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Artist of the Month - May 2002

Jamila: Belly Dancing for Peace
by Sydney Francis

I am thrilled to have had the opportunity to break into the performing arts by interviewing a professional belly dancer stage-named Jamila. Jamila has had over 25 years experience at belly dancing and another 20 years experience in Western dance, including ballet, tap, and modern dance. Here in Moab, Jamila teaches a weekly beginning and intermediate belly dancing class at the MARC, as well as organizing a dance troop of 10 local women, which performs at a variety of fundraisers, events, and benefits.

Belly dancing, although it looks easy when performed right, is a very complex and controlled art. In order for the belly dancer to perform the floating rotation of the hips, such as seen in the taxeem, or move gracefully weightless across the floor requires physical discipline, flexibility, centering, and balance. First of all, the average American’s hips do not easily perform the 2000-year-old Middle Eastern motion of the taxeem - the classic belly dance hip rotation from side to side in an apparent figure eight. This movement utilizes a group of muscles in the hips, abdomen, and butt that most of us did not know we had. In addition, the belly dancer must keep the shoulders back and level, while moving the hips and bending the knees, all the while maintaining her balance on her center pole. Then there is the gentle movement of the hands, called a floré, which mimics the movement of a snake or a butterfly. And finally there is the perfect positioning of the arms to frame and accentuate the movement of the hips, creating visual lines of illusion that emphasize the movements particular to tribal belly dancing.

The above comprises the simple mechanics of belly dancing. However, putting all that together, smiling and letting the movement flow though the body with the passion and grace of a true performer is what distinguishes Jamila as an artist. I have seen her perform a sword dance in which the sword rested perfectly still on her head, while she performed a dynamic range of movement from the neck down. These apparently mystical movements express the energy that comes through a skilled and gifted performing artist. Jamila made it clear to me that what she found most special about teaching belly dance at this point in her career was the way it effects her students.

Many or most of the women who come to belly dancing to learn the dance are not professionally trained dancers or performers. They are women looking to become more comfortable in their bodies, minds and spirits. And they seek belly dancing as a means of falling in love with themselves. Let me admit that most of us do not want to get up in front of a huge mirror with our midriffs exposed and watch the awkwardness of our movements. For a number of reasons, we do not like the way we look, we do not believe we are beautiful, and we are afraid to move, express physically, and enjoy it (this is a tragic commentary on where we are at with our bodies in American culture). And it does not matter what your body type is. Most women (and probably most men) feel uncomfortable with their bodies and in expressing themselves through movement or dance.

One student sought out belly dancing as a means of learning and healing her lack of self-confidence and self-love. She wanted to learn to belly dance, but she had to confront and deal with a great deal of fear, lack of self-esteem, self-consciousness, and feelings of being unattractive. She suffered an internal struggle to go week after week and watch herself learn to move. And, yet, she pushed through the resistance and after almost one year has found a renewed sense of self and body in the process. She recently had the following realization while practicing in front of her mirror: “I am beautiful. I actually like myself.”

Another woman had an accident while pregnant which broke her sternum down the center. Her sternum was completely separated and she suffered a great deal of pain when breathing, sleeping and lifting heavy objects. She was not even able to lift her own child to her chest. After six months of belly dancing, she was able to move painlessly, carry her child and breathe and sleep freely.

Since September 11th, Jamila has been asked on a number of occasions how she could continue to belly dance because of its heritage in the Middle East. She related to me that the oppressed women of the Middle East and North Africa dance in secret in front of one another as a way of keeping their traditions alive and affirming life. Tribal belly dance is a dance of family, spirit and tradition. It is not really a dance connoting the sexuality associated with nightclubs and the cabaret style of belly dance. Therefore, Jamila and Desert Veils dance as a prayer for peace for their own lives, families and culture, but also for the women of the Middle East, North Africa as well as all women and people everywhere. After bringing me to tears a number of times, Jamila commented “we are the wind beneath each others wings,” in reference to the troop spirit. In belly dance women (and men, too) gain valuable self-esteem. They also learn balance, centering, and movement. And in dancing together a bond is formed as a family, which is a precious experience of community. Tribal belly dance, at least with Desert Veils and Jamila, is a means of creating meaning, joy, faith, self-love, beauty, prayer and community; and, therefore, what a heavenly art it is.

Desert Veils will be performing at the Moab Arts Festival on Memorial Day Weekend. They will also be performing at Swanny Park on the 4th of July.

Look for “Night at the Kazba” in June, a fundraiser to pay for Desert Veils’ trip to Salt Lake City to perform the Belly Dance Festival in August.

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