Connect with self-confidence at Movement Arts Collective
It’s a dance tradition anyone can take up, at any age.
“Though I was never a formally trained dancer, I was drawn to various movement activities growing up, like gymnastics, color guard and dance team,” says Stacey Nolan, M.Ed., Bellydance Director at Movement Arts Collective in Red Bank. “I saw a bellydance performance at a cultural festival and was absolutely mesmerized. The heavy drums in the music, the grace, strength and control with which the dancers moved, the colorful costuming, it was all so intoxicating!”
Stacey has been working with bellydance in the Chattanooga area since 2005. Her studio, in partnership with a certified yoga instructor, offers a range of dance forms. Of these, bellydance offers opportunities for performance as well as self-development. Students range in age from preteens to 60 and older, and in experience from novice dancers to members of the performance troupe. Though at the moment only women study bellydance at Movement Arts, Stacey also teaches at Chattanooga State, where male students make up some of her dancers.
For audience members, bellydance may look hypnotic, sensual, and quite difficult, with the intricate rhythms, intense control of core muscle groups, and, often, midriff-baring costumes. However, once in the classroom, students will find the art, based on folk and street dances from north Africa, the Middle East, and southeast Europe, is quite welcoming. It’s definitely a misconception that only people with a voluptuous body type can bellydance.
“Bellydance is for every BODY,” Stacey says. “I have personally witnessed so many transformations, where through the dance, women have learned to love the body that they have. Bellydance helps you focus on what your body can do, not really how it looks.”
What’s it like?
A flight below street level, the studio fills with soft chatter. Students and teachers sit on yoga mats or woven rugs to warm up. Their clothes are soft, layered, patterned: fleeces, socks, sweaters, t-shirts, leggings, harem pants, tunics. The smell of Nag Champa incense fills the air.
A sign reads: “Please take responsibility for the energy you bring into this space.”
The instructor is tall and willowy. Her bare feet handle the floor with the familiarity and alertness of a hand palming an apple. She asks the dancers to stretch and the quiet talk disperses into quiet focus.
Settle in, ground, focus internally.
Check in with your physical body. How is it intersecting with your physical and emotional life?
Her language is poetic, specific, and, at times, pristinely technical.
Notice the rhythms that are natural in you, the rise and fall of your chest, maybe you feel your heart beating. Use those things to ground you.
Take three rounds of breath, nice and slow, let the spine know we’re going to be moving it.
Music: Glass Animals’ “Toes”
I’m a man, I’m a twisted fool. My hands are twisted, too. Five fingers, two black hooves...
The class moves into stretches, spine undulations, upper-body twists.
Feel the energy in the pads of your fingers
Joints crackle into Downward Dog.
Shake the neck like you’re saying no
Windshield wiper the knees
They shed layers, get ready to work. Standing, they move into torso isolations.
Close the right ribs
Close the center
Close the left
Left center right center
Smooth it out
Out of the loose individuality of the stretches, the dancers are now moving as one. The music changes, a hip hop beat: Live fast die young bad girls do it well. Live fast die young bad girls do it well.
They follow the teacher as she’s leading—rarely speaking—the movements, varying the crisp mix of torso and hip isolations, faster and faster. Adding steps, arms. They turn with feet moving on the quarter notes; chest, core and hip rhythms in double time; arms undulating at half tempo; heads fixed in static gaze.
It’s called stacking, the teacher—Jules Downum, MA, Co-owner and Co-director at Zanzibar Studio—tells me later. When performing for audiences unfamiliar with fusion dance, a troupe will start with one body element—the lateral obliques, perhaps—moving in one rhythm. After a few bars, they’ll “stack” another body part at another pace, perhaps the feet describing a slower step-ball-change. To complicate the picture, some traditional music uses complex time signatures—7/8 or 9/8.
The class moves on to vocabulary and choreography. The music changes again—an 8/4 chiftetelli beat, common to Egypt, Turkey, and Greece.
They work on locking, a piece of vocabulary (the term refers to movements, not words) shared with hip hop and funk. In a lock, a movement “sticks” momentarily, like a door opening on rusty hardware. They combine a hip lock, tuck and release, with an undulating arm pattern.
The phrase of choreography adds elements from other traditions. Lock-release-reverse of the arms leading into a barrel turn; arabic to arabesque; campfire to shimmying walk; reset, repeat. The arabesque is a gracious swirl, the campfire a bent-forward grapevine step.
I want you to find the folk in this step. What makes it a folkdance? Is it that it is heavy to the floor?
The dance is grounded; the barrel turn—in contemporary dance a spinning jump with the back arched sharply—never leaves the floor but pivots out of a low soutenu. The teacher explains it’s a movement from an Uzbekistani dancer by way of Pittsburg bellydance teacher Olivia Kissel.
At last they sink down together to cool down.
Let’s inhale one time together
I’m excited to be working with each of you this semester because you are all so wonderful as humans and dancers.
From There to Here
This is an advanced class, Jules says, when I express surprise at how many different languages—ballet and hip hop and yoga—I see spoken. Bellydance does have a traditional vocabulary; in fact, what most people imagine when they think about bellydance is an artificial form developed from folk roots, similar to the way ballet was deliberately refined from Italian and French country dances. A beginning class would focus on the core “bellydance” movements, with language other forms added gradually.
Jules prefers the term “fusion dance” to “bellydance,” and it’s true that “bellydance” does carry a flavor of orientalism, or of creating falsely exoticized versions of other cultures. “Bellydance” (along with that name, said to be invented by impresario Sol Blume, who directed entertainment at the 1893 World’s Fair) was introduced to American audiences as an exotic spectacle in which sensual foreign women danced naked or nearly naked. As such, bellydance influenced American forms as diverse as burlesque and modern dance.
On the other hand, Middle Eastern street dance is a living form. A quick Youtube search shows homemade videos of young people from Turkey to Egypt dancing with the characteristic percussive hip movements, torso undulations, and quick vibrations, showing as much individuality and variety as the next-door hip hop dancer might use in his or her garage video. Quite often, young men are using the dance to demonstrate their physical virtuosity.
The American bellydance tradition known as tribal fusion tends to be eclectic, woman-centered, and focused on costume and performance. Stacey’s first teacher, tribal fusion dancer Andrea Perkins, began what is now Zanzibar Studio, making her instrumental in tribal or fusion dance in Chattanooga on both sides of the river. Other traditions locally add cabaret, burlesque, and other styles to their blend of fusion dance, and some ballet studios also offer bellydance lessons.
As with any form of dance, bellydance offers self-discovery, physical exercise, and the joy of moving freely in a tradition that is both venerable and immediate.
“People may see it as challenging, but they can do it if they stick with it,” Jules says. “When they start to embody the movement, that is a delight.”
Find the Rhythm
March 19: Chattanooga RAQs, with Lauryn Elise
May 6: Zoe Jakes and her House of Tarot, with Zanzibar Studio’s performance troupe.
In Her Words: One Dancer’s Evolution
Lauryn Elise, a Chattanooga bellydancer and movement therapist, tells her story:
"I was really freaked out by movement. When I was a teenager. I felt incredibly self-conscious in my body. Eventually, I ended up struggling with an eating disorder and found bellydance. When I was in the beginning stages of healing.
I was in a coffee shop on Vine Street and saw a pamphlet inviting me to “unleash [my] inner goddess”, I realized the space was right down the street, so I wandered in spontaneously.
I saw two totally different women rehearsing and seeming confident, connected, powerful, and beautiful in unique garb. Being around women in their natural bodies and learning how to move mine in a complicated and delightful way worked wonders for my eating disorder and propelled me into long-term recovery.
I eventually became a dance/movement therapist based on that powerful, healing use of movement, which says a lot for someone who was terrified of leotards in high school.
Basically, I do my practice now because it keeps me grounded in myself. I work as a dance/movement therapist and counselor, which means that I pick up on a lot of people’s stress all day.
My practice is my time to connect to my own body, mind, and spirit and wipe the slate clean. Sometimes I don’t even know how I’m feeling until I dance, and I get more grounded and clear. More than anything, the practice reminds me of who I am."