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Dance of Seduction and Grace
Learning the art of Oriental "belly" dancing
keeps muscles toned, history alive

Photo by Richard Rodriguez.
Gale Gunter, who has been belly dancing for 23 years,
performs at the Casbah Moroccan Restaurant each weekend and
teaches a class there every Saturday afternoon.

By Margarita Venegas
(3/26/99 issue)

The tinkling of metal decorations seductively swaying together and the rhythmic clapping of finger cymbals combined with a woman dressed in a gauzy outfit are the stereotypical images of an Oriental, or "belly" dancer.

This type of dancing, known in different countries as danse du ventre, cifte telli, rakkase, Raks Sharki and danse orientale, has been revised and explored by many cultures. According to Karol Henderson Harding, who wrote an article on Oriental dancing for the Society for Creative Anachronism, the origins of this type of dance are apparently from fertility cults of the ancient world. However, religious and erotic elements have been added to the different forms of the dance, making it controversial in some countries, she said.

Modern forms of the dance focus more on the physical fitness benefits and the creativity of the dance, rather than whether or not ancient prostitutes used it for fertility dances. At 3 p.m. every Saturday at the Casbah Moroccan Restaurant on Broughton Street, instructor Gale Gunter leads classes on this ancient art form.

"The three biggest things I stress are posture, isolation and control," Gunter said.

Posture is more than standing up straight. It includes making sure the ribcage is lifted and butt is flexed when appropriate. It is about sensing at all times the position of the body, she said. Gunter starts her classes with isometric stretches that help dancers maintain correct posture.

"I think people have begun to see it's not about their preconceived notions of Hoochie-Koochie. It's a lot of fun," said Gunter, who started her own repertoire after watching her Lebanese roommate undergo a graceful transformation when dancing.

The dance itself is a series of isolated movements layered on top of one another to create the art form. When teaching each individual movement, Gunter creates a series of invisible "points" where the body should touch, then tells her students to "connect the dots" by moving their bodies across all the points. For beginners, she starts out with simple moves, such as side-to-side and front-to-back motions. However, even in the easier classes, the exercise benefits of the dance can be felt.

"In my harder classes I use figure-8 motions," said Gunter, who has been involved in Oriental dancing for 23 years. "You feel it more in your stomach because I teach a type of dance where the muscles are engaged more. It's good for people of all ages because it doesn't require any unnatural movement."

Oriental dancing is designed for the female body, emphasizing movements of the abdominal muscles, hips and the chest, Harding said. In some Middle Eastern countries, the dance is done to help a woman prepare for childbirth. Lamaze birthing classes have similar movements to these dances, she added.

Gunter has taught girls as young as 7 years old and women in their mid-60s. She considers her dance classes to have an aerobic impact, and she said her students do sweat and feel as if they are exercising.

One of her undulating movements is the "rolling" stomach. The ribcage leads the torso forward, back, folded over then forward again. To create "hip circles," Gunter tells her students to imagine they are scooping sand with each hip, one at a time. As each exercise is being done, no other part of the body should be moving, so the dancers must consciously control their other muscles.

Once the individual exercises are mastered, the students can learn how to put them all together to form a seamless dance. When she is on stage, Gunter said she doesn't worry about her body placement, but tries to remember to smile and relax.

"I just let the music move me," she said.

Traditionally, the dance is performed barefoot. Although many modern dancers use Western-influenced music, the free rhythm melodies of Eastern music make for varying patterns of movement instead of repetitive gestures, Harding said.

Props such as snakes, swords, veils and candles have been used throughout history, but the coins on a dancer's costume relate to ancient Greece, when poor women used to dance for their dowry and sewed the coins spectators threw at them onto their garments, she said.

Gunter, who performs weekends at the Casbah, takes advantage of another ancient practice, that of accepting cash tips in the waistband of her costume. However, not all forms of oriental dance allow for this type of exposure.

Ancient Persian and Turkish dancers wore loosely fitted, long dresses with long sleeves and a long overcoat to conceal their feminine figures to conform with Islamic rules. As trade with other countries brought goods from foreign lands, these costumes were created out of richer fabrics from China and the Orient, and cuffed pants were even allowed.

In contrast, ancient Egyptians would sometimes dance nude, with only a waistband to hold money, or in long tunics that had side slits up to the thigh to provide for unrestricted movement.

Moroccan and Tunisian dancers simply wrapped themselves in fabric and tied scarves to their heads.

Long hair and make-up complemented many ancient dancers' costumes, according to Harding and still give women the opportunity to highlight their femininity.

"No matter who you are, you feel sexy doing this," Gunter said.

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