Originally published in Tastemakers Issue #49. (See link or scroll down for full spread.)
Passing the Curry Dance Studio on Mondays, one might mistake it for an Egyptian dance party. Well, it wouldn’t be much of a mistake, except that the people inside are still just learning to party like an Egyptian. Or anyone else in the Middle East, for that matter. The NU Belly Dance Club meets weekly for hour-long lessons led by Natassia, a professional belly dancer and instructor in Boston. Here, Northeastern students like myself learn how to shimmy, turn, and execute all kinds of dizzying hair tricks. But more importantly, belly dance unlocks innate, ultra-personal values through movement – in beginners and experts alike.
“Should my left hip be moving too?” asks PR Manager Rachael Sverdlove hesitantly, literally slowing her roll. Natassia’s answer is disruptively simple. “Yeah,” she says. “Your hips are connected.” As she realizes the groundbreaking anatomical obviousness of her response, she stops the class and turns around. “This is one thing,” she says, framing her hips assertively, but elegantly with her hands. “These are connected. This is connected!” she says, tapping her ribcage. “I know it sounds obvious, but when I understood this, everything changed.” When one starts understanding belly dance, everything changes. President Becky Mueller is grateful for the change: “Belly dance reignited in me this energy that I always had, but didn’t always tap into.” The classes in Curry aren’t about how to simulate a perfect hip circle, or umi; they’re about finding connections.
Until now, its first semester as an official Northeastern student organization, NU Belly Dance was a passion project of a group of people who didn’t even know each other. “The idea,” Vice President Nicole Goldstein explains, “is to have a large enough troupe so we can perform at university-wide events and maybe even travel to different universities to link up with other belly dance clubs. I want people to know who NU Belly Dance is – a fun-loving group of people who love and empower each other through dance.” Last year, under the direction of Jackie Dratch, the club met twice a week: once for lessons, and once for a smaller group of dancers who committed to performances around Boston. That smaller group and variations of it performed around Boston and Cambridge at a Hillel celebration for Mimouna, the Middle East Restaurant and Nightclub, and the Out of the Blue Too Gallery & More. Our performance at the Middle East was the first public performance in the Shaabi style – a rowdy Egyptian street dance – in Boston. “The dance itself is beautiful,” adds Goldstein, “but it was the environment that got me hooked.”
Right now, the environment is female. NU Belly Dance reaches out to men on campus and has taught a few in class, but, like belly dance itself, appeals to the shapes of the female body, and the community of the female experience. “There is something really incredible that happens when you learn how to move your body in ways you never thought possible,” Natassia says. “To find control over your body as a woman is a very powerful process. You start to feel more confident in your skin, you start to believe in yourself more… and you find this feeling of freedom that is very hard to explain.” People come to class dressed in all kinds of ways: straight from class in jeans and a shirt, yoga clothes, gym shorts, sports bra. Sverdlove and I got kicked out of the gym once for practicing choreography in jeans, torsos exposed. No one will ever be expected to wear, act, or dance in any way but their own at an NU Belly Dance class. “It gave me the opportunity to express myself in an environment that encourages and celebrates it,” says Mueller. Goldstein’s experience borders on ecstatic: “The girls in that class built a space that was fun, empowering, and supportive – and I fell in love. By the end of the semester I was dancing up front in a bra, shaking what my mama gave me!”
The connection of body and person, person and person, and troupe and community is a millennia-old tradition innate in belly dance, and in the young club in Boston already. “After one class,” says Sverdlove, “I instantly felt a strong connection to the dancers and to the belly dance community. NU Belly Dance is the reason I’m happy at Northeastern.” More than half the class still just drops in for lessons, an essential part of keeping the community open and diverse. Going forward with Natassia, the club can expect to “create and enjoy powerful and feminine performances, and inspire other women to work hard, make art and to believe in themselves.” On Mondays, every time I look in the mirror, I do a little dance.