Expect a lot more than harem costumes and shimmying this Friday during the Vineyard Bellydance and Revue show. The troupe of dancers has been performing charitably for years — entertaining folks at Windemere, the Boys and Girls Club, Island senior centers, and elsewhere. They have also traditionally been a part of the former Last Night/First Day celebration, and the annual Built on Stilts event in August. Friday, for the first time, the group will hold a full-scale public production at the Katherine Cornell Theatre.
The hour and a half show spotlights a variety of Middle Eastern dances as interpreted by the troupe, and also includes other local dance groups presenting ballroom dance, salsa dance, and Brazilian capoiera (a blend of martial arts and dance) for a fun mix of dance and music from around the world.
The group of seven women who make up the troupe take weekly lessons from Suzanna Nickerson, who has been studying and performing dance since 1978, and teaching belly dancing since she moved here in 1989.
While living in New York and working in the fashion industry, Ms. Nickerson was a member of a folkloric dance troupe led by a renowned Middle Eastern dance historian. She has lived and traveled all over, spent some time in the Middle East, and studied Japanese, East Indian, and Hawaiian hula dance forms.
“Belly dance roots come from all the different cultures,” Ms. Nickerson says, speaking on the variety of styles the show represents. “In America, the melting pot, we take all kinds of dance moves — from North Africa to the Middle East.” She adds, “I think we’re freer here because we don’t have the restrictions of tradition.”
Ms. Nickerson combines a variety of styles in the pieces she choreographs and often adds moves of her own invention. She also incorporates a variety of music, but confesses that she primarily selects songs from her favorite genre — Middle Eastern pop.
Proceeds from the show will help defray the costs of rehearsal space so that the group can continue offering free performances. The members keep their expenses down by lending their daytime talents to the effort.
Sheila Rayyan does the group’s graphics, Pat Szucs is the treasurer and organizer, and realtor Amy Fournier put the show’s program together, recruiting her third grade daughter, Emma, to do the artwork.
Ms. Szucs, who established the troupe as a nonprofit in 1997, says, “One of the primary objectives is to learn and demonstrate the music of other cultures, particularly the Middle East.” She adds, “But our main objective is to have fun and for our audiences to have fun.”
“I think people have the opinion when they hear ‘belly dance’ they think strippers,” Ms. Fournier says. “We focus on the cultures and the ethnicity and we try to be as traditional as possible with the costumes.” She laughs, then adds, “This is a family friendly show.” Kids are likely to really enjoy the colorful costumes and the lively nature of the dances.
Early last Saturday morning, a colorful sight greeted people in downtown Vineyard Haven, as women dressed in flowing skirts, long scarves, spangles, and bangles could be seen walking up and down the double staircase of the Katherine Cornell Theatre. The dancers devoted the last two weeks to a grueling schedule — rehearsing every single day.
In one number, a solo choreographed and performed by Sheila Rayyan, the tempo picks up and the scene changes from the previous, slow-flowing, dance. Ms. Rayyan, who has spent time in her husband’s native land of Jordan, performs a fast-paced number with the elaborate costume playing a part in the performance. Ms. Rayyan playfully twitches her hips and rolls her shoulders to shake the numerous gold coins that adorn her peasant costume. The energetic dance revolves around fast, jerky movements accompanied by a Turkish pop song called “Kiss, Kiss.”
The performance includes a number of other styles including a cane dance with four dancers performing with sparkly baton-like poles. Emulating traditional Middle Eastern martial arts dancing performed by men with sticks filling in for swords, the women execute graceful poses and twirls, eventually spinning with the canes balanced horizontally on their heads.
Another innovation for the troupe is a Persian dance, which they will perform for the first time. “Persian culture was a separate Aryan culture,” Ms. Nickerson says. “There’s a very distinct difference in their costuming and their music.” She describes the costumes that the four dancers wear for this number as more European. Almost in a medieval vein, the four women dress in long velvet tunics in a variety of colors with voluminous silky skirts. She notes that the dance, called the Bazm, was choreographed by a former colleague of hers who is a Persian language and dance expert. The number is quite a departure from the more feminine vein of belly dance, with the women striking empowering poses throughout.
The evening also includes sinuous salsa numbers by Sergio Racigh and Ester Deming, a variety of numbers by Martha’s Vineyard Ballroom Dancing, and a demonstration by M.V. Capoeira.
A powerful rendering of the song “Hava Nagila,” performed by accomplished jazz singer Jerri Wells is alone worth attending the performance. Ms. Wells accompanies herself with the tambourine while delivering, with her signature throaty voice, the traditional Hebrew folk song with all the requisite emotion that the song demands. The title translates as “Let Us Rejoice” and this fun, exuberant show echoes that sentiment throughout.
Vineyard Bellydance and Revue Show, 7:30 pm, Friday, May 7. Katharine Cornell Theatre, Vineyard Haven. $5 suggested donation.
Gwyn McAllister is a frequent contributor to The Times.