belly dancing 88.
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Belly dancing is the art of illusion: What you see is only a small part of what's really there.
Whether as art form, exercise or as a tool for building confidence and self-esteem, belly dancing has become the "in" thing for girls and women of all ages and backgrounds in Israel's South - and maybe not for the reasons you'd think.
According to Beersheba's premier professional belly dancer Yaeli -Yael Gilboa-Nomis - the essence of belly dancing is not to display female sexuality but rather to use it as a tool to allow the woman to develop the self-confidence and freedom to become more fully herself, not just in the dance but in life in general.
Belly dancing is all about femininity, not feminism, says Gilboa-Nomis, making clear the distinction. "Belly dancing allows a woman to express her deepest, innermost, soul. It allows her to use her body to tell you what she feels. When you look at a belly dancer, you see something very lovely, very beautiful -- there's nothing wrong with that. But the essence of the art flows back to the woman who dances. It's more than just moving the body with the music. It's a way of releasing each woman's own unique energy, allowing her to interpret, for herself, who she is at that moment."
For today's perfection-obsessed women, belly dancing holds particular appeal. "So many women who come to my classes are shy and embarrassed," says Gilboa-Nomis. "I remind them that this is an ancient dance, something that women - for thousands of years, from many cultures - have done, each in their own way. Women tell me that they hate their bodies. They're too fat, too big or too small, they aren't coordinated. But none of that is true. Every woman, regardless of how she looks, has her own dance within her. She just needs to learn to express it."
Her assurances come from personal experience. Born 29 years ago in Haifa to an Israeli mother and an Egyptian father who came to Israel in his teens, Gilboa-Nomis herself was once too shy to try.
"I went to high school in Mitzpe Ramon and loved both art and dance, but I didn't think my body was good enough for dance," she says. "I studied painting and sculpture instead. After the army I was at a crossroads - I was unhappy with my body image and everything else. But I'd heard there was a great dance teacher, Miri Alon, who had a studio near the sea in Tel Aviv. I longed to dance but had low self-esteem and no confidence at all," she recounts.
"I called Miri and tried to explain all my fears, but she just said, 'Come.' So I went. From the moment I walked into her studio, I felt at completely at home. The sense of peace, of belonging, was almost mystical. I started dancing, and I haven't stopped since."
Years of study and classes followed before she began teaching.
"I studied with Miri and many other teachers all over Israel. I'd been working in Sde Boker and fell in love with the Negev," she says. "The quiet and silence inspire me, but I still needed work. Miri told me it was time to start teaching myself, so fours years ago, I began."
Gilboa-Nomis is also in her third year of a BA in Art and Education at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. "But my passion is the dance," she says, noting that she teaches at least 10 classes a week.
"I have 20 to 30 students in each class, sometimes two classes a night. Larger classes are better because there's greater energy - electricity jumps from one to another. It's more fun."
Is "belly dancing" the right term?
"Some say 'Oriental or 'Eastern' dance," she says, "but I don't think the title matters - it's the essence that's important, the language of the dance. When I dance, my body speaks its own language. I say things I can't say in words. That's why there's no right or wrong style. There are dozens of different traditions, different movements, with each woman speaking her own way."
The dance dictates an approach to life, she says. "In the dance, we stand straight and tall, centered. It's the way to approach life. It's not just posture, it's attitude. You must keep your chin up, look out at the horizon.
"If you approach life hunched over, scrunched up, looking down, you'll go down. If you look out to the horizon, then you can go as far as you like."
Gilboa-Nomis encourages women to break free of self-imposed barriers.
"There are established moves and steps," she says. "But in my classes, I don't think that three steps or four matter. What's critical is that you be present in the dance, unite your body, soul and mind, give it meaning. You can't dance another woman's dance - it must come from deep inside each woman. I teach big movements. The dance comes from my entire body - eyes, ears, head, hands, everything."
Thinking of belly dancing as exercise doesn't mesh with her philosophy.
"Of course it's good for the body," she says. "It's good for muscles, and it's actually very hard work. When my classes are over, it's like I've played a sport. But that's not the objective. The goal is to equip women to tap into their own inner strength, to be more fully themselves."
Even for Gilboa-Nomis there is an element of therapy.
"When I'm dancing, time doesn't exist," she says. "I'm in a different place, totally within myself, totally present in the moment. It's almost like a trance. I just can't stop smiling. I may have been tired or depressed when I began, but when I dance, all that disappears. I feel the music and move into my own world."
Is there an erotic element to belly dancing?
"I'm not naive," says Gilboa-Nomis. "Of course there's a connection between eroticism and belly dancing. You can't ignore it entirely. But again, it depends on the woman. If she chooses to play on that element, she can make it sexual and erotic. Or it can be something else entirely - a meditation, a beautiful way of expressing yourself. Part of being a woman is that each of us has an element of sexuality and femininity. What the dance does is allow her to be herself, in that element as in any other."
In recent months, she has been moving in the direction of greater modesty.
"In Cairo, I found several videotapes of belly dancers from the 1940s. It's interesting how many were very modestly attired, some covered completely. The beauty came from their movements - their grace, not the costume."
While she does perform occasionally, she prefers teaching.
"To perform is a one-time thing," she says. "In teaching, I form a relationship with each student. I see how she grows and asserts herself. Teaching is far more rewarding."
Each of her classes ends with a tradition: "We stand in a circle and then each woman, in turn, moves into the center and dances alone. For many women, that's very hard to do - it was for me at first. But doing it is essential. Women need to break through their own barriers, to move beyond what they thought they could do."
The confidence-building aspect is especially appropriate for classes Gilboa-Nomis teaches at women's shelters. "Teaching women who are very poor or have been abused is especially rewarding. Over the weeks, I watch them blossom, gain self-esteem and control. The classes for teenagers do the same - I see them finding their own source of inner strength and power. My classes are women-only, so they sense a degree of privacy and security."
"Women spend too much time looking in the mirror," Gilboa-Nomis asserts. "We shouldn't be so critical of ourselves. We pass too much judgment on our bodies. You have what you have, so use it, dance! Be completely yourself."