Once again this year, a group of dancers from the St. John’s area is out to prove that bellydancing consists of more than just a spangly bra and colourful skirt — and they hope to empower women in the process.
The ladies of The Neighbourhood Strays bellydance troupe are holding their third Dance on the Edge event this weekend, in recognition of World Bellydance Day. Held each year on the second Saturday in May, the global event is celebrated to serve as a reminder that bellydancing is an art form and family-suitable entertainment.
There’s long been a misconception that bellydancing is sexual, said Lori Savory, troupe member and co-owner of Wild Lily Dance Studio in St. John’s. It’s an idea that was taken out of historical and cultural context, she explained.
“In some cultures, respectable woman wouldn’t dance in public, yet you’d want to have a dancer at your wedding to bless the union, so you’d hire a woman of a lower class economically to dance. There was a perception, and not always an accurate one, of sexual availability. There’s that connotation that only lower-class women would do this in public,” Savory said.
“It was associated with vaudeville when it came to North America, and that became stripteasing, so it was taken out of a cultural context and turned into something else.
“In the ’70s and ’80s in the San Francisco area, it started to gain some ground as something other than that type of dance, and that
has developed throughout those decades to now.”
There are different forms of bellydance, like American tribal and modern fusion, that take away from the sexual connotation, Savory explained.
The Strays, whose members have been performing together at various festivals and multicultural events for seven years, is a gypsy-style troupe that specializes in Atseguin (eastern European gypsy) style dance with Egyptian, Turkish, Middle Eastern, Indian and other influences.
Bellydancing is gaining popularity in this province because it’s accessible to women — and men — of all ages, sizes and abilities, Savory said. She herself had no background in any type of dance until she began studying bellydance about six years ago.
“I decided to try it as something different, and to be perfectly honest with you, I fell in love because it was something that was accessible. It wasn’t that it was easy, but it was something that I could do,” she explained.
“I have back problems and it was something that didn’t cause me problems; in fact it’s improved my back health. Your posture improves when you use the proper technique and the right muscles.”
As a bellydance teacher, Savory has instructed students from ages 13 to 85, all of them able to dance, though many skeptical of their abilities at first. With the right technique and some practice, many students were amazed by their own talent and grace.
“In the almost five years that I’ve been teaching, I’ve had that so many times — people coming up to me and saying, ‘Wow, I never believed I could do this,’” Savory said.
“In some cultures, respectable woman wouldn’t dance in public, yet you’d want to have a dancer at your wedding to bless the union, so you’d hire a woman of a lower class economically to dance. There was a perception, and not always an accurate one, of sexual availability. There’s that connotation that only lower-class women would do this in public.” - Lori Savory
“I’ve had a lot of menopausal and post-menopausal women in my classes who find this an amazing way to regain their femininity at a time when they feel they’re losing it.
“The movements are really comfortable on a female body — not that there aren’t any male belly dancers, because there are — but they’re very natural on a female body and they’re not high-impact. When you get an opportunity to see how creative it can be, it’s amazing because people don’t expect that.”
Unlike other dance forms, size is not ever an issue, Savory explained. In fact, bellydancing is easier when you’ve got … well, a belly, and that’s one aspect that makes it so empowering for women.
“It’s good to have something to shake around. I like to say I can start a shimmy and go for a coffee and come back, whereas my poor thin students have to work,” Savory said with a laugh.
“I’ve seen some incredible dancers who are very thin, I’ve seen some incredible dancers who are not thin. So much in this dance form is attitude, it’s about theatre, it’s about what you bring to in terms of confidence. It’s a type of dance form that really celebrates the beauty of every single form of beauty, especially female beauty.”
Dance on the Edge 3 is about bringing bellydance troupes from around the province together to showcase what they do, and The Strays have invited about a dozen other local groups to perform.
There’ll be colourful costumes and original choreography, and for the first time, thanks to a grant from the Newfoundland and Labrador Arts Council, the event will be spread out over two days.
The show is also an opportunity for the dancers and audience members to give back to the community. Because one of the objectives of World Bellydance Day is charity, members of The Strays have chosen an organization close to their hearts — Iris Kirby House — and will donate a portion of the proceeds from the event to the shelter, which serves women and children fleeing abusive relationships.
“I look at bellydance as something that shows women how they can be empowered and strengthened, and I think Iris Kirby House does the same thing,” Savory said.
“There’s that kind of connection between what we do and what they do; in very different ways but the end result is very much the same, it helps women find their strength.
“This event ties a lot of things together for us: it’s about giving to the bellydance community, the dance community in general, and to our larger community. The community supports us and gives us the opportunity to perform and that’s something that we appreciate.”
Dance on the Edge 3 takes place at the LSPU Hall tonight and Sunday at 8 p.m. Tickets are $20, all fees and taxes included, and are available at the Hall box office, by calling 753-4531, or online at www.rca.nf.ca.