Take enough belly dance classes and you’ll see her: The nervous but glowing newbie, bounding in in her $12 jingly hip scarf and yoga pants, inspired by some video she saw of a belly dancer where she thought “I can do that!”
She comes in and is ready to SHIMMY. Because, of course, she’s going to pick that up in the first class, and in no time she’ll be a brilliant dancer, awing her friends and family with her amazing moves.
But then, in the midst of the class, she realizes how crazy freaking HARD belly dance is. Her hips won’t shimmy, she can’t figure out how to make a belly roll happen, and when she tries the movements she looks nothing like the other dancers. Her enthusiasm turns from joyous to deer-in-headlights.
So after a couple of frustrating classes, she never returns.
This is, of course, a tad of an exaggeration, but similar experiences happen all the time.
I have to admit, I had no idea how hard belly dance was going to be when I took my first class. I grew-up studying ballet, tap, modern, jazz, and swing dancing. I had lots of performance experience. I was going to breeze into class and pick it up in no time, I just knew it. I’d always been a very “hip-oriented” dancer. I had this in the bag.
But then, those first few classes, I became so frustrated.
Belly dance uses muscles I wasn’t used to activating. I could not, for the life of me, activate my glutes separately in order to make my hips lift, belly rolls from down to up just weren’t happening, and walking while doing a vertical figure-8 was the most mind-boggling thing ever.
But, I would not be dissuaded! I took classes once a week, I supplemented with videos so I could practice more at home, and I shimmied while doing everything: The dishes, vacuuming, and even unconsciously in public. Eventually, my muscles activated, and my body got it down. Months went by, and my movement vocabulary started expanding, it felt more and more comfortable in my skin. What bliss! Finally, I could shimmy shake it like I’d always dreamed! But I think it took me, even with my years of dance experience, about a year of hard work to feel like I’d reached a more intermediate level.
I think we do have this perception in our culture that folk dances are less disciplined, less complex, and thus easier to do than the dances we perceive as high art forms: Ballet and Modern. But that’s not really the case.
I don’t want to dissuade any potential belly dancers from taking classes because they’re hard. Quite the opposite. Things that are challenging are SATISFYING. This dance is a complex flower that will slowly bloom for you over time, not some cheap dime store entertainment to be fiddled with and then discarded. You will get an awesome workout, you will get more in-tune with your body, and you will look badass while doing it.
I feel blessed that my first teacher was Dilek Hoss, who was teaching Suhalia Salimpour technique Level 1 style classes. It was very meticulous and technical, and while it wasn’t as immediately gratifying… I took a 6 week class and didn’t learn much in the way of choreography, only drills… I know it made me a better dancer. A strong foundation is where it’s at. Yes, that means LOTS of “boring” drills.
So there it is. If you want to belly dance, realize it’s going to be challenging, it’s going to be a journey, but if it sings to you in your heart, you should DO IT.