MIDEAST: When Talks Fail, Try Belly Dance

At a belly dance, an unlikely new bridge between Israelis and Arabs. - Pierre Klochendler/IPS
At a belly dance, an unlikely new bridge between Israelis and Arabs. - Pierre Klochendler/IPS
  • by Pierre Klochendler (tel aviv—jaffa, israel)
  • Inter Press Service

Under dim disco lights, straight from the guts, the belly dancers conjure up a hypnotic mirage of swinging moves, undulations and ululations, hip hits, shaking bosom, gyrating pelvis and belly button going round and round — all in a staccato of Arabian techno.

The atmosphere evokes the dizzying abandon of senses of sex-craving male party-goers in a dingy joint. In the incense-filled space — smoking is appropriately forbidden, so please leave your narghile water-pipe in the club's cloakroom — the audience stands up in a roaring ovation at the sight of the exuberant 'Saydati wa Sadati' (Ladies and Gentlemen, in Arabic) cabaret show, clap their hands, climb on chairs, and emulate the actors enmeshed in serpentine and lascivious poses.

Never mind the seemingly insolvable decades-old Arab-Israeli conflict, the absence of peace talks, the plausible U.N.-endorsed recognition of Palestinian statehood, Palestinian unity, the fear of a new Intifadah uprising; forget about the winds of change sweeping away the old Arab regimes of the Middle East.

For the past decade or so, like a hot Hamsin desert gust blowing from the ‘Orient’, belly dancing has swept over Israel, and swept away the usual aversion of this Western-oriented society towards Arab culture. Belly dancers are fast becoming the hottest trend at the moment, and the pure ‘oriental’ fun dressed in shimmering sensuality has turned into the highlights of nightlife.

For the uninitiated outsider, the groove, like a jinni released from a bottle, unleashes fantasies of Arabian nights, and has patently sordid associations — with the ultimate dream of a harem concubine titillating men of power, rejoicing in her femininity in a ritual-like celebration of womanly charms. Harem associations are standard Westerner made stereotype of what Arab women are or could be.

Sophie (she would not give her last name precisely because of the unwarranted stereotype) is an Israeli apprentice belly dancer. She is focused on the show, studies the performers' curvy moves.

'I dance salsa, Israeli 'Hora' folk dances,' she enumerates on her fingertips, her voice belching out the names of her favourite dances in the high register in an attempt to cover the deafening 'Hop-a-li, Hop- a-la' rhythm. 'But when I belly dance, I just fly, I get drunk! It's an addiction, I must confess, pure joy, happiness, fun! I cannot describe it in words, look at me, I'm flying!' she demonstrates.

Gradually, Sophie reckons, belly dancing is emerging as a mainstream activity, attracting a growing number of Israeli women, and some men, from all walks of life and ages.

Nathalie Dvir is Sophie's teacher at Sahara City, a Tel Aviv school devoted to the art of belly dancing. 'I cater to Jewish, Christian and Muslim women, even pensioners — they all come to belly dance!' She also teaches classes of observant women in the more conservative and austere Jerusalem. 'You come home, your heart beats violently; your body shakes wildly!' she says enthusiastically.

It started as a hobby, Dvir recalls, then turned into passion, and then into a profession. 'First, my roots, my family, my culture, are oriental,' she points out. 'I was studying arts, drama, Shakespeare. I went to a belly dancing class, became addicted. Twenty years ago, it was not accepted at all.'

In a sign of modern times, the sign on one of the walls of the school reads: 'Burn your calories faster! Get pleasure from aerobic rhythmics!'

Here, belly dancing is spiced with a definite Mediterranean flavour, with scents of a Greek Sirtaki, punctured by the customary exclamation, 'Yasu!' It can also draw inspiration from Buddhism, revel into ecstatic meditation. The students take position back-to-back, close their eyes and, with their arms, suggest the multiple limbs of a goddess.

Israel's belly dancing also borrows from decadent cabaret-style musicals, trades the songs of lost love by the legendary singer, the 'Eastern Star' Umm Qulthum, and dresses the osée Egyptian queen of belly dancing Fifi Abdo in Broadway star Liza Minnelli's top hat, stockings and cane.

The 'ladies and gents' performers put up a nonsensical parody of seduction and lust that mixes some Gypsy rhythm with musical theatre tunes reminiscent of the German Jewish composer Kurt Weill. 'Why only Arabic?' protests Sophie, 'Belly dancing is for every single human being, irrespective of her, or his, origin. It exudes the most personal and inner self.'

Hence, the list of available courses to prospective belly dancers on offer at Sahara City includes workshops with eclectic names such as 'Tribal fusion', 'Baladi (rural, in Arabic) Strip', 'Broadway', and 'Hula-hoop'.

So syncretic is the Israeli approach to belly dancing that it may even merge the sensual arabesques with the harsh politics of the region — often with a damaging impact. Like when, last October, an Israeli soldier posted a clip on the Internet showing him wriggling lasciviously beside a handcuffed Palestinian woman detainee to the cheers of his comrades in arms who were documenting the dubious performance.

So, with so many illusions and allusions — cultural, historical, political — can belly dancing still bring Jews and Arabs closer together under its spell?

Here, at the 'Saydati wa Sadati' club, it goes without saying: 'Belly dancing is so strong, so powerful, that when people dance together, they're connecting,' exudes Sophie, 'And, it doesn't matter who's your partner, you simply open up, the tension and the stress fade away. It's incredible, once people dance, they become alike!'

So, shall we dance? Shall we bellydance?

© Inter Press Service (2011) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service