Saturday's Magic Carpet Ride
Belly Dance Festival
It was a spectacular, windless morning at Snowbird, and a small flotilla of adorned belly dancers were gyrating, shaking and slinking through the seated crowd like hissing serpents. Women danced on their own, or in sync with another woman, backs arched way over, small wrist movements, and of course the shaking bellies, grinding hips, all to a pounding bass beat. Over them was a man, dressed like a warrior, almost, wielding a long silver sword, holding it over his head, simultaneously controlling, and subject to, the dancers.
The music was Afro-Arabic — part 3 a.m. Kinshasa discotheque, part Marrakech bazaar snake charmer flute, part Turkish sitar — and the women had jewels on their foreheads and all wore long hair or scarves, long thin dresses, what looked from across the pavilion like stainless steal bras, and tons of jewelry that twinkled, sparkled and rang around their heads, waists, and ankles. From the crowd came uleles - Middle Eastern and African tongue and throat calls — and, as the song wound down, the women danced back to the stage, the crowd clapping wildly and cheering.
The 20th annual Utah Belly Dancing Festival was underway and, once again, a success.
Utah and What Go Together?
Of all the things you might associate with Utah - red rock deserts, chest-deep snow, Mormon churches - belly dancing, frankly, is not high on a lot of people's lists. Though much of the state is a desert, let's face it: Algeria it is not. And bare bellies? Sensual dancing? Ahem, this is Utah, isn't it?
Well, yes and no. Conservative and stuffy though it can be, this belly dancing festival, sponsored by the Salt Lake City-based dance company Kismet, is actually the largest and longest running festival of its kind, according to event coordinator Yasamina Roque. This year's festival has over 500 dancers from all over the West, food and beer stands, tons of dancing costumes and jewelry for sale, and near-constant performances on two stages. Yasamina scoffs at the notion that belly dancing doesn't belong - culturally or philosophically - in Utah.
"People in Utah have always been open and accepting of different cultures and arts," she said told me at the festival on Saturday. "People here, when we started this, were already into dance and music, so they readily accepted it."
Belly dancing is about 10,000 years old, said Yasamina, making it perhaps the world's oldest dance form. Because it developed across a broad spectrum of time and space, there are oodles of different meanings and associations that can be made with it.
Belly dancing developed in the Mediterranean area and was first associated with fertility rites. Cultural well being then depended largely on reproduction, and belly dancing was meant to emphasize abdominal muscles, hips, and breasts - none of which are very interesting on a guy, if you ask me - and appease or catch the sympathies of the Mother Goddess, who apparently had a big say in whether you got preggers or not. Dancing later became the domain of the honored temple prostitute and, with time, evolved from the tradition of Middle Eastern music and its unique beats. Beyond all this, dancing can also express mystery or even comedy. Around 200 B.C. dancers began to use finger cymbals to accompany the musicians. Such three-inch wide brass cymbals, which are held to the finger tip with a small elastic band, are now de rigueur for American dancers. Other jewelry found on today's dancer - golden, brass, or silver head bracelets, waist bands, ankle bracelets, or forehead jewels - had their origins as payment given to temple, coffee house, or street dancers who used the jewels as a sort of down payment on their dowries, or marriage payments.
Today, belly dancing is often called "danse oriental" to distinguish it from more pedestrian folk dances, and the dance styles and music draw greater influence from Western music and rhythm. Belly dancing was introduced to the U.S. about 1900 and continues to be practiced among troupes performing at festivals like Snowbird's, in classes, and in Middle Eastern restaurants.
Um, Should I Be Watching This?
No one in the crowd - most of whom were seated under a large tent and gorging themselves on gyros or pizza - was treating the event like a peep show. And so, no, I wasn't hooting or hollering either. And it isn't about that, anyway. Though I did, from my self-appointed media spot next to the stage, at times have the feeling I was watching something I shouldn't. But that, I realize, is my problem, not that of the dancers'.
The reasons to belly dance are, it turns out, almost as varied as the women who do it. There were slinky waify teens, pregnant mothers, broadly smiling grandmas, and the full figured. The American belly - and I think you know what I'm talking about - was nearly put out of business by DKNY, Calvin Klein and Giorgio Armani a few years back. But many of those lost bellies, formerly shunned, were alive and well at Snowbird this weekend, getting all the claps, cheers and whistles they could handle.
Outside, a dense jungle of green clogged the mountains, and small cascades plunged from cliffs. Chairlifts criss-crossed the mountainside, the tram came and went, and a summer blue thunderstorm moved up the canyon and pelted the ground with rain falling through sunlight. It was late enough in the day that many just left and went back down the canyon; everyone else went in the main tent. A Kismet dance class of about 20 was on stage, revving things up, dancing as one or two then the whole group, swirling in pagan bursts of energy and sensuality. The sudden chill of the shower mixed with the smell of wind-blown wetted pine and the tented smell of beer and pita. There was one woman in particular, an older one with a huge, near-permanent smile, who the crowd seemed to love the most. After her dance, once her breathing had slowed, she said the dancing filled many needs for her, least of all that it allowed her to feel alive and respected in front of a huge crowd
"This is the best woman-in-touch experience that there is," said the woman, who said her name was Sharon. "It is a great group of people, they are positive and creative. But it also lets you express your sensuality." That, she said, was something American culture won't let everyone do.
A duo was performing when Sharon finished talking to me. A gorgeously filigreed woman in tinsel, silk and purple was dancing with a three-foot long sword balanced on her head. Her friend was doing the same, but with less luck with the sword.
After her dance the woman who did better with the sword, who would only give her name as Ameerah, said belly dancing provided a way to express herself that American culture otherwise could not. "It is about beauty and expressing yourself," she said. "It is about accepting and loving your body. But it is also about friendship and sisterhood," she added, harking back to the dance's origins as one for fertility and women, not the enjoyment of men.
"I like the attention," said her partner Amura. "I have done it pregnant, and there is nothing wrong with it. It makes you feel beautiful. In America, we are taught to hide our bodies and be ashamed of them." Ameerah continued: "You have to wear nylons and shoes and it is all constricting. You have to be quiet and demure. Here, you can be yourself and let your belly hang out," she said laughing. Amura added: "And we can play dress up!"
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