I feel I have entered another world. It's a peaceful oasis draped in multihued kaleidoscopic batik tapestries -- on walls and covering some comfy-looking furniture. It's a good-sized room with open floor space, mirrors along one wall and the slightest hint of incense.
I've signed up for a belly dance class at the Center for World Rhythms and Movement in Saint Bernard, where Gaiananda is the resident performing troupe and several public classes are offered. Founding troupe member Suzanne Gerard is teaching today.
I'm taking "Slow Moves" -- just right for a hot, lazy Sunday afternoon. Eight or nine other women are here -- most with bellies in view -- along with a precocious 9-year-old girl whose guardian sits on the sidelines. We select hip belts from three large baskets to accentuate our hip moves to come. These wide, colorful sashes are highly decorative and weighty, adorned with elaborate combinations of tassels, cords and rows of coins and charms that jingle.
Whether it's shimmies, shakes or extensive undulations, when you see Tribal Dance -- or indeed most other dance forms -- you notice the flow of movements. Belly Dance epitomizes smooth moves, but before the sensual fluidity come the mechanics.
Gerard leads us through a gentle, progressive warm-up, focusing on isometric isolations.
To teach us "Toxeem," an Arabic-derived term for "slow," Gerard asks us to try two methods to raise our hips up and down: a) lifting up with our oblique torso muscles on alternating sides and b) bending both knees slightly and straightening the leg of the hip-lifting side. Both are used in tandem to maximize range of motion to generate hip rolls.
Gerard's teaching style is clear, fun and effective in providing the tools to execute the many moves we learned that day.
She suggests that we imagine raising and lowering our arms under water to sense the positions our wrists should be moving through. This was an exercise for "snakey arms," which sounds self-explanatory, but like many moves we learned, proved more difficult than it appears. To achieve the look of heavy tension requires significant strength and control. The shoulders roll forward and back in opposition, with arms passing through specific positions all the while. Hands are also involved: wrists roll and fingers meet in their own complementary dance.
My first time trying to combine snakey arms and hand gestures with the hip movements was a challenge in coordination. Think of simultaneously patting your head and rubbing your belly and you get the idea. Gerard reminds us that repetition, or "drilling" the moves using correct placement, is the way to smooth them out and have them feel more natural. Then you can embody the experience of sensual flow within your own movements, the music and other dancers.
Gerard likens belly dance to yoga as a meditative, communal experience. She says women take the classes for different reasons, whether it's to exercise, connect with other women or eventually perform.
"What we do attracts an eclectic array of people because it is very tolerant of different beliefs and lifestyles by its very nature," she says. "Tribal Belly Dance is a fusion of different cultures from North Africa, the Middle East as well as movements and expressions taken from Spain and India.
"It is also very accepting and supportive. All of the women that come to dance know that this is a non-competitive and supportive environment and that each woman is encouraged to be authentically herself."