Hip Stir 

Belly Dance Day celebrates an ancient art.

In Arabic, it's called raqs sharqi. Some say it began in Babylon, others in ancient Egypt or ancient Greece. Some say it was created to honor goddesses during fertility rites, others to strengthen the muscles used in childbirth. Too often dismissed as sheer entertainment by those who know nothing of its ritual roots, belly dance first appeared in the United States at the 1893 World's Fair. On Saturday, Aug. 22, the East Bay's own Belly Dance Day features a comprehensive series of workshops at Shabnam Belly Dance Studio (454 Santa Clara Ave., Oakland, 10 a.m.-1 p.m., $20 each) culminating in an evening extravaganza and belly-dance-art exhibition at Rhythmix Cultural Works (2513 Blanding Ave., Alameda, 7 p.m., $15-$20). The event's coordinator is Shabnam Shirvani, a teacher and performer who has won the prestigious Belly Dancer of the Universe competition, among many others.

"After a work-related back injury," Shirvani remembers, "my physical therapist recommended I do belly dancing to strengthen my abdominal muscles." But after just one class, she realized that this was much more than a mere health aid. Soon it became her profession; she was performing all over the world — "and my stomach muscles did become very strong."

She felt herself grow stronger in other ways as well. Shirvani credits belly dance with "giving me confidence, self-esteem, and a healthy body image. It is a dance form for women of all shapes, ages, and sizes. In addition to the physical benefits, due to it being a feminine dance form it emotionally helps you reconnect with your femininity and power as a woman.

"Your body becomes an instrument when you belly dance," she asserts. "You interpret music with your hips, hands, and facial expressions. ... You are not only interpreting the dance with technical movements, but with who you are as a person. I tell all my girls" — that is, her students — "that if you want to be a great belly dancer, you not only have to dance well, you also need to be a generous person and have a good soul. Everything is very transparent in this dance. The soul doesn't lie."

The belly dance style she favors "is very abdominal-based, which benefits posture and back problems. It helped me lose all my postpartum weight within three months" — and, during her pregnancy itself, "I didn't have any back pain or pregnancy waddle even in my ninth month. Undulations in particular are great for women's health and organs and can help with fertility," as the ancients knew all too well. "It has become a running joke at my studio," Shirvani laughs. "Don't come to class unless you want to become pregnant."

The signature belly-dance move, the shimmy, is powered by rapid motions of the knees, thighs, or buttocks, depending on the dancer and the style. Along with the deft manipulation of finger-cymbals known as zills, shimmying is one of many techniques to be taught on Belly Dance Day. Classes scheduled throughout the morning and afternoon will focus on undulations, hip work, footwork, and stage makeup. While a belly dancer's appearance is a key part of any performance, what's inside matters just as much as what's outside, Shirvani says.

"In my opinion, a dancer who performs without emotion or feeling is not an artist," says Shirvani, who is determined to shatter belly dancing's image as "a 'jiggle dance', stripping, or just something you watch at a restaurant while eating couscous." BellyDanceDay.com

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