Beguiling Beginnings

This is a guest post written by Jennifer, one of Ishra’s Intro students. 

Hi there.

My name is Jennifer and I just finished my first year of belly dancing with Ishra and Invoketress Dance. My experience with Ishra and belly dance has been quite life changing and full of personal and physical growth. Today Im going to share with you my story.

I started belly dancing with Ishra and Invoketress Dance in September, 2014. I took 4 classes in the fall before I broke my ankle on a canoe trip in October 2014. It took me about 3 months to be able to walk normally again, and during that time I was pretty much homebound. The 6 weeks in a cast were especially limiting since my full-time job had been serving at a restaurant and my hobbies included dancing and yoga. It was quite difficult to go from being completely independent to being completely dependent. When I finally got my cast off, it was very slow going. In any case, I managed to keep myself somewhat occupied with my part-time job teaching Spanish twice a week, and I was determined to keep up dancing to some degree.

For the six weeks I was in a cast, I would practice the body isolations I had learned from Ishra. Every day I would sit on the coffee table and prop up a full length mirror on the back of a chair so I could see myself. I would practice arm isolations (shoulder-elbow-wrist, shoulder-elbow-wrist become my mantra). I would practice moving my neck side to side, chest circles, and I would also practice chest shimmies. One day I wanted to make sure my breasts were moving properly in the shimmies so I removed my shirt and recorded myself. Sure enough, they were moving! A while later, my sister stumbled across that recording and we had a good laugh about it. By the end of the six weeks there was a visible improvement in my arm, neck, and chest mobility. It was exciting!

Through physio twice a week and swimming regularly, I eventually learned how to walk again and by mid-January I was back dancing. I was determined to make up for lost time so I ambitiously joined three of Ishras classes. I discovered that my upper body isolations were on par with the other girls, so I was pretty happy about that. Belly dancing thrice a week also greatly helped me regain my ankle strength and mobility.

It also helped me gain confidence as a dancer and embrace my femininity. For the first time ever, I actually felt sexy and felt that I could move sensually. I was not used to looking at myself in a mirror with other people and at first I felt very shy about it (I still feel shy sometimes). In time, I got used to watching myself in the mirror, and I found it very interesting seeing the progression of the body isolations and the different moves Ishra was teaching us. I would be practicing something over and over again and it was so exciting when mind and body would click and I would see my body moving the way it was supposed to. I began looking at my body affectionately instead of critically and seeing myself as beautiful.

All year, Ishra was stressing the importance of facial expressions. She wanted us to bring out our flirty looks, our sexy looks, our cheeky looks, our Xena looks and our boss lady looks. This was one of the most difficult things for meI felt so silly and embarrassed! It was one thing to look at my body moving, but now I had to consciously use different facial expressions while dancing. Sexy look? Whats that? I dont have a sexy look!I would think to myself. Slowly, my unknown-to-me sexy look began surfacing and eventually I was able to look at myself in the mirror with my sexy or my flirty or my Xena look and not feel embarrassed. I practiced smiling so much that in one of the classes Ishra actually told me to tone it down!

By the time June rolled around, most of the choreographies were pretty well finished, and all that was left to do was practice, practice, practice in preparation for the Belly Blush student recital. Having chosen to participate in 3 choreographies, I was somewhat unprepared for the amount of practice (during class and on my own) that would be required. I had never performed before so I was quite adamant about practicing at least three times a week for at least an hour and a half each time in preparation for the recital. I wanted to know those choreographies like the back of my hand just in case my nerves tried to get the best of me.

I also decided last minute (2 weeks before the recital) that I wanted to make my own bra for one of the performances. I had never been creatively or seamstressly inclined but I was about to become so and it ended up being a very fun experience! I actually ended up working until about 2pm on the day of the recital, so I was quite rushed to get ready for tech rehearsal and the recital itself. On top of that, my dad was visiting from New Brunswick and my Aunt and Uncle whom I hadnt seen in about 5 years also came to visit as well. Needless to say, it was a bit of a crazy day for me!

The experience of the recital itself ended up being one of the most exciting and exhilarating things I have ever done in my life. I was a combination of excited and nervous as well as happy that my family and best friends were there to support me, all of which created an incredible feeling inside of me. The performances went flawlessly which made me even happier that my practice had paid off. I honestly couldnt stop smiling the whole nighteven after I went home. The crowd was amazing, the solidarity among the dancers was infectious, and being on stage was invigoratingI couldnt wait to perform again! I did end up performing twice more during the summer at the Flying Dance Festival in July and August.

Now, I cant wait for Ishras classes to start back up again in September and to continue learning and growing through dance. Belly dancing has helped me learn to love and appreciate myself and my body and be gentle with myself rather than critical. It is an ongoing process but with Ishras help and encouragement and the support of my fellow dancers, I think Im off to a good start! Im so glad I discovered and had the courage to explore, the art of belly dance. 

Photo by Dennis Novosad.
Photo by Dennis Novosad.

Guelph Research Spotlights Canada’s Belly Dance Story

The following article was written by Invoketress Dance troupe member Alaina and was published in The Guelph Mercury on June 16, 2015.

Anne Vermeyden

Guelph Mercury

GUELPH — Belly dance is an art form celebrated and practised among many cultures and regions of the world — including Canada, new research shows.

University of Guelph history PhD student Anne Vermeyden, a dancer herself, is investigating the rich but largely unwritten past of belly dance in Toronto, and why it has flourished there.

So far, most research on belly dance history in North America has been largely focused on the United States. Vermeyden says the art form’s presence in Canada should be recognized, too.

“This research will contribute to the growing Canadian voice in the transnational history of belly dance,” says Vermeyden. “Placing the story of belly dance on the academic map will encourage the public and performers to give the dance form and its history the respect it deserves.”

Vermeyden believes that the ability to powerfully express emotion through movement is one of the reasons why so many women in Canada have found a connection to the dance form. Belly dance allows for improvisation, which has offered women in Canada an alternative to more structured, Western dances.

She’s interviewing dancers and musicians who were involved in the first substantial wave of belly dance in Toronto, beginning in the 1960s. She’s researching all facets of their dance careers, including their styles, their teachers, the economic effect of belly dance and how the dance has been meaningful to them.

Belly dance has grown to become an umbrella term for several different styles of dance that originate from across North Africa and the Middle East, all of which are physical expressions of musical qualities, and focus on the undulation and articulation of the torso, arms and hips.

Different regions have belly dance “accents,” with specific musical and movement qualities. Egyptian style cabaret belly dance is, for example, very distinguishable from American style cabaret belly dance. Egyptian style, with roots in folkloric dance there, was cemented in Egyptian cinema and cabarets during the 20th century. American cabaret style, on the other hand, was developed by North American dancers who were taught by Arab, Greek and Turkish musicians and dancers, and fused elements of these various regional styles together within a North American context.

In the 1960s and 1970s, factors such as second-wave feminism also helped to inspire interest among Canadian women to find power in their bodies through dance. At this time, dancers became more interested in the culture and history of belly dance, not only the movement.

In her preliminary research, Vermeyden has found references to belly dance in Canadian newspapers as far back as the late 19th century.

That’s about the time many North Americans were first introduced to the idea of belly dance, in spectacles such as the numerous “ethnographic” exhibits in the Midway Plaisance of the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. The presentation of belly dance forms at this World’s Fair often perpetuated Orientalism, where East Asian and Middle Eastern regions were generalized and displayed as exotic and uncivilized.

While it is important to acknowledge the issues of Orientalism in belly dance, Vermeyden aims to create a more complex picture of its layered and constantly evolving history. Her preliminary research indicates that since the early 1970s, the dance form has had the ability to both cement and undermine Orientalist attitudes about North Africa and the Middle East in Canada.

The research is in collaboration with Drs. Femi Kolapo, Barbara Sellers-Young, Renée Worringer, and Jeff Grischow, and is sponsored by the University of Guelph and the Ontario Graduate Fellowships program.

This article was written by a participant in the Students Promoting Awareness of Research or SPARK program at the University of Guelph.