Shake It ’Til You Make It

Bellydancing celebrates its roots.

By Tammy Johnson Sep 15, 2006

The workshop titles did it for me. I had to find out what Indian Bollywood Hip Hop, Kama Sutra Kitchen and Funky Egyptian Combos were all about. So this year, I spent Memorial Day weekend at the Bellydancers of Color Association’s (BOCA) conference. Bellydancing is fast becoming a national phenomenon. sells over 80 exercise and instructional DVDs. Bacardi commercials feature a hip-drop as a signature move for its version of the mojito. And comedian Margaret Cho has her own line of bellydance gear.

As bellydancing’s U. S. popularity grows, BOCA’s objective is to ensure that women of color are recognized and included in its success. Founding troupe, the D.C.-based Moor Hips, has for two years focused on creating a conference that educates participants about the history of the dance, as well as teaches some fancy moves.

"Creating BOCA was the first goal, because I saw that there was a need to create a support system for women-of-color bellydancers," says Sunyatta Amen, BOCA executive director. "I’ve been to many bellydance conferences over the years, bringing 30 or more Black and Hispanic women, as well as lots of money to these events. And they would look at us like, ‘Why are you here, your entrance is around back.’" Amen was intent on creating a space where women of color felt welcomed and embraced, as well as challenging how bellydance was depicted. Some of the information at these events was historically and culturally inaccurate, according to Amen, with leanings toward Eurocentrism and xenophobia. "There were women teaching West African bellydance fusion saying things like, ‘Putting your leg up like this is called the dog-pee.’ They described West African and Gambian dances, which they would add their own moves to, in insulting ways."

BOCA’s historical perspective attracted women like Njideka Enenogu, a Nigerian dancer who lives in Westchester, New York. "When people think of African dance, they only associate it with West African Dance. There is nothing wrong with West African Dance, but that’s not the only dance form of the continent. There is bellydance in my country, too. The Tivs tribe of Nigeria does a form of bellydance that is beautiful."

In BOCA’s workshops, you can jiggle your way through the Ethiopian Shoulder Dance, learn the origins and movements of Moroccan and Tunisian bellydance, or practice fibroid-fighting figure eights with your hips. Amen, who is a naturopathic physician, says that the mixture of health-oriented workshops was intentional. "My focus is really holistic living. Movement and diet are part of a healthy lifestyle."

Positive Pat, a dancer from Capitol Heights, Maryland, agrees. "I bellydance because it’s good exercise. Because of my age I don’t want to stop moving, especially because I have problems with my knees." The health benefits of bellydancing don’t stop there. It is no accident that there are many similarities between the Lamaze birthing technique and bellydance. For centuries, Arab and African women used dance as a ritual to assist mothers through childbirth. "Bellydance is a celebration of the work that women do to get children out in the world. In my group, we have danced at each child’s birth and helped the mother move and breath through the birth process," says Amen.

Bellydance has helped many women of color address issues around body image. "A lot of young women don’t like their bodies," reflects Elva Anderson-McFee of Washington D.C. "That’s why my two daughters, ages 2 and 4, are taking classes this year, so that they understand that there is power in knowing your body and that it’s okay that bodies come in all shapes and sizes. Plus you need a belly to bellydance!"

Polynesian, Capoeira, and even Washington D.C.’s own Hand Dancing were on the dance card at BOCA. "I wanted to exemplify to folks that the drum is the drum, and no matter where you hear it, you should be able to respond," Amen says. At the same time, she argues that a dancer’s desire to move to a different beat must be balanced with the knowledge of where the beat originates. "I’ve noticed that there has been a lot of fusion; a lot of people like to blend things with the bellydance. This is great, but the thing itself should be studied, too. So if people want to do Hula-fusion for instance, then it’s a good idea to have studied that particular dance so that you know what you are going to bring to it."

One hot topic among many in the online and festival bellydance communities is the growing popularity of the American Tribal Style bellydance. The costuming and facial markings of this genre of bellydance is heavily influenced by Arab and Northern Africa esthetics. "What I noticed is that people have started putting a lot of fake dreadlocks made of yarn in their hair, and being loaded down with jewelry from wonderful places all over the world," notes Amen. "I’ve been in the presence of some of these people who wear this costuming, and I don’t think that they are clear. They look at us like, ‘Why are these Black girls interested?’ But then they are dressed in our clothes and our hair. So I’m just concerned that there is no acknowledgement that women of color are the creators of these dances. That respect is due."

Bellydancers of color face many more challenges. They are often discriminated against when they attempt to secure jobs at restaurants or other public venues. "They get the job on the phone, but once they arrive, the restaurant owners tell them that their customers like the lighter girls, or they don’t really like the dark girls," Amen says. Kaori, a Japanese transplant living in Baltimore, Maryland, also finds that race plays a major role in booking performances. "Normally, white people contact their white friends, and Black people contact Black dancers. I don’t have any of these contacts. Recently, some people are contacting Asian dancers, so I’m beginning to get more exposure. But I’d like to have more of a mix of audiences."

Getting access to the stage is not a small matter to Leila Haddad, an international bellydance celebrity and featured BOCA instructor. "I decided to fight for the right to dance in theaters. And because they didn’t want me, I fought like someone who was militant, and I succeeded," Haddad says. "In Europe, they refused me because Raks Sharki (bellydance) was linked to nakedness and vulgarity, and not seen as having any technique. So this is my mission: to be accepted in the big family of dance–modern, contemporary classical ballet, jazz, etc.–because bellydance is the feminine expression of my people in Africa."

Haddad, who is Tunisian and Syrian, has performed in theaters throughout Europe. "When you dance in certain places, you impose yourself. The Western world has taught us that theater is appreciated, not only by the elite, but the people who want to perform and want to appreciate art–so we must be in theaters. Catherine Dunham did it. Alvin Ailey saw that Blacks had little access to ballet, so he created a Black ballet company. The bellydancer Carolina Varga Dinicu, known as Morocco, explained to me many years ago that one of the reasons she started a dance company was because Black women were not accepted in the field of the dance. She wanted to impose good dancers, which happen to be the Black girls. So it’s very important to impose yourself."

Many women of color have coupled their bellydancing talents with their activism. As a member of the multinational Zulu Theater in London, Leila Haddad spoke out against apartheid in South Africa. "As soon as I started to be on stage, I understood [that], you can be entertaining people, but you can send an important message to people as well," she says.

BOCA also put its money where its shimmy is by donating a portion of their proceeds to the Female Genital Mutilation Network. "The dances that we are doing are coming from places where every day girls are cut unnecessarily and left maimed by a very old-school thought process about women needing to be controlled so they don’t walk in lust like men do. This is what I’ve been told by older women from places where this is done," Amen says. "So the very sway of a woman’s hips and her own sexuality, and ultimately even her ability to have sexual pleasure are being physically and violently stripped from her. This should be very disconcerting to us, especially people doing these dances from these places. And yet we say we love these dances, but yet we must love the people too. We are wearing their clothes and their jewelry. What are we giving back to these people?"

The Bellydancers of Color Association can be contacted through their website,

Tammy Johnson is half of the Oakland-based bellydance duo, Raks Africa.