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Gilded Serpent presents...

Its All in the Flavor!

Bellydancing in Mexico

by Martha Duran
posted March 2009

Don Diaz
mexican Folkloric

Mexico – a place full of cultural treasures, a place full of magic and charm.  You feel this as you walk along the streets of Mexico, admire its world heritage sites, and marvel at the impressive architecture. You can dance along its pre-Hispanic and colonial past.

So when did Mexicans started dancing something other than our own dances?

Dance in Mexico is the most direct and loyal expression of the evolution of our country. Don Porfirio Diaz who was president in 1877, promised to establish a pure and rich Mexican culture. In 1910, there was a social explosion turning our society, military, and commerce into a spectacle and producing legends out of our governors.  As a result, our ceremonies, parades, restaurants, and of course, our dancing was transformed, thanks to the foreign elements the time of change introduced to our country.  We imported operas but adapted them to our popular songs and languages—injected with our spontaneous humor and lively music and dance.

While dance is considered one of our ancestral practices, it wasn’t until the 1940s that dance formally incorporated dance techniques developed in foreign countries. From Mazurkas to Ballroom dances, our dance styles were enriched with multicultural styles without sacrificing our folkloric heritage.

Musicians and muralists influenced and inspired choreographers of the 1920s with the fashionable elements of that time. From the 1930s to the ‘40s, Mexicans rejected Classical dance because of its poor relationship to our national spirit. Between the ‘40s and ‘50s, Folk dancing was performed in stadiums where hundreds of ladies performed with ruffled skirts decorated with luxurious braiding.

Through art, the people of Mexico learned about their economic situation, their ancestral oppression and what they could do to change their situation.

Aguilar& Valdes
Amalia Aguilar & Germán Valdés in 1949

Through the years, soloists like Nellie Campobello, Gloria Campobello, Dora Duby and dancer Xenia Zarina, performed Experimental Ballet and Modern Dance. Xenia Zarina performed Interpretative Dance and Oriental Dance for the first time in Mexico. March of 1936 marked the introduction of Oriental Dance into Mexico; ever multicultural, it was very common to see versatile dancers on television, in the movies, and on stages across the country.

As a Bellydancer for more than 29 years, I reach back in history and remember my first taste of Bellydancing on national and international television. I remember watching movies on local channels such as ¨1001 Nights¨ featuring German Valdes, ¨Tin Tan¨, and Maria Antonieta, with simple Bellydancing and beautiful costuming.

On the ABC network, a Three’s Company episode ¨Good Old Reliable Janet ¨ featured Nadia Caillou as a special guest performer in a restaurant scene (episode 2, season 3) aired on September 19,1978. I blame her for my love of Bellydance! The way she twirled around the tables, the sound of her cymbals, her simple and intricate movements made me long to do the same.

Xenia Zarina
Maria Shazadi
Maria Shazadi

There were absolutely no Bellydance classes around my hometown! My mom remembers bumping into a Bellydancer in the early ‘80s up north, in Los Angeles, when visiting my aunt’s house for the summer, where she signed me up for my dance classes. Back home, I had started in Ballet and Tap Dance, and I remember clearly the joy of my first Bellydancing class—the jingling of my teacher’s hip scarf, and the most exciting music I have ever heard filling the room with drum beats. There was enough space to visualize myself as that beautiful dancer with a flowing red and black skirt I had seen on television.


Years went by and I continued visiting my aunt and uncle’s homes for long, dance-filled summer vacations. I couldn’t get Oriental classes here in Mexico; so I had to go to the United States. Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Indio (all in California) were among the cities that gave me the opportunity to experience Bellydancing with some of today’s renowned Bellydance teachers.

When did the Bellydance boom hit our country? It was back in 1992 when children in Mexico fell in love with Disney’s animated movie, “Aladdin”. I participated as a choreographer for a local elementary school; our rehearsals started in 1993, and the show was presented onstage in Mexicali, Baja California, months later.  After that, we formed a small Oriental dance group with children between 6 and 9 years of age. Classes took place at an art center; well, perhaps it was more of an extra room in a piano teacher’s expansive home. Children kept coming and going, but officially, they were learning about Bellydance and its culture at a glance. Some parents were familiar with the dance style because of the pop music legends of the ‘80s and ‘90s—like Madonna, Michael Jackson and The Bangles who used a interpretation of Pharonic Egyptian dance.

In 1998, Bellydancers who danced like Shakira became as popular as dancers of any other dance form. Classrooms were full to their maximum capacities, and waiting lists grew for selected schools that offered Bellydance classes in Mexico, from Mexicali in Baja California to Mexico City.

There were no more than 5 Bellydance teachers in the country teaching Middle Eastern dance. Among them were: Maria Shazadi, Marla de La Vega, Niral, Samirah Vazquez, and me, Martha Duran.

Those were tough times for us teachers. Students were very shy in the classroom but eager to learn; some of them even thought that Shakira had created Bellydance! They didn’t have much information about Oriental Dance, its origins, or different styles. Some aspiring dancers even sat through several classes just to check out what Bellydance was or if we teachers danced it as well as Shakira.

On several occasions, I remember having teachers from other schools visit my classes to analyze the structure of the class. They asked: “How can you teach Bellydance if there is no method? Do you set up choreographies only? How can you teach the steps? Do the steps have names? Are you Egyptian? Are you Arabic? If you’re not Arabic, how can you Bellydance? Shakira said that she’s Lebanese, and that’s why she can dance it…¨

Those were common questions and comments made by people who were intrigued by this art form. To teach a Mexican how to do hip circles was easy—as well as how to manage a veil—because of our skirting technique in Mexican folk dancing. However, it’s different teaching a Mexican an undulation, hip shimmy, hip drop or hip twist. That was really a challenge, since our dancing styles don’t involve much movement of the waist. It was like having the hips stuck to the shoulders with no flexibility at the lower back and very stiff waists. We structured the classes for the student to achieve the above movements slowly, as well as giving them the confidence and flexibility that a Bellydancer needs to be able to dance with the Oriental music pieces.

Another issue I faced back then was obtaining musical arrangements.  I remember instructing class with 2 CDs and a mix tape of George Abdo’s music that I had made with my vinyl LPs. One of the CDs was a compilation (a student’s gift to me) and the other one, I treasured because I bought it directly from the artist in a dance workshop that I attended in 1994.

In an interview with Bellydance-master, Maria Shazadi, one of the first Bellydance teachers in our country, I asked her about Bellydance classes 10 years ago. She explained how simple they were back then compared to today’s classes: ¨They are now full of rhythms and technique, basic steps, combinations and choreography. Today, of course, you get to have groups of different levels¨; back then, you only had one type of student—the absolute beginner. Today you have [the range of] the confident student to the ‘I-want-to-be-a-Bellydance-teacher-fast’ student as well as the ‘I-still-love-Shakira’ student, the ‘I-want-to-try-something-different’ dancer, the ‘in-style’ student, and the well informed student.”

twins on TV

Araceli de Anda of Guadalajara

Niral Alvarez Basave was one of the first Bellydancers from Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico, founder of IMCADH (Instituto Mexicano de Cultura Arte y Desarrollo Humano Associacion Civil) [English: Institute of Mexico of Culture Art and Human Development Civic Asociation] and creator of Bellydance Night Festival where Bellydancers from all of Latin America united for days full of workshops with international instructors and performers. In December 2008, she defined Bellydance as the spiritual part of Oriental Dance. She describes it as the best form of expression for a dancer, teacher and choreographer. Niral received instruction with Brazilian dancer “Amaniksha” (Juliana Berganholi). Oriental dance and Bhangra were mingled together in a dance style called “Samkya”, which is based in gaining spiritual connections with the woman’s conscience through movement and artistic expression.

Mudras, choreographys, reflexology, aromatherapy, veil technique, meditation and mantras are the foundations of Niral´s education. Samkya leads to an artistic and pure representation of the art through the years and can educate generations of Bellydancers (who are distinguished for their passion to the dance and for their knowledge of folk, cabaret, and sisterhood) by maintaining through the dance love and respect to their teachers throughout the years.

¨For me, to Bellydance is to feel the music, to move a feeling…¨  (Hadassah, Jessica Vazquez from La Paz Baja California Sur, Mexico)

A new generation of teachers has evolved in the past 5 years here in Mexico. We have many girls who have attended a class here and there, danced along in a workshop, love YouTube, know the Bellydance Superstars choreographies by heart and teach just as Veena and Neena do in their videos. Many of them admit they have never had a formal education in Bellydance at all and have created their own special styles of Bellydance.

Sometimes, this makes Mexican Bellydancers look bad. Their students, mis-informed and misguided dancers, make soups out of different choreographies they’ve watched either on YouTube or downloaded from the Web (which is, by the way, somewhat legal in Mexico). They lift a combination from one dancer’s performance and paste it over another song, mixed with another dancer’s copy and paste combination, resulting in a disaster.

Fortunately though, there’s the award winning, dedicated, new generation of Bellydancers who have received awards in Bellydance contests like Maryam from Tijuana who won 1st place in Little Egypt´s Queen of Raks Sharqi 2008 Pageant. At this same contest in Dallas, Texas, Judge Randa Kamal commented after Mexican Bellydancer Maryam´s performance: “Great performance!” and Dr. Mo (also a judge) said to her, personally, “You are lovely!”   “To have two of the greatest Bellydance masters of the world commenting on a Mexican doing their dance style: that’s the best reward you can receive!” Maryam commented in an August 2008, interview.

Students, comprising a new generation who is only interested in becoming a performer, have popped up in the past 2 years. These dancers have more knowledge and respect for the dance styles and invest whatever it takes to gain presence on-stage. It’s a new generation of Bellydancers who attend every workshop and seminar around, who not only use the Internet as reference but also respect their teacher’s knowledge, from Cabaret style to Tribal Fusion.  Dancers take the stage in the few places located in the Mexican states like Al Khaima, a Moroccan restaurant in Guadalajara, Jalisco, which dedicates Saturdays to Tribal Fusion Bellydance. This is where performers like Araceli de Anda, one of the first (and few) Bellydance Tribal Fusion performers in the city, take the stage.

Hannali and Amduat, Tribal Fusion performers from Cd.Obregon in Sonora, Mexico, formally introduced Bellydance to this state. They are teachers taught by the Maktub Studio of Shamsia Yarahum in Tijuana, B.C.

Manisha from Merida, Yucatan, studied with the first generation of Bellydance students in the city of Tijuana with Bahira, a Bellydancer from San Diego California.   Bahira traveled into Mexico weekly to teach Bellydancers in a small group, who, after years of preparation and dedication, have manage to inspire many new generations.

Since 1992, many of us dance teachers have overcome numerous obstacles, taught several generations, and managed to handle varied situations presented by our culture while teaching and performing. We have dealt with the fact that we are not Egyptian or Arabian and that we were not born Bellydancing. Maybe we haven’t lived in Egypt, but have never feared what would happen when an Egyptian or an Arabian sees us Mexican Bellydancers perform. Perhaps the excellent instructors we have in nearby countries have given us strong foundations in Oriental Dance and given us confidence. Maybe it’s our Rumbera dancers from Mexico´s golden era of dancers in films or maybe, as my first Bellydance instructor complimented me on my achievements in my first class, “You Mexicans give flavor to Bellydance!”


Author's Troupe - "Bellydanceme"


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