she demanded of people who were studying with her,” says Murphy-Hazzard, who taught belly dance here for fifteen years but now works as a neuropsychologist. “So she wasn’t the study-for-three-weeks-and-go-dance-at-some-club kind of teacher. And that is the reputation that belly dance has. It’s somebody who straps a jangly scarf on her hips and acts her fantasies out.”

Try telling that to Chang or her class.

When Chang starts the music, it’s “Rock the Casbah,” but not as I know it. This interpretation by Rachid Taha moves out of its punk-rock roots to an exotic soundstage, “Rock El Casbah” with oud (Arabic lute), darbuka (hour-glass drum) and tambourines. I ask Chang about the music, and enthusiastically she praises Taha, describing him as a French-Algerian Tom Waits. The class starts to dance, and it’s great—an otherworldly environment under fluorescent lights, with shimmying, laughing women in sweats and sequins accompanied by a French-Algerian rock star.

“The music is so mystical,” says flight attendant JanDee Abraham when she breaks from the dance. “It’s good exercise. Our class is very diverse, and the girls are very nice.” She pauses, smiles and adds, “And besides, you can wear big earrings and lots of glitter. There are not too many places where you can do that.” HH