Atypical visit to Jamila’s Restaurant in the Riverbend might include mergeuz lamb sausage, a steaming clay pot of couscous and, if the dinner happens to be on a Saturday night, a close encounter with the shimmying, shaking, bejeweled spectacle of live belly dancing.
Jamila’s is one of several local restaurants and nightclubs to regularly showcase belly dancing, an ancient folk dance that lately has been attracting and enchanting larger audiences across the country. Dressed in two-piece costumes designed to be as eye-catching as possible and usually accompanied by recordings of the drumbeats, finger bells and unfamiliar strings of Middle Eastern music, these dancers are the picture of exoticism and intrigue. Yet their performances in public venues represent just the tip of a subculture that can take on many different roles in the lives of local women who pursue it. A hobby for some and a vocation for others, belly dance can fulfill personal needs ranging from a regular fitness routine to a vehicle for spiritual renewal and artistic expression.
“I think a lot of women are getting into belly dancing because it makes them feel good about themselves, about being female,” says Kryss, the stage name of a local belly dancer, dance teacher and co-founder of the Sisters of Salome dance cooperative. “It’s a form of dance that raises self-esteem. They stand taller, more confident. They tell me they notice people respond to them differently after they’ve started belly dancing.”
There has been a core group of dancers in New Orleans going back to at least the 1970s, today’s teachers say, and the belly dance community has been growing as dancers evolve into teachers themselves and cultivate fresh generations of enthusiasts.
“In the culture, in the Middle East or Africa, it’s passed down through the family, through sisters, mothers, aunts,” says Amae Amani, the stage name of another dancer, teacher and Sisters of Salome leader. “It’s gotten big here and some of those similarities are still going.”
Different forms of belly dance are represented in New Orleans, offering unique experiences for dancers and their audiences. The type known as cabaret style, as practiced by the Sisters of Salome, follows traditions going back many centuries in eastern Mediterranean cultures and features individual dancers in solo performances. Meanwhile, the local troupe N.O.Madic Tribal Belly Dance Company specializes in a newer form called American tribal style belly dance, which was invented in the U.S. in the 1970s. This style draws on elements from an array of traditional dances and is performed with several dancers moving in unison.
“Most people can dive right in if they’re interested but it’s not the kind of thing where you can just take a few classes and you’ve got it,” says Amy Hession, dancer, teacher and co-director of N.O.Madic. “It’s more like a practice, something where you always have something to learn.”
Many belly dancers never perform publicly but weave the art into their lives in the way others pursue yoga – attending class weekly or learning on their own. In the club or in the studio, improvisation is a key element to the dance. Teachers and students freely borrow from different traditions, reinterpreting what they’ve seen elsewhere as they create their own style.
“I think that’s why it appeals to so many different women,” says Amani. “I doesn’t matter – white, Asian, black, fat, skinny, whatever. Everyone has their own style and they’re all beautiful for it.”
Kryss adds that the inclusive aesthetic of belly dancing can be a cathartic revelation for new students.
“One thing I tell my classes that always gets them laughing is that, despite everything else society tells us, if it jiggles, it’s good a thing in belly dancing,” she says.
“With Western dance, like ballet, there’s this focus on body image, of being skinny and fitting a mold and that means you’re done with your dancing career at age 26. With ethnic forms, like belly dancing, it’s at 26 or 30 that you’re just starting to have the life experience to transmit the feeling, the range of emotions the music can bring out through the body,” Kryss says.
There has been more attention on the dance after pop stars, including Britney Spears and Shakira, began incorporating some of its fundamental moves in their own performances. Internet sites like YouTube have given more women a chance to learn about it as well. But the first exposure many others have is through local performances at restaurants, clubs and festivals, often hosted by people with a connection to the root cultures of belly dance.
“It’s very common back home,” says Tarek Tay, a native of Lebanon and co-owner of the local Byblos chain of Middle Eastern restaurants. “You would see it in restaurants but more often it’s something you have at a celebration, like a wedding.”
Byblos restaurant on Magazine Street features cabaret-style belly dancing from the Sisters of Salome each Thursday evening during prime dinner hours. Tay says it has grown into a popular draw.
“It’s fun and it’s different, it attracts all kinds of people. You might be surprised. We had some kids in here, three or four years old, they couldn’t take their eyes off the dancers. They were just fascinated,” says Tay. “Some people’s impression of it is all wrong, though. They say, ‘oh, you have belly dancing? Well I’ll send my husband down to see that.’ But it’s not like that. Sometimes the women end up enjoying the performance more than the men.”
Local dancers and teachers say they frequently have to contend with misconceptions about belly dancing. In fact, traditional belly dance costumes can seem modest compared with some contemporary mainstream nightclub fashion. But the combination of a little flesh and a whole lot of feminine mystique – the very foundation of the dance – sometimes proves confusing for the uninitiated. Dancers often engage in some gentle education for their new audiences, explaining the ancient roots of the dance. They have also learned the value of maintaining respectful boundaries.
“There are two words that will cancel any gig instantly for us, and those are ‘bachelor party,’” says Hession.
Where to see belly dancing
Fridays, 9 p.m. to 11 p.m.
435 Esplanade Ave.
Thursdays, 8 p.m. to 10 p.m.
3218 Magazine St.
Saturdays, 11 p.m. to 1 a.m.
230 Decatur St.
Saturday nights, 8 p.m. to 10 p.m.
7808 Maple St.
Friday nights, 9 p.m. to 11 p.m.
2633 Williams Blvd.
Information on belly dance classes
American Tribal Style
N.O.Madic Tribal www.nomadictribal.com710-9083
Sisters of Salome www.dktdance.com382-5199