story by Sue Kiyabu
photos by Sergio Goes
Call me shallow, but the first thing I notice about Willow Chang is her abs. She’s beautiful, but frankly, I’m fixated on her belly. It’s completely flat and seems to defy certain physical laws—it’s a singular entity moving independent of its related parts, like the hips on a Tahitian dancer. She moves her belly to shift her hips—sharply, accentuating the beat, while a singer wails in the background. Snakelike, her belly undulates front to back while she moves side to side. It rolls forward while she walks backward. And when she stops, it ripples again. Her shoulders remain still, her graceful arms held aloft, and she stirs her hips in circles, sweeping round, then round again, then stopping suddenly to shimmy. It’s hypnotic.
Chang is Hawai‘i’s pre-eminent ambassador of belly dance. In the past few years, she’s danced in Frankfurt, Zurich, St. Moritz, Nuremburg, Athens and Cairo, as well as in big cities in the United States. It was in Egypt that this local girl found her Middle Eastern soul: In 1994, she was dancing with a hula troupe in Cairo and living in the El Salam Hotel, which is located in a posh suburb outside the city. Weddings were big business, and processions would regularly march through the lobby. Chang, also a jazz singer, was drawn to the music.
“I heard this sound,” she says, her girly voice dropping to a nasal tone in imitation of the mizmar, an ancient wind instrument. “It sounded like bagpipes. And I thought, ‘Bagpipes in Egypt? I have to check that out.’” What she found was a Zeffa procession, an ancient Arab custom in which the bride and groom are led by a belly dancer through the streets (or, in this case, lobby), flanked by musicians, family and friends. “Seeing this, I became fascinated,” Chang says. When she returned to Hawai‘i, she sought out a teacher and began to study in earnest.
She was just on the cusp of a movement. Belly dancing is an ancient practice that’s finding a new community in Hawai‘i. With the advent of the Internet and the mainstreaming of Middle Eastern music, which has been embraced by singers from Sting to Madonna, interest in the art form has grown exponentially. Belly dancing is often portrayed as seductive and exotic, but in the Islands, as elsewhere, it has a lighter side—as I find when I enter Chang’s classroom at Kapi‘olani Community College.