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American belly dancers are rescuing a Middle Eastern tradition

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Students in Sarah Johannson Locke's Tuesday evening dance class learn to improv as a team. Droves of Western-born men and women are headed to belly dance classes across the country.

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Carolena Nericcio, director of Fat Chance Belly Dance, created American Tribal Style in the early 1990s. American Tribal, she says, is "more like a folk dance that it is Egyptian belly dance." (Courtesy of Carolena Nericcio)

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Sarah Johansson Locke teaches American Tribal Style in Manhattan, where she dances with her troupe, Alchemy Performance. For her, American belly dancing is an opportunity to make something new from a variety of ethnic traditions. (Courtesy of Sarah Johansson Locke)

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Students in Sarah Johannson Locke's Tuesday evening dance class perfect their form. Droves of Western-born men and women are headed to belly dance classes across the country.

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Students at Sarah Johannson Locke's Tuesday evening class perfect their form. American Tribal Style often attracts younger dancers who are put off by the showgirl-like cabaret style.

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For David Schleifer, one of Sarah Johannson Locke's students, belly dancing is a great alternative workout. "Dancing is so much more fun and satisfying," he says. "I never feel like working out is a chore."

Every Tuesday night, 11 dancers line up along a mirrored wall inside a Manhattan studio. As the music begins, they slowly sway their hips, as if on an invisible thread. Their arms curve snakelike in the air, their navels exposed, as they learn to dance like the Egyptians. But with their blond hair and pale skin, these Americans are a far cry from the dark-haired Arab women who shimmy across dance floors in Cairo’s stylish hotels.

Inspired by pop icon Shakira’s latest music video and music producer Miles Copeland’s “Bellydance Superstars” extravaganza, women are flocking to belly-dancing classes. But in learning to shimmy and shake, Americans aren’t just having a good time, they’re also changing the face of a centuries-old Middle Eastern tradition.

The dance, originally performed by Egyptian village women in the privacy of their homes, made its North American debut before Victorian audiences at the 1893 Chicago World Fair. The dance caused a sensation and eventually made its way to Hollywood. Movies like "Salome," starring Rita Hayworth as Princess Salome, and "Mata Hari," one of Greta Garbo’s greatest films, popularized belly dancers’ sensual, cabaret style and skimpy outfits.

Although there is no formal data, some dancers estimate that North America now has more belly dancers than the rest of the world combined. “We’re in the second big wave of belly dance here,” said Stella Grey, publisher of Habibi magazine, a national quarterly on Middle Eastern dance. Similar spikes in popularity have been reported in Japan and Argentina.

The wave has been partly driven by the rise of world music and the search for fun, low-impact workouts. Grey also points to the fashion interest. “The bare midriff, the hip rider belts--what could it possibly remind people of?” she said.

In welcoming all ages and sizes, belly dancing also helps women become more comfortable with their bodies, said Sarah Johansson Locke, who teaches dance in Manhattan and directs a dance troupe, Alchemy Performance.

Ironically, as it picks up converts around the world, the dance is increasingly hard to find in the Middle East. In Egypt, morality police regulate everything from the slit in a dancer’s skirt to the color of her body stocking, and dancing on the knees or lower to the floor is prohibited altogether, say dancers who have visited the country. In the West Bank and Gaza, Hamas has declared a ban on public dancing, as has the government of Iran.

Since belly dancing is under siege in its homeland, North Americans are sometimes credited with preserving the dance, according to Abby Stein, a student at the University of California at Berkeley who is doing her thesis on belly dancing.

But Americans are doing more than just holding on to the dance.

In the early 1990s, Carolena Nericcio, a San Francisco-based performer and director of Fat Chance Belly Dance, created a homegrown version of the dance. She began to mix in other dance forms--flamenco and Indian classical dance, for example--and move the focus away from individual dancers. The result is called American Tribal, an improvisational dance performed by two or more artists who work off a similar vocabulary of steps, but stop short of choreographing their routine.

American Tribal may look like traditional belly dancing, but there are several differences. The movements are slower, the music more rhythmic and the costumes more conservative. Tribal dancers wear long layered skirts and perform as a team. That appeals to younger artists like Ann Claire Baber, one of Locke’s students. “Cabaret belly dance is almost showgirl-like,” she said dismissively.

Because American Tribal is its own multicultural style, it frees Western dancers who are often afraid of insulting Arab traditions when they perform. “As a modern artist, it’s my work to interpret rather than be an exact replica of something that is unattainable for me, because I don’t live in a village in the Sahara somewhere,” Locke said.

As a result, the dance is loosening its ethnic ties. Grey, the dance magazine publisher, thinks the continued interest in belly dancing after 9/11 shows that it now reflects Western more than Middle Eastern culture.

Belly dancing is also losing its somewhat scandalous image in North America. By using the same steps in a tamer routine, American Tribal is recovering the moves, and thus the dance, from a sexy stereotype.

American Tribal dancers are working hard to bring the dance artistic credibility. They tend to perform in troupes at theaters and festivals, not restaurants. Nericcio is leading efforts to certify American Tribal as its own dance form. Major festivals with conferences and workshops are held around the world.

Still, “American tribal is total fantasy,” said Carolina Varga Dinicu, 67, a pioneer of the classic style. “I enjoy it when it’s good, but it’s not oriental dance.” That’s why Dinicu, who coined the term American Tribal, gave it a separate name.

The irony, Dinicu says, is that a lot of people “think the Tribal is more ‘folk’ than the real thing.” Because of dancers’ muted costumes and mysterious tattoos, the dance comes across as more exotic than the Egyptian variety.

Dinicu has watched belly dancing struggle against its image during her 47 years in the field. When she started, clubs were so desperate for dancers that anyone could have gotten a job, she recalls. She herself started with no experience and learned everything she knows about belly dancing from grandmothers who visited the Middle Eastern nightclubs where she performed.

“Back then,” Dinicu said, “if Godzilla tried, she’d have a regular gig. Now, Godzilla need not apply.”

E-mail: psg2107@columbia.edu