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(photo credit: Courtesy)
If you imagine the essence of belly dancing as scantily clad voluptuous women sensually gyrating for the pleasure of drooling males, think again. "That's what many men in the West believe it to be," says Miriam Perez, "but that's not it all." As a 15 year veteran of all manner of eastern, western and other dance styles, and as an instructor to hundreds of aspiring dancers over the years, Perez should know.
The California-born Jerusalemite will be one of the teachers at this weekend's third annual Belly Dance Festival in Eilat (Thursday-Saturday). The festival is being organized by dancer Yael Maftzir and Yael Moav, who heads Arabesque, Israel's largest eastern dance school.
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"I will be giving three workshops at the festival on specific styles of Middle Eastern dance," Perez explains, "one in the Sa'idi style, which is a folklore style, one in the Sharqi style, which is a modernized style that developed after the 1950s. It incorporates some ballet, jazz, Latin, Persian and many different elements of Middle Eastern dance. The third workshop will be Persian, classical and folk."
And there is far more to belly dancing than one might imagine.
The dance form has been on the rise in this country and elsewhere in the world for some time now, and over 1,000 people - mostly women - are expected to attend. The three-day event offers a surprisingly varied program, incorporating performances and over 50 workshops. Teachers and dancers will converge from around the globe, including from Russia, France, the US, Greece, the UK, Japan and Egypt, and will pass on some of their expertise and experience on subjects connected to eastern dance, eastern music and eastern culture in general.
The western view of belly dancing as something akin to a sexual rite is misguided, though the art form certainly has its sensual and sexual elements. "Belly dancing is also a celebration of femininity and sexuality," Perez explains, adding though that it was not intended specifically for the benefit of menfolk. "Originally, women used to dance for women. There is a strong sense of empowerment when women get together to dance. I'm sure there will be that sort of atmosphere at the festival too."
The visual entertainment and instruction program in Eilat will be augmented by some more intellectually-oriented items, including a symposium about female and male sexuality relating to belly dancing, presented by sexologist Dr. Kobi Meir-Weill. Visitors to Eilat looking to get a handle on the origins of eastern dance will gain some insight at Dr. Rahel Milstein's lecture, while Nadine Shenkar will shed some light on the more mystical aspects of eastern dance at a session intriguingly entitled "Kabala, Women and Belly Dancing".
Acclaimed newly religious dancer Bari Simon will add something of her personal life odyssey to the festival proceedings with a number of workshops discussing her transition from a secular lifestyle to a religiously observant one, and what dance means to her today. Simon's sessions will be restricted to women only.
Another intriguing aspect of belly dance is its use in childbirth. "The movements incorporated in eastern dance, like pelvic rolls, are traditionally used by women in labor," says Perez. "At one time there would be other women dancing around [the woman in labor] to put her into a trance and encourage her to do the movements. I've researched the subject and some claim that the origins of belly dancing are from childbirth."
Considering that Israel is part of the Middle East, it is interesting to learn from Perez that eastern dance is less varied here than in some other parts of the world. "I think there are fewer influences here. What I've noticed, without being too judgmental, is that people here are less experimental. At the festival most people will be wearing two-piece sparkling costumes and dancing to Egyptian music - there's going to be an Egyptian orchestra. In the States, there would be one sparkling costumed dancer, and maybe one heavy metal rocker with tattoos all over her body doing belly dancing. That's actually the style in San Francisco right now. It's called tribal style. It'll probably make it over to Israel in a few years. It's very interesting."
Perez, herself, started out in belly dancing in her native Berkley, California at the age of 13, but then learned African styles, Persian forms and western styles before coming back to belly dancing much more informed.
Meanwhile, variety or no, eastern dance continues to gain in popularity. "I started teaching at Yael Moav's school about 10 years ago," Perez continues, "and many of my students now have studios and students of their own, and their students are already teaching." However, Perez cautions that this proliferation is not all good. "I like the fact that more people are getting involved, but the general level is getting lower and lower because some of the people teaching belly dancing don't have a clue."
But that won't be a problem in Eilat. "All the teachers at the festival are top quality," Perez notes. "One will be a Japanese eastern dancer, choreographer and singer called Kamellia. She's a pretty extraordinary woman," says Perez. "There will be plenty to enjoy and learn from at the festival."