September 29, 2005
The crowd at the North Country Fair stares in rapt attention as the dancers move to the rhythm of a drum. Coins jingle on their glittering bare midriff costumes as the women shake their hips and undulate their bellies.
Among them is a dancer called Shoshanna. A major figure in the local Middle Eastern dance community, she leads the Ya Habibi Dance Company and teaches classes at a Eureka studio and at Humboldt State.
Talking later, she says there are always new dancers interested in the style popularly known as bellydancing. "I get people every semester who have never taken a dance class before. They're trying something different or maybe getting in touch with their feminine side."
She remembers when she was one of those belly dance newcomers. When she was 14, Shoshanna was studying ballet at various local studios, among them the Studio of Dance Arts in Eureka. "I wasn't exactly a fabulous ballet dancer, so I was feeling discouraged at around that age when you become an advanced dancer. I was looking for something I could feel more confident in, something I could do. My mom talked me into trying their bellydancing class and I thought, `OK, I'll do it.' I ended up falling in love with it. Now I'm hooked. I'm in it for life."
What drew her in? "There's a very deep connection to the music, which I wasn't finding in the other dance styles I was taking. And I definitely loved the costumes all the sparkly, fun skirts and veils, the accessories of the dance, but as I studied it further and further, I really got a deeper connection to the many different styles of Middle Eastern dance."
She began research on the history of the dance form. Originally, since social gatherings in some Middle Eastern cultures were sexually segregated, the dancing was typically done by women for women.
"It developed as an entertainment dance style over the last century, getting more into the artistic realm as folkloric dance styles were brought to the stage. Dance companies around the world are taking on those types of endeavors, seriously studying the styles, researching the roots.
"Dance can be done for many different reasons. In ancient times people connected this dance style to fertility, to birthing, to different rituals at harvest times and other aspects of life in general. There are dances particular to certain villages, dances done for weddings. It's often a celebratory dance, done to bring more happiness to a happy gathering."
Today's belly dancers draw on Egyptian, Turkish and Lebanese folkloric traditions, often adding American permutations. "America has become a major player internationally," Shoshanna emphasizes. "We have our own style as well as a fusion of different styles, which can be fun."
She describes her personal style as "artsy," based on Arabic Egyptian cabaret dancing but, "with my own American angle bringing in elements from my modern dance training and ballet."
Noting that there is strong interest locally in what is known as "tribal style," she explains, "It's a very American fusion style that's getting very popular, drawing elements from cultures throughout the Middle East and adding American touches. It was created about 30 years ago, designed so that people could get together and do improvisational dance in a big group. It's kind of hard to do if you get together as random people. [In tribal] there's a shared vocabulary of movement and little cues as to switching movements."
The leader of the group might flip her hand a certain way or make a little sound and the other dancers will know to follow, shifting into a new movement. The results seem to be tightly choreographed, but in fact it's improvised.
"The groups we have in town here, Tribalesque and Real Hip Belly Dance, often draw from that aesthetic and bring in more urban dance influences, hip hop for example. Real Hip will sometimes bring in breakdancing. It's really fun. A lot of audiences connect with it because it's more familiar."
After years of traveling out of the area to attend belly dance festivals where she would see and learn from other dancers, she decided to put together a festival here in Humboldt. "Local dancers will be able to see a wide variety of dance styles and take workshops from some great teachers. Lots of different groups will be performing, plus shopping in the dance world is kind of fun; it's part of it. We'll have a bazaar-style shopping experience with all sorts of costumes, accessories, music, hand-crafted things, henna designs, that sort of thing."
Dance performances start at 1 p.m. on Saturday and at 11:15 on Sunday. "All the local dance companies will be there. There's a great troupe called All Shook Up from Garberville, they're going to be here, and we'll have dancers from Ukiah and Modern Gypsy from Redding, someone coming from New York, another dancer from Chicago.
"It's a way for all the dancers to get together and celebrate this dance style. There are so many different styles coming from so many different countries; there's so much for dancers to take in, so much to learn. Once you learn the basic moves, you realize that there's so much more to it, so much you still don't know."
The Redwood Coast Belly Dance Festival takes place from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday Oct. 1, and Sunday, Oct. 2, from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m. at the Arcata Community Center. Admission is $8, $6 for students and seniors, free for those under 12. For details on workshops call Shoshanna at 443-6876 or go to www.redwoodcoastbellydance.com.
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