If you’ve been belly dancing for a while, someone has probably asked you: What style do you do? We’re so tempted and even pressured into choosing a style that sometimes we focus so much on the trappings of the dance and not the fundamental technique and history of it.
And if that’s the case, then your belly dance style doesn’t matter. Not without a strong foundation.
Some of you know that I am an architect’s daughter. I grew up visiting building sites, walking through the frames of homes that my dad drafted out with T-squares and french curves, all by hand. The smell of fresh-cut wood and drying exterior paint reminds me of spending time with my dad, watching him do his craft.
My dad was not only a designer of homes, but a builder of them. As a licensed contractor, he built the two-story addition to the home in which I grew up. He was always fixing things, improving them, and repairing the house. He’d spread out building plans on the kitchen counter, and I was fascinated by how he was able to create a building on paper that stood up against earthquakes, storms, and the test of time.
Growing up around buildings in progress has shaped how I view learning and teaching dance. I use architecture analogies a lot in my teaching, because dancers have to start their training with a strong foundation, just like a house.
A Foundation Keeps You Standing
And what does a foundation do? It keeps a building, or your body, standing.
Houses, as far as we know, have no sense of their place in space. Dancers, however, absolutely must!
For your body, that means dynamic alignment, awareness of your body line, the relationship between your core and distal ends (fancy term for the ends of your hands and feet) and of the connection between your head and tail, just to name a few basic elements.
As belly dancers, we are so tempted to learn a style before we build a strong body and kinesthetic awareness on which to set a stylization. We’re attracted to the look or vibe of a particular kind of belly dance before we even have the skills to integrate that style into our movement repertoire.
But we must learn first how to walk, how to use our feet, how to place our arms, how to move our pelvis in the ways this dance requires so we have all of those movements available to us when we do learn or perform any belly dance style. We must practice these techniques until they become effortless, habitual, and part of ourselves.
From there, we must learn the theoretical and historical foundations of belly dance. We need to learn basic history, understanding how this dance has changed through the decades. We must also start building (pun alert!) our embodied knowledge of temporal (say, Golden Era Egyptian) and regional styles. Then we must also familiarize ourselves with the political and social aspects of this dance, such as questions of embodied Orientalism and gender essentialism.
When we begin with a strong foundations, we can then layer any style on top.
Looking Beneath and Beyond Style
Well, every well-built house has a strong foundation. And when you take away the style of the home, whether it be a Ranch, Rambler, Eichler, Craftsman, or Painted Lady, a foundation anchors the home to the earth.
Our dance technique also grounds us, and gives us refined and habitual tools from which to pull. When we attend a workshop or a class that does focus on a particular stylization, we can better absorb the essence and nuances of that instructor or style without having to ask basic questions like, “How do I do an undulation?”
If you have a strong base in alignment, technique, and basic understanding of the different regional belly dance styles, you’ll be surprised at how much you’ll get out of the one-off workshops that you take with various instructors.
Be Versed in Many Stylizations
When my dad was in architecture school at the University of Pennsylvania, he had to not only learn how to design buildings that would be practical, but also artful. He told me that he was required to design homes in various historical styles. Because of this rigorous education, he was able to design the addition to our home in the 1980s, blending it seamlessly with the older building from the 1920s.
Indeed, as belly dancers, a comprehensive education includes learning how to dance in different historical and regional styles… from the sweeping figure-8s of the Golden Era, to the fiery turns of 1970s Turkish Oryantal, to the lyrical and still grounded shimmies of contemporary Egyptian Oriental.
When we integrate these different movement qualities into our bodies, we are doing ourselves a great service. By learning the different stylizations of belly dance, we are embodying the history, regional preferences, and legacy of the dancers who have come before us… and in the process, we create our own personal style that reflects all of our influences.
And just as some architects end up specializing in certain kinds of buildings, we dancers can specialize in the stylizations in which we are the most versed. It should be an organic process of exploration and discovery, not a decision made when you have just started dancing.
So, when we ask our fellow dancers, “what style do you do?” it shouldn’t matter. We should all start with strong foundations. And that means knowing your body, and how to use it efficiently and effortlessly.