How a belly dance class empowers women in Cork
Empowering, fun and a great way to stay in shape –found a lot to like during a belly dancing class in Cork
It’s called belly dancing, so why are my arms hurting so much? An hour after starting an introductory oriental dance class Suadela, and it’s clear that ancient Middle Eastern dancing is more than just a way to demonstrate that your hips don’t lie: it is a complete workout that requires great physical discipline and the ability to isolate and control virtually every muscle group in the body.
It turns out that my own hips swell regularly. And the rest of me is in the same shape. I thought at least my upper body was in good shape. But I am in pain. I give in to the temptation and drop my shaking arms for a moment of respite, while other dancers all around me seem able to keep theirs endless and gracefully extended while practicing the routine we’re taught.
Instructor Jane Heffernan, who teaches a modern style known as “tribal fusion,” taught us how to do the serpentine arms of the snake and now combines the movement into a routine with chest and hip lifts. All to the frantic rhythm of “Warrior’s Dance” by The Prodigy.
In the studio on the first floor of a karate club on Shandon Street in Cork, we have already attended a oriental dance practice session with instructor Dawn Wang, and soon tribal instructor Briona Ryng will be giving us discover a dance sequence for skirts.
It’s tough, but a lot of fun. The first thing we learned was quite emblematic of the warm, supportive atmosphere in the room, and not a dance at all, but a sound, the Zaghareet: a shrill cry of encouragement, the non-verbal equivalent of “You.” go, girl! “
When most people think of belly dancing, they probably think of a sexy, slender dance performed to titillate men. But for Briona Ryng, who has practiced oriental dance for 14 years, it is above all a dance for women for women.
“I love the concept of brotherhood,” says Ryng.
Much of what we do is improvised, so you create in the moment with other women and connect with other women.
“Certainly the way we dance now, it’s more for other women. A lot of our audiences are between 80% and 90% female and I think women like it almost more than men. We come in all shapes and sizes in our classroom and in our troupe, and I think it’s really empowering for women to see performers who aren’t necessarily your stereotypical body ideal.
Suadela has a core of 10 dancers, who perform regularly at events. “We were playing anything,” Ryng said with a smile. “We danced once at a 70th birthday party in Donegal and it was super craic. We organize many festivals and concerts and perform with bands of various styles, from trad to samba to Balkan music, and our own big show at Firkin Crane every year.
The history and origins of oriental dance are shrouded in the mists of time. Egypt, Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Lebanon all have their own indigenous forms, and during the period of the Ottoman Empire it extended to southern Spain.
It became a popular form of exotic and exciting entertainment for 19th century European travelers: Gustav Flaubert and British Orientalist Edward William Lane wrote about the thrilling dances they saw on their travels in Egypt.
“There’s no way to know the exact story,” Ryng says. “Some people say it started as a way to prepare women for childbirth, but we’re not sure.
“Tribal fusion came from America in the 90s; it’s like your classic belly dance is merging with other dance styles like contemporary and hip-hip, so it’s become a totally modern form, and we’re dancing to more modern music.
Hollywood’s early love affair with Orientalism brought belly dancing to American and European audiences, with sometimes questionable results; it was considered to be a kind of striptease and, as with other styles of dance, the exotic ethnic origins of its performers lent themselves to more permissive standards than those to which Western women were held, as well as a multitude of colonial ethnic stereotypes.
Most of the standards of oriental dance are derived from Arab cultures; Does Suadela ever fall under accusations of cultural appropriation? Ryng says it’s become a “hot topic” in the United States in recent years. “I think with globalization we all share our cultures a little more and I think intention is very important,” she says.
This sharing must be done with appreciation, respect and knowledge. But we don’t really come across that here and we perform in a lot of multicultural events.
Ryng, whose daytime job is in HR with UCC, says the flamboyant costumes are a big part of the dance’s popularity. Even for training, scarves decorated with small rows of metal discs are distributed at the start of the course. They are decorative, but also useful: when your hips move correctly, the metal discs act as a percussion instrument.
Moving your hips properly has, counterintuitively, almost nothing to do with your hips. “In fact, it’s all in the knees,” says Ryng. “If your knees are bent, the hips are much more flexible. “
It is also about the legs and the buttocks; Earlier, instructor Dawn Wang from China, who combines performance and teaching to complete her PhD in Philosophy, taught us the secret of a quick squeeze from the opposite buttock that puts your hip back in the way desired. I’m not sure I have this one yet.
Beside me, Ann Riordan certainly has the low blows; she has been belly dancing for 17 years and has been working oriental style with Wang for two years.
“I love it,” she said. “It gives you a lot of confidence in your body, but other than that it’s really a lot of fun. I smile throughout each class.
In his very first class, Nathan Philpott braved the female-dominated surroundings and even donned a skirt for Ryng’s class, since he’s a roommate with one of the instructors.
“It was really fun,” he says.
I have already practiced martial arts. When I see Jane play she has fantastic control over her body and now I think I understand it a bit more seeing how they move their knees and stomachs.
How did he fare with the hip-based movements? “Well, I expected it to be painful,” he said with a small smile. “I felt like my hips weren’t doing much because they were too flat. “
Nearby, Silvia Garcia, a Spanish woman who has lived in Ireland for four years, tells me that she is six weeks away from a beginner’s course and can’t wait to come back in the New Year.
“It’s tough; you’re using muscles you’re not used to and there’s a lot of coordination where you have to think about your whole body,” Garcia says. “But you focus so much that you forget about the rest of the world. I’m not sure I’m performing, but I would like to keep coming and improving.