By Jaya Flanary
The wooden stairs creak with every footstep up to the studio and twinkling lights create a path to the top. Students take off their shoes and put them in cubby holes before easing their way into the main room.
Once inside, Middle Eastern music fills the space and the late afternoon sun shines in through the windows and onto the marley floor. It’s just past 7 p.m., and there are 11 students ready to dance.
Anyelle, an instructor who wishes to be identified by her stage name, has been belly dancing for 12 years. She has the students say their names, their movement experience and their favorite summer food. They all have different dance experience, from ballet to ballroom to musical theater. Their answers echo against the walls.
Anyelle, a senior studying linguistics and economics, started belly dancing when she was 15 years old. Before that, she was doing different dances that required a partner, which made practicing more complicated, she said.
“In Bellingham I wandered into a Persian dance class and it was really hard,” Anyelle said. “There happened to be a belly dancing teacher in it, and she invited me to her beginning belly dancing class.”
Belly dancing became a lifeline for her.
“It got me through a lot, definitely,” Anyelle said. “[Dancing] got me through my teenage years.”
Anyelle practices the American Cabaret style of belly dancing. She said Middle Eastern belly dancers came to California in the 70s, and American dancers watched them and created their own style, American Cabaret.
Anyelle has always been interested in different cultures and anthropology.
“I think that when a lot of people first start learning [belly dancing] it’s taken out of context, and it’s a really cool way to move, but then when you trace it back … there’s this whole huge world that goes along with it,” she said.
Belly dancing has a strong cultural significance and history which Anyelle ties into her classes.
“There’s a lot of discussion these days about cultural appropriation versus cultural appreciation, and I really want to do my best to foster that appreciation,” Anyelle said.
She has traveled to several countries in the Middle East, primarily Egypt, and encourages people to do the same.
“I value that sense of sharing,” she said. “I’m a white person, and I’m not from there, but the attitude that I got was one of community, global community, and people were really happy and proud to be sharing their culture with us.”
She said while visiting villages in Egypt she encountered people practicing hip-hop moves they saw on YouTube.
“It kind of was interesting to see how it goes both ways,” Anyelle said. “It’s really counterproductive to try and stay away from everything that you don’t have a birth claim on, I guess, because it isolates people.”
As a belly dancer learns the movement, they should be learning about the culture too, Anyelle said.
Anyelle begins the class with stretching and breathing exercises to warm up. She tells a brief history of the dance and how it is influenced by folk dance, but no one really knows where in the Middle East it originated from, she said.
The students copy Anyelle’s movements: reaching to the ceiling, alternating arms, rotating ankles.
They form a circle and start walking clockwise.
“Really think about connecting your feet with the floor,” Anyelle says.
Senior Megan McCarty, who has been dancing for 10 years and has trained in ballet, jazz and musical theater, is learning from Anyelle as part of a Western class requirement. She is taking a dance history class at Western which requires students to take a dance class and write an essay about it.
She has never taken a belly dancing class before, but she enjoyed learning about the different body isolations, she said.
“[Anyelle] is very relaxed and encouraging but very knowledgeable,” McCarty said.
Anyelle said the challenge of belly dancing was discouraging at first, but also motivating.
“After a while you start getting it and that feels really good, and so you want to keep going,” Anyelle said.
It took her about a year to get the basics down, and she started belly dancing professionally after four years. Soon after, she started teaching with her dance partner at the time because their belly dancing teacher moved away, and there was a need for teachers in Bellingham.
“My teaching style, which has changed a lot but [still] has a lot of the same elements,” she said.
Anyelle learned the history of belly dancing through workshops and research of her own. She found shira.net to be a valuable source, a website that encompasses belly dancing, from teachers and clothing to the history and culture.
The website is run by a dancer whose stage name is Shira. She has been belly dancing since 1981. When the internet became available to the public in the 90s, Shira decided to create a website to broaden her technology skills. Belly dancing was her hobby, and she made the website for other belly dancers to learn more about it.
“I presented the kind of information that I wished had been around when I was a student,” Shira said. “I think other people recognized that it was valuable for them as well.”
Shira encourages those interested in belly dancing to seek out teachers who have studied directly with Middle Eastern people or have traveled to the Middle East.
“There are some flavors of what people want to call belly dance that have completely erased the Middle East. So to avoid cultural appropriation, avoid the ones that erase the Middle East,” Shira said.
Anyelle and Shira met last year and went on a tour called Journey Through Egypt which aims to get belly dancers more in touch with the history and culture of the dance.
One of the critical aspects of belly dancing is the music, Shira said.
“For many dance forms, you don’t really dance directly to what the music doing. You might dance to the rhythm, but not necessarily to the melody or the embellishments of the various instruments,” she said. “What belly dance does is to make you another instrument in the band basically.”
Anyelle grabs a drum and tells her students that it’s the heart of everything. She plays different sounds and relates the sounds to movements.
Hitting the drum with a flat hand creates a low, deep sound. She pairs it with a downward movement. Hitting the drum’s edge with her finger tips creates a higher note. She moves up on her toes to the beat.
“Play around and see what comes out of your body,” Anyelle says. “Anything is right.”