Moving to the music: Belly dancing on Martha's Vineyard

A touch of chic and a splash of the exotic.

Amy Kurth, left, and Betsy Smith perform a captivating duet. — Photo by Michael Cummo

Belly dancing is the antithesis and the fix for all of American women’s woes and neuroses about their bodies. You can’t be too young nor too old, too large nor too petite, to transform yourself into a vision of shimmering beauty when you perform these tribal dances from the Middle East, North Africa, Spain, and India. Last Saturday at the West Tisbury library, our own Island troupe, Vineyard Belly Dance and Revue, created as a nonprofit in 1997, and currently consisting of six members, demonstrated a full range of tribal choreography.

The origins of belly dancing are steeped in mystery. Ancient Greek and Roman sources attest to wild dances in the courts of Asia Minor, replete with castanets, falls to the ground, and quivering thighs. In the 18th and 19th centuries, European explorers, including the inimitable Flaubert, returned from trips to the Near and Far East with tales of sinuous dancers, both berobed and in states of undress, the most fetching of whom performed in the harem of Topkapi Palace in Istanbul.

In other Middle Eastern locales, with stricter policies on what women could do and not do, and wear and not wear, the belly dance was considered haram, forbidden, which also means the dances of the harem were haram; the Marx Brothers could have a field day with that wordplay. In 1893 at the World Fair in Chicago, this exotic dance from the Orient was first introduced in the States by a group calling itself the Cairo Danse de Ventre. Ventre is the French word for “belly,” and the name got translated to the English, although arguably, it still sounds better in French.

In the West, belly dancing has morphed bigtime into an artform called American Tribal Style Belly Dance which, in typical American love of the ecumenical, takes in all styles, an infinite array of costumes, and encouragement to the dancers to improvise to their hearts’ content. Our homegrown company displays all that and more.

The first dance, “Sirens of Atlantis,” showcased Middle Eastern folk dance in its full glory and beauty, with Betsy Smith, Amy Kurth, Jamie O’Gorman, and Rhonda Backus in slinky gowns and weaving silk veils of red, lime green, turquoise, and fuchsia, like a fantasy out of 1,001 Arabian Nights. Yet MC Andria Hirt cautioned, in a historical footnote, that a controversy rages about the use of veils in belly dancing. They were perhaps in play in older times in Turkey, but possibly nowhere else. No matter. This is American Tribal Style and anything goes, thank goodness.

Sheila Rayyan sparkled — and so did her outfit of 10,000 silver bangles — in a solo that embodied what most of us think of as classic belly dancing, with the shimmies, the artful up-reaching hands seeming to snap and control the percussive articulations of the hips. Sheila’s excellent and precise choreography played out to a Middle Eastern pop song with pauses for the words “Kiss! Kiss!”

Another solo, this by Ms. Backus, whose hourglass figure seemed the perfect shape for belly-dancing — and yet it’s also a delightful fact that there exists no perfect figure — and who was clad in a purple, red, and silver bodice and pantaloons, her long dusky brown hair also a flow to Middle Eastern strings, flutes, and drums.

Performed to a Turkish pop lullaby ostensibly designed to put infants to sleep, Ms. Smith, Ms. Kurth, and Patricia Szucs, in outfits that outdid each other with volumes of lace, vivid colors, sequins, and other ornaments, danced with tambourines. Early in the program, Ms. Hirt encouraged audience members to show appreciation with claps, whistles, and smiles, and all of these were brought forth by the evident fun of the dancers, along with the catchy beat-and-thump of the music.

The young, slim, and pretty Ms. O’Gorman performed a solo with a flying gray veil to complement her similarly flying straight brown hair. A final solo was presented by Ms. Szucs in a stunning green lace costume over a body stocking, and a huge bright gold cape swept up like wings. A duet followed by Ms. Smith and Ms. Kurth to lush orchestral music sounding very nearly European, and the dance moves owed as much to Martha Graham as to ancient tribal shakes and shimmies.

The grand finale showcased all six dancers in jewel-twinkling, embroidery-rich robes, called thobes. This style, derived from Saudi Arabia, deployed more head bobs than hip twerks, and was almost matronly; reassuring when you think that in that tightly gender-segregated kingdom, these gals would only be dancing for one another, and this is what that brand of entertainment looks like.

The Vineyard Belly Dance ensemble will perform with guest artists from off-Island on Mother’s Day weekend, May 9 and 10, at the Katharine Cornell Theater in Vineyard Haven. Even Dad should be happy to attend, thanks to the sexy aspects of this dance form, and even the youngest kids will be entertained by the clink of tambourines, lively music, sparkly costumes, and flying veils. As a nonprofit group, the dance troupe is keeping the cost of admission amenable to all — anywhere from $0 to a $10 suggested donation.

To learn more about Vineyard Belly Dance and Revue, follow them on Facebook at