Issue 11.3: June/July 2008

Lithe Spirits

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.


 

 

I am greeted by the sound of jangling coins, like a poker player enjoying her winnings. Eighteen women stand in rows facing the classroom mirror; around their waists they wear multicolored sarongs laced with fake coins and sequins. On Chang’s command, they crouch to the ground. “One.” They roll their shoulders. “Two.” They begin to lift, shimmy and shake.

They are a diverse lot—from Argentina, Germany, North Carolina, Seattle and Hawai‘i. They are accountants, astronomers, anthropologists, flight attendants and special-education teachers. In practice they look a ragtag ensemble: tall, short, blond, brunette. Other than one lone purple-harem pantsuit straight out of I Dream of Jeannie, they don tights, sweats and shorts. Some have bellies that are flat; others are voluminous. The dancers count through the numbers without music, maintaining an affection that becomes evident at the end of each set, when they break to slap each other on the back, give each other high-fives, gently pat each other’s arms. And to giggle small, self-effacing giggles.

“I just moved here from Arizona, and one of the things that’s so cool is that dance is such a big part of the culture here,” says Beth Biller, an astronomer at the University of Hawai‘i. “It’s based in hula, but it’s all dance. People here really care about it, which is awesome.”


 

Belly dance and hula have several things in common, says Peggy Murphy-Hazzard, founder of HAMEA, Hawaii Association of Middle Eastern Artists (which has since become MEDAH, Middle Eastern Dance Association of Hawaii). Both have rich histories that make them dances of the people. Both have group and solo performers. Like hula, costuming plays an important role in the dance. And it’s not all scarves and bra tops; bellies are not necessarily bared. Some folk costumes look similar to traditional mu‘umu‘u. Some embrace the look of the Bedouin.

“Where it’s been fostered and nurtured, belly dance is a form of social dance,” Chang says. “So here, if you go to a wedding or a keiki lu‘au, maybe an auntie will bust out and do some hula. Everyone who grew up here knows a little hula.

In Egypt, belly dancing plays this role as social dance.” Belly dancing misconceptions do exist in the United States, however. “I think it’s been misunderstood quite a bit,” says Shadiya, who has been teaching Egyptian-style belly dance for fourteen years. “The most common misconception is that the art form is specifically for the entertainment of men.”

At its most basic, belly dance is a physical manifestation of sound. Dancers may choose to attend the narrative, but technically, the dancer’s body reflects only the music. The origins of the dance remain unclear, though some hand gestures can be found in cave paintings that date as far back as 6000 BC. The early history centers on the woman-fertility model, noting that the movements of the dance enhance the muscles necessary for childbirth. But men also traditionally perform belly dance. It’s an art form whose history is fused with the history of the Middle East, with its traveling gypsies, trade routes, religious ideals, cosmopolitan cities and rural peoples.

Early instructors in Hawai‘i took to the form in the 1960s, when the dance blossomed along with the counterculture. The most popular style practiced in Hawai‘i is referred to as American-style belly (ASB) dance. This style includes steps from all over the Middle East—Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Turkey—as well as jazz and modern dance. The rise in ASB is most often attributed to Jamila Salimpour, who is noted for codifying the steps to the ancient tribal form, allowing it to be taught in a universal manner. Salimpour, who lived in the Bay Area, had a devoted following, and her students included several of Hawai‘i’s early instructors.

“Jamila was pretty rigid in her teaching and the quality she demanded of people who were studying with her,” says Murphy-Hazzard, who taught belly dance here for fifteen years but now works as a neuropsychologist. “So she wasn’t the study-for-three-weeks-and-go-dance-at-some-club kind of teacher. And that is the reputation that belly dance has. It’s somebody who straps a jangly scarf on her hips and acts her fantasies out.”

Try telling that to Chang or her class.

When Chang starts the music, it’s “Rock the Casbah,” but not as I know it. This interpretation by Rachid Taha moves out of its punk-rock roots to an exotic soundstage, “Rock El Casbah” with oud (Arabic lute), darbuka (hour-glass drum) and tambourines. I ask Chang about the music, and enthusiastically she praises Taha, describing him as a French-Algerian Tom Waits. The class starts to dance, and it’s great—an otherworldly environment under fluorescent lights, with shimmying, laughing women in sweats and sequins accompanied by a French-Algerian rock star.

“The music is so mystical,” says flight attendant JanDee Abraham when she breaks from the dance. “It’s good exercise. Our class is very diverse, and the girls are very nice.” She pauses, smiles and adds, “And besides, you can wear big earrings and lots of glitter. There are not too many places where you can do that.” HH