As much as belly dance has been caricatured, it’s actually a subtle art. Unlike other styles of dance — say, ballet — it’s not focused on movement of the limbs, but instead undulations of the torso.
The subtleties of the form, along with its many variations, will be on stage in Sahara: A Belly Dance Show. It begins at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 28 in the Emil Fries Auditorium at the Washington State School for the Blind.
“I think a lot of people associate it with burlesque, or they still have an Orientalist fantasy from films about the seductive nature of belly dance,” said Malia Christina Mihailoff, who is producing the show.
That conception has roots in the very term “belly dance.” It’s a translation from danse du ventre, the sneering nickname for the 1863 painting by French artist Jean-Leon Gerome, “The Dance of the Almeh.”
Belly dance came to the United States in 1893, when performers calling themselves Little Egypt put on a demonstration at the Chicago World’s Fair.
Saturday’s 10-act show will include that traditional raqs sharqi form. But it will also feature fan-veil and double-sword dances, as well as tribal fusion belly dance, an American style that blends influences from the Middle East, Turkey, India and hip hop, Mihailoff said.
Belly dance is “a contemporary art form that’s ever changing,” Mihailoff said. “It’s very sensual. It’s a form that celebrates the female body and feminine art.”
She has been belly dancing for 16 years.
“The very first time I ever heard of belly dance, I was 13. My friend’s mom was taking a class and showed us belly flutters,” Mihailoff said.
When she moved from Vancouver to go to college in Seattle, she started taking belly-dance classes one night a week.
“From there I just expanded and took it on as my profession,” Mihailoff said.
She will perform in the show along with other professional dancers: Ruby Beh, Claudia Shimmies, Emilie Lauren, Henna, Jewels, Jen Cerdena and the Raks Ayana troupe. Bee Bee Sanchez will emcee. Vancouver drummer Jason Ramirez will provide the beat.
If the show inspires you, Mihailoff teaches belly dance in Battle Ground.
“You’re going to get your heart rate up and sweat, but this is as much for your brain as it is your body,” she said.
In her classes, she teaches her students belly dance’s vocabulary of movements.
“One of the most recognizable movements is the shimmy — a quick vibration. There are probably 80 different types of shimmies one could execute — hair, belly, hips, upper body,” Mihailoff said.
Other characteristic moves include “hip articulation, figure eights, hip drops, and fluid arms and hands,” she said.
“We’re not expected to have that tight rock-hard body. We celebrate the curvature and the softness of a woman’s body,” Mihailoff added. “Belly dance is for all shapes, all sizes, all ages, all genders. I have seen men do this dance; nonbinary, children as young as 3, and grandpas in their 80s belly dance. It’s not just for young fit women. It’s a social dance for everyone.”