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Arabesque, Teacher Lee's dance troupe
Gilded Serpent presents...
The Bellydance Scene in Taiwan
Toss Hair Dance

by Eugenia

I've arrived at No.240 Chong Hsio East Road, Section 4, in Taipei for my first "Toss Hair Dance" class. At this class, instructor Lee taught a choreography titled "Toss Hair Dance" as promised on the Bellydance website.

Unfortunately, I had just cut my hair and now had very little to toss!

The 235 Taipei bus reeked of gas fumes, and made me slightly nauseous during the thirty-five minute ride; so, I was grateful for the three-and-a-half-block walk I took while looking for the dance studio. The studio wasn't a studio at all: after asking in a clothing store and two residential buildings, I finally located the classroom, which turn out to be a tiny Japanese style room located in the corner of a gym.

Miss Chen

As I descended the stairs and entered the gym’s basement, the broad back of a topless, muscular man blocked my view. Beads of sweat glistened on his back as he moved his thick legs on a tread-climber machine. Similar machines, as well as a variety of weight-lifting equipment, cluttered the room. Three or four foreign men and one Taiwanese man were laboring on different, formidable looking machines, and these men were so built up that they held their arms at a distance from their sides like gorillas since their bulging muscles didn't allow a more normal posture.

Everywhere, I saw muscles, sweat, and machines! Intimidated, I considered going home. Then I noticed through a glass window some women with veils in a small room to the left of me.

The women with veils were the people for whom I was looking. It was fifteen minutes before class time, but already, five or six women twirled veils and shimmied to Middle Eastern music. They went through several choreographies together, dancing mostly to pieces with quick tempos. The only song I recognized was a Tarkan song I had danced to a year ago in Pennsylvania. The women were much more skillful than I expected: just 3 years ago, nobody in Taiwan really knew anything about Bellydance.

My own friends back home thought of Bellydance as a unskilled exercise done by pot-bellied women who drew faces on their stomachs and made the faces on their bellies change by shifting their fat. (I was mildly insulted to hear this interpretation.)

However, just a few years later, in this tiny basement classroom, real Taiwanese women were doing hip shimmies, snake arms, veil dancing, and shoulder shimmies, while revealing their bellies! They wore fluttery tops with delicate sleeves and colorful Indian print dance clothing. Each had a generously coined hip scarf and the scarves jangled noisily as the dancers moved their hips in circles and shimmies. Was this really Taiwan? I could hardly believe my eyes and gawked stupidly from outside the classroom for nearly ten minutes.

Arabesque, Teacher Lee's dance troupe

When I finally walked to the door of the Japanese styled room, one of the women smiled at me.
"Are you a new classmate?" she asked in Mandarin.
I nodded.
"Are you the teacher?" I asked, using the respectable form of address, “ning,” (the Chinese version of "vous", rather than "tu," when addressing her).
"Hell, no!" she cried. "Do I look like a teacher to you?"
I didn't know what to say. (Perhaps she felt insulted because she considered herself too young to be mistaken for a teacher.)
"Why don't you go change and come back," she said.
"Sure," I replied, eager to flee.
I had to slither between machines and greasy-looking muscular men to get to the small restroom. This being Taiwan, the toilet was one of those porcelain holes-in-the-ground.  Additionally, there was no toilet paper.

When the dance teacher arrived, shortly after seven o'clock, I was bewildered that the other woman had been insulted when I mistook her for the teacher. Our instructor, Miss Chen, was a lovely young woman who looked like she was still in her twenties! At about five foot three, tall for a Taiwanese woman, she had a sparkling head of wavy long hair that was perfect for tossing, no doubt! She wore a lime green sports bra and had on a lovely pair of dance pants that looked to me like a peacock's tail.

"Our students have all been dancing the choreographies one after the other with me for over a year," she explained, "but you can stay for this class and decide whether you want to take this choreography, something easier, or more difficult."

Teacher Lee
The Toss Hair Dance was the seventh of fourteen choreographies taught in the Bellydance classrooms owned by Teacher Lee, the woman responsible for making Bellydance popular in Taiwan. The most impressive thing about this system is that anywhere in Taiwan, whether one is in Tai-chung, Kaoshiung, or Taipei, one can simply go to one of the classrooms owned by Teacher Lee and can pick up where she dropped off and continue doing the choreography. Alternatively, one could learn the next one. This would only be possible if one person single-handedly pioneered Bellydance instruction on a small island and trained all of her own teachers, and that is exactly what has happened in Taiwan.

The lesson started immediately as our teacher began doing a series of fast-paced warm-up movements that included shimmies, arm work, and isolations. Our class of fourteen or fifteen women filled the little room entirely, and it was difficult for students in the back to see themselves in the front mirror. However, Miss Chen made sure to go around the classroom to inspect everyone's movements.

In the next few weeks, I sped through the Toss Hair Dance choreography by going to different classes taught by Miss Chen. Shamelessly, I also followed along as other students went through all of their previous choreographies.

I was impressed with how well all the students could do shoulder and hip shimmies at different speeds with control as well. They also had excellent stage presence that (I suppose) came from practicing in front of all those muscular men week after week! However, I was concerned, that some of the shimmies (that the instructor specified as "knee-generated") might hurt some students' sensitive knees.

At any rate, the next choreography, Choreography Number Eight, has the title “Cane Dance”!  I look forward to learning the Cane Dance in my next Bellydance class in Taiwan, perhaps sometime next year.

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