February 25, 2020

Concert shakes up the way people view belly dancing

Suzy Evans has spent a significant chunk of her life debunking myths about belly dancers.

“There were so many times when I came across people who thought that belly dancers were like strippers,” she said. “Or the belief that belly dancers only come from the Middle East.”

Since she began her career in the 1970s, Evans has been on a mission to educate the public about a dance form “that is so much more than what you might see in a restaurant or in a class.” As the founder of the now 11-year-old International Academy of Middle Eastern Dance (IAMED), Evans is producing her fourth “This Is Belly Dance!” concert at the Ford Amphitheatre on Aug. 11.

In addition to giving “top-end” dancers a prime performance opportunity, Evans views these concerts as a kind of belly dance 101 for the general public. “People sometimes think this dance is just another form of exercise that’s being offered at their gym or something that’s been done to entertain men,” she said. “But there is so much to belly dancing, and belly dancers have to be as talented and work as hard as any other kind of dancer.”

Featuring some 60 performers from all over the country, the concert will present dances ranging from flashy “Arabic disco” and Bollywood numbers to demonstrations of classical styles, such as the nuanced and controlled Egyptian dances and the more exuberant Turkish dances, often performed with finger cymbals.

And though they might have stage names like “Jamileh” or “Delilah,” the dancers hail from all ethnic backgrounds.

“Most belly dancers today are American,” said Evans, who estimates that “a good number” of belly dancers are Jewish.

Belly dancing is truly an international dance, with people of all races and cultures embracing it.”

Mae Ziglin Meidav, a Jewish belly dancer from Berkeley, has taught and performed belly dance since the early 1980s and never had any “qualms about integrating Arabic music and culture and attending annual belly dance festivals.”
I loved combining Arab and Israeli songs when putting together music for my performance troupe,” she said.

Meidav, who’s also a playwright, actress, sociologist and wife of an Israeli, noted that belly dancing in recent years has become more acceptable in Israel. “There used to be a cultural stigma, similar to the snobbery that valued European culture over Middle Eastern culture,” she said. “Today my niece teaches belly dancing in Israel, and there is definitely a thriving community of belly dancers.”

What unites belly dancers, be they from Israel or Korea, is gender.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re short, tall, 60 years old or 300 pounds. This is a dance that’s uniquely female,” Evans said. “You don’t get very many men interested in becoming belly dancers, and if you do, it’s kind of like, OK, whatever.”

Practiced for centuries in the Middle East, belly dancing was traditionally performed for women at parties that celebrated an impending marriage or other life cycle occasion. In America, the dance form first took off in the 1960s, when dancers from Algeria settled here and started teaching classes. In the 1970s, Turkish women started teaching, and the dance “became a fad,” Evans said.

“And I’d say in the past five years, there’s been a resurgence, with everything from the Internet to Shakira having something to do with that.”

In Evans’s opinion, belly dancing should really be called “torso dancing,” since that’s where the dance’s movements originate.

“You’re using the hips, stomach and chest, and you have to learn how to isolate the various parts of your body,” she said. “And everything has to do with the music. All the great belly dancers are extremely musical, plus they allow their individual personalities to come out in the dance. Excellent technique is only part of what makes a star.”

Evans began her own belly dance career when she was in her early 20s.

“I was flipping through the Yellow Pages, found someone teaching belly dance and thought, ‘Ooh, that sounds fun,” she said. “Unlike ballet, you can start belly dancing in your 20s and 30s and become a great dancer, though you still have to work really hard.”

Today, Evans considers Los Angeles to be “the hub” of belly dancing in the United States, primarily because of the concentration of teachers. And while Middle Eastern restaurants in Los Angeles have offered belly dance shows for years, Evans always believed there could be greater performance opportunities for dancers. She founded IAMED precisely “because I saw a great need to bring belly dance to the concert stage.” She also currently produces a series of DVDs, both instructional and performance-oriented, and has customers from all over the world.

“It’s hard not to like this dance,” she says. “It’s feminine, sexy and mysterious and it’s about making the dance your own. I want to keep passing on this dance to future generations.”

IAMED presents “This is Belly Dance!” on Sat., Aug. 11, 8:30 p.m., Ford Amphitheatre, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. East, Hollywood. $5-$36. (323) 461-3673. For more information, visit IAMED at www.bellydance.org.