Empowering, fun, and a great way to stay in shape —found much to love at a belly dancing class in Cork
It's called belly dancing, so why are my arms hurting so much? One hour into a beginner’s taster class with Suadela belly dance, and it’s clear that the ancient Middle Eastern dance is more than just a way of demonstrating that your hips don’t lie: it’s an all-over workout that places demands huge physical discipline and the ability to isolate and control virtually every muscle group in the body.
My own hips, it turns out, fib regularly. And the rest of me is in similar shape. I thought that at the very least my upper body was in ok nick. But I’m suffering. I give in to temptation and drop my trembling arms for a moment’s reprieve, while all around me other dancers seem able to keep theirs endlessly and gracefully extended while practicing the routine we’re being taught.
Instructor Jane Heffernan, who teaches a modern style known as ‘tribal fusion’, has taught us how to do the sinuous snake arms, and is now combining the move in a routine with chest and hip lifts. All to the fast-paced beat of The Prodigy’s ‘Warrior’s Dance’.
In the first-floor studio of a karate club on Cork’s Shandon Street, we’ve already been through a taster session of oriental belly dance with instructor Dawn Wang, and shortly, tribal instructor Briona Ryng will take us through a skirt dance sequence.
It’s challenging, but great fun. The first thing we learned was pretty emblematic of the warm and supportive atmosphere in the room, and not a dance at all, but a sound, the Zaghareet: a high, ululating cry of encouragement, the non-verbal equivalent of “You go, girl!”
When most people think of belly dance, they probably think of a slinky, sexy dance performed for male titillation. But for Briona Ryng, who has been practising belly dance for 14 years, it’s very much a dance by women for women.
“I love the concept of sisterhood,” Ryng says.
A lot of what we do is improvised, so you’re creating in the moment with other women and connecting with other women.
“Definitely the way it’s danced now, it’s more for other women. A lot of our audiences are between 80% and 90% women and I think women nearly appreciate it more than men do. We have all shapes and sizes in our class and in our troupe, and I think it’s really empowering for women to see performers who aren’t necessarily your stereotypical body ideal.”
Suadela has a core of 10 dancers, who perform regularly at events. “We’d perform at anything,” Ryng says with a smile. “We danced at a 70th birthday party in Donegal once and it was great craic. We do loads of festivals and gigs and perform with bands across a range of styles, everything from trad to samba to Balkan music, and our own big show in the Firkin Crane each year.”
The history and origins of belly dance are shrouded in the mists of time. Egypt, Turkey, Iran, Iraq and the Lebanon all have their own indigenous forms, and during the span of the Ottoman Empire it spread as far as southern Spain.
It became a popular form of exotic and titillating entertainment for European travellers of the 19th century: Gustave Flaubert and British orientalist Edward William Lane wrote about the thrilling dances they saw on trips to Egypt.
“There’s no way of knowing the exact history,” Ryng says. “Some people say that it started as a way of preparing women for childbirth, but we don’t know for sure.
“Tribal fusion came from America in the ’90s; it’s like your classical belly dance fused with other dance styles like contemporary and hip-hip, so it became a totally modern form, and we dance to more modern music.”
Hollywood’s early love affair with orientalism brought belly dance to US and European audiences, with sometimes dubious results; it was viewed as a kind of strip-tease, and as with other dance styles, the exotic ethnic origins of its performers lent itself to more permissive standards than Western women were held to, alongside a host of colonial ethnic stereotypes.
Many of the norms in belly dance are derived from Arabic cultures; does Suadela ever fall foul of accusations of cultural appropriation? Ryng says it’s become a “thorny topic” in the States in recent years. “I think with globalisation we’re all sharing our cultures a bit more and I think the intent is very important,” she says.
That sharing needs to be done with appreciation and respect and knowledge. But we don’t really encounter that here, and we perform at a lot of multicultural events.
Ryng, whose day-job is in HR with UCC, says flamboyant costumes are an important part of the dance’s popularity. Even to practice, hip scarves embellished with little rows of metal discs are handed out at the beginning of class. They’re decorative, but useful too: when your hips are moving properly, the metal discs act as a percussion instrument.
Getting your hips to move properly is, counter-intuitively, almost nothing to do with your hips. “It’s actually all in the knees,” Ryng explains. “If your knees are bent, there’s a lot more flexibility in the hips.”
It’s also about the legs and glutes; earlier, instructor Dawn Wang, from China, who combines performing and teaching completing her PhD in philosophy, taught us the secret of a rapid squeeze of the opposing butt cheek that snaps your hip back into position in the desired manner. I’m not sure I have that one down just yet.
Next to me, Ann Riordan certainly has the moves down; she’s been belly dancing for 17 years, and has been working on the oriental style with Wang for two years.
“I just love it,” she says. “It gives you great body confidence, but apart from all that, it’s just really good fun. I smile all the way through every class.”
On his first ever class is Nathan Philpott, who has braved the female-dominated environs and even gamely donned a skirt for Ryng’s class, because he’s the flat-mate of one of the instructors.
“This has been really fun,” he says.
I’ve done some martial arts before. When I see Jane performing, she has such fantastic control over her body and now I think I understand that a bit more by seeing how they move their knees and their stomach.
How did he fare with the hip-based moves? “Well, I was expecting it to be sore,” he says with a little smile. “I felt like my hips weren’t actually doing much because they’re too flat.”
Nearby, Silvia Garcia, a Spaniard who has lived in Ireland for four years, tells me that she’s six weeks into a beginners’ course and is keen to return in the New Year.
“It’s difficult; you use muscles that you’re not used to and there’s a lot of co-ordination where you have to think about your whole body,” Garcia says. “But you concentrate so much that you forget the rest of the world. I’m not sure about performing, but I’d like to keep coming and getting better.”