HEALTH: Unveiling the Beauty and Benefits of Bellydance in the Bronx
MAKING CULTURAL CONNECTIONS THROUGH MUSIC AND DANCE
With practice, passion and patience, anyone can learn how to bellydance and have fun while doing it. But, please don’t confuse exotic with erotic, says Nahla, who teaches Middle Eastern dance throughout New York. “I’ve dealt with many misconceptions as a performer and a big part of the reason why I want to promote and teach Bellydance (as it’s commonly known) is to show the public the cultural context of this dance,” she says in the following Q&A with Tania Fuentez Media. “A lot people equate it to a risqué kind of entertainment … My hope is when the cultural context is understood people will respect it and enjoy it more.”
NOTE: All photos courtesy of Nahla Bellydance.
TFM: First things first. So, how did a girl from Co-op City in the Bronx become connected with the art of bellydance? Were you always interested in other forms of dance which led you here today?
Nahla: I got into Bellydance through a relative telling me about an instructor she met who offered classes in the Pelham Bay and Throgs Neck area. Initially, I became interested in my late teens because of the beautiful costumes and feminine choreography. Some of the performances I saw on Univision also piqued my interest: two Puerto Rican dancers performing a sword dance on Cristina and a South American dancer doing a Khaliji-inspired dance where she whips her hair around. The sword dance was so elegant and feminine and the Khaliji dance was earthy and wild. What was so striking to me was how the dance was celebrated in a positive way.
When you grow up in the Bronx, or New York City as a whole, you’re exposed to a lot of different cultures and different kinds of music. I myself grew up with salsa, merengue and charanga in my father’s bodega (oldies and freestyle played a lot, too!) I can’t tell you when I started dancing salsa (perhaps after I started walking?), but music was always a part of my life and that bodega upbringing was very typical back in the 80s. Then, in the 90s, I first heard dancehall reggae. Before I heard Barrington Levy, Junior Reed and Bob Marley, but that dancehall beat hooked me! Already dancing salsa and merengue at that age I took to it really quickly!
My friends and I would get together and dance in our rooms and then show off the moves at school parties. With my family parties it was the Spanish Caribbean music and I was a dancing machine at both! I would say these forms of social dance I grew up with led me to Middle Eastern dance. The focus is on the hips, with some feet, in these Caribbean dances; since I was already accustomed to dancing from my hips, picking up Middle Eastern dance agreed with me and my personality. It wasn’t without its difficulties, though!
TFM: What are some misconceptions you’ve encountered as a performer and how do you hope to change that?
Nahla: I’ve dealt with many misconceptions as a performer and a big part of the reason why I want to promote and teach Bellydance (as it’s commonly known) is to show the public the cultural context of this dance. A lot people equate it to a risqué kind of entertainment. They confuse exotic with erotic. My hope is when the cultural context is understood people will respect it and enjoy it more. One man wanted to tip me in my cleavage, another was caught up in his own Arabian Nights fantasy and leered at me like I was the last piece of pernil con cuero on Nochebuena!
Sadly, a woman thought it was completely acceptable to TELL ME WHERE I’m supposed to accept my tip (on my bra strap – big no-no with old-school Arabs). Traditionally, you don’t touch a Middle Eastern dancer but you can tip her in hand or, if she allows it, place the tip in her hip belt. Many people assume this dance was invented to entertain men. Not at all. As far as we know, the roots of this dance are very old, dating back to matriarchal societies. It was a dance made for women by women to prepare for childbirth and to celebrate fertility. As time went on it spread throughout cultures, particularly along the Silk Road and each culture added its own element to it. From there it became an integral part of their respective cultures and would then be used for different purposes such as celebrations or community gatherings.
TFM: Besides having a lot of fun and raising cultural awareness, describe some of the health benefits of bellydancing? Though it may look easy on the surface, is it difficult to learn?
Nahla: Oh, the benefits are many!! Bellydance strengthens your core and tones the body overall. It’s a different kind of workout. Some of the movements may seem minimal, like snake arms for example, but continuous snake arms will really tone your arms and increase your stamina. The upper body isolations, such as undulations or chest circles, tone the core and help prep the woman’s body for childbirth. If a woman wants to give birth, bellydance can strengthen the abdominals to assist in that. And, everyone loves hip shimmies and hip bumps; these are great for cardio and strengthening the thighs.
Bellydance isn’t difficult to learn, even though I’ve been doing it for a decade I remember I had trouble with upper body isolations. Lower body isolations weren’t hard because I was already accustomed to dancing from my hips due to the salsa and the reggae I grew up with. I just kept practicing and told myself all things are difficult at first, but if I keep practicing I’ll get it! So, now when I teach I see my students sometimes have that same trouble; I relate and tell them what I used to tell myself. I would say the upper body, if any, would be the difficulty. Other than that shimmy away, ladies!
Another health benefit is the boost your self-esteem gains! It awakens the inner girly girl for those who forgot how awesome they are and reminds women we can be sexy without showing it all. I’m now a certified SharQui® instructor teaching in White Plains, NY; it is the only accredited bellydance workout in the world and was created by Oreet, an award-winning bellydancer and longtime fitness instructor. Benefits from this workout include improved posture and circulation, overall toning and increased stamina and strength. It’s similar to Zumba because it is a dance workout but the big difference is the Middle Eastern dance moves. A lot of women have asked me throughout the years if you lose weight from bellydancing; I always told them you can if you add cardio to your workout. Bellydance is fantastic for toning the core. SharQui® is the perfect balance of learning bellydance technique while toning and getting your heart pumping!
TFM: Performance art is hard to break into and find success, particularly in New York City. Where does your drive stem from and what keeps you going when obstacles arise? Has inspiration taken hold of you in other areas as a result? Creative minds often tend to unite.
Nahla: My love for this dance is what keeps me going – punto (period). Bellydance was one of the things that kept me going through one of the worst times of my life; it made me feel alive when I felt completely otherwise, so for me, this dance is my ultimate expression of my joy. And, on a surface level, who doesn’t smile when they see a woman shimmying? It IS fun! Bellydance expresses joy and happiness, so that too drives me. I want to spread that joy and happiness.
INSPIRATION COMES IN MANY FORMS
I appreciate the street performers very much; they are doing what they love even as they walk through the train or deal with sweltering summer heat on the train platforms. I had the idea of performing in the parks just see what it’s like but I’m a little scared! Here comes the shimmying gypsy! There’s nothing like live performances from local independent artists, New Kingston or Navegante, for example. Shows like that are inspiring, as well! They’re from the same kind of neighborhood I’m from and play reggae and Rock en Español, respectively. My inspiration also spilled over to singing (which I loved when I was a kid) and making my own costumes, which I never thought I could do.
TFM: Music plays such an integral part in dance, no matter who you are or where you’re from around the world. Any classic tunes you’ll turn to for inspiration? What’s hot this summer and makes you move to a different beat?
Nahla: To be honest, all I really listen to lately is Middle Eastern music! I like to get a little creative and mix it up with my salsa and reggae influences. Reggaeton and dancehall beats are so much fun to bellydance to (though I always tell my students to tuck their bottoms in – “no reggaeton booty!”) depending on the lyrics, I may use the songs in show. I make sure to pay attention to who I’m performing for. Tres Mundos from Puerto Rico fuse Middle Eastern melodies and words with Spanish and English beautifully with a fun reggaeton beat! I love it! Natacha Altas also has a couple of songs with a reggae beat, my favorite is Eye of the Duck. Arabic melody and words with a reggae beat and lyrics – absolute heaven when I first heard it! You just HAVE TO move your hips! She is a very eclectic and innovative artist.
If you want to get into Middle Eastern music I suggest the classics first, Umm Kulthum, also known simply as “The Lady” or “the voice of Egypt” and Farid al-Atrash, one of the most revered composers from Lebanon, are a great start and their songs are well-known throughout the Middle East. Khaled of Algeria, Nancy Ajram, Hakim (the “Lion of Egypt”), and Saad (the Prince of Sha’abi), Hoda, Oojami are modern and fun.
My favorite songs that inspire me are Shashkin (I’m spelling it phonetically, the Turkish name is spelled Saskin), this is a prime example of how these songs are known throughout the Middle East region. Everyone from there knows this song. The Arab name for the same song is Ya Ein Moulayyiten. I tell you, that song brings out my primitive side, I can’t explain it any other way!
NOTE: Learn more at these upcoming events in the Bronx:
- Summer Streets Weekend Walk on Aug. 11, noon-5 p.m. at E. 204th St. between Bainbridge and Decatur Ave.
- International Family Day on Sunday, Aug. 18, noon-6 p.m. at Clinton High School on Goulden Ave. off Mosholu Pkwy
- Allerton Avenue Festival on Sunday, Aug. 25, noon-5 p.m. (on Allerton off Boston Rd.)
Nahla Bellydance (blog): http://nahlabellydance.blogspot.com/
Nahla Bellydance fan page: https://www.facebook.com/nahlabellydancefan