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Overcoming Public Assumptions

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The Birth of Bellydance in Indonesia

by Christine Yaven
posted October 6, 2010

Bellydance has spread from nation to nation throughout the decades, one woman at a time. The beauty, grace and elegance of this ancient art form are infectious and women from
all countries, from all walks of life are drawn to this dance.

I was first introduced to this dance while I was studying in Sydney, Australia. After my return to Indonesia in 2006, I was excited to continue my training and looked around for a teacher.

I started searching Middle Eastern restaurants with belly dancers, but after watching the show, I was completely taken aback. The costumes, dancing and whole atmosphere was completely
different to what I had seen and was taught. Costumes were skimpy, almost bikini-like and nothing about the dance resembled bellydance -it bore more resemblance to erotic dance!

Then I searched a few other dance and aerobics studios and found one teacher (she taught everything from modern, hip hop, jazz, salsa, Latin, ballroom, striptease) but when I attended her class, the level of knowledge was basic at best, and she pointedly told me that it was impossible for me to “bellydance” as I am overweight and don’t have strong abdominal muscles.

Bitterly disappointed and heart- broken, I was completely turned off from continuing my training with the local “bellydancers”. However, my friends and family members were excited to learn that I knew how to belly dance, and I started organizing small meet ups at home to share my knowledge and just dance with these lovely ladies.

At that time, I was working in a job that required me to travel around the region. I arranged to meet with qualified bellydance teachers in neighboring countries (Malaysia and Singapore) who helped me train through private lessons, intensive workshops and moral support. Through these mentors, I met Tamalyn Dallal who came to Indonesia to write her book ‘40 Days and 1001 Nights’ – her journey through five Islamic countries. I had the honor of hosting her at the first workshop I organized!

 I was awe-struck that such an internationally recognized instructor would come to Jakarta. With some more training from her, I finally got the courage to start teaching formally.

I was far from being a ‘good’ teacher, but I knew that I wanted to introduce  “authentic” bellydance to the Indonesian public- not the erotically-charged dance that was being identified as bellydance.

I knew that I needed to continue upgrading my knowledge of this beautiful dance form, so I continued my training overseas through workshops and private training. These talented and gifted teachers-Tamalyn Dallal, Hadia, Yousry Sharif, Raqia Hassan, Dr. Mo Geddawi, Aida Nour, and many more-helped me by opening my eyes to the huge world of Middle Eastern dance. It seemed to me, that the more I learned, the less I know. This feeling fueled my desire to learn more about this dance!

I started teaching class once a week, on Saturdays. The road has been difficult. There are many misconceptions about belly dance in my country.

One thing I often encounter is the public’s assumption that ‘bellydance’ will tone your stomach and muscles and that it is for weight loss. Another is that bellydance is a vulgar, erotic dance used for seducing men. I am still trying to get the message to the public that both are untrue.

Classes started to grow quickly. From 1 class a week to 3 classes and before I knew it, we had ourselves a community of bellydancers in Jakarta, simply named Bellydance Jakarta. We welcome all women of all ages, shapes and sizes. Our mission is to promote friendship, community spirit and a love and respect for Middle Eastern dance.

I had difficulty maintaining credibility as other “belly dancers” in Jakarta all claimed that belly dance is for losing weight and losing tummy fat. Some of them even claim belly dancing tightens vaginal muscles. Unfortunately, this mentality still continues in some Indonesian circles today.

Media attention was immediately focused on our community. This was a totally new concept. The first community of bellydance enthusiasts and the first specialized Middle Eastern dance
center in Indonesia. Some reporters even went so far as to call me the icon of Middle Eastern dance in Indonesia. It was a whirlwind of reporters from newspapers, magazines and television.

I wasn’t what the media expected of a “bellydancer” though. It was actually quite amusing to see their reactions upon meeting me in person. Being plus-size in Asia is unusual.  Being plus-size and a dancer is even more unusual!  Some people were quite shocked and openly asked me, "How come you are overweight even though you regularly bellydance?" I had to patiently explain that belly dance is a cultural dance form that does not make you lose weight or flatten your tummy, even though it does burn calories.

It has been over 3 years since I first started the community. Bellydance Jakarta continues to grow. We have about 100 registered students now, of which a small group of them are the heart and soul of our community. From a group of strangers gathered to take a class once or twice a week, these girls are now close confidantes and best friends.

It is wonderful to see my students fall as deeply in love with Middle Eastern dance as I have, and more so when they respect the complexity and depth of it.

Indonesia still has a long way to go. With the popularity of bellydancing booming world-wide, I find more and more gyms and aerobics and dance centers offering “bellydance” classes teaching something completely foreign to me, and media attention on the glamorous, sexy and provocative does not help.

It will be a long road for us, but slowly we are changing the way belly dance is perceived, one person at a time.

Photo at top of pages: Photo taken during a live segment on Good Morning Trans, aired nationally (on TV?)
Bollywood Princesses
My Bollywood Princess Birthday Bash: These are my students and friends who are part of our community. It makes me proud that our community fosters friendship and support.
From L-R: Nona, Pauline, Santi, Ita, Fahmia, Joya, Indri, Christine, Iren, Flora, Francesca In the front: Febi (blue) and Cenny
Troupe Recital
An impromptu shot  of  my troupe and I minutes before  our 2008 recital
L-R:Fahmia, Helen, Lynda, Hanna, Christine, Santi, Febi and Pauline

 

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MaryEllen Donald