Religious Belly Dance Instructor Sparks Innovative Physical Female Discourse

Hani Cohen Yehonatan, 38, is a mother of four beautiful children. She leads a religious life with her family in the West Bank settlement of Kedumim. But what does she do for a living? Well, she’s a belly dancing instructor, but despite the implied sexual nature of her profession, she doesn’t see it colliding with her conservative beliefs.

“I don’t feel like there’s a contradiction here,” she says. “We don’t perform in front of men, so I’ve never had any problems. Dancing is first and foremost for us. There was once a woman who told me that she wanted to perform in front of her husband. I I said, do it for yourself first, for your body, and if you want to add another, that’s amazing. But above all, do it for yourself.”

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חני כהן יהונתן

Hani Cohen Yehonatan

(Photo: Ori Davidovich)

Cohen Yehonatan explained how belly dancing is perceived in the eyes of the religious community. “People know belly dancing as a very revealing, very sexual type of dance, and that’s a stigma I’ve come to tackle. I had a student who once asked a rabbi if she could learn belly dancing, and he told her she couldn’t, on the pretext that it wasn’t modest.”

This tension between feminine modesty and love of art has inspired Hani’s journey.

“I feel like I need to clarify what’s modest and what’s not in the hips, and whether there must be a good reason to move them. Because what’s modest in the hips? Only birth? Is going to the bathroom modest?” Hani elaborates.

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שיעור בביתה של חני

שיעור בביתה של חני

Belly dance class with Hani Cohen Yehonatan

(Photo: Ori Davidovich)

“If dancing strengthens the hips for birth, is it modest? So moving is only modest when it comes to having children? But what if a woman suffers from menstrual pain? ask the rabbi if she has the right to belly dance, because it might help her? These are questions that concern them. The questions are more important than the answers.

Cohen Yehonatan grew up in a religious Zionist home in the Golan Heights and was educated in religious institutions. “I didn’t do much physical education. I experienced the opposite, body suffocation,” she shares.

“Because I was doing pairing and wanted to maintain a figure, I tried all kinds of classes but failed or fell in all of them, so I tried belly dancing,” he said. she said with a twinkle in her eye.

“I remember opening the door to the belly dance studio, and it was the first time I saw a group of happy women. There were women of all ages, from 23 to 70, I I was the youngest there. There were pregnant women, religious and secular women, wearing wigs or pants. After just one lesson, I felt like someone who saw the light and had to to transmit.

At that moment, a seed was planted in Cohen Yehonatan’s mind, even though she was still ashamed to admit it: “I wanted to be a dancer, I wanted to learn to dance, and I wanted to give hope to people. women like me, who grew up standing without a body [in the metaphoric sense]” She was afraid to pursue these thoughts, so she started working as an English teacher. “I quickly realized that it was not for me, and immediately after marriage I left teaching and I changed careers.”

Cohen Yehonatan has now been teaching holistic belly dancing for eight years. She teaches four times a week – three times in her living room and once a week at the dance school in Itamar, an Israeli settlement in the mountains of Samaria in the West Bank.

“Before I started teaching in my living room, I was worried about the dirt and the mess,” she says, “and I remember being really nervous before everyone showed up.

Suddenly, in the middle of the lesson, someone asked me, “Hani, why do you have a half-eaten carrot on your shelf?” One of the kids took a bite and forgot to throw it away, and since the house is full of decorations, we didn’t notice.”

Throughout the session, Hani’s husband and four children stayed in their rooms. “It’s important to me that the women who arrive feel comfortable, so my husband knows he has no right to be here, not only for the duration of the course but also when they enter. It’s a very personal and intimate thing It’s not easy for everyone to introduce themselves, so if they come – maybe they don’t want him to know they’re here So I respect that.

Hani explains how the intimate environment influences the dynamics of the lesson. “All of a sudden, when there are no more mirrors, even me as a teacher, I have nowhere to escape, and I have to dance directly in front of my students. was difficult, and even today in the studio, I take courage and turn my back on the mirror.”

In this way, the students must also stand in front of each other. “Some of them are really worried that it will embarrass them at first, so they stand in the hallway or in the kitchen. Most of the time the embarrassment fades. Sometimes we open a freestyle circle, and when the girls stand up in front of each other, they communicate and talk to each other.”

According to Hani, “women from a very closed culture are able to open up to belly dancing much more easily, which is interesting because they haven’t heard of it and don’t know what it is. “.

Cohen Yehonatan states that even in Bible times, Jewish women danced. “I believe that in the ancient world, everyone danced like this, even Jewish women during the Exodus from Egypt, after the Red Sea festival.”

“Today in our culture we still get messages to shrink, pull together and hold together. A woman once told me, ‘Don’t let them see my belly’. And in belly dancing , the first thing is to let go, everything is loose – and the further you go, the better, she laughs.

A variety of women come to learn from Hani, from all shades and hues of the religious spectrum. Due to the diverse backgrounds of Hani’s students, interesting topics are covered during her lessons, including pregnancy, birth, and personal relationships. “I feel that this place and this movement opens up a place in the soul that does not present itself elsewhere, especially in the female context.”

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