They leave their jobs or school, and at 6 o'clock begin to wander into the wide, open room. Each woman grabs a coin-covered hip scarf from a basket Juanita has brought in, ties it around her waist, and they keep dancing until the church choir kicks them out for rehearsal. Juanita says belly dancing is for all ages--she's had a 78-year-old woman take lessons, and a current member of her group began when she was just eleven.
Juanita started belly dancing in 1973 when she was living in Ulster County. When she first started offering classes in the late eighties, the belly dancing landscape here in the North Country was pretty barren. But since then, belly dancing classes and groups have popped up all over. Producer Natasha Haverty came to one of Juanita's rehearsals and has this profile.
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“Belly dancing is grounded. The first thing you’re taught is to bend your knees slightly, is to be grounded. Your hip circle is big, shimmy is huge. Hip lifts are very integral, especially to movement across the stage, abdominal undulations; it’s not like ballet, where everything is very prescribed,” said belly dancing instructor Juanita Babcock According to her, belly dancing can be improvisational and individualistic.
“When you’re performing and your belly is showing, and you’re doing some of these moves which are really difficult – they may not seem like it, but you’ll go home at the end of the day and your muscles are really tired, so you’re really putting yourself out there and you just can’t get up there and wiggle and jiggle it all because you can’t,” said one of Babcock’s students. “I like the history of it. It’s a communication between women, mostly just performing for women, by women. I’ve heard different things. I heard it used to be like different moves would actually communicate different things, even between harems a long time ago. Other times it was just a village thing, like everyone just knew how to dance.”
Juanita is more of a show person dancer, says her student; she prefers to internalize it. “I went to public school for a couple years, and I didn’t advertise that I was a belly dancer. I didn’t know what people would think,” she said. “A lot of people think it’s a sexual kind of dance but it’s really not, and well I don’t want it to be perceived like that or me to be perceived as that sort of dancer.”
“It’s a feeling of freedom almost. It just feels good,” said another belly dancer. “I’m one of the older ones dancing and I feel better about myself. It’s like exciting and calming at the same time because I can be a different person. I’m a shy person, really, but when I’m on stage for some reason, I’m not shy.”
“Belly dancing was actually something I have actually tried a little bit here and there. I said, ‘You know what? I’m jumping in feet first and I’m not looking back.’ And it’s very nice coming in and seeing the different levels, watching that and hoping someday that I can actually be able to move as liquid-sensationally as they do. I mean, it’s wonderful,” said another of Juanita’s students.
Juanita said, “Any woman of any size, of any age – and I mean any age and body size – can do belly dancing.” One of her students added, “It’s all about history. Every woman has her own history and whether they’ve had children and have stretch marks, who cares? They’re looking at the different isolations, the way your body moves, your spirit; like you watched, everybody has their own personality that comes through. We have some that are more sensual, some that are more like little angels, they’ve got that expression, some that are just like ‘Alright, I’m going to go for it,’ you know? It’s something I do just for me. I don’t do this for anyone else even though I love performing in front of an audience; I don’t do it for them, I do it for me because I love to do it.”
Some of the members of the belly dancing group have formed a troupe called Veils of the Nile that occasionally performs in festivals and other venues around the North Country.