Belly dancing: celebrating roots, inspiring new generation

Alex Nowak

By Sara Garcia

Eight girls clad in long, black skirts or baggy, colorful bloomers gyrated their bellies and hips in unison to the rhythmic music playing in the background.

They did not fit the typical picture of girls working out in the aerobics room of IMPE on a Wednesday night; these girls were performing tribal belly dancing.

The girls maintain serious faces while demonstrating first a slow version, then a fast version of tribal belly dancing. They slowly move their arms in the air while rolling their bellies, turning in circles and raising on the balls of their feet.

Then, approximately 40 girls who had been watching the dance rise to try to mimic the shimmies and taxeems-a rotation of the hips in little figure eights-that the eight girls had demonstrated. Susie Roman, founder of the Tribal Belly Dancing club at the University, stands before the girls.

“Don’t feel bad, it took everybody at least a semester to learn to walk with a shimmy,” said Roman, senior in LAS.

Since it is the new members’ first practice, few of them are wearing the preferred clothes for belly dancing. Roman recommends a baggy skirt or bloomers with a tight top. Wearing the wrong outfit causes dancers to pay too much attention to the wrong areas of their body, she said.

Roman and the seven other seasoned dancers make sure the new members maintain the basic belly dancing posture: bent knees, rear ends tucked in so there is no arch in their back, shoulders rolled back and ribcages lifted.

Roman first became interested in belly dancing when she chose it as a topic for a how-to speech she had to give her sophomore year of high school. She said she founded the group because she wanted to find other people to dance with. The club started with five members, and currently has 288 students on its e-mail list. They perform at different multi-cultural events and at the health fair.

“I like performing because we get to show people something they haven’t seen before,” said Molly Tranel, graduate student.

Diane Brahm, sophomore in LAS, described belly dancing as an opportunity for women to embrace their bodies and feel good about themselves.

Roman said she loves belly dancing because it is a non-competitive, community type of dance that is different from other types of dancing, which often require dancers to be skinny.

Practices are twice a week and normally begin with stretching and abdominal exercises. They then practice different techniques. Roman said they often end with improvisational dancing, which may seem scary at first but provides a chance to learn to give and take cues while following or leading a dance.

The tribal belly dancing club does not just attract students. Cindy Adkins, owner of Le Shoppe, plans to come to every practice. Many of the club’s members find their skirts, coin belts and hip scarves at her shop, which carries new and used ethnic clothes, jewelry and decorations.

Roman taught most of the group members everything they know and said she will continue to belly dance after she graduates. She has checked out several different troupes, including FatChance BellyDance of San Francisco and Mandalia Tribal of Seattle.

The group members love to practice and perform, but few of them know the history behind belly dancing. According to the history section of the FatChance BellyDancing Web site (, gypsy dancers from North Africa introduced belly dancing to the United States at the Great Colombia Exposition in Chicago in 1893. Because the dancing produced financial success, it morphed into a burlesque form of entertainment and lost some of its cultural tradition. Arab dancers eager to emulate Western behavior adopted this modified version as their own.

Jamila Salimpour is given credit for reviving belly dancing in the United States in the 1950s. American Tribal Style BellyDance is “an ethnic fusion style, influenced by Middle Eastern dance but inspired by American artistic sensibilities,” according to an article written by Rina Orellana Rall, a former principle dancer with FatChance BellyDance.

Roman said belly dancing can trace its roots back to ancient Egypt. She said mothers-in-law used to scope out their future daughters-in-law as they danced.

Since then, belly dancing has evolved and branched off into many different types. It has made news in recent years with Shakira’s performances in her music videos, but many students have not seen a belly dance performance in person.

“When people first saw us they didn’t know what to expect, but I think they liked it,” Tranel said.