Gut instinct 

Talking circles around Missoula's belly-dancing scene

“You miss so much if you don’t know what you’re looking for,” says Deborah Simmons, who teaches belly dance classes at the Missoula Children’s Theater when she isn’t working as an office manager in UM’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research. To anyone who, like me, never pictured a belly dancer logging hours behind a computer, hear this: Belly dancers come in all ages and sizes and occupations; they dance styles from classical Egyptian to Cabaret to Raqs Sharqi to Tribal Fusion to American Tribal to Rajakstan Gypsy; and, in growing numbers, they are honing their shimmies and locks, their undulations and snake arms, in homes and studio spaces all over Missoula.

“There’s more belly dancing in America than there is in the Middle East right now,” says Geneva Bybee, a 25-year-old belly dance instructor who teaches American Tribal-style belly dance at her home as well as at the Missoula Athletic Club. “Women reach a certain age,” she says, “and they think they can’t exercise anymore, but this is something they can do. And young people can do it to express themselves.”

“You get to escape from real life, into a different music, a different costume,” says Ann Higgins (stage name Aniysa), who teaches modern Egyptian and the glitzier Cabaret style of belly dance at the University Experiential College. “Belly dance is a lot more than what people think,” she adds. “There are different styles, different rhythms, the right costuming. If you dance to a certain style of music, and you wear the wrong costume, it doesn’t look right…it would be like if there was square dancing music, and you started tap dancing to it. But you only catch that if you have seen the dance for many years.”

For those of us who haven’t taken Belly Dancing 101, trying to wrap our heads around the world of this dance can be dizzying. First, the different styles: There’s American Tribal style, which originated here, not in the Middle East, and which “Missoula loves,” says Montana Athletic Club belly dance teacher and A Whole Pile of Hips troupe member Pat DeLaney (stage name Natalia), “because anyone can pick it up, and it’s immediate gratification.” It’s also a style most often performed in groups, with earthy gypsy garb and grounded, flat-footed movement.

By contrast, Egyptian dance is more classical, explains Delaney, reflecting the Golden Age of ’40s-’60s Egyptian dance, which involves more sweeping floor patterns, a wider stage, and movements done up on the toes. Raqs Sharqi (pronounced rocks-shark-ee) is a showier, nightclub type of dance, with lots of beads and sequins, where “there’s more of a ‘hee-hee, look at me,’ playing with the crowd kind of thing,” says Bybee.

For belly dancers who have dabbled in a variety of styles and don’t want to be constrained to one in particular—“I’ve taken East Indian Classical, Rajakstan Gypsy, Egyptian, Tribal, Turkish, Spanish,” says Women’s Club belly dance teacher Kelli Neumayer—there is Fusion. “I developed my own [style],” says Neumayer of the Fusion she teaches. “I call it the fundamental belly dance…And after you’ve learned the fundamentals of belly dance, the rest is layering in endless variations.”

But even those fundamentals sound like a daunting game of Twister. DeLaney helps list the 12 basic moves of belly dance:

1. The shimmy: a loose vibrating movement of the hips. 2. Vibration: a tightly executed, rapid shimmy. 3. Undulation: a snaky, wave-like movement of the upper torso and the lower torso. 4. Hip Circle: a circular hip movement around like a horizontal clock. 5. Omi: a vertical circle—“you have to squeeze to the right side of your upper hip,” says DeLaney, “then slide it over to the left side and release, like if you had a pencil in your belly button and you were going to draw a circle on the wall.” 6. Rib Circle: a circle of your ribs. 7. Shoulder Shimmy: a back-and-forth locking position. 8. Body Locks: bringing the hip to an up-and-forward position and squeezing the buttocks to get a “snap” (muscle contraction). 9. Snake Arms: a classic, reciprocal movement starting at the shoulders and moving down to the wrists, moving first the right arm and then the left. 10. Head Slide: another classic move, putting your arms over your head as if in a temple, and sliding your head from shoulder to shoulder. 11. Basic Egyptian: a hip movement up and back with a little twist at the waist—“up and out, then down and in,” says DeLaney. “You pretty much do it in your kitchen when you’re cooking, and then you develop the muscle memory, and then your body can do it spontaneously, like chewing gum.” 12. Tummy Roll: an isolated undulation of the midsection, out of the upper diaphragm, then out of the lower abdominal region; then pull in upper diaphragm, then pull in lower belly region.

If you can negotiate these basics, then you can move on to “layering movements,” says DeLaney. “You can add an undulation and a shimmy together with a belly roll. Lavish layers, with more traveling [movement around the dance floor], with locks with a snap—and then your beads are flying.” To those layers, some dancers also add sword- or basket-balancing, brass zills (cymbals), veils, high heels, or—in the mode performed by one dancer in Great Falls—a boa constrictor.

For all its elaborate facets, however, many women seem to have stumbled into the dance in unremarkable ways. Deborah Simmons started belly dancing in Spokane on the recommendation of a friend, a bus driver who had taken it up herself as a way of getting hip exercise that her job did not afford her. Pat DeLaney was looking to sign up for a computer class at Willard’s Adult Learning Center about eight years ago when she came across a belly-dance class instead. And Kelli Neumayer had seen belly dancing a few times as a kid and thought it looked like fun, so when she saw a class being offered at the Women’s Club six years ago, she decided to try it.

“I was hooked the first time,” she says, a common refrain among belly dancers. As Neumayer reflects on the belly-dancing experience, she echoes what the other dancers have said. In her words is the sense that amidst all of belly dance’s different interpretations, there does exist a common thread:

“The thing I found most profound about belly dance,” she says, “is that something happens to you when you start to take belly dance. There is something very old and ancient—it is the oldest dance in recorded history, the most ancient dance form—and something happens to you, you start to evolve and transform…What happens, truly, I think, is that you start to become more comfortable with your body. You find that you tap into your femininity and your strength, and in doing so you develop a better self-confidence.

“Belly dance is the epitome of learning and honing your femininity and strength,” she continues. “It helps you to accept who you are and develop who you are spiritually and physically. You start to realize, oh my gosh, I can actually do things I never thought I could do.”

Kelli Neumayer will perform Rajakstan, Egyptian, Gypsy and Fusion belly dance this Friday, June 11, as part of seventh-anniversary celebrations for Tipu’s Tiger. Dinners at 6:00PM and 7:45PM. Call 542-0622 for reservations.

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