Belly dancing a female art

By ANNE KAZMIERCZAK
Register Reporter

Register/Anne Kazmierczak
Ruth St. Clair models a belly dancing outfit she made while on a six-hour flight in Alaska. St. Clair makes all her belly dancing outfits, and supplements them with store-bought veils and hip scarves. She will begin teaching the ancient dance form in Iola in January.

If Ruth St. Clair could convey only one idea about belly dancing, it would be this: belly dancing is not erotica.
“It’s not a sexual thing,” St. Clair emphasizes. “It’s about women spending time with other women, having fun together.”
St. Clair, who has studied the dance form since 2005, has learned something of the dance’s history.
One version is that the undulating movements and rhythmic thrusts of pelvis and hips were originally put into dance form in homage to the birthing process.
“When a woman would give birth, all the women would dance with her, and the movements would help bring the baby down,” she said. “Little girls would see their mothers and grandmothers dance, and when they reached puberty they would be welcomed into the circle.”
The motions still help relieve menstrual cramps and back pain, St. Clair said. It also “helps as you get older to keep the joints loose,” she noted.
Mainly, she said, it’s a way to have fun.

ST. CLAIR, who recently returned to Iola after living in Alaska, had been teaching belly dance there as a way for women to get together, especially in the dark winter months when outdoor activities eluded them.
“We had a good time,” she said of her Alaskan troupe.
In Alaska, St. Clair worked for the Office of Children’s Services.
“I investigated child abuse up and down the Aleutian coast,” she said.
One island community, Adak, had about 100 year-round residents. The only industry was a fish processing plant.
“It’s a pretty miserable place to be,” St. Clair said. “It was a drinking community. The parents got drunk and abused their children.”
Yet Adak, a former naval base, “had this amazing gym with mirrors all along the wall.”
St. Clair asked herself, “What’s something I can show them to do besides drink?”
When the women discovered St. Clair could dance, the answer was obvious.
All 15 to 20 women of Adak, from teenagers to the elderly, took her class, she said, which led them to focus more on their health and community rather than drinking.
“It was a fun way to show them how to do something for themselves,” St. Clair noted.
St. Clair plans now to teach belly dancing in Iola.
“It’s low-impact,” she said of the sinuous movements. “This is a great thing to do, especially for a gal that might not try a hard aerobic activity. We can take it slow,” she said.

THE TRUE history of belly dancing is unknown. It is rumored to have spread with gypsy dancers throughout the Middle East, north Africa and southern Europe. The dance had an especially strong foothold in Turkey, where it became a public art form.
Belly dancing is distinctive in that “you dance barefoot,” St. Clair said. Dancers wear hip scarves tasseled with golden discs, representing coins itinerant dancers collected. Flowing gossamer veils are sashayed about the head and body.
“Everything you do behind the veil is pretty because it adds an element of illusion,” St. Clair said.
There are various forms of belly dancing, she said, including tribal, which sports heavy belts and multilayered costumes, to cabaret, with lighter fabrics and faster steps. A tribal belly belt might weigh about five pounds, whereas one for cabaret, which St. Clair teaches, weighs about 6 ounces.
In addition, St. Clair said, “There’s a a lot of shimmies in cabaret. To me, there’s a lot more movement.”
Belly dancing requires control. Legs and back and belly muscles are all involved. Arms are strengthened through swirling the veil. And posture is improved as dancers learn to stand with their pelvis tucked, St. Clair said.
Anyone, of any size, can learn, St. Clair said. Some of the best dancers worldwide, she said, are, in fact, large women.
“We put too much value on women who are size 2,” she said of modern American culture. “Traditionally, those are not the women who were beautiful at all.”

ST. CLAIR’S belly dance class is being taught through the Iola Recreation Department. It begins Tuesday and runs for the next five Tuesdays, from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. Cost is $35; veils and hip scarves will be provided. Interested women can register by calling the Iola Recreation Department at 365-4990. “If six or more women want a different time slot, I’m open” to teaching an additional class, St. Clair said.
Every woman is welcome, regardless of size, St. Clair noted. “As we said in Alaska, ‘Every belly is beautiful.’”