Hamer recalls reading that it takes about 3,000 repetitions of a movement for the body to gain "muscle memory." A dancer experiences this as the moment when she no longer has to think the moves through. They've become part of her.
It first happened for Maria after three years of obsessively drilling the belly-dance moves she learned from her sister Christine. One summer night, at the Society for Creative Anachronism's medieval-themed Pennsic Wars on a wooded campground north of Pittsburgh, Maria's sister reached out from a group of dancers to pull her away from the spectators. Until then, Maria could feel herself letting go only when she "danced just for the moon." Now, on the edges of the circle of dancers, partially hidden by the forest night and bonfire shadows, she finally felt the "click" that cemented her love for belly dancing.
Today, Maria, Christine, their sister Jennifer Hamer-Pennisi, Olivia Kissel and Tamara Nelson perform and teach in Pittsburgh and nationally as Zafira Dance Company, one of the country's best-known belly-dance troupes. With belly dance gaining popularity as both recreation and workout, Zafira wants to make Pittsburgh an oasis for the relatively recent development known as American tribal style -- the pierced and tattooed, Ren Fair-influenced, and techno-savvy form in action that summer night in 1995. On April 2, the local tribal community will gather as Zafira hosts the Spark Tour, a national drawing-card of workshops and performances. The event will feature tribal stars Jill Parker, her troupe Ultra Gypsy, and Urban Tribal.
Everything about tribal belly dance looks and feels earthier and more folkloric than the I Dream of Jeannie image so common in the Western imagination. The costumes are darker and heavier, more "ethnic"-looking, with skirts more likely to be layered over a billowing pair of pants than slit to the hip. The dancing itself is rooted more in the simpler Turkish tradition of belly dance than the faster-paced Egyptian and Lebanese forms, from which the flashier, sequins-and-satin style known as "cabaret" borrows most heavily.
The women of Zafira are quick to point out, however, that the tribal form is actually less authentic. Though rooted in Near- and Middle-Eastern movement, "tribal belly dance is a strictly American thing," says Maria Hamer. Reflecting the melting-pot tastes of the modern, pop-culture-savvy global consumer, most of its students feel no allegiance to any particular culture. Performances might incorporate Turkish or Moroccan influences as well as movements drawn from flamenco, Indian and modern dance, and even circus elements such as fire-breathing.
Tribal style spread from the West Coast with the birth of the FatChanceBellyDance troupe in San Francisco in the late '80s, just as the modern alternative scene was about to de-glam popular culture, and as the Internet revolution began allowing anyone who chose to plug in to become a world citizen. FatChance popularized not only the fusion style, but a whole subculture defined by camaraderie among and empowerment of women, and a distinctly Western counterculture aesthetic of tattoos, dreadlocks and piercings.
The form continues to evolve, says FatChance co-founder Jill Parker, who now heads the San Francisco-based Ultra Gypsy. Parker says she recently spoke with belly-dance legend Suhaila Salimpour: "We're in agreement that here we're setting the trends in belly dance for the world, even in the Middle East. They're looking to the West now to see where it's going because there's so much more interest in it here."
Tribal's melting-pot aspect, it turns out, echoes the history of belly dance, whose roots were tangled by the dancer's need to tailor her appeal to diverse audiences. "There will always be a place for tradition," Parker says, "but in order for an art form to be living and thriving, it needs to evolve and grow and change with the times."
With its sinuous moves emphasizing the female form, belly dance has always been linked with the feminine. It was originally used in fertility and courtship rituals and as a way for women to socialize and entertain each other.
It retains that role. When Olivia Kissel first experienced a feeling similar to the one Maria Hamer describes, she was with the now-defunct Ghawazee troupe at the National Aviary in 1996. Seeing how nervous she was before her first public performance, the other dancers closed the half-moon that usually surrounds tribal dancers, allowing Kissel to get comfortable dancing before the circle re-opened toward the audience. "In front of all these people, surrounded by these women that were so powerful and so supportive, I felt really open to the music," Kissel says.
During a trip to Morocco, she joined street performers and found parallels to her Pittsburgh experiences. "It was one of the few times in [Morocco] that I had space. Whenever I'd get in a circle, I actually felt protected because people made room for me."
Claire Litton, who teaches and performs with Pittsburgh's Khafif Music and Dance, says of her students, "It sounds so new age, but a lot of the time they do it because they really want to learn to love themselves, which I think belly dancing is really marvelous for. Not only do you get to know your body from the inside by virtue of having to figure out what muscle does what, with belly dancing you can weigh whatever you want to weigh, you can be as old as you want to be and the skill comes from being you, and accepting yourself for who you are. You can still do a movement right and yet look different from somebody else."
Which makes it all the more ironic that belly dance has been objectified in many minds, in both the West and the Arab world. "'Let's see a free show!'" Maria drawls, imitating many men's response when they learn she belly dances. "It's so irritating." Claire Litton has different take. "I think the whole 'sexy' thing is self-perpetuating because there is no way we can lose the 'strong, happy woman' thing in belly dance," says Litton. "[Some] people are going to think that belly dance is all about being sexy, because confident women are sexy."
In the past year, local belly dancers have noted an upsurge in the number of women -- and the occasional liberated man -- who show up to take advantage of the inner and outer benefits of a belly-dance class. Some students have begun teaching classes of their own, making belly dance accessible everywhere from serene yoga studios to tony gyms and the utilitarian workout room of the YWCA.
"I encourage that because the more people that are teaching, the more people get involved, the more people get into the dance and the bigger the community," says Maria Hamer. "And that's really what I'm trying to build. I'm trying to get Pittsburgh on the belly-dancing map."
"But sometimes," she says. "I still just dance for the moon."
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What Is It?
Spring 2005 Dance
Fri., April 1-Sat., April 2
University of Pittsburgh Dance Ensemble Annual spring concert. Trees Hall Dance Studio, Oakland. $6 ($3 students). 412-648-8262
Sat., April 2
The Spark Tour Belly-dance workshops at Schoolhouse Yoga, 141 41st St., Lawrenceville (412-401-4444 or www.zafiradance.com) and a performance at the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater, 5941 Penn Ave., East Liberty (412-363-3000).
Playhouse Dance Company New works by Attack Theatre, Nicolas Petrov, Ron Tassone and Jay Kirk. Pittsburgh Playhouse, 222 Craft Ave., Oakland. $12-14. 412-621-4445.
Savion Glover in Improviography Byham Theater, Downtown. $20-40. 412-456-6666.
Dance Alloy Theater A Limited Lifetime Guarantee. Kelly-Strayhorn Theater, 5941 Penn Ave., East Liberty. $20 (seniors/students $15 and April 18 pay-what-you-can). 412-363-4378.
Bodiography Contemporary Ballet New work by former American Ballet Theater Star Johan Renvall. Byham Theater, Downtown. 412-521-6094 or 412-425-3766
Xpressions Contemporary Dance Company XCDC Annual Spring Concert -- Peace/Movement Contemplations. Kelly-Strayhorn Theater, 5941 Penn Ave., East Liberty. 412-227-0240
Srishti Dances of India New work in Indian classical dance by Sreyashi Dey and visiting artists Manoranjan Pradhan and G. Narendra; part of Kaleidoscope: India. The Andy Warhol Museum, North Side (April 23) and St. Paul's Cathedral, Oakland (April 24). 412-237-8300
Labco New Re:Works. Kelly-Strayhorn Theater, 5941 Penn Ave., East Liberty. $12 (seniors/students $10). 412-363-3416.
April 28-May 1
Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre Madame Butterfly. Benedum Center, Downtown. $14-112. 412-456-6666.
Junction Dance Theatre House Party: 7 performances, 7 rooms. JCT Headquarters, 7634 Westmoreland Ave., Swissvale. 412-273-1996