Some sat shyly, some tentatively watched from the side, many were right up against the stage, but all 250 students at the Reichhold Center for the Arts were wide-eyed Friday as they learned the basics of Egyptian belly dance.
The basic Egyptian dance lessons were part of Reichhold’s master classes. Each time an artist comes to perform, Reichhold management arranges a master class where the artist engages the community up close, sharing basic skills and tips.
Friday’s workshop was led by none other than Sahar Sami herself, after whom the dance company is named. Dressed simply in a pink cropped top, black pants and beaded skirt, a dynamic Sami skillfully engaged the young crowd, cheering on students by name to get them to participate.
“These are my people and I know them,” said Sami, who was born in the Dominican Republic. “I am from the Caribbean and we Caribbean people love to shake, dance and have fun, especially children.”
Sami said she structured a class that allowed students to take home basic routines containing movements that are “ethnic to the dance.” Each routine demonstration was made more interesting by a cultural tidbit or historical trivia.
One such routine that garnered enthusiastic participation was the shimmy, a dance move that exhibits a dancer’s ability to isolate the lower body, shaking nothing but the knees, but making it appear as if the hips are doing most of the movement.
Students also learned the hip drop, a move used in a part of a dance called baladi.
“Baladi means ‘the people,’ ‘the inner country,’ ‘the soul of the city,’” she said. “In dance, it means the ‘heart of the people.’”
The hip drop is a repetitive kick-and-release movement that shows an up-and-down twisting motion of the hips.
But Sami said the popular shimmies, hip drops and snake arms do not adequately represent a dance form that is “very structured, has many layers of meanings and has a very specific language.”
Sami said Egyptian belly dancing was began as a curiosity in her late teens and grew into a serious vocation. From her first exposure to Egyptian dancing at a friend’s party, she actively pursued a study of Egyptian history and culture and, yes, Egyptian dance.
After the last students cleared the house, Sami, flushed from dance demonstrations, attempted to explain what Egyptian belly dance means to her.
“It’s not just the movement,” she said, promptly dismissing notions that belly dance is primarily a sexual dance form. “It’s the people and the words in the songs and what it means to them in their everyday life.”
According to Sami, the Sahar Dance Company was not born out of a conscious decision. She started teaching dance in her 30s, she said, and her students started drawing attention. Before long, her dance company began receiving invitations to perform internationally and, eventually, the Sahar Dance Company was officially formed.
According to Reichhold Director Nissa Copemann, the choice to bring Sami and her team was a collective decision that easily received a stamp of approval from the Reichhold board. Copemann said she was aware, however, that there might be some resistance from participating schools due to perceptions of belly dancing as a sexual dance form.
“That is exactly what we’re trying to dispel,” said Copemann, who described Egyptian belly dance as multi-faceted and culturally rooted, not merely “vulgar” dancing as it is oftentimes perceived.
“The Virgin Islands culture is not monolithic,” summed up Copemann, who, with the help of the Virgin Islands Council for the Arts, made sure that school officials understood a major goal of the Egyptian dance master class and of this year’s season line-up: to expose students to the diversity of culture that also characterizes the territory.
Sami agreed that, as is the case in everything else, the problem is not the dance but the purpose for which it is used.
“Even in Egypt, there is such a gamut of types of songs and dances, from low-class belly dancing to classical and ballet-trained dancers who are beautiful and well-respected,” she shared. “It’s not what you wear but how you wear it, and it’s not what you do but how you do it.”