The rhythmic clang of cymbals fills the small room and crashes through a nearby glass-paned door into an adjoining ballet studio. Two little girls in pastel leotards and tights timidly approach the divider to see what could be making such a foreign sound.
A glimpse through the glass reveals a group of women dressed in bright, flowing skirts and midriff-baring cholis. The women dance in unison, their arms held gracefully above their heads as their hips move fluidly from side to side. Between their fingers are small, golden cymbals—called zills—which they snap to the beat of the music.
The exotic scene is typical for Dana Johnson’s American tribal-style belly dancing class at Everybody Can Dance studio in Santa Maria. Students meet every Thursday from 6 to 7 p.m. to practice shimmies, undulations, and other time-honored dance moves.
Johnson teaches the class through her business, Blue Moon Haven, which also serves as a belly-dancing troupe that performs at events both locally and across the state.
An avid belly dancer, Johnson started practicing the spellbinding art form back in 2004.
“I kind of accidentally fell into,” she said. “I went to a class with a friend just for fun and I was blown away by how much fun it was and how supportive the women were.”
The kind of dancing Johnson experienced was completely different from the risqué gyrations she’d seen in movies and on TV shows. And it actually ended up being a lot more fun, too.
“Belly dancing isn’t about being sexy or seductive and flirting with the audience,” Johnson said. “It’s not about the body; it’s about what you can do with it.”
She explained that the dancing she teaches is all about fostering joy and building trust among women. In her troupe, the women enjoy dancing together and the audience gets to watch.
“Belly dancing is for everyone,” she said. “It doesn’t matter your size, your shape—all women can do it.”
When this reporter first stepped onto the dance floor to give belly dancing a try, it didn’t seem like that was the case (those first few hip swishes felt rather stiff). But by the end of the night, it started to feel more natural.
“What we’re doing, it’s an illusion,” Johnson said of her art form.
But, as with any illusion, a lot of work goes into making it effortless. The dance is a total-body workout that takes a surprising amount of muscle strength in the arms, abdomen, and legs.
“It’s all about isolation—moving one part of the body while keeping the other one still,” she explained. “It teaches you about posture and body alignment, and how to carry yourself.”
In addition to its many physical benefits, belly dancing also has emotional benefits, such as improved confidence and the opportunity to develop closer friendships with other women.
“A lot of women tend to say, ‘I’ll do [something physical] after I lose 10 pounds,’ but belly dancing taught me that if I want to do something, I just have to go out and do it,” Johnson said. “And here, when you’re dancing, it’s OK if you mess up because we’ve got your back.”
Unlike many dances, which require continual practice of the same routines, all of the dancing at Blue Moon Haven is improvisational. The women dance in formations and take turns leading each other by using subtle body cues. Johnson starts the beginners’ class by teaching a selection of core movements—arms, hips, shuffles, and shimmies—and then leads everyone in dance set to Eastern-inspired music.
She said her way of doing things is much more in tune with the origins of belly dancing, which is one of the oldest dance forms in history. The tradition started in biblical times when the sexes were still socially separated, and women would dance together for entertainment.
“Mothers and grandmothers would pass the dances down to their daughters, and use them to teach young women about their bodies,” Johnson said. “It was considered beneath them to go out and dance for someone else. The women who did that had usually lost their families and had to dance to survive.”
According to Johnson, the western cliché of belly dancers came about during the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago; a dancer named Little Egypt performed at the fair fully clothed, but her movements scandalized the Victorian fairgoers.
“They were called hoochie coochie girls,” Johnson said of Little Egygt and her backup dancers. “After that, women started popping up everywhere saying they were Little Egypt, and then the burlesque world got a hold of it.”
Not long after that, she said, Hollywood got a hold of it and added the sparkly bra and chiffon pants, a look Middle Eastern countries actually started emulating.
The term “belly dance” is a translation of the French name for it, “danse du ventre,” or “the dance of the belly.”
While baring one’s midriff seemed scandalous to repressed Victorians, Johnson said Middle Eastern women originally chose to highlight their abdomens as a form of empowerment.
“They showed their midriffs to say, ‘Look how strong I am. Do you know what goes on in there?’” she said. “It’s über feminine.”
Managing Editor Amy Asman moves like a writer. Contact her at [email protected].