PHOENIX BRIGHT/ PHOTO- Bellydancers Natalia Hayes (bottom) and Sara Reid (top) pose in dance troupe, Fusion Fascination, at the Emerald Art Center Springfield Art Walk on July 8.

One of the fun and festive performances during the July Springfield Second Friday Art Walk was belly dancing at the Emerald Art Center. Fusion Fascination, the troupe from Belly Dance Eugene and Springfield, danced in the environment of beautiful photography and paintings on display. Looking at the folkloric-inspired costumes, colorful “hair gardens,” and the unity of movement, the dancers were as much of a work of art themselves. 

Although, I might be biased since these are my dance students.

It’s easy to see why belly dance is so inspiring and empowering to those who study it. 

“I never expected that I could be a belly dancer at my age—71 years old,” said Rita Vait, Springfield resident who has been my student since 2009 at Willamalane. “A big reason for me to continue is that I never felt very graceful, and since taking belly dance classes, I feel more graceful and comfortable in my own skin.”

I certainly never felt coordinated before I started taking classes. I was 16 when I fell in love with the art form, stumbling upon a performance at the Oregon City Public Library. From there, my mother and I took classes together at a local community center. Years later, after moving on to other styles of dance, I was in a car accident and told by physical therapists to increase core strengthening to prevent back and hip pain. I returned to belly dance, and eventually became a performer. Every time I injure my body in some new way, my doctors and physical therapists always tell me to do more belly dancing. 

I get varying degrees of responses about what I do—and what people think belly dance is. Some students want to learn belly dance because it’s sexy. On the other end of the spectrum, I get men who look me up and down with disdain and say they have no interest in seeing middle-aged women’s bellies and cesarean scars. When I hear that, I know it’s only being viewed as a way to objectify women, and I don’t want to be part of that anyway.

Certainly belly dance can be sexy, but I see it as a form of artistic expression like flamenco, ballet, or Indian bhangra dance. No matter the audience, it can be hard to get away from the stereotype that the dance is a “sexy dance.”

I had already been teaching belly dance for several years at Willamalane when one of the administrators said with enthusiasm, “Oh, you’re the hoochie coochie teacher!”

Indignant, I firmly said, “I teach belly dance.”

Honestly, I didn’t actually know what the hoochie coochie was, just that it was what my grandmother called strippers. When I looked up the term, I was shocked to learn that the hoochie coochie has been used interchangeably for both!

Belly dance and “exotic” dance actually come from the same origin—at least in America. Though various forms of Middle Eastern dance have been around for thousands of years, the style was introduced to America at the 1893 Chicago Trade Fair, in the Street of Cairo exhibit, where viewers witnessed abdominal gyrations. Though dancers still wore far more clothing than today’s belly dancers, it was scandalous for the Victorian era. The danse du ventre, stomach dance, or hoochie coochie were all names used interchangeably for the same dance. In America, modern belly dance and stripping came from that same root, but branched in very different directions.

Many belly dancers have tried to distance themselves from burlesque or stripping by not allowing body tipping and using a tip jar. Some belly dancers refuse to wear veils because they fear it looks too much like stripping and removing clothes. Other belly dancers intentionally perform belly-burlesque as part of their style.

In order to remove themselves from a risqué association, I have heard many dancers say, “I only dance real belly dance, tribal dance. Cabaret isn’t authentic.” 

But “tribal” belly dance was invented in the 1960s in America to imitate the look of folkloric dance. In order to be respectful of tribal cultures, some dancers are now using other terms like “improvisational dance” or “fusion,” which might alleviate tension between those focused on what is “real” and what isn’t. Modern Egyptian cabaret performed in the Middle East, as well as folkloric styles danced in their countries of origin, are both interpretations of an ancient dance—and both are authentic. 

So when people tell me I am teaching multicultural dance, or the hoochie coochie, or that belly dance is Middle Eastern dance, I pretty much just say, “Sort of.” It takes a history lesson to explain the rich history of each countries’ evolution of dance, whether we are talking about Egypt, Turkey, Lebanon, or what happened after coming to America. I would rather focus on what the dance does for people in the present.

One of the performers from Fusion Fascination, Sara Reid said that, “Dance has been a fun way of creating art with others and growing self-confidence … Going to dance class is so rewarding and fun, I look forward to it every week.”

In our pandemic world, I think that is what people need right now – something to look forward to.

Sarina Dorie is a freelance writer for The Chronicle.