Black Women Discover Belly Dancing

A dozen women of varying sizes, shapes and ages gather inside a warehouse-turned-haven for women, a few miles west of downtown Detroit.

The barefooted women sensually shake, shimmy and sway their hips, roll their stomachs, gracefully shake their shoulders and snake their arms to the rhythms of Egyptian drums.

They’re all wearing smiles and brightly-colored hip skirts with coins that jiggle as they wiggle, adding to the symphony of sounds that fill this homey space.

Teacher Tene Dismuke leads the women in belly dance at the House of Bastet, a dance studio and women’s empowerment center that she opened in 2007 at 2233 Brooklyn St. in Detroit.  Bastet represents the Egyptian Goddess of Joy, Music, Dance, Pleasure and Strength, Dismuke says.

Women learning this ancient dance say belly dancing gives them all that and more. Increasingly, Black women are being attracted to the dance that is most often associated with Middle Eastern women.


But, in fact, Black women’s affection for belly dancing marks a rhythmic return to our roots, say many who have studied the origins of this ancient dance.

“Belly dance is an African art form.  Don’t let anyone tell you different. It belongs to Africa,” says Dr. Sunyatta Amen, a Washington, D.C.-based neuropath, who is also the natural health adviser for the Michael Baisden Show.

She founded the Bellydancers of Color Association, called BOCA, in 2002 to educate, strengthen and encourage belly dancing among people of color. It also provides a networking site for practitioners and teachers.

Amen points to attendance figures at BOCA’s annual conference that attracts people from all over the country as evidence of its growth within the African-American community. Attendance jumped from 500 to 2,500 from 2003, from the first conference, to last year.

Local proof lies in the growing variety of places where belly dance is being taught in Detroit. You can find a place to belly dance in every section of the city.

Besides the House of Bastet in southwest Detroit, there are the Friss Center on Detroit’s northwest side; Wayne County Community College District’s University Center on the city’s east side; FitnessWorks in the New Center area; Vixen Fitness in the Eastern Market community and the Cass Corridor Commons on Cass near Wayne State University.

Also, Yoga for Life has a location in Birmingham and seeks a replacement for its recently closed Midtown Detroit location.

“Women are looking for a way to express their whole being: body, mind and spirit, and belly dancing offers a way to do that,” says Sanaa NiaJoy, who teaches belly dancing as part of the new Whole Note Healing Collective in the Cass Corridor Commons, inside what used to be the First Unitarian Universalist Church.

“It celebrates their natural femininity. Women feel beautiful and sensual.” Belly dancing also celebrates and embraces the curvaceous bodies of black women boosting pride in their body images.

While men can and do belly dance, it is traditionally a women’s dance begun, some people believe, to prepare women for childbirth, ease them through the process and celebrate its accomplishment.

Amen believes the births of her own two children, now 8 and 26 years old, were made easy by her years of belly dancing.  She also reports that women she has taught have reported shorter, less painful menstrual periods as a result of belly dancing.

Deborah “Dee” Watkins, who teaches belly dancing at Yoga for Life Detroit, says women have reported the same thing to her. It makes sense, she says. Belly dancing engages the core muscles of the body, strengthening the back, the stomach, the muscles of the reproductive system.

“Belly dancing helps women overall,” says Watkins, who has been teaching it since 2004. “It’s also a good cardiovascular exercise because it gets your heart rate up. And women love it because it’s dancing for fitness.”

There are numerous other benefits as well, including weight-loss, increased flexibility and toning, and even increased happiness because women have a good time doing it-and as in many cultures-it’s often done in a community of women celebrating each other, says Stephanie Carr, who has been teaching belly dance since 2005.

Unlike a lot of dances, the only partner you need is yourself, she points out.  “I love it because it’s a community of women and we all learn from each other,” she says.  She also says the dance can communicate messages-from sweet flirty enticements to swift angry rebuffs, depending on the movements.

Lorna Thomas, 62, of Harper Woods, belly dances four days a week at four different Detroit spots. “Belly dancing is what I do,” says Thomas who started five years ago after attending one of the almost monthly diva dance parties held at House of Bastet.

Since then, she has lost 60 pounds, her high blood pressure dropped within normal range and her self-esteem is at an all-time high.

“I was a fat, unhealthy, and unhappy old lady,” Thomas says. “Slowly through dancing I found the real me. When I dance, I feel beautiful.”

Thomas says she’d tried other dances, such as hustles but struggled to learn the numerous steps, and it didn’t feel as natural as belly dancing. “I like this because it’s not as regimented. You move to the music to the best of your ability. The teacher tells us you don’t make mistakes. You’re a diva and divas don’t make mistakes.”

ReBecca Holland, 50, of Detroit, is new to belly dancing, but believes she’ll stick with it.

“It’s fun, feminine and pretty, and it’s a good workout because you’re working the core muscles.  I need something that works the middle,” she says touching her stomach. “Women’s issues seem to center around the middle.”                                                  

Another benefit is that women can do it well into their senior years because the movements flow naturally and are not jarring to the body as some other dances. Dismuke teaches a class especially geared to a group of women whose ages are beyond what they’d care to share.

They’re called OAKS-Old Ass Kids, a fun-loving group of girlfriends who stay active through belly dancing and other physical fitness activities.

“I like it because it’s high energy, but low-impact,” says OAKS member ShaRon Dennis, of Detroit. “With me being close to 300 pounds, I can’t do aerobics, but this is something I can do. And I plan to lose weight without surgery.”

“We know that as we get older we need to keep moving in order to be able to keep moving,” says OAKS member Geneva Phillips, owner of the clothing and jewelry boutique International Bazaar. “And, you know the sexy moves fit us because we’re sexy women!”

Dr. Amen believes belly dancing also improves women’s sex lives because the sensual movements make them feel sexier and thus less inhibited about showing off their sexiness with their mates. 

“African-American women can tend to be conservative in the bedroom, yet we want to be sensual and sexy. The fact of actively doing something sensual builds your sexual confidence.  They leave the classes feeling good all over. 

“I’ve had women tell me their husbands can’t wait for them to get back home after belly dancing class.”There is no one way to do the movements of this age-old dance. As with most dances, there are a variety of ways to do it. Dr. Amen says while there are many styles of belly dancing, they all emphasize engaging the muscles of the midsection while offering a total body workout.

The styles vary according to geographical origin, just as does the music that accompanies it.  “The basic movements are all the same; how it’s spoken is what’s different,” Dr. Amen says.

“Think of it as the same language with different dialects. Some people twist the hips in wider circular motions; others focus on smaller circular movements. Some people do it barefooted and flat-footed, whereas others dance on their toes.

“Some of the movements look just like what you see at the club or at a family reunion.  And some of it looks like African dancing because, really, it is.”

Omowale Faye Brown is a Detroit-based freelance writer.

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