Navel gazing

Believe it or not, belly dance is a folk tradition not originally used to attract men. With ancient roots in North Africa and the Middle East, the dance was a female-centric childbirth tradition, associated with happiness, fertility and femininity. Today, it’s America’s new exotic dance trend, hailed as a great cardiovascular workout.

Belly dancing’s isolated movements of the abdomen — circular, vibrating, angular and rolling — tone the stomach, lower body and back, and for that reason classes in the Old-World dance are popping up all over.

“It helped me connect with my body,” says Amar Gamal, a featured dancer in The Bellydance Superstars, a nationally touring belly dance troupe coming to the Magic Bag in Ferndale this weekend as part of its 58-city tour.

“For ballet, you need a certain body type. I have hips, I’m curvy,” she says.

Born in Cuba, Gamal started belly dancing at the age of 13. After she was accepted to a prestigious Miami performing arts high school, the pressure to be thin nearly drove her to an eating disorder, she says.

“What helped me was belly dancing. It gave me self-esteem.”

An Aerobics and Fitness Association of America-certified instructor, Gamal has performed in many dance companies, and co-founded the New York City-based Bellyqueen, a progressive belly dance company. She says that once women try belly dancing for exercise, they realize it’s an art form, and a transformation takes place.

“In the beginning women are covered up, and by the end, they’re wearing tiny shirts. They become less self-conscious.”

Gamal is giving a five-hour workshop in Birmingham on the day of her troupe’s performance. She’ll teach a mix of Egyptian styles blended with flavors of Latin, jazz and ballet. The classical format features more subtle movements than the sharper, bigger American-style movements. Tribal style blends traditions, and includes gypsy, flamenco, and Indian dances. Tribal is often performed improvisationally and in groups.

Gamal categorizes her workshop as “beginner-intermediate,” for people who have seen the basic moves before. She says the dance is not tough to learn, and appropriate for any age. She says men are welcome.

Miles Copeland, creator and manager of the Los Angeles-based Superstars, which he claims is the first professional, touring belly dance troupe in history, says the dance form is “sexy without being naughty.”

He denies it’s purely a magnet for the male libido.

“This is the only dance form for women, by women,” he says. His troupe actually draws more women than men in national audiences, although that’s changing as word of the show is getting out, he says.

Copeland, whose Ark 21 label managed Sting for 23 years, was searching for a way to fuse music and dance for Mondo Melodia, his offshoot world music label, when he discovered belly dancing.

His fully choreographed production will include 12 dancers, a percussionist and lots of costume changes. The belly dance style will be primarily classical, in the Arabic Raks Sharqi tradition, meaning “Oriental dance.” The show will include a fusion of American and tribal influences including Polynesian and fire dancing.

For the show, Copeland uses pop songs like Sting’s “Desert Rose.”

“We use music that’s not alien to American audiences,” Copeland says.

Though the dance form is gaining in mainstream popularity, it remains a traditional form, and can be found in Mediterranean- and Arab-influenced restaurants and clubs, but the dance is taboo for conservative families. Copeland’s Bellydance troupe caters mainly to a non-Arab audience when it tours the country.

“Our audiences are mainstream America. We’re hoping the Arabic community will get into it as well,” says Copeland, noting there are no Arabic dancers in the troupe. “One woman wanted to, but she said her family would be upset. In this way, we’re doing something subversive by jolting restrictions in the Arabic community.”


The Bellydance Superstars perform Saturday, March 27, at the Magic Bag in Ferndale. Doors open at 6 p.m., and show times are 7 and 10 p.m. Tickets are $20 at the door. Call 248-544-3030.


The Bellydance Superstars Workshop with Amar is Saturday, March 27, from noon to 5 p.m., including a one-hour break, at the Community House (380 S. Bates) in Birmingham. The workshop is $65 in advance, $70 at the door, and an $85 pre-registration includes the workshop and the Magic Bag performance. Call 248-644-5832.


A workshop with Master Instructor Ansuya is Sunday, March 28, 12:30-4 p.m., including a 30-minute break, at the Community House. Registration is $50.


In metro Detroit, belly dance classes are offered at the Southfield branch of Bally Total Fitness and at the YMCA Macomb Branch.


For those looking to become a Bellydance Superstar, Gamal recommends buying the instructional DVD, Bellydance Jam, featuring herself and Bellyqueen partner Kaeshi, or the Bellydance Superstar CDs, both on the Mondo Melodia label.

Erica Davis is a freelance writer for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]
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