An alien in the belly

Charni did workshops with Ava and her belly this year

Charni did workshops with Ava and her belly this year

I recently had the opportunity to do two workshops with the gorgeous Ava Fleming from Arizona, and she talked about how when she performs it is like watching an alien move around her belly. The funny thing is, just last year I had done a couple of workshops with another US belly dancer, Princess Farhana who did a whole workshop on different tummy techniques including having an alien in the belly. I wonder if it is something about the US?

Charni did a tummy bellydance workshop with Princess Farhana in 2013

Charni did a tummy bellydance workshop with Princess Farhana in 2013




Their styles are quite different, though they sharedsome other similarities (besides the tummy thing), and I got a lot out of both. I like to take workshops with visiting dancers, as there is so much to learn about this wonderful dance form, and it is ever evolving. I can see myself at 80, still dancing, and wondering if I am ever going to learn it all!

Angelina Jolie had it in for me

Charni used belly dance to help her feel good during pregnancy

Charni used belly dance to help her feel good during pregnancy

In 2006, while pregnant with my first child, I was convinced that Angelina Jolie had it in for me and was taunting me. Not very rational, as I know she was unaware of my existence, however, I happened to be pregnant with my first child at the exact same time that she was with hers. I’m talking due dates the same and everything. So in the beginning, while I was dealing with tiredness, nausea and sore breasts, I would see her grinning on the cover of a magazine with Brad. As her bump expanded with mine, her slimness was applauded, she was asked for health advice and would go to gala nights looking carefree and glamourous, while I navigated maternity wear and stretch marks.

Angelina Jolie's first pregnancy was at the same time as Charni from Belly Dance Lessons Online

Angelina Jolie’s first pregnancy was at the same time as Charni from Belly Dance Lessons Online

Was it fair for me to compare? No. She had staff to take care of housework, errands, cooking, plenty of money firmly in the bank, plus personal trainers, and a team of people to glam her up to go to the gala events.

The question was – how could I not compare? When a celebrity is pregnant, she is often snapped looking great and the media comments on it favourably, with Scarlett Johanssen being the favourite at the moment.

Scarlett's curves have been emphasised by pregancy the media has pointed out.

Scarlett’s curves have been emphasised by pregancy the media has pointed out.

Notably, Catherine Zeta Jones, Milla Jovovich and Charlotte Church were criticised for gaining too much weight during a pregnancy – since when did the media become obstetricians?

Catherine Zeta-Jones was critisised by the media for gaining "too much" weight during her pregancy.

The media was quick to point out Mila's weight gain during her pregnancy
The media was quick to point out Mila’s weight gain during her pregnancy

So I had a choice, I could dislike a woman who was probably going through her own set of insecurities and health issues, as well as feeling pressure from the media to look good, or I could work out how to deal with this on my own terms and ignore the magazines.

So I turned to belly dance. I had been a belly dancer for a number of years at this stage already teaching for three years with Happy Hips Belly Dance here in Melbourne. I started to focus on how the pregnant curves of my body enhanced my dancing. I became aware of how the baby behaved during different moves (he seemed to like the gentle shimmies the best). My belly rolls looked amazing, though I had to reassure my students that it would not hurt the baby (no matter how hard you pull your tummy muscles in, they are not strong enough to hurt the baby especially through the amniotic fluid cushion). I found the regular exercise was great for keeping fit and my morale improved. So I started researching more about how this dance form was used for thousands of years in the Middle East as preparation for birth and recovery afterwards.

One of my main reliable sources of information about bellydance; the dance ethnologist Morocco (Caroline Varga Dinicu) also known as “Aunt Rocky”, was able to witness a very private birthing in a Berber tribe in Morocco known as “dancing the baby into the world”. Going in “undercover”, she was privileged to be a part of a sacred circle of women dancing and singing around the birthing mother. The movements and singing gave her a sense of comfort, well-being as well as encouraging her to do different movements for the different phases of the birth.

Morocco or "Aunt Rocky" got a rare glimpse into the traditional way to "dance a baby into the world" in a Middle Eastern Tribe.

Morocco or “Aunt Rocky” got a rare glimpse into the traditional way to “dance a baby into the world” in a Middle Eastern Tribe.

Aunt Rocky, accounts how in is this modern age, a lot of birthing classes focus on relaxation – the idea being that a tense and scared birthing mother is more likely to experience complications and longer labour, hypno-birthing is becoming more popular with the same idea . The women in the tribe, did not know that they were causing an hypnotic state during labour, and the women also didn’t know that birth was supposed to be scary and painful. As a result, it was joyful, and the birthing woman, without any medical intervention, simply squatted over a hollow in the ground and safely birthed twin boys and then the placentas. According to Aunt Rocky, the only sign of strain was the “perspiration soaking her hair and forehead”.

I myself ended up using many belly dance moves during labour as I found it a great way to ease the back aches, plus it gave me a way to move through the contractions and something to focus on. Many times, I didn’t consciously pick a move to do, I just moved however it felt right at the time – maybe some of them even echoed the women in the Moroccan tribe?

I would think that if it was suggested to any of these Moroccan women that they should spend their pregnancy focussed on looking svelte, lean and fit, they would laugh loudly and long.

Did Angelina Jolie have belly dance in her life? Probably not – hey – maybe she is envious of me!

She thinks white belly dancers should be banned?!?

Charni of Belly Dance Lessons Online should not be dancing or teaching belly dance as she is not arabic, according to Randa Jarrar.

Charni of Belly Dance Lessons Online should not be dancing or teaching belly dance as she is not arabic, according to Randa Jarrar.

There has been a furor in the media recently over an article written by Randa Jarrar called “Why I can’t stand white belly dancers” she states that she feels it is “appropriation”, that this dance form is originally danced by arabic women and should remain so. Hmmmmm.

She refers to a white belly dancer as being dressed in “arabic drag” as  “that’s what that is, when a person who’s not Arab wears genie pants and a bra and heavy eye makeup and Arabic jewelry, or jewelry that is meant to read as “Arabic” because it’s metallic and shiny and has squiggles of some kind”. Ms Jarrar, I feel that it is a form of flattery, and is spreading the dance around the world. Also, as a side note, which seems to contradict Ms Jarrar’s points, belly dancing is a highly unacceptable dance form for Arabic women in Egypt, and most of the professionals in Cairo, are, in fact, not Arabic at all. And those who are, are actually shunned by their families.

There has been a tongue-in-cheek rebuttal from Sam Doloncot called “Yes, White Belly Dancing Is Inexcusable Cultural Appropriation”. He points out that, going by Ms Jarrar’s arguments, no-one of non-Chinese ethnicity should eat at a Chinese restaurant, and someone “who suffers a serious but non-permanent physically debilitating injury shouldn’t be allowed the use of a wheelchair, as this is an ableist appropriation of differently abled culture”, and other (quite amusing) comparisons.

I would also like to point out that Randa Jarrar is half Palestinian, half American, educated in the USA. So can she really speak on behalf of all Arabic women? Do I wish I had an arabic heritage? Yes, in many ways, I feel there are parts of the dance and culture I am not understanding properly; plus, as I don’t speak Arabic, I can only go by translations I am given of songs I am dancing to. However, to change my heritage would change me, a child of immigrant parents from the UK to Australia. And it was only a few generations ago, one side of my family immigrated to the UK from Italy, does this mean it is okay for me to eat pasta and pizza without feeling I am taking inappropriate cultural liberties?

Is it culturally disrespectful for me to belly dance or an homage?

Karim Nagi actually discussed this topic (in a reasoned and logical manner) in a panel discussion in the Diwan 2009 conference at The Arab American National Museum in Deerborn Michigan, USA. The audience consisted of Arab artists from various fields. Karim, an Arabic musician, discusses the Americanisation of Arab dance in America, and how Arabs can reintegrate into the developement of their own art forms.

What do you think?

Egyptian President Elected

And the winner is… Muhammed Mursi (or known as Mohamed Morsi) of the Muslim Brotherhood! What this means for Egypt is yet to be determined. He has announced that he will honour all of Egypt’s international treaties (there were worries about the treaty with Israel).

President of Egypt Muhammed Mursi

Mohammed Mursi celebrates his win in the Egyptian elections.

Dr Mursi received a PhD in Engineering from the University of Southern California after a Bachelor and Master’s Degrees from the University of Cairo. He was an Assistant Professor at California State University for three years until 1985, before moving back to Egypt to teach at the Zagazig University.

Will his advanced education and time in America make him a more democratic leader? How will this affect the Raqs Sharqi dance community? Mursi is considered one of the conservative voices within Egypt’s oldest Islamist organization, so I guess we will just have to hope for the best.

“I’m too shy to bellydance!”

The amount of times I have heard this! When you see a bellydancer performing,

Charni from Belly Dance Lessons Online loves performing

she looks confident, sexy, she looks happy and smiles and shows she is comfortable in front of an audience. What the audience needs to know is that she worked hard and trained for years to get that way AND many of them were VERY SHY when they started. Shy of their body, shy of their ability to dance, shy to dance in front of other people. How did they get confident? Through doing bellydance classes! You discover your strengths, work on your weaknesses and get a sense of achievement. As you improve, you amaze yourself with what you and your body can do and the feeling is wonderful! (Warning, it is also highly addictive!) Look up a class near you and go! If you really feel too shy then do your classes in the privacy of your own home with Online eClasses, and when you feel more confident, then you can attend a class near you.

You won’t know until you start, go ahead, you deserve it.

World Belly Dance Day 2012

Last night I had the privilege of being a part of World Belly Dance Day

Charni was a part of World Belly Dance Day 2012 celebrations in Melbourne

celebrations for OMEDA in Melbourne. Every year around the world fundraisers are held for different charities using belly dance. We raised funds for Red Cross. Of a total amount of (drum roll please) $694.00!

It was a great night with many dancers donating their performance in aid of the charity as well as stall holders who had a variety of good to tempt as well as massages! Thanks for all those who helped make it happen!

Akon song “Bananza (belly dancer)”

Maybe I’m behind the times. I admit I don’t know the latest top 40 songs. I will also admit to not being much into rap, r’n’b and hip hop music (though some of it is totally cool and catchy).

I was at the gym (yes, I like to work out as it makes me a better, stronger dancer) and MTV started playing a song. I didn’t take much notice at first, I was watching the other screens with subtitles, but something caught my eye. It was a girl gyrating around a black guy wearing what looked like a sparkly bikini with a hip scarf. I did a double take, then thought, well maybe it’s just for show. No.

This dancer from Akon's Bananza (belly dancer) video clip seems to forgotten her skirt, or to learn how to belly dance!

She did a little wiggle with her hips (not belly dance or raqs sharqi!) and then a bit more wiggling and jiggling,a nd then a whole group of scantily clad “ladies” all wearing underwear and hip scarves (note the absence of a skirt!!!??!!) starting thrusting their hips, and I thought “No, please let it not be so!”, then the title of the song flashed up “Bananza (belly dancer) by Akon. The video got worse. I couldn’t hear the lyrics, so I was unsure how it all was supposed to relate to belly dancing. So I wrote down the details and waited until I got home and looked it up.I think the term "belly dancer" is used loosly for these girls in the Banaza clip, who forgot their skirts.

Well, the only connection with a belly dancer is in the lyrics “Don’t be shy girl, go bananza, shake ya body like a belly dancer.” I then found out this song came out in 2005, so I apologise for my belated shock. I mean really???????

1. no belly dancer would forget her skirt
2. those girls were not shaking their bodies “like a belly dancer”
3. Bananza to rhyme with dancer. The word is Bonanza and the expression is Go Bananas.

You spend years and YEARS studying, practicing, being an embassador to your dance, making sure you teach and project the right image and keep it classy, then some lazy guy who doesn’t know how to rhyme (you should see the rest of the lyrics, it’s just sad) says “hey I know how to see a few records, let’s use belly dancer in the title! (Or something along those lines but with less correct grammar.)

I will end my rant now. I promise. Jeez Louise! Give us a break!

Belly Dance Props

There are a variety of props used in raqs sharqi, some are “traditional” and some have only been used for the last few decades, years or months!

Some of the more “traditional” (I am putting this in brackets as traditional dance is such a big topic that what a lot of people think of as traditional is not at all – see Morocco’s book “You asked Aunt Rocky: Answers & Advice About Raqs Sharqi & Raqs Shaabi)  zills (finger symbols also known as zagat or sagat),

The cane or Assaya is a traditional prop used in Raqs Shaabi, mainly from the Upper Egypt or Saiidi region.

the cane or stick (Assaya) was used only by the men in a “fighting dance” and was taken on by women and turned into a playful, joyful dance, they are essentially saying “I take your weapon and use it for fun!” so it is quite cheeky. Swords and knives were traditionally used , once again by man as a mock fighting dance, and women used them in a playful manner, balancing it on their heads. However, the manner in which a sword is used can be quite modern with balances on the chest or with laybacks being only done in Western culture. The ever popular “veil” is a tricky one. While it is documented that kerchiefs and flowing pieces of material were held while dancing, however, the long flowing piece of material that is used either as an entrance prop and then discarded, or as a whole piece using “veilwork”

Charni from Belly dance Lessons Online Performing with a Double Veil

this is a totally modern and American invention. Since then it has evolved to be quite showy with beautiful spins and wraps, and also a very tricky double veil (holding and dancing with two equal sized pieces of material).

Props considered traditional are: the candelabra (known as shamadan) tea-tray (seneyya) which often has lit candles on it balances on the head. In reality no record has been found of these dances being a part of traditional Middle Eastern dance, and in fact there is account of the first dancer Zouba in the 1890’s who danced with a lantern on her head which became such a hit that she made it her signature, and others copied it.

Very modern Western props used nowadays include: Isis Wings (Brightly coloured concertinad shiny material with a loop around the throat and sticks in the hands), Poi (silk scarves on balls attached to the hand with a string and twirled and swung around), fan veils (chinese or spanish fans with a length of silk extending out, so can by fluttered and swirled), snakes (yes some dancers have a snake for dramatic value – it essentially stays wrapped around their body while they dance). You will also find the odd gimmicky prop used by somebody for dramatic effect, here is a video of a dancer using hula hoops!! I’m not quite convinced that it will catch on!


Who can belly dance?

Is there a limitation as to who can raqs sharqi? I don’t think so!

Male, female, disabled, able bodied, tall, short, thin, curvy whatever, even…


Can cats bellydance?

Charni shows no prejudice against anyone wanting to learn belly dance!

Farida Fahmy: review of the film produced by Keti Sharif

“Farida” film viewing Sunday March 23 2012 at RMIT Melbourne

Charni from Belly dance Lessons Online reviews the DVD "Farida"

Charni from Belly Dance Lessons Online reviews the DVD "Farida"

Hosted by Keti Sharif who also produced it, this film chronicles the life story of Farida Fahmy through interviews with Farida and her brother-in-law, Mahmoud Reda, enhanced by photos and footage from the Reda Troupe of which Farida was principal dancer for 25 years. It was fascinating to hear about how the Reda Troupe started and about the three great influences of Farida’s life: her father, her husband and her brother-in-law Mahmoud Reda.

Her father, a Professor at Cairo University, was very advanced for his time (for any country let alone a conservative country like Egypt). He encouraged both of his daughters to study and do sports and follow creative pursuits, Farida with dance and her sister, Nadeeda, with painting. He withstood much criticism for this. It was through this support and his good public standing, that helped pave the way for dance to become a legitimate profession at a time when it was deemed socially unacceptable. As Farida puts it, he encouraged her to always find out “why” something was the way it was in order to gain greater depth of understanding.

Mahmoud met Farida’s sister at a sports club when Farida was only 13 so he saw her grow up. When she got older she married Mahmoud’s older brother Ali who was already a dancer. Ali was a great husband and supportive of her dancing career. Her husband went on to direct her three films with the Reda Troupe: Agazet Nus El-Sana (Mid-term Vacation, 1963), Gharam Fil Karnak (Romance at the Karnak, 1965) and Harami El-Waraqa (Thief of the Lottery Paper, 1970). The first two are the only ones referenced in the film and are apparently shown on Egyptian television almost every week! They were key to Egyptian cinema as they were the first to incorporate the music and dancing into the storyline, rather than stopping the story to have a song and dance!

Mahmoud told a funny story about filming the movie “Love in Karnak” where Farida had to kiss Mahmoud. He found it very awkward as that was his sister-in-law and didn’t feel at all romantic about having to kiss her in front of her husband who was directing the movie and telling them to kiss! When filming they had to do 23 takes as something kept going wrong!

Farida has a confident, humble style to her reminiscing about the Reda Troupe. I know that sounds a contradiction in terms, however, she says that she was such a success because she had complete and utter trust in Mahmoud and did what he told her, but also acknowledges that she must have had the talent inside her to express what Mahmoud wanted her to. While Mahmoud talks about her amazing dedication and professionalism, she says that she felt she had to set an example of how to behave for the other girls and just did what was expected of them.

Farida also very carefully sorts out some of the misconceptions about dance and origins as opposed to theatre. She talks about the different styles, and the costuming (the first ones were designed by her sister) and how they were not being “authentic” as it was all for the theatre; for an audience sitting in their seats wanting a good show, not a gathering at a party, which is a different audience. It was very illuminating.

The interviews were conducted in Cairo during 2011 (a very tumultuous year in Egytpain history!), and I love how you can hear the constant horns, yells and cries from the street when Mahmoud is on the screen.

I highly recommend this film for anyone interested in raqs sharqi, the Reda Troupe, Egyptian cinema, belly dance and a story of real people who got a dream to materialise and changed a country in the process.

The DVD can be bought through either Keti or Farida‘s websites. Charni was neither paid nor receives payment for her endorsement, and in fact purchased a ticket to see the film.