26 August

My Belly Dancing Album, Love, Magic, Friendship, Art. It Was So Beautiful It Was Healing

by Jon Katz

I rarely get to see Maria and the Bennington Beledi dancers, and we both worried I was too sick with Covid to go and help out. But as it turned out, seeing Maria dance was the healthiest thing I’ve done. I feel strong and healthy, and eager to get on with life.

Belly Dancing was a shock to me, not that I had any great misconceptions about it, but it just didn’t cross my radar much. When I heard it mentioned, it was usually men leering at the idea of partly naked women dancing for them. When Kitty Farnham, a close friend of ours and a long-time belly dancer (now retired), told us there was a belly dancing performance we ought to see, we decided to go. We both were shocked, delighted, and hooked.

Belly dancing has nothing to do with men and what they might want or not want; it is all about women who want to come out as independent, proud of their bodies, and willing to work hard and closely with others to master an ancient, complex, rule-bound and quite an exotic form of dancing. It is tough to belly dance; it takes years of hard work, cooperation, and learning.

In my mind, Maria was the last person in the world to show her belly in public, not that it’s such a big part of belly dancing. It is the only part of a dancer’s body that is seen, and that is not an accident. But it is also an affirmation, saying, “I will define myself and be proud of myself, no matter how big or small my belly is. Nobody will tell me how to look.”

 

Maria reacted as if she had been waiting for this opportunity her whole life. The teachers – Julz, a fiercely gifted and independent teacher, blogger, chef, and businesswoman, and Kathleen, patient and open – taught Maria will warmth and honesty.

She has done it every week for five years, pandemic or not (they went virtual), and practices every day of her life. She says she has a lot to learn, but Thursday, I was proud and excited to see how well she fit in, how well she did, and how brave and determined she is. Belly Dancing was a great gift to her; she understood who she was through it.

For me, it is just wonderful to watch. I love everything about it, the syncing, the sense of comradeship, and the music itself, which is, at times, warm, exciting, surprising, and touching.

Seeing these remarkable women worked so beautifully together last night was a gift to me, and Covid disappeared from my conscious, and in many ways, from my body. I could feel it.

I put up three videos on YouTube, which can be seen on my channel here. Take a look if you want to see what I saw. Here, I’m posting five portraits I took with my Leica last night with my new Leica 2 camera (is it still new?).

I was tasked with taping the event, so I didn’t have time for the close-ups I’d like to take of the dancers if they permit it.

 

 

I’ve also added six still pictures I took that I think and hope to capture the night’s feel. I hope you enjoy them. I want to do more.

Dress and style are a huge part of belly dancing. Maria and other dancers work hard on their skirts, headpieces, zills, necklaces, colorful brassieres, and make-up. Maria has never worn make-up a single day of her life, but we ran to the Dollar Store yesterday to get some for tonight.

Belly dancing is part of a culture with rich traditions; it is also being reconsidered to move it more directly into contemporary culture and draw new dancers. The group welcomes new members. But it’s hard to see how they will change, the Beledi dancers seem to love the form so much, and it shows.

 

 

Last night was the group’s first performance for outsiders in three years. I see that they loved it, worked hard at it, and believed it made their dancer sharper. The feeling was powerful, both uplifting, affirming, and beautiful. These are robust but compassionate women; they work together weekly without tension, jealousy, or cruelty. It makes me feel hopeful to see them.

 

 

Below is my partial photo album from last night. The photos speak for themselves and show the dancers’ closeness and connection with one another. The music has so much spirit. I forgot to bring my tripod; the light was fading, but I did all right. This is a part of our culture that should be captured and documented.

 

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Thanks for sharing this moment with me.

10 Comments

  1. This picture of Maria, I think, shows a beautiful and happy woman. Thank you, and Maria, for sharing this experience.

  2. beautiful photos…………great videos…………. just makes me smile to see the power in these women!
    Susan M

  3. So much cultural appropriation going on here, it’s embarrassing. I thought Maria was a lot more aware than this. Ye gods.

    1. Suzy, thanks for the opportunity to respond to this new social lunacy.

      First, if you are concerned about what Maria is doing, why not contact her instead of her husband? [email protected]. She is quite able to speak for herself.

      I thought the belly dancing was great, an homage to a rich part of human cultural history. The dancers work very hard and stand for the best in women and men, for that matter.

      As to the issue of cultural appropriation, is it your position that the only dances American women or men can do are the minuet from England and Boston or the oldest Native-American tribal dances, the first in our country? Isn’t almost every popular dance form – hip-hop included – a cultural appropriation?

      Cultural appropriation is real but also dangerous to generalize about. The best example I know of is what happened to the African-American blues and jazz musicians of the South when Elvis turned their work into his rock and roll. They were never paid for their ideas or work.

      To compare a belly dance in Bennington done by a non-profit group without pay to help a museum find-raiser — belly dancing is performed all over much of the world – is just ludicrous.

      Writers and artists have always drawn from other cultures for inspiration and ideas; it is the very essence of creativity. Imagine a world where we could only draw from ourselves. That’s your world.

      Belly Dancing is the oldest dance on record, dating back 6,000 years. Should it be banned because the PC police (with their social media acolytes) call it appropriation rather than an act of respect and appreciation and entertainment, which is what it is?

      Should all foreign cultural history be banned or forbidden as appropriation? Gov. DeSantis would love you.

      This is what the great critic Harold Bloom called the Death Of The American Mind, the narrowing of the cultural spectrum to meet the knee-jerk mind of the American provincial.

      I guess ballet is also a cultural appropriation since it is beloved in America amd and England, is sacred in Russia and is practiced widely everywhere.

      The ATS version of belly dancing, which the Beledi dancers do, is an American version of belly dancing begun in the 1970s in San Francisco.

      Some people accuse me of being a tool of the left, but the mindlessness of political correctness might push me over to the other side. Thinking like this is the greatest gift ever given to the far right.

      Don’t do this bullshit here, Susan; thanks. We are a free-thinking zone, as opposed to embracing censorship to meet the political flavor of the moment.

      P.S watch your own cultural appropriations. Ye Gods is a 17th-century British term meant to prevent blasphemy. You just appropriated it, you ought to be embarrassed. Ye gods to you.

      1. Suzy, I just saw your lengthy (and civil, thank you) and long message replying to my reply.

        I’m not going to read or explore the dozen or so links in it. To me, links are a lazy and cheap way of hiding behind other people’s ideas. I’m sick of people sending them to me in place of thoughtful responses. There are links for every possible point of view; they are mainly worthless to me. What matters to me is what I think, and you think, not what a dozen other strangers think. The Internet is an excellent place to communicate; it’s also a good place to hide.

        I did want to answer you here; I don’t do he-said-she-said battles or arguments; believe me, nobody gives a shit what your links say. In your first patronizing and snotty message, you clarified your feelings, and I made mine clear in my windy response. Enuf. I’m just trying to be polite.

        Arguing back and forth adds nothing to the conversation. I will not change your mind, and your links will not change mine.

        I will also be honest with you, I am swamped now, and I don’t want to spend a minute of my life telling Maria or anyone else in the world where to dance or how. What an awful waste of energy and time.

        I never tell other people what to do or how to live; it’s obnoxious. You seem to like doing that, so go at it, but not here. If you don’t like belly dancing, don’t do it, or see it and go about your own business. This conversation is over for me. I’m’ sorry you weren’t willing or brave enough to contact Maria; I am not a belly dancer, and she is much nicer than me. Maria will dance whenever and with whomever she pleases; good for her. Like me, her life speaks for her, not strangers on social media. I’m with Thoreau. Her lawful choices are no one else’s business. Best to you, Jon

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