Looking to infuse your nightlife with a little culture? Then maybe it’s time to get your Asia After Dark on this Thursday evening, July 28, at the Freer and Sackler Galleries. The “One Thousand and One Nights”-themed event kicks off at 6:30 p.m. and features Arab beats courtesy of DJ Turbo Tabla and a belly dancing performance by the Barakaat Middle Eastern Dance Company. Cocktails and finger foods will be provided available for purchase, and each guest gets one free drink with his or her ticket. Themed attire is encouraged, naturally.
But let’s get back to the belly dancing, shall we? As a newbie to this graceful, flowing genre, this was the perfect chance for me to uncover the meanings behind those mysterious hand gestures the dancers make, as well as find out if dancing really does work the abs. I caught up with Mariza, a seven-year belly dance veteran and one of the members of the six-person Barakaat Middle Eastern Dance Company, via email below:
Why were you initially interested in belly dancing?
I’ve always loved dance and took classes here and there as a kid, but as a very tall kid I always felt like the lumbering giant in the back. Belly dance does not require a certain body type, nor does it require that you begin training at the age of three. So as a very tall adult I was glad to finally find a place where I could enjoy dance movement without feeling too weird.
What style of belly dancing do you practice, and what makes your style distinctive?
I have trained in Egyptian Cabaret, Tribal Fusion and Oriental style belly dance. My style is a conglomeration of everything I’ve learned plus things I make up and other stuff I see on America’s Best Dance Crew.
Are there levels of certification, like belts in karate?
There is no generally accepted certification or credential system in belly dance. Some individuals have taken it upon themselves to create certification programs but these are particular to that individual and their philosophy. The vast majority of belly dancers do not possess any certification, and it is far from required.
Are there specific meanings attributed to the body motions and movements?
Dancers will at times make gestures, such as pointing to their heart, but belly dance movements themselves are not imbued with any particular meaning.
What are some popular misconceptions about belly dancing?
One common misconception is that belly dance is inappropriate for certain audiences. Belly dance is fun for the whole family. Kids in particular love the joyful nature of the dance and often get up and try to dance along. Another is that the dance is derived from some mystical fertility dance. Belly dance as it is today arose out of the social dances of the Middle East, which were then stylized for the stage.
What’s your favorite dance move, and why?
“The Shopping Cart” because it’s awesome.
What do you find the most challenging about belly dancing in general?
A lot of the movements require you to isolate the lower abs and obliques, muscles that we don’t consciously use in our day-to-day life. It can be difficult, particularly at first, to access these muscles. After their first belly dance class, many people comment that they can feel muscles they never knew they had!
Do you think belly dancing offers benefits that other types of dancing don’t?
Belly dance offers the same benefits as other types of dance—a great way to get moving and increase strength and flexibility. Belly dance is also a very accessible, low-impact form of dance. Dancers are often very grounded and movements are usually within the body column so it is not as stressful on the joints as other dance forms. Plus, in any city of decent size, there is often a friendly, supportive dance community.
And are you limited in the type of music that you dance to?
Dancers who choose to perform a very specific folkloric style of dance would be limited to the culturally appropriate music for that dance, but many belly dancers–particularly American belly dancers–dance to a variety of music, including Middle Eastern traditional music or pop music, Western pop and rock or the Muppets’ “Mahna Mahna.”
What kind of dances should the audience expect to see at Asia After Dark?
Barakaat has prepared a modern sword fusion piece; we’ll also be improvising with drummer/DJ Turbo Tabla. It’s going to be a great night!