The Gilded Serpent

Publicity flyer for Jane Yee Shan Chung and her troupe DanceDiva

Gilded Serpent presents...
Learning Matrix: A Long Journey
The Belly Dance Scene in Taiwan
by Lisa Chen

Belly dance received its introduction in Taiwan over half a decade ago. Five years might seem a relatively short compared to our Western colleagues’ experience or from the prospective of the entire history of Belly dancing. Nevertheless, the Taiwan Belly dance community is eager to make up for lost time, and already, it has undergone a great deal of development. For example: in the past five years Taiwan has hosted two blockbuster shows from Bellydance Superstars! We have had several workshops by master instructors and famous dancers, including Carolena Nericcio of Fat Chance Belly Dance, Kajira Djoumahna of Black Sheep Belly Dance, Suhaila Salimpour, and Ansuya, etc.

Even while our local Belly dance community is quickly expanding, it opens its arms to embrace all kinds of information, knowledge, and dance resources. The materials new to us become a stimulating force to guide dancers, instructors, and students. They find themselves encouraged to review the progress they are making in the development of their individual careers as well as continuing to learn.

In the past, the most popular method of teaching Belly dance used here has been the choreography-oriented approach. There are several reasons. First, since we don’t have many mature dancers and choreographers available, we have had to rely heavily on choreography created by other dancers and masters dance teachers. Teaching choreography is also a great way to elevate students’ sense of achievement; they come to the classroom for ten classes or so, and they can take a piece of choreography home with them by the end of the session. Students report that they can dance for family members and friends with those memorized pieces and they receive satisfying feedback from their audiences. Students claim to have better motivation to continue learning Belly dance when they learn a choreographed piece and they expect more choreography. The result is that almost all Belly dance classes here have had to adhere to teaching choreographed dances.

Learning from choreography is quite an effective way to practice drills and combinations of steps.

Sometimes, one might have to admit that learning only choreographies might lead students and dancers away from learning the essential elements of traditional Belly dance.

I refer to such elements as technique, as well as understanding music and rhythms. However, as we gain more accessibility to master dancers and well-established instructors overseas through live performances and workshops, we realize now that we need more than choreography to be able to achieve what those masters and instructors can perform on stage.

Instructors who are focused on technique became popular in Taiwan as a natural response toward the increasing demands for lessons and better technique.

During the early stage of our development, our major resource was from the Middle East; we believed that it was best to learn with the dancers from the original source as the best benchmark. However, we quickly discovered that the language barrier severely hampered our learning.

 To us, Arabic is not a very common language and Middle East culture is absolutely foreign to our local students. The common way to teach there is usually a visual imitation on what teachers demonstrate and students simply must copy everything they see. The lack of systematic teaching and yet, abundant information, also resulted into further confusion! For example, people from different areas could call one specific movement by several names. Often the names used do not call up any images nor do they make any sense because we do not share, and therefore, do not understand the cultural or spiritual metaphors behind those movements.

Some of the Taiwanese dancers turned to the American Belly dance community, mainly thanks to the popularity and high exposure of Bellydance Superstars!

We began to learn from American Belly dance instructors through DVDs or workshops; so, we have found a great way to communicate and systematically learn to dance. (After all, English is one of the most common communication languages for us.)  In addition, we find abundant resources and knowledge of Belly dance in English on the Internet (and occasionally, printed matters as well). Many pioneering dancers and scholars in America conducted a field survey in 1970s and their documents subsequently become a precious resource to fill up our gap of understanding Middle East music and dances.

In 2005, ATS and Tribal Belly dance were introduced to the Taiwan Belly dance community through Taiwanese dancers attending the Tribal Fest in San Francisco for the first time. Before that, local dancers and audiences only had access to the Cabaret style of Belly dance (Raks Sharqi).

We also realize that there are many other branch styles of Belly dance.

The group improvisation of ATS highly challenges our choreography-oriented learning pattern! There is no instant choreography to learn or to perform but a lot of new concepts to learn instead.

The specific concept of posture and several finger cymbal patterns used by ATS dancers are also very new to many dancers and students here. By now, we understand that learning to perform Belly dance with seemingly effortless elegance requires something far beyond memorizing patterned choreography. We also have had to turn to our bodies and learn to use our muscles accurately and properly. Through this technique, we connect our body movements in order to develop our individual dance.

The Salimpour family, Jamila and her daughter, Suhaila, have been known here. In 2007, Suhaila came to Taipei to give local bellydance community a workshop.The local Belly dance community had the opportunity to witness the “state of art techniques” developed by Jamila and her daughter. A few Taiwanese instructors went to San Francisco to earn a certificate of technique and brought back to us more first-hand knowledge and technique. Among the instructors who went was Jane Yee Shan Chung, our first “Suhaila Technique Level 2 Certified Dancer.” Suhaila has granted permission for Jane Yee Shan Chung to teach up to the level she earned.

Chung’s teaching demonstrates something quite different from what use to be the norm at our Belly dance classes. Now, there is a lot of core-muscle training and strength development (and no choreography at all) for entry-level students.

As the awareness for need to have strength and basic technique grows, more students sign up for what they joke is “torture camp.” Yet, they experience profound passion and joy of dancing through their bodies and perspiration. The growing classes prove that increasingly, dancers and students are willing to take fundamental training seriously for improving their dances.

The Suhaila technique also challenges the stereotypical impression regarding the preferred female beauty here.

Beauty might be universal, but it is definitely more obvious in Asian society that girls or women are discouraged from training their bodies to be firm and fit, and to accept their own bodies as unique and beautiful.

So many people regard Belly dance as a form presenting the feminine quality of being bold, sexy--and yet fragile. As a result, many women believed that Belly dance matched the stereotyped expectation both from the society and from women themselves: that Belly dance is merely moving around and is “safe” from developing females into “muscle women.”

Both ATS and the Suhaila Technique demonstrated to us the other side of what female beauty could become. Students and dancers now learn that solid technique and great control of strength, together with a clear mindset of intention and attitude can lead to (seemingly effortless) elegance as well as visual and mental pleasure. This could be a new direction for our local Belly dance community in Taiwan to work on and fulfill our goal of achieving what some other masters and well-established dancers have already achieved.

Looking all the way back at our learning matrix, we can observe that it has been like a long journey and that we have learned through each step.  The longer we walk, the more we see, and thus, we continue our journey.

Carolena Nericcio and Megha Cavin gave the first GS workshop in Taipei'
photography by Ji-yiing Wang
click for larger photo
Names needed- back row from left: 1, 2-pink top, 3, 4, 5- red head, 6, 7
middle row: 1, 2, Carolena, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12- red skirt
front row: 1, 2, 3, 4- purple top, 5, 6- maroon top, 7- blue top, 8- blue top, 9, 10

Al Maha
Names needed: 1-man on tabla, 2 standing woman on def, 3 seated woman on tamborine, 4- standing 2nd woman on def, 5- second man on tabla, 6- seated woman on metal tabla, 7- dancer, 8- dancer on deck
From author-"This picture was taken during a local TV show introducing all kinds of street artists, and Al Maha as the first Middle Eastern Ensemble here, they were invited to perform."

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