Reprinted from the Ryersonian - November 5, 2003
by Rita Simonetta
It's belly dancing night at Ryerson. Meagan Browne is swaying her hips to her choreographed routine. For the past three years Browne has been teaching a beginner belly dance class at the school's recreation and athletic centre on Thursday nights. The 16 aspiring bellydancers listen to the music ad they try to move their bodies in a different way. The one-hour class includes shimmies and hip drops. The young women laugh and make mistakes at times, but they're determined to get it right. When the class practises snake arm movements, Browne checks on each student's technique. "A little more subtle", she says to one student. "A little more soft", she said to another. "A little more shoulder". "I had always wanted to do belly dancing", said Rachel Xuereb, a 19-year-old who's studying social work. "It's sexy and feminine. It was something different and exotic".
The sound of Middle Eastern drumbeats leads down narrow stairs to a dance studio on St. Clair Avenue West where a group of young women have gathered to learn to shake, shimmy, and undulate. The women in the beginner bellydance class are 19 - 26-year-olds. Barefoot and decked out in beaded and coined hip scarves, they try to follow Browne's directions to loosen their hips and stick out their stomachs. "It's the utmost feminine dance there is", says Browne. "It gives women an outlet to express their femininity. It makes them feel sexy. Dancing and shaking loosens inhibitions." This appeal to femininity has made belly dancing popular among younger women. Belly dancing began more than 10,000 years ago and it has roots in Middle Eastern, Indian, and Oriental dancing. The moves were performed for women during fertility rites or in preparation for marriage.
"I was just getting out of a breakup when I started belly dancing." said Jennifer Banks, 21, a fourth-year fashion desing student at Ryerson University. She's been taking Browne's classes for two months. "Bellydancing helped me get in touch with my body and it really helped me pull through," she said. "In belly dancing you don't have to be perfect physically. You can feel free to be whatever you want to be." Browne opened her dance studio, Flow Fitness, in September, and she credits students like Banks for her studio's success.Although Browne also offers Latin dancing and Retro 80's workout classes among others, belly dancing is the most popular. "It's becoming a problem to keep up with demand," she said. "Everyone who calls about classes wants the belly dancing. I have to keep adding more classes." Browne now offers three beginner classes, one intermediate and one advanced class. She might have to add more to that list, she said.
Young women are also flocking to Arabesque Academy, a belly dancing school at Yonge and College Streets. "There has been a huge increase of students coming in and it hasn't stopped," said Melody Bogin, the operations manager. "About one year ago we had to severely change the schedule around to accommodate everyone," she said. That meant adding three more introductory classes, up from three last year, and using another dance studio. Bogin, 25, has also been seduced. She is now taking classes at the school and said it's addictive. "The feminine thing is a big part of it," she said. "When I first started belly dancing it felt so feminine and sensual. I felt very liberated. You're using parts of your body you didn't know you could move or existed."
Browne dances under the stage name Mayada, and at 25, she's a seasoned performer. She started taking lessons when she was 15 and by 17 she was dancing at resaurants, halls, and weddings. Browne said it was the sensuous, exotic moves that attracted her to the dance. "It was so different. You can become this whole other person," she said. People are trained to hold themselves in, so a lot of belly dancing moves are strange for them at first, said Browne. "But in belly dancing you have to let your stomach stand out," she said. "You've got to let yourself go." And in belly dancing, the more curves you have, the better she said. "Big hips are great because the movement looks huge." Some of the most popular moves are the hip shimmies and undulations, Browne said. Hip shimmies are made by rapidly moving the hips from side to side and alternately bending into the right and left knees. Undulations are belly rolls, a signature belly dancing move that requires a lot of patience and practise. There are also head slides, rib slide, rib circle, shoulder shimmy, hip drop, hip circle, and snake hips and arms.
Then there are the accessories that contribute to the drama and mystique. There are many of them from the simple to the more ornate multi-coined and beaded hip scarves, finger cymbals called zills, beaded bras and skirts, and full costumes that cost thousands of dollars. "The big sellers are the coined and beaded hip scarves, tons of CDs, and a smaller amount of full costumes," saide Jamilee Abir, owner of Abir's Casbah, a belly dancing school in Calgary and a Canadian supplier of belly dancing merchandise. Guru Singh at Fashion Fashion, said there's been an increase in sales of belly dancing accessories. More than a dozen beaded hip scarves and sequinned bras hang from the walls of this Yonge Street and Wellesley Avenue store that's been selling belly dancing supplies since the 70's. there's been a resurgence of interest int he past three years, Singh said. "Performers come in all the time," he said. "Everything is by word of mouth. Sometimes dance teachers send intheir students." Stewart Scriver, of Courage My Love in Kensington Market, said his store sells about 10 pieces of belly dancing accessories every day.
But it's not just the accessories that are hot again, it's the music as well. Sam the Record Man on Yonge Street, just a few steps from Ryerson, has a belly dancing music section stocked with single CDs and compilation packages. "The demand exceeds the supply," said Kenny Salter, a sales associate at Sam the Record Man. "We get a lot more in these days and the more we get in the more we sell. There's a lot of traffic around the section. Especially now we're seeing a lot more young people buying the CDs."
It's Halloween night and Browne arrives at Aladdin's Palace at Victoria Park and Finch Avenues for her 9:15 p.m. show. She's a regular performer at Aladdin's, a family-run Lebanese restaurant that offers belly dancing shows on weekends. In her black jacket, dark top and pants, Brown blends in with the crowd. But when she emerges from the change room, her costume attracts attention. She's wearing a turquoise belly dancing costume with elaborate stitching and beading that she bought on a trip to Egypt last June. it was relatively inexpensive at $250 U.S. compared to thousands of dollars she usually pays for costumes she said. The restaurant has a small private party tonight. It's mostly non-Arabs, said Elias Jahshan, owner of Aladdin's. "Business has always been steady, but in the past year we've seen more non-Arabs come out to watch the show," he said. The music starts. Browne takes centre stage with her veil draped around her. She begins to sway and shake. At first the audience members smile hesitantly, as if they're not quite sure what else they should do. Soon , there's applause and foot tapping. Browne chooses a woman from the audience to join her. The woman hesitates. But with the audience's encouragement, she joins Browne under the spotlight.