Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Belly Dance at SCC - Bringing the Mid-East to the Midwest

Instructor Heather Ward
When I taught my first belly dance class at SCC back in 2003, I had no idea that I was planting a seed that would eventually blossom into one of the Midwest’s central resources for Middle Eastern dance right here at SCC. Back then, I had my doubts whether I could get folks to buy into the idea of belly dance as a legitimate folk dance form.

You see, belly dance has always labored under some unfortunate stereotypes. It’s been cast as everything from a sultry dance of seduction, to a mystical ritual honoring the divine feminine, to a kitschy side-show act. And too often, belly dancers themselves have “sold” these stereotypes in order to keep bodies in classes, and butts in theater seats.

The stereotypes miss the reality that belly dance is essentially a folk dance originating in the Arab world…primarily Egypt, where the dance is performed socially at festive occasions by BOTH genders and ALL ages. Yet, as I embarked on my career as a dance teacher, I was really unsure whether anyone would want to learn anything of the dance’s rich Middle Eastern heritage, especially given the widespread misunderstanding and suspicion of the Middle East that exists in the U.S.

Truthfully, learning about Middle Eastern culture is usually the LAST reason that most of my students enroll. Yet, what I have discovered over the years is to never, ever underestimate students’ willingness to learn, to understand, and to expand their horizons.

Students DO want to learn belly dance for what it is – a Middle Eastern dance – but they often don’t realize this until their first class. A lot of different motivations get them in the door: “I want to get some exercise,” “I want to try something new and exotic,“ “I want to wear one of those costumes one day,” “My friend signed up and made me sign up, too!” But once they’re in my class, they get a taste of what the dance really is.

It’s more than just shaking hips and rolling abdomens…it’s about having a visceral response to the music; it’s about expressing all of life’s emotions – joy, sadness, heartache, loss, passion – through movement; it’s about bringing to life the epic poetry and musical masterpieces that are some of the crowning artistic achievements of the Arab world (and frankly, of the HUMAN world); and it's about joining together with friends and family to dance in celebration of all of life's blessings. Once the door is opened for them, most students can’t wait to walk through and see what else the dance - and its culture of origin - has to offer them.

My students' (and SCC’s) warm embrace of belly dance as an art form has allowed my classes to grow, prosper, and expand and has enabled me to offer dance events beyond what I could have dreamed of back in 2003.

What started as a single class almost nine years ago has now blossomed into a broad range of class offerings (three proficiency levels), an annual spring recital (moving into its eighth year in 2012), and workshops and performances featuring internationally-renowned guest experts. A crowning achievement will be the upcoming Journey through Egypt course that will be offered in January 2012. This is a 20-hour intensive workshop on the folk dance traditions of Egypt, created and presented by acclaimed researcher, instructor, and performer, Sahra Saeeda. Years ago I couldn't have imagined that I would be able to get a course like this off the ground, but the registrations have already started rolling in – a testament to the thriving interest in Middle Eastern dance at SCC and in our region.

I’m so proud of the Middle Eastern dance program that I’ve built at SCC, and I'm happy to teach at a school that sees the value in programs like this one. It has been amazing to see how dance can serve as a bridge between cultures, and as a springboard for students to explore and expand their horizons in ways they never imagined or expected. I'm gratified to have been able to bring Middle Eastern dance to SCC, and I look forward to continuing to offer classes and events here that will educate, enlighten, engage, and enhance cultural understanding.


  1. I've enjoyed the classes I've taken and I'm in my 60's. Heather is a great teacher and I've learned alot about the middle eastern culture! I've been to all the recitals and they are splendid and the pupils do a wonderful job.

  2. I've truly enjoyed the classes I've taken with Heather. She is a great instructor and I've learned so much about the middle eastern culture. Belly dancing is for every women, I'm in my 60's and have taken many classes with Heather. I've gone to all the recitals; they are beautiful and the students work very hard to do a great job for the audience