Sights and sounds of belly dancing
Every Tuesday and Wednesday evening, the Santosia Yoga Studio in West Tisbury is transformed from a quiet and calming space into a loud, beautiful belly dancing paradise. The colors are deep purples and greens, gold and fuchsia. The music is drums and tambourines, mismar (in the oboe family) and oud (related to a guitar, but without the frets). Listening to these strange instruments may produce images of charmed snakes dancing in the hookah bars of exotic places. The Vineyard Belly Dance and Revue, Inc., a local non-profit sponsored by the Massachusetts Cultural Council, is dedicated to spreading the joys of middle-Eastern dance, costume and music, throughout Martha's Vineyard.
The class members wear traditional belly dancer costumes in deep, beautiful colors. One of the class instructors, Pat Szucs, often wears intricately beaded necklaces handmade by her daughter, Shelly Desmarais, to accentuate her attire. Suzanna Nickerson, the other instructor, buys many of her traditional costume from 'Cottage Craft', a shop that sells Egyptian-style costumes. In her opinion "Egypt is best at coin belts and professional costumes." Coin belts, part of the music of any belly dance, are silver or gold coin-shaped metal pieces dangling from a patch of soft fabric. The fabric is wrapped below the waist to accentuate hip movement, and the coins collide with every movement, creating an eruption of sound. Veils of all colors and lengths are also used to accentuate and intensify the movement. They are the accessories of the dance - around the neck, across the back, through the belt or along the hips. They flow in front, behind, or around the dancer's body, evoking a majestic and mysterious sensuality.
The dances themselves are beautiful displays of movement matched perfectly with music. Arms, hands, feet, and hips all move with coordination and form that surely takes hours of practice and plenty of discipline. Parts of the dances are so controlled the dancers appear to be under water, moving their bodies with amazing perfection.
Ms. Nickerson says, "There is definitely a big challenge to get your body to move in a certain way." She and Ms. Szucs constantly call out the names of the movements they make with their bodies, including the camel, the shimmy, snake arms, undulation, and the head slide. With this instruction, the dancers can follow their lead as the music explodes from the speakers. The enthusiastic instructors demonstrate any problem steps for the dancers while providing a space for creative thought and group acceptance.
The belly dancers perform frequently around the Island, bringing flair from the Middle East to quaint New England. They perform at Windermere, the Edgartown Senior Center, and the Tisbury Senior Center, distributing tambourines, maracas, bells, cymbals, drums, and other instruments to the spectators to help out with the Middle Eastern music. They also produce a free belly-dancing workshop at the Boys & Girls Club, introducing younger Islanders to new culture and fun. The group often performs with vocalist Jerri Wells. They send representatives to dance at Built on Stilts, a local, annual dance production, they participate in Camp Jabberwocky events, and they also take part in First Night events. No matter what the event, the belly dancers bring a high-energy performance that introduces Islanders to Middle Eastern culture.
Revue, Inc. shows the joy of dancing. Click photo for larger version.
Belly dancing brings something special to each of the performers while bringing the beauty of the Middle East to audiences.
Ms. Nickerson explained why she initially got into Middle Eastern dance on the Island in the 1970s. "It's all so personal," she said. "It's opportunity. I liked the sensuality of it; the movement and the challenge."
"I like the energy and the beauty," said Miriam Lopes, who recently moved from the beginner to the more advanced class. "It's gorgeous."
Amy Fournier, who has been belly dancing for a year, exclaimed how dancing is, "A great escape from the stress of every day life. The best part is embarrassing my 15-year-old son."
"It inspires me to lose weight because I want to look good while I do it," said another dancer, who chose to remain anonymous, and who has lost an impressive 60 pounds since she began dancing with the group only one year ago. She appreciates how the night of belly dancing gets her out of the house during winter.
Diane Hartman appreciates that the class is not like other aerobic classes. "No one ever looks at the clock and wonders when it's going to be over. It's more that the class is never long enough."
The dancing is great cardiovascular exercise and great for coordination. At the end of the lesson, Ms Nickerson called from the other side of the room, "Everyone here knows the best part, and it is no secret." She looks around the room at her students, and smiles, "Belly dancing makes everyone feel sexy."u
If you are interested in learning about belly dancing, call or e-mail Pat Szucs at 508-693-4308 or firstname.lastname@example.org with "belly dancing" in the subject line.
Michelle Nepton is a contributing writer to The Times.