Bellying Up for a Taste

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Bellying Up for a Taste

Belly dancing originated in the ancient Middle East. Theories of its origins are murky. Some say it was a form of goddess worship in ancient Anatolia (modern day Turkey), others say the undulating movements were an aid to help ease birthing pains. Some say the term came from raks al beladi, Arabic for dance of the people, or raks sharki, dance of the Orient.

In time, the movements took on entertainment aspects. They came to be celebrated by royalty, poets, artists and musicians. In Muslim society, when women got together, it was a spontaneous and informal way of entertaining each other.

These days, belly dancing is also considered a great form of exercise. But some still consider it a physical celebration of the female soul and inner spirit.

The paper taped to a wooden post in Itaewon reads: "Looking for belly dancers. No prior experience necessary. Lessons will be provided. Call Xena at the Belly Korea Academy."

Xena is a 30-year-old Korean who at 168 centimeters and dressed in a black Fendi sweater and black slacks does not look at all like the "Warrior Princess."

"My friends and I were watching the TV show 'Xena' and I liked the name," the self-styled Xena said.

It's a different matter altogether when this Xena puts on traditional Middle Eastern clothes and starts rolling her hips with the mesmerizing grace of a snake. Guided by the beat of a Turkish drum, she becomes a veiled Xena whose movements ring the bells attached to her bright garment.

But that's only when she is performing. Most of the time, she is Ahn Yoo-jin, a 30-year-old dancer and founder of the first belly dancing school in Korea.

Twenty expatriates responded to Ahn's open call for belly dancers. They were given three minutes to perform any dance of their choosing. One Nigerian performed an African dance, one Korean-American belly danced, but most of the others, from Canada, Columbia, Russia and the United States, did a hip-hop or jazz routine. Ahn then showed them a short belly dancing routine, which they learned and performed back to her.

Ahn was looking for performers to promote belly dancing. A modern dance instructor, she assumed someone would bring the ancient art form to Korea, but no one did. Eventually, she decided that it was time to introduce Korea to the beauty and exercise of belly dancing.

Ahn chose five people, all females, and trained them, some for three months, others for six months. When they were ready, Belly Korea Academy started promoting belly dancing with hotel shows and smaller events.

Along the way, Ahn tapped Jun Hyun-jeong as a potential instructor. Jun had taken a year of lessons in the United States before moving to Korea to work for the U.S. Embassy. Once the academy generated enough interest in belly dancing, the two took turns teaching classes north and south of the river.

Before class, Ahn changes into a spandex shirt that defines her movements. A dozen students, half of them expatriates, in shirts and shorts or pants, most barefoot, are stretching in a dance studio at Sinsa-dong, south of the river.

The students here include an acting major, a sports dance instructor and others here simply to exercise. While bare feet are encouraged, students are allowed to wear ballet shoes or thick socks. The class in Suyuri, north of the river, usually draws 30 people.

When Lee Joo-hee, a 22-year-old special events organizer, tells her friends about her new craze, they respond with, "You do what?" Lee found out about belly dancing by surfing the Internet.

Ahn walks in and greets them. In a mixture of English and Korean, she says, "Imagine you've grown one centimeter. Lift your chest. Relax your shoulders and roll them up and back. Tuck your chin just a little. Lift your eyes about 15 degrees." She walks around, correcting and encouraging. "Now hold. Remember how that feels."

Without fail, Ahn starts each class with the perfect posture. Dancers can stray from that perfect posture, but only briefly. They must always return to it.

Ahn turns on some popular dance music and takes the class through stretches. Thirty minutes later, she turns on Middle Eastern music and gets to the exciting part.

"There are three basic regions: the arms, the torso, and the body from your waist down." She isolates the body for the different movements, from waving the arms, to relaxing and tightening the torso, to choosing one side and swinging the hips up and down. Perhaps the most important technique in belly dancing is the "shimmy" - when the stomach area undulates back and forth, separate from the rest of the body. The low impact movements are smooth, but deceptively difficult. The students are sweating.

Lee Mi-gyeong, a 21-year-old ballet instructor, has been taking lessons for three months. "The dance is charismatic," she says. "There's a rich history, so the more you learn about it, the more it draws you in."

"I lost 10 kilograms belly dancing," Ahn says later.

Ahn discovered belly dancing in Auckland, New Zealand, where she emigrated in 1995. She had heard of belly dancing, and took a class led by the New Zealand belly dancing champion, who goes by the name Monique.

With a lifetime of dancing in Korea behind her, Ahn picked up the techniques quickly. Monique took her on as a private student.

When Ahn returned to Korea in 1997, she tried to open an academy, but response was poor. "Our people don't like the idea of dancing," Ahn said, "It seems too risque, especially when a woman is scantily clothed." Discouraged, Ahn returned to New Zealand to continue studying with Monique.

But Korea changed while she was gone. Salsa boomed, and people grew more receptive to different forms of dancing. "It's different now," she said. "After salsa, people wanted to branch out, and try new dances. Belly dancing is just starting in Korea."

In November, she plans to start teaching classes on the U.S. army base in Yongsan, Seoul. The classes were supposed to start earlier, but the tragedy of the World Trade Center put a temporary stop to her plans.

"I even briefly thought it might not be a good time to promote belly dancing," she said. "But then I realized that this is such a beautiful culture, and really, outside of terrorism."

For more information, call 018-272-4986.

by Joe Yong-hee

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